"Here's some ven'son," said Jim. "It's cold an' it's tough, but I reckon it'll do."
"I'm thinkin'," said Shif'less Sol, "that after a night like the one Henry has had he'll be pow'ful hungry fur somethin' better than cold ven'son."
"Mebbe so," rejoined Long Jim, "an' mebbe it's true uv all uv us, but whar are we goin' to git it?"
"I'm an eddycated man, Jim Hart, eddycated in the ways o' the woods, an' one o' the fust things you do when you're gittin' that sort o' an eddication is to learn to use your eyes. I hev used mine, an' jest before we set down here I noticed the fresh trail o' buffler runnin' off to the right, 'bout a dozen, I'd say, an' jest ez shore ez I'm here they're not more'n a mile away. I kin see 'em now, grazin' in a little open, an' thar is a young cow among 'em, juicy an' tender. Now I don't want to kill a young cow buffler, but we must hev supplies before we go on this expedition."
"Sol is right," said Henry, "and since he is so it's his duty to go and kill the buffalo. Tom, you'll go with him, won't you?"
"O' course," replied Silent Tom.
Shif'less Sol rose and looked to his rifle.
"I knowed I would hev to do all the work, besides supplyin' the thinkin'," he said. "Here I tell what's to be done when the others ain't able to think it out, an' then they tell me to go an' do it. It ain't fair to a lazy man, one who furnishes the intelleck. The rest o' you ought to work fur him."
"Go on you, Sol Hyde," said Long Jim Hart, rebukingly, "an' kill that buffler. Don't you know that when you kill it I'll hev to cook it, an' I ain't complainin'?"
"Quit braggin' on yourse'f, Jim Hart. You ain't complainin', 'cause you ain't got sense 'nuff to complain. You're plum' sunk so deep in sloth an' ig'rance that you're jest satisfied with anythin', no matter how bad it is. It's men o' intelleck like me who complain and look fur better things, who make the world go forward."
"Your idea uv goin' forward, Sol Hyde, is to do it ridin' on my shoulders."
"O' course, Jim. Ain't that what you're made fur? You're a hind—ain't that the beast, Paul, that carries burdens?—an' I'm the knight with the shinin' lance that goes forth to slay dragons, an' I go ridin', too."
"You go ridin', too! I don't see no hoss! An' you ain't been astride no hoss in years, Sol Hyde!"
"You deserve to be what you are, a hind, a toter o' burdens, Jim Hart, 'cause your mind is so slow an' dull. You ain't got no light, no imagination, no bloom, a-tall, a-tall! Did I say I wuz ridin' a real hoss? No, sir, not fur a second! But in the fancy, in the sperrit, so to speak, I'm ridin' the finest hoss that ever pranced, an' I'm settin' in a silver saddle, holdin' reins o' blue silk, an' that proud hoss o' mine champs an' champs his jaws on a bit made o' solid gold. Come on, Tom, I ain't 'preciated here. We'll kill that buffler, ef you don't talk me to death on the way. Remember now to hold your volyble tongue. The last time you spoke, ez I told you, you used two words when one would hev done jest ez well. Don't let your gabblin' skeer the buffler plum' to the other side o' the Ohio."
He stalked haughtily away, his rifle in the hollow of his arm, and Silent Tom followed meekly. The admiring gaze of Jim Hart followed the shiftless one as long as he was in sight.
"Ain't he the most beautiful talker you ever heard?" he asked. "Me an' him hev our little spats, but it's a re'l pleasure to hear him fetch out reasons an' prove that the thing that ain't is, an' the thing that is ain't. That's what I call a mighty smart man. Ef the Injuns ever git him he'll talk to 'em so hard that they'll either make him thar head chief, or turn him loose to keep from bein' talked to death."
They heard the sound of a shot, and then a faint halloo from the shiftless one, and when Henry went to the spot he found that he had slain a young cow buffalo, just as he had predicted. Long Jim Hart cooked the tender steaks in his finest style and they spent the rest of the day preparing for the journey, which they believed would take them across the Ohio, and which they knew would be full of dangers.
They put out their fire and rested until dusk came. Then they took up again the trail of Wyatt's band and traveled until midnight, when they slept until morning, all save the watch. Henry reckoned that they would reach the river by the next night, and there was a chance that the warriors might recover sufficiently from their fright to rally at the stream. But he felt that in any event he and his comrades must strike. Blackstaffe, Yellow Panther and Red Eagle with their forces would soon be in pursuit, and to escape the net would test the skill and courage of the five to the utmost. Yet all of them believed attack to be the best plan, and, after their sleep, they resumed the trail with renewed strength and vigor, pressing northward at great speed through the deep green wilderness.
THE CAPTURED CANOE
As the five advanced they read the trail with unfailing eye. Henry saw more than once the traces of footsteps with the toes turned out, that is those of Braxton Wyatt, and he noticed that they were wavering, not leading in a straight line like those of the Indians.
"Braxton must have had a nice crack of some kind or other on the head," he said, "and he still feels the effects of it, as now and then he reels."
"'Twould hev been a good thing," said Shif'less Sol, "ef the crack, whatever it may hev been, hed been a lot harder, hard enough to finish him. I ain't bloodthirsty, but it would help a lot if Braxton Wyatt wuz laid away. Paul, you're eddicated, an' you hev done a heap o' thinkin', enough, I guess, to last a feller like Long Jim fur a half dozen o' lives, now what makes a man turn renegade an' fight with strangers an' savages ag'inst his own people?"
"I think," replied Paul, "that it's disappointment, and fancied grievances. Some people want to be first, and when they can't win the place they're apt to say the world is against 'em, in a conspiracy, so to speak, to defraud 'em of what they consider their rights. Then their whole system gets poisoned through and through, and they're no longer reasoning human beings. I look upon Braxton Wyatt as in a way a madman, one poisoned permanently."
"I hev noticed them things, too," said Shif'less Sol. "Thar are diff'unt kinds o' naturs, the good an' the bad, an' the bad can't bear for other people to lead 'em. Then they jest natchelly hate an' hate. All through the day they hate, an' ef they ain't got nothin' to do, even ef the weather is fine 'nuff to make an old man laugh, they jest spend that time hatin'. An' ef they happen to wake up at night, do they lay thar an' think what a fine world it is an' what nice people thar are in it? No, sir, they jest spend all the time between naps hatin', an' they fall asleep ag'in, with a hate on thar lips an in' thar hearts."
"You're talkin' re'l po'try an' truth at the same time, Sol," said Long Jim. "It's cur'ous how people hate them that kin do things better than theirselves. Now, I've noticed when I'm cookin' buffler steaks an' deer meat an' wild turkey an' nice, juicy fish, an' cookin' mebbe better than anybody else in all Ameriky kin, how you, Shif'less Sol Hyde, turn plum' green with envy an' begin makin' disrespeckful remarks 'bout me, Jim Hart, who hez too lofty an' noble a natur ever to try to pull you down, poor an' ornery scrub that you be."
Shif'less Sol drew himself up with haughty dignity.
"Jim Hart," he said, "I'm wrapped 'bout with the mantle o' my own merit so well from head to foot that them invig'ous remarks o' yours bounce right off me like hail off solid granite. To tell you the truth, Jim Hart, I feel like a big stone mountain, three miles high, with you throwin' harmless leetle pebbles at me."
"And yet," said Paul, "while you two are always pretending to quarrel, each would be eager to risk death for the other if need be."
"It's only my sense o' duty, an' o' what you call proportion," said Shif'less Sol. "Long Jim, ez you know, is six feet an' a half tall. Ef the Injuns wuz to take him an' burn him at the stake he'd burn a heap longer than the av'rage man. What a torch Jim would make! Knowin' that an' always b'arin' it in mind, I'm jest boun' to save Jim from sech a fate. It ain't Jim speshully that I'm thinkin' on, but I'd hate to know that a man six an' a half feet long wuz burnin' 'long his whole len'th."
"Another band has joined Wyatt," said Henry. "See, here comes the trail!"
The new force had arrived from the east, and it contained apparently twenty warriors, raising Braxton Wyatt's little army to about sixty men.
"But they still run," said Shif'less Sol. "The new ones hev ketched all the terror an' superstition that the old ones feel, an' the whole crowd is off fur the Ohio. Look how the trail widens!"
"And Braxton Wyatt is beginning to feel better," said Henry. "His own particular trail does not waver so much now. Ah, they've stopped here for a council. Braxton probably stood on that old fallen log and addressed them, because the traces of his footsteps lead directly to it. Yes, the bark here is rubbed a little, where he stood. They gathered in a half circle before him, as their footprints show very plainly, and they listened to him respectfully. He, being white, was recovering from the superstitious terror, but the Shawnees were still under its spell. After hearing him they continued their flight. Here goes their trail, all in a bunch, straight toward the north!"
"An' thar won't be no stop 'til they strike the Ohio," said Shif'less Sol with conviction.
"I agree with you," said Henry.
"And so do all of us," said Paul.
"And of course we follow on," said Henry, "right to the water's edge!"
"We do," said the others all together.
"The Ohio isn't very far now," said Henry.
"Ten or fifteen miles, p'raps," said Shif'less Sol.
"And it's likely that we'll find a big force gathered there."
"Looks that way to me, Henry. Mebbe the band o' Blackstaffe will be waitin' to join that o' Wyatt. Then, feelin' mighty strong, they'll come back after us."
"'Less we fill 'em full o' fear whar they stan'. Mebbe they'll stop at the river a day or two, an' then we kin git to work. Water which hides will help us."
They passed on through the forest, noting that the trail was growing wide and leisurely. At one point the Indians had stopped some time, and had eaten heavily of game brought in by the hunters. The bones of buffalo, deer and wild turkey were scattered all about.
"They're feeling better," said Henry. "I don't think now they'll cross the Ohio, but we must do so and attack from the other side. They're not looking for any enemy in the north, and we may be able to terrify 'em again."
It was not long before they came to the great yellow stream of the Ohio, and in an open space, not far from the shore, they saw the fires of the Indian encampment.
"I think we'll have work to do here," said Henry, "and we'll keep well into the deep woods until long after dark."
They did not light any fire, but lying close in the thicket, ate their supper of cold food. Three or four hours after sunset Henry, telling the others to await his return, crept near the Indian camp. As he had surmised, two formidable forces had joined, and nearly two hundred warriors sat around the fires. The new army, composed partly of Miamis and partly of Shawnees, with a small sprinkling of Wyandots, was led by Blackstaffe, who was now with Wyatt, the two talking together earnestly and looking now and then toward the south.
Henry had no doubt that the five were the subject of their conversation. Wyatt must have recovered by this time all his faculties and was telling Blackstaffe that their enemies were only mortal and could be taken, if the steel ring about them was recast promptly. Henry had no doubt that an attempt to forge it anew would speedily be made by the increased force, but his heart leaped at the thought that his comrades and he would be able to break it again.
As he crept a little nearer he saw to his surprise a fire blazing on the opposite shore, and he was able to discover the forms of warriors between him and the blaze. With the Indians bestride the stream the task of the five was complicated somewhat, but Henry was of the kind that meet fresh obstacles with fresh energy.
He returned to his comrades and reported what he had seen, but all agreed with him that they should cross the river, despite the encampment on the far shore, and make the attack from the north.
"We'll do like that old Roman, Hannybul," said Long Jim, "hit the enemy at his weakest part, an' jest when he ain't expectin' us."
"Hannibal was not a Roman, Jim," said Paul.
"Well, then, he was a Rooshian or a Prooshian."
"Nor was he either of those."
"Well, it don't make no diff'unce, nohow. He wuz a furriner, that's shore, an' he's dead, both uv which things is ag'inst him. It looks strange to me, Paul, that a furriner with the outlandish ways that furriners always hev should hev been sech a good gen'ral."
"He was probably the best the world has produced, Jim. He was able with small forces to defeat larger ones, and we must imitate his example."
"And to do that," said Henry, "we shall cross the Ohio tonight. I think we'd better drop down a mile or two, beyond their fires and their sentinels, and then make for the northern shore."
"The river must be 'bout a mile wide here," objected Shif'less Sol. "That's a big swim with all our weepuns, an' ef some o' the warriors in canoes should ketch us in the water then we'd be goners, shore."
"You're right, there, Sol," said Henry. "It would be foolish in us to attempt to swim the river, when the warriors are looking for us, as they probably are by now, since Blackstaffe and Wyatt have got them back to realities."
"Then ef we don't swim how do you expect us to git across, Henry? Ez fur me, I can't wade across a river a mile wide an' twenty feet deep."
"That's true, Sol. Even Long Jim isn't long enough for that. I'm planning for us to cross in state, untouched by water and entirely comfortable; in fact, in a large, strong canoe."
"Nice good plan, Henry, 'cept in one thing; we ain't got no canoe."
"I intend to borrow one from the Indians. You and I will slip along up the bank and take it from under their noses. You're a marvel at such deeds, Sol."
"It's 'cause he's stealin' somethin' from somebody," said Long Jim.
"Shut up, Jim," said Henry. "It's lawful to steal from an enemy to save your own life, and these Indians mean to hunt us down if they have to employ three thousand warriors and three months to do it. Suppose we go now."
The five turned toward the south and west, making a deep curve away from the camp, a precaution taken wisely, as they soon had evidence, hearing shots here and there, which they were quite sure were those of red hunters seeking game, wild turkeys on the bough, or deer drinking at the small streams. They were compelled to go very slowly, in order to avoid them, but the night, luckily, was dark enough to hide their trail from all eyes, save those that might be looking especially for it.
They spoke only in whispers, but the young leader himself said scarcely anything, his mind being occupied with deep and intense thought. He knew that the venture in search of an Indian canoe would be accompanied by most imminent risks, the vigilance and skill of Shif'less Sol and himself would be tested to the last degree, but a canoe they must have, and they would dare every peril to get it.
They had gone about a mile when Henry suddenly raised his hand, and the five sank silently in the bush. A dozen warriors, treading without noise, passed within twenty feet of them and their course led toward the south. They flitted by so swiftly that it seemed almost as if shadows had passed, but Henry, who saw their faces, knew that they were not mere hunters. These men were on the warpath. Perhaps they had seen the trail of the five somewhere, and were going south to close up the broken segment of the circle there.
"They've probably had a hint from Blackstaffe," said Henry. "Next to Simon Girty he's the shrewdest and most cunning of all the renegades. He has reasoning power, and knowing that we'll take the bolder method, he's probably concluded that we've followed Wyatt's band."
"An' so he hez sent that other band south to shut us in," said Shif'less Sol.
"An' we might hev fled south ourselves from the fust," said Long Jim, "but I cal'late we ain't that kind uv people."
"No," said Henry. "We can't lead 'em in this chase back on the settlements. So long as they're trying to spread a net around us we'll draw 'em in the other direction. Now, boys, fall in behind me, and the first one that causes a blade of grass to rustle will have to make a present of his rifle to the others."
Following the great curve which they were traveling it was a full five miles to the point on the river they wished to reach. The forest, they knew, was full of warriors, some hunting, perhaps, but many thrown out on the great encircling movement intended to enclose the five. Now, the trailers, with deadly peril all about them, gave a superb exhibition of skill. There was no danger of any one losing his rifle, because no blade of grass rustled, nor did any leaf give back the sound of a brushing body. They were endowed peculiarly by birth and long habit to the life they lived and the dangers they faced. Their hearts beat high, but not with fear. Their muscles were steady, and eye and ear were attuned to the utmost for any strange presence in the forest.
Henry led, Paul followed, Long Jim came next, then Silent Tom, and Shif'less Sol defended the rear. This was usually their order, the greatest trailer at the head of the line, and the next greatest at the end of it. They invariably fell into place with the quickness and precision of trained soldiers.
A panther, not as large and fierce as the one that Henry had driven in fright down the ravine, saw them, looking upon human beings for the first time. It was his first impulse to make off through the woods, but they were soundless and in flight, and curiosity began to get the better of fear. He followed swiftly, somewhat to one side, but where he could see, and the silent line went so fast that the panther himself was compelled to extend his muscles. He saw them come to a brook. The foremost leaped it, the others in turn did the same, landing exactly in his footsteps, and they went on without losing speed. Then the panther turned back, satisfied that he could not solve the problem his curiosity had raised.
Henry caught a yellow gleam through the leaves, and he knew that it was the Ohio. In two or three minutes, they were at the low shore, although the opposite bank was high. Both were wooded densely. The stream itself was here a full mile in width, a vast mass of water flowing slowly in silent majesty. They thought they saw far up the channel a faint reflection of the Indian fires, but they were not sure. Where they stood the river was as lone and desolate as it had been before man had come. The moonlight was not good, and their view of the farther shore was dim, leaving them only the certainty that it was lofty and thick with forest.
"Paul, you and Jim and Tom lie here, where this little spit of land runs out into the water," said Henry. "There's good cover for you to wait in, and Sol and I will come down the river in our new canoe, or we won't."
"At any rate come," said Paul.
"You can trust us," replied Henry, and he and the shiftless one started at once along the edge of the river toward the northeast, where the Indian camp lay. Henry reckoned that it was about three miles away, but it would have to be approached with great care. As they advanced they kept a watch on the farther shore also, and rounding a curve in the river they caught their first sight of its reflection.
"It's fur up the stream," said Shif'less Sol, "an' I cal'late it's 'bout opposite the big camp. Thar must be some warriors passin' back an' forth from band to band, an' that, I reckon, will give us our chance fur a canoe."
"Yes, if we can make off with it without being seen," said Henry. "A pursuit would spoil everything. We'd have to abandon the canoe and retreat back from the southern shore."
"'Spose we go a leetle further up," said Shif'less Sol. "The bank's low here, but it's high enough to hide us, an' the bushes are mighty thick. The nearer we come to the Indian camp the greater the danger is, but the greater is our chance, too, to git a canoe."
"That's right, Sol. We'll try it."
They edged along yard by yard and soon could see through the intervening trees and bushes the light of the great camp, from which came a monotonous hum.
"A lot of 'em are dancin' the scalp dance," said the shiftless one. "Will you 'scuse me, Henry, while I laugh a leetle to myself?"
"Of course, Sol, but why do you want to laugh?"
"'Cause they're dancin' the scalp dance when they ain't goin' to take no scalps. It's ourn they're thinkin' of, but I kin tell you right now, Henry, that a year from today they'll be growin' squa'rly on top o' our heads, right whar they are this minute."
"I hope and believe you're right, Sol. Isn't that a canoe putting out from the far shore?"
"Yes, a big one, with four warriors in it, an' they're comin' straight across to the main camp, paddlin' like the strong men they are."
"Yes, I can see them clearly now, as they come nearer the middle of the stream. That would be a good canoe for us, Sol. It looks big enough."
"But I'm afraid we ain't goin' to hev it, Henry. It's comin' straight on to the main camp, an' it'll be tied to the bank right in the glow o' thar fires. Hevin' wanted that canoe, ez we both do, we'd better quit wantin' it an' want suthin' else."
Henry laughed softly.
"You're a true philosopher, Sol," he said.
"You hev to be in the woods, Henry. Here we learn to take what we can, an' let alone what we can't. I guess the wilderness jerks all the foolishness out o' a man, an' brings him plum' down to his level. Ain't I right 'bout thar comin' straight to the main camp?"
"Yes, Sol, and they'll land in a few more minutes. Those are big warriors, Miamis as their paint and dress show. Well, they're out of our reckoning, so we'd better move a little farther up."
"We'll be shore to find canoes tied to the bank, an' thar will be our chance. Ef our luck's good we'll git it, an' I find that luck is gen'ally with the bold."
The situation into which they had entered was one of extreme danger, but their surprising skill as trailers helped them greatly. The bank at this point was about eight feet high, with rather a sharp slope, covered with a dense growth of bushes, in which their figures were well hidden, but they were so near now to the main camp that its luminous glow passed over their heads, and lay in a broad band of light on the yellow surface of the river. A canoe put out from the southern shore, and was paddled by two warriors to the northern bank. Evidently there was constant communication between the two forces.
From the bank above them came the steady drone of the scalp song, and they heard the measured beat of the dance. Voices, too, came to them as they advanced a little farther, and once Henry distinguished that of Blackstaffe, although he was not able to understand the words. The light from the great fire was steadily growing stronger on the river and it would be a peril, disclosing their movements, if they took a canoe. From the southern forest came the cries of wolves and owls which were the signals of the Indians to one another, and Henry felt sure they were talking of the five. He was thoroughly convinced now that their trail had been discovered, and that the warriors, sure they were in the ring, were seeking to draw in the steel girdle enclosing them. And unless the canoe was secured quickly it was likely they would succeed. The two paused, their minds in a state of painful indecision.
"What do you think, Henry?" whispered the shiftless one.
"Nothing that amounts to anything."
"When you don't know what to do the best thing to do is to do nothin'. 'Spose we jest wait a while. We're well kivered here, an' they'd never think o' lookin' so close by fur us, anyway. Besides, hev you noticed, Henry, that it's growin' a lot darker? 'Tain't goin' to rain, but the moon an' all the stars are goin' away, fur a rest, I s'pose, so they kin shine all the brighter tomorrow night."
"It's so, Sol, and a good heavy blanket of darkness will help us a lot."
They lay perfectly still and waited with all the patience of those who know they must be patient to live. A full hour passed, and the welcome darkness increased, the heavens turning into a solid canopy, black and vast. The light from the great campfire sank, and its luminous glow no longer appeared on the river. The stream itself showed but faintly yellow under the darkness. Henry's heart began to beat high. Nature, as it so often did, was coming to their help. The droning song of the scalp dance had ceased and with it the voices of the warriors talking. No sound came from the river, save the soft swish of the flowing waters, and now and then a gurgle and a splash, when some huge catfish raised part of his body above the surface, and then let it fall back again.
Another canoe came presently from the northern shore. Henry and Shif'less Sol, although they could not see it at first, knew it had started, because their keen ears caught the plash of the paddles.
"It's a big one, Henry," whispered Shif'less Sol. "How many paddles do you make out by the sound?"
"Six. Is that your count, too?"
"Yes. Now I kin see it. One, two, three, four, five, six. We wuz right in the number an' it's a big fine canoe, jest the canoe we want, Henry, an' it'll land 'bout twenty yards 'bove us. Somethin' tells me our chance is comin'!"
"I hope the something telling you is telling you right. In any case you're correct about their landing. It will be almost exactly twenty yards away."
The great canoe emerged from the darkness, six powerful Miamis swinging the paddles, and it came in a straight line for the bank, leaving a trailing yellow wake. Henry admired their strength and dexterity. They were splendid canoemen, and he never felt any hatred of the Indians. He knew that they acted according to such guidance as they had, and it was merely circumstances that placed him and his kind in opposition to them and their kind.
The light but strong craft touched the bank gently, and the six canoemen stepped out, a figure that appeared among the bushes confronting them. Henry, with a thrill, recognized Blackstaffe, and the canoe must have arrived on an errand of importance or the renegade would not have been there to meet the six warriors.
"You will come into the camp and hear the reports of the scouts," said Blackstaffe, speaking in Miami, which both Henry and the shiftless one understood perfectly. "It will take some time to do this, because not all of them have returned yet. Then two of you had better go back with the canoe, while the others stay here to help us. I think we have these five rovers trapped at last, and we'll make an end of 'em. They've certainly caused us enough trouble, and I'm bound to say they're masters of forest war."
One of the warriors tied the canoe to a bush with a willow withe, and then all six following Blackstaffe disappeared among the trees, going toward the campfire.
"At least Blackstaffe compliments us before sending us to the next world," whispered Henry.
"Ez fur me," Shif'less Sol whispered back, "I ain't goin' to no next world, jest to oblige a villyun renegade. Besides, I like this wilderness o' ours too much to leave it fur anybody. They think they're mighty smart an' that they're plannin' somethin' big right now, but all the same they're givin' us our chance."
"What do you mean, Sol?"
"Didn't you hear the villyun say that two o' the warriors wuz to go back with the boat?"
"Well, what of it?"
"Then two warriors is goin' to be me an' you, Henry."
"Of course. I ought to have thought of it, too."
"Thar must be sent'nels on the bank, but waitin' 'bout ten minutes we'll git into the canoe an' paddle off. The sent'nels will know that two warriors are to go back in it, an' they'll think we're them. This darkness which has come up, heavy an' black, on purpose to help us, will keep 'em from seein' that we ain't warriors. When we git into the middle o' the river, whar thar eyes can't even make out the canoe, we'll go down stream like a flash o' lightnin', pick up the boys and then be off ag'in like another flash o' lightnin'."
"A good plan, Sol, and we'll try it. As you say, luck is always on the side of the bold, and I don't see why we can't succeed."
But to wait the necessary fifteen minutes was one of the hardest tasks they ever undertook. It would not do to take the canoe at once, as suspicion would certainly be aroused. They must conform to Blackstaffe's own plan. It seemed to them that they must actually hold themselves with their own hands to keep from creeping forward to the canoe, yet they did it, though the minutes doubled and redoubled in length, and then tripled; but, after a time that both judged sufficient, they slid forward, and Henry's knife cut the willow withe. Then they lifted themselves gently into the canoe, took up two of the paddles and were away.
Henry's back was to the southern bank, and despite all his experience and courage shivers ran through his body at the thought that a bullet from the forest might strike him any moment. Yet he did not wish to seem in a hurry, and restrained his eagerness to paddle with all his might.
"Softly, Sol, softly," he said. "We must not be in too much haste."
"Don't I know it, Henry? Don't I know that we must 'pear to be the two warriors whose business it is to take back the canoe? Ain't I jest strainin' an' achin' to make the biggest sweep with my paddle I ever swep', an' ain't my mind pullin' ag'inst my hands all the time, tryin' to keep 'em at the proper gait? Are you shore you ain't felt no bullet in your back yet, Henry?"
"No, Sol. What makes you ask such a question?"
"'Cause I reckon I wuz so much afeared o' one that I imagined the place whar it's track would be in me, ef it had been really fired. My fancy is pow'ful lively at sech a time."
"There has been no alarm, at least not yet, and we're near the middle of the river. The canoe must be invisible, although I can see the fires on either shore. Now, Sol, we'll turn down stream and paddle with all our might, showing what canoemen we really are!"
It was with actual physical as well as mental joy that they turned the prow of the canoe toward the southeast, that is, with the current, and began to do their best with the paddles. They no longer had that horrible fear of a bullet in the back, and muscles seemed to leap together with the spirit into greater strength and elasticity.
"Come on you, Henry," said Shif'less Sol exultantly. "Keep up your side! Prove that you're jest ez good a man with the paddle ez me! We ain't makin' more'n a mile a minute, an' fur sech ez we are that's nothin' but standin' still!"
The two bent their powerful backs a little and their great arms swept the paddles through the water at an amazing rate. The soul of Shif'less Sol surged up to the heights. He became dithyrambic and he spoke in a tone not loud, but full of concentrated fire and feeling.
"Fine, you Henry, you!" he said. "But we kin do better! The canoe is goin' fast, but one or two canoes in the hist'ry o' the world hez gone ez fast! We must go faster by ten or fifteen miles an hour an' set the record that will stan'! It's so dark in here I can't see either bank, but I wish sometimes I could, warriors or no warriors! Then I could see 'em whizzin' by, jest streaks, with all the trees and bushes meltin' into one another like a green ribbon! Now, that's the way to do it, Henry! Our speed is jumpin'! I ain't shore whether the canoe is touchin' the water or not! I think mebbe it's jest our paddles that dip in, an' that the canoe is flyin' through the air! An' not a soun' from 'em yet! They haven't discovered that the wrong warriors hev took thar boat, but they will soon! Now we'll turn her in toward the southern bank, Henry, 'cause in the battin' o' an eye or two we'll be whar the rest o' the boys are a-lyin' hid in the bushes! Now, slow an' slower! I kin see the trees an' bushes separatin' tharselves, an' thar's the bank, an' now I see the face o' Long Jim, 'bout seven feet above the groun'! He's an onery, ugly cuss, never givin' me all the respeck that's due me, but somehow I like him, an' he never looked better nor more welcome than he does now, God bless the long-armed, long-legged, fightin', gen'rous, kind-hearted cuss! An' thar's Paul, too, lookin' fur all the world like a scholar, crammed full o' book l'arnin', 'stead o' the ring-tailed forest runner, half hoss, half alligator, that he is, though he's got the book l'arnin' an' is one o' the greatest scholars the world ever seed! An' that's Tom Ross, with his mouth openin' ez ef he wuz 'bout to speak a word, though he'll conclude, likely, that he oughtn't, an' all three o' 'em are pow'ful glad to see us comin' in our triumphal Roman gallus that we hev captured from the enemy."
"Galley, Sol, galley! Not gallus!"
"It's all the same, galley or gallus. We hev got it, an' we are in it, an' it's a fine big canoe with six paddles, one for ev'ry one o' us an' one to spare! Now here we are ag'in the bank, an' thar they are ready to jump in!"
There was no time for hesitation, as a long and tremendous war whoop from a point up the stream seemed to surcharge the whole night with rage and ferocity. It was evident that the warriors had discovered that the wrong men had taken the canoe, as they were bound to do soon, and the chase would be on at once, conducted with all the power and tenacity of those who devoted their lives to such deeds.
"They'll know, of course, that we've come down the stream, not daring to go against the current," said Henry, "and they'll follow with every canoe they have."
"An' more will run along either bank hopin' fur a shot," said the shiftless one, "an' so while we turn our canoe into a shootin' star ag'in we'll hev to remember to keep in the middle o' the stream. A lot o' the dark that helped us to git the canoe is fadin' away, leavin' us to make our race fur our lives mostly in the open."
The great war whoop came again, filling the forest with its fierce echoes, and then followed silence, a silence which every one of the five knew would be broken later by the plash of paddles. The valley Indians had great canoes, sometimes carrying as many as twenty paddles, and when twenty strong backs were bent into one of them it could come at greater speed than any five in the world could command.
But this five, calm and ready to face any danger, put their rifles where they could reach them in an instant, and then their canoe shot down the stream.
THE PROTECTING RIVER
The Ohio was the great stream of the borderers. It was the artery that led into the vast, rich new lands of the west, upon its waters many of them came, and upon its current and along its banks were fought thrilling battles between white men and red. Many a race for life was made upon its bosom, but none was ever carried on with more courage and energy than the one now occurring.
They kept well to the middle of the stream, which was still of great width, a full mile across, where they would be safe from shots from either shore, until the river narrowed, and although they sent the canoe along very fast, they did not use their full strength, keeping a reserve for the greater emergency which was sure to come.
Meanwhile they worked like a machine. The arms of five rose together and five paddles made a single plash. In the returning moonlight the water took on a silver color, and it fell away in masses of shimmering bubbles from the paddle blades. Before them the river spread its vast width, at once a channel of escape and of danger. The forest yet rose on either bank, a solid mass of green, in which nothing stirred, and from which no sound came.
The silence, save for the swish of the paddles, was brooding and full of menace. Paul, so sensitive to circumstance, felt as if it were a sullen sky, out of which would suddenly come a blazing flash of lightning. But to Henry the greatest anxiety was the narrowing of the river which must come before long. The Ohio was not a mile wide everywhere, and when that straightening of the stream occurred they would be within rifle shot of the warriors on one bank or the other. And while the Indians were not good marksmen, it was true that where there were many bullets not all missed.
A quarter of an hour passed, and they heard the war-whoop behind them, and then a few moments later the faint, rhythmic swish of paddles. The moonlight had been deepening fast, and Henry saw two of the great canoes appear, although they were yet a full half mile away. But they came on at a mighty pace, and it was evident that unless bullets stopped them they would overtake the fugitives. Henry put aside his paddle, leaving the work for the present to the others, and studied the long canoes. He and his comrades might strain as they would, but in an hour the big boats filled with muscular warriors would be alongside. They must devise some other method to elude the pursuit. A shout from Paul caused him to turn.
A peninsula from the south projected into the river, making its width at this point much less than half a mile, and upon the spit, which was bare, stood several Indian warriors, rifle in hand and waiting.
"Turn the canoe in toward the northern shore," said Henry. "We must chance a shot from that quarter, dealing with the seen danger, and letting the unseen go. Sol, you and Tom take your rifles, and I'll take mine too. Paul, you and Jim do the paddling and we'll see whether those warriors on the sand stop us, or are just taking a heavy risk themselves."
The canoe sheered off violently toward the northern bank, but did not cease to move swiftly, as Paul and Jim alone were able to send it along at a great rate. Henry, with his rifle lying in the hollow of his arm, watched a large warrior standing on the edge of the water.
"I'll take the big fellow with the waving scalp lock," he said.
"The short, broad one by the side o' him is mine," said Shif'less Sol. "Which is yours, Tom?"
"One with red blanket looped over his shoulder," replied the taciturn rover.
"Be sure of your aim," said Henry. "We're running a gauntlet, but it's likely to be as much of a gauntlet for those warriors as it is for us."
Perhaps the Indians on the spit did not know that the canoe contained the best marksmen in the West, as they crowded closer to the water's edge, uttered a yell or two of triumph and raised their own weapons. The three rifles in the canoe flashed together and the big warrior, the short, broad one, and the one with the red blanket looped over his shoulder, fell on the sand. One of them got up again and fled with his unhurt comrades into the forest, but the others lay quite still, with their feet in the water. As the marksmen reloaded rapidly, Henry cried to the paddlers:
"Now, boys, back toward the middle of the river and put all your might in it!"
Paul and Long Jim swung the canoe into the main current, which had increased greatly in strength here, owing to the narrowing of the stream, and their paddles flashed fast. Two of the Indians who had fled into the woods reappeared and fired at them, but their bullets fell wide, and Henry, who had now rammed in the second charge, wounded one of them, whereupon they fled to cover as quickly as they did the first time.
Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross had also reloaded, but put their rifles in the bottom of the boat and resumed their paddles. The danger on the land spit had been passed, but the great canoes behind them were hanging on tenaciously and were gaining, not rapidly, but with certainty. Henry swept them again with a measuring eye, and he saw no reason to change his calculations.
"They'll come within rifle shot in just about an hour," he repeated. "We'd pick off some of them with our bullets, but they'd keep on coming anyhow, and that would be the end of us."
Such a solemn statement would have daunted any but those who had escaped many great dangers. Imminent and deadly as was the peril, it did not occur to any of the five that they would not evade it, the problem now being one of method rather than result.
"What are we going to do, Henry?" asked Paul.
"I don't know yet," replied the leader, "but we'll keep going until something develops."
"Thar's your development!" exclaimed the shiftless one, as a rifle was fired from the northern shore, and a bullet plashed in the water just ahead of them. Then came a second shot from the same source which struck the inoffensive river behind them. They were now being attacked from both banks while the great canoes followed tenaciously.
"We don't have to bother about one thing," said Paul grimly. "We know which way to go, and it's the only way that's open to us."
But the threat offered by the northern shore did not seem to be so menacing. The river began to widen again and rapidly, and the scattered shots fired later on came from a great distance, falling short. Those discharged from the southern bank also missed the mark as widely. Henry no longer paid any attention to them, but was examining the forest and the curves of the river with a minute scrutiny. His look, which had been very grave, brightened suddenly, and a reassuring flash appeared in his eye.
"What is it, Henry?" asked Shif'less Sol, who had noticed the change.
"We've been along here before," replied the great youth. "I know the shores now, and it's mighty lucky for us that we are just where we are."
The shiftless one looked at the northern, then at the southern forest, and shook his head.
"I don't 'pear to recall it," he said. "The woods, at this distance away, look like any other woods at night, black an' mighty nigh solid."
"It's not so much the forest, because, like you, I couldn't tell it from any other, as it is the curve of the river. I thought I saw something familiar in it a little while ago, and now I know by the sound that I'm right."
"Sound! What sound?"
"Turn your ears down the river and listen as hard as you can. After a while you'll hear a faint humming."
"So I do, Henry, but I wouldn't hev noticed it ef you hadn't told me about it, an' even ef I do hear it I don't know what it means."
"It's made by the rush of a great volume of water, Sol. It's the Falls of the Ohio, that not many white men have yet seen, a gradual sort of fall, one that boats can go over without trouble most of the time, but which, owing to the state of the river, are just now at their highest."
"An' you mean fur them falls to come in between us an' the big canoes? You're reckonin' on water to save us?"
"That's what I have in mind, Sol. The falls are dangerous at this stage of the river, no doubt about it, but we're not canoemen for nothing, and with our lives at stake we'll not think twice before shooting 'em. What say you, boys?"
"The falls fur me!" replied the shiftless one, quickly.
"Nothin' could keep me from takin' the tumble. I jest love them falls," said Long Jim.
"It's that or nothing," said Paul.
"On!" said Silent Tom.
"Then ease a little with your paddles," said Henry. "The Indians know, of course, that the falls are just ahead, and I notice they are not now pushing us so hard. It follows, then, that the falls are at a dangerous height they don't often reach, and they expect to trap us."
"In which they will be mighty well fooled."
"I think so. I'll sit in the prow of the boat and do my best with my paddle to guide. I believe we can shoot the falls all right, but maybe we'll be swamped in the rapids below. But we're all good swimmers, and, if we do go over, every fellow must swim for the northern bank, where the Indians are fewest. Some one of us must manage to save his rifle and ammunition or we'd be lost, even if we happened to reach the land. Still, it's possible that we can keep afloat. It's a good canoe."
"A good canoe!" exclaimed the shiftless one, in whom the spirit of achievement and of triumph was rising again. "It's the finest canoe on all this great river, and didn't I tell you boys that them that's bold always win! Jest when our last chance 'peared to be gone, these falls wuz put squar'ly in our track to save us! Will they wreck us? No, they won't! We'll shoot 'em like a bird on the wing!"
He looked back at their pursuers, and gave utterance suddenly to a long, piercing shout of defiance. The Indians in the canoes replied with war whoops that Henry could read easily. They expressed faith in speedy triumph, and joy over the destruction of the five. He saw, moreover, that they were using only half strength now, preferring to take their ease while the game struggled vainly in the net. But as well as many of these warriors knew the five they did not know them to the full.
The shiftless one waited until their last war whoop died, and then, sending forth once more his long, thrilling note of defiance, he burst again into his triumphal chant.
"Steady now with the paddles, boys," he cried, "an' we'll ride the water ez ef we'd done nothin' else all our lives! Oh, I love rivers, big rivers, speshully when they hev a strong current like this that takes your boat 'long an' you don't hev to do no work! Now it reaches up a thousand hands that grab our canoe an' sail 'long with it! Don't paddle any more, boys, but jest hold yourselves ready to do it, when needed! The river's doin' all the work, an' it never gits tired! Look, now, how the current's a-rushin', an' a-dancin', an' a-hummin'! Look at the white water 'roun' us! Look at the water behind us, an' hear the roarin' before us! Thar, she rocks, but never min' that! Wait till the water comes spillin' in! Then it will be time to use the paddles!"
He burst once more into that irrepressible yell of defiance, and then he cried exultantly:
"They slow up! They're gittin' afeard! We've made the race too fast fur 'em! Come on, you warriors! Ain't you ready to go whar we will? These falls are fine an' we jest love to play with 'em! We are goin' to sail down 'em, an' then we're goin' to sail back up 'em ag'in! Don't you hear all that roarin'? It's the tumblin' o' the water, an' it's singin' a song to you, tellin' you to come!"
The shiftless one's own tremendous song had a thrilling effect upon his comrades. Their spirits leaped with it. The rushing canoe was now dancing upon the surface of the river, but somehow they were not afraid. They were at that reach of the river where a great city was destined to grow upon the southern shore, and which was to be the scene, a year or two later, of other activities of theirs, but now both banks were in solid, black forest, and no human habitation had yet appeared.
The canoe was rocking dangerously and all five began to use the paddles now and then, as the white water foamed around them. It required the utmost quickness of eye and hand to keep afloat, and the flying spray soon wet them through and through. Yet the soul of Shif'less Sol was still undaunted. He sang his song of victory, and although most of the words were lost amid the crash and roar of the waters, their triumphant note rose above every other sound, and found an echo in the hearts of the others.
Henry, looking back, saw that the long canoes had turned and were making for the southern shore. Great as was the prize they sought, they would not dare the falls, and half the battle was won.
"They don't follow!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "And now for the miracle that will keep us afloat!"
The canoe raced down the watery slope and the spray continued to drench them, though they had taken the precaution to cover up their rifles and ammunition. But their surpassing skill had its reward. The descent soon became more gradual, the torrents of white water sank, and then they slid forward in the rapids, still going at a great rate, but no longer in danger.
"An' we've left the enemy behind!" sang the shiftless one, looking back at the white masses. "He thought he had us, but he hadn't! He turned back at the steep slope, but we came on! Thar's nothin' like havin' a fall between you an' a lot o' pursuin' Injun canoes, is thar, Paul?"
Paul laughed, half in amusement and half in nervous relief.
"No, Sol, there isn't, at least not now," he replied. "It looks as if these falls had been put here especially to save us."
"I like to think so, too," said the shiftless one.
The river was still very wide and they kept the canoe in its center, although they no longer dreaded Indian shots, feeling quite sure that no warriors were on either shore below the falls. So they went on three or four miles, until Paul asked what was the next plan.
"We must talk it over, all of us," said Henry. "The canoe is of no particular use to us except as a way of escape from immediate danger."
"But it and the falls together saved us," said Shif'less Sol. "Oh, it's a good boat, a fine boat, a friendly boat!"
"I hate to desert a friend."
"It must be done. We can't stay forever on the river in a canoe. That would merely invite destruction. The Indians can take their canoes out of the water, carry them around the falls and resume the pursuit."
"O' course I know you're right, Henry. I wuz jest droppin' a tear or two over the partin' with our faithful canoe. We make fur the north bank, I s'pose."
"That seems to me to be the right course, because the warriors will be thicker on the south side. We'll keep our policy of defense against them by resuming the offense. What say you, Paul?"
"I choose the north bank."
"And you, Jim?"
"North, uv course."
"And you, Tom?"
"And Sol and I have already spoken. We'll make for the low point across there, sink the canoe and go into the forest. The Indians will be sure in time to pick up our trail and follow us, but we'll escape 'em as we've escaped twice already."
"Red Eagle and Yellow Panther will come for us now," said Paul. "It's their turn next."
"Let 'em," said Long Jim in sanguine tones. "They can't beat us."
They were now out of the rapids and were paddling swiftly toward the northern shore, with their eyes on a small cove, where the bushes grew thick to the water's edge. When they reached it they pushed the canoe into the dense thicket and sank it.
"After all," said Shif'less Sol, "we're not partin' wholly with our friend. We know whar he is, an' he'll wait here until some time or other when we want him ag'in."
Gathering up their arms, ammunition and supplies, they traveled northward through the dense forest until they came to a small and well sheltered valley, where they concluded to rest, it being full time, as collapse was coming fast after their great exertions and intense strain. Nevertheless, Silent Tom was able to keep the first watch, while the others threw themselves on the ground and went to sleep almost instantly.
Tom had promised to awaken Shif'less Sol in two hours, but he did not do so. He knew how much his comrades needed rest, and being willing to sacrifice himself, he watched until dawn, which came bright, cold at first, and then full of grateful warmth, a great sun hanging in a vast disc of reddish gold over the eastern forest.
Silent Tom Ross, in his most talkative moments, was a man of few words, at other times of none, but he felt deeply. A life spent wholly in the woods into which he fitted so supremely had given him much of the Indian feeling. He, too, peopled earth, air and water with spirits, and to him the wild became incarnate. The great burning sun, at which he took occasional glances, was almost the same as the God of the white man and the Manitou of the red man. He had keenly appreciated their danger, both when Henry was at the hollow, and when they were in the canoe on the river, hemmed in on three sides. And yet they had come safely from both nets. The skill of the five had been great, but more than human skill had helped them to escape from such watchful and powerful enemies.
Tom Ross, as he looked at the faces of his comrades, knitted to him by so many hardships and perils shared, was deeply grateful. He took one or two more glances at the great burning sun, and the sky that looked like illimitable depths of velvet blue, and then he surveyed the whole circle of the forest curving around them. It was silent there, no sign of a foe appeared, all seemed to be as peaceful as a great park in the Old World. Tom said no words, not even to himself, but his prayer of thanks ran:
"O Lord, I offer my gratitude to Thee for the friends whom Thou hast given me. As they have been faithful to me in every danger, so shall I try to be faithful to them. Perhaps my mind moves more slowly than theirs, but I strive always to make it move in the right way. They are younger than I am, and I feel it my duty and my pleasure, too, to watch over them, despite their strength of body, mind and spirit. I have not the gift of words, nor do I pray for it, but help me in other things that I may do my part and more."
Then Tom Ross felt uplifted. The dangers passed were passed, and those to come could not press upon him yet. He was singularly light of heart, and the wind sang among the leaves for him, though not in words, as it sang often for Henry.
He took another look at his comrades, and they still slept as if they would never awake. The strain of the preceding nights and days had been tremendous, and their spirits, having gone away with old King Sleep to his untroubled realms, showed no signs of a wish to come back again to a land of unlimited peril. He had promised faithfully to awaken one of them long ago for the second turn at the watch, and he knew that all of them expected to be up at sunrise, but he had broken his promise and he was happy in the breaking of it.
Nor did he awaken them now. Instead he made a wide circle through the forest, using his good eyes and good ears to their utmost. The stillness had gone, because birds were singing from pure joy at the dawn, and the thickets rustled with the movements of small animals setting about the day's work and play. But Silent Tom knew all these sounds, and he paid no attention to them. Instead he listened for man, man the vengeful, the dangerous and the deadly, and hearing nothing from him and being sure that he was not near, he went back to the place where the four sleepers lay. Examining them critically he saw that they had not stirred a particle. They had been so absolutely still that they had grown into the landscape itself.
Tom Ross smiled a deep smile that brought his mouth well across his face and made his eyes crinkle up, and then, disregarding their wishes with the utmost lightness of heart, he sat himself down, calmly letting them sleep on. He produced from an inside pocket a long stretch of fine, thin, but very strong cord, and ran it through his fingers until he came to the sharp hook on the end. It was all in good trim, and his questing eye soon saw where a long, slender pole could be cut. Then he put thread and hook back in his pocket, and sat as silent as the sleepers, but bright-eyed and watchful. No one could come near without his knowledge.
Shif'less Sol awoke first, yawning mightily, but he did not yet open his eyes.
"Who's watchin'?" he called.
"Me," replied Ross.
"Is it day yet?"
"Look up an' see."
The shiftless one did look up, and when he beheld the great sun shining almost directly over his head he exclaimed in surprise:
"Why, Tom, is it today or tomorrer?"
"It's today, though I guess it's well on to noon."
"Seein' the sun whar it is, an' feelin' now ez ef I had slep' so long, I thought mebbe it might be tomorrer. An' it bein' so late an' me sleepin', too, it looks ez ef the warriors ought to hev us."
"But they hevn't, Sol. All safe."
"No, Tom, they hevn't got us, an' now, hevin' learned from your long an' volyble conversation that it ain't tomorrer an' that we are free, 'stead o' bein' taken captive an' bein' burned at the stake by the Injuns, I'm feelin' mighty fine."
"Sol, you talk real foolish at times. How could we be took by the Injuns an' be burned alive at the stake, an' not know nothin' 'bout it?"
"Don't ask me, Tom. Thar are lots o' strange things that I don't pretend to understan', an' me a smart man, too. Here, you, Jim Hart! Wake up! Shake them long legs an' arms o' yours an' cook our breakfast!"
Silent Tom began to laugh, not audibly, but his lips moved in such a manner that they betrayed risibility. The shiftless one looked at him suspiciously.
"Tom Ross," he said, "what you laughin' at?"
"You told Long Jim to cook breakfast, didn't you?"
"I shorely did, an' I meant it, too."
"Why ain't he?"
"Because he ain't."
"Ef he ain't, then why ain't he?"
"Because thar ain't any."
"Thar ain't any breakfast, you mean?"
"Jest what I say. He ain't goin' to cook breakfast, 'cause thar ain't any to cook, an' thar ain't no more to say."
Henry and Paul, awakening at the sound of the voices, sat up and caught the last words.
"Do you mean to tell us, Tom," exclaimed Paul, "that we have nothing to eat?"
"Shorely," said Silent Tom triumphantly. "Look! See!"
All of them examined their packs quickly, but they had eaten the last scrap of food the day before. Silent Tom's mouth again stretched across his face with triumph and his eyes crinkled up.
"Right, ain't it?" he asked exultantly.
"Look here you, Tom Ross," exclaimed Shif'less Sol, indignantly, "you'd rather be right an' starve to death than be wrong an' live!"
"Right, ain't I?"
"Yes, right, ain't you, 'bout the food, an' wrong in everythin' else. Ef you say 'ain't' to me ag'in, Tom Ross, inside o' a week, I'll club you so hard over the head with your own gun that you won't be able to speak another word fur a year! The idee o' you laughin' an' me plum' dead with hunger! Why, I could eat a hull big buffler by myself, an' ef he wuzn't cooked I could eat him alive, an' on the hoof too, so I could!"
Tom Ross continued to laugh silently with his eyes and lips.
"What are we to do?" asked Paul in dismay. "If we were to find game we wouldn't dare fire at it with the Indians perhaps so near."
"True," said Tom Ross.
"And if we can't fire at it we certainly can't catch it with our hands."
"True," said Tom Ross.
"And then are we to starve to death?"
"No," said Tom Ross.
Paul did not ask anything more, but his questioning look was on the silent man.
"Fish," said Tom Ross, showing his line and hook.
"Where?" asked Shif'less Sol.
"Fine, clear creek, only hundred yards away."
"Do you know that it hez any fish in it?"
"Saw 'em little while ago. Fine big fellers, bass."
"Then be quick an' ketch a lot, 'cause the pangs o' starvation are already on me."
Tom Ross cut the slim pole that he had already picked out and measured with his eye, took squirming bait from the soft earth under a stone, just as millions of boys in the Mississippi valley have done, and started for the creek, Paul being delegated to accompany him, while Henry, Long Jim and the shiftless one proceeded to build a fire in the most secluded spot they could find. There was danger in a fire, but they could shield the smoke, or at least most of it, and the risk must be taken anyhow. They could not eat raw the fish which they did not doubt for a moment Tom Ross would soon bring.
Meanwhile Paul and Tom reached the banks of the creek, which was all the silent one had claimed for it, fifteen feet wide, two feet deep, clear water, flowing over a pebbly bottom. Tom tied his string to the pole, and threw in the hook and bait.
"You watch, I fish," he said.
Paul, his rifle in the crook of his arm, strolled a little bit down the stream, examining the forest and listening attentively for any hostile sound. Since it was his business to protect the fisherman while he fished, he meant to protect him well, and no enemy could have come near without being observed by him. And yet he had enough detachment from the dangers of their situation to drink deep in the beauty of the wilderness, which was here a tangle of green forest, shot with wild flowers and cut by clear running waters.
But he did not go so far that he failed to hear a thump where Tom Ross was sitting, and he knew that a fine fish had been landed. Presently a second thump came to his ear, and, glancing through the bushes, he saw Tom taking the fish off the hook, a look of intense satisfaction on his face. Then the silent fisherman threw in the line again and leaned back luxuriously against the trunk of a tree, while he waited for his third bite. Paul smiled. He knew that Silent Tom was happy, happy because he had prepared for and was achieving a necessary task.
Paul went on in a circuit about the fisherman, crossing the creek lower down, where it was narrower, on a fallen log, and discovered no sign of a foe, though he did come to a bed of wild flowers, the delicate pale blue of which pleased him so much that he broke off two blossoms and thrust them into his deerskin tunic. Then he came back to Silent Tom, to find that he had caught four fine large fish, and, having thrown away his pole, was winding up his line.
"'Nuff," said the silent one.
"I think so, too," said Paul, "and now we'll hurry back with 'em."
"Look like a flower garden, you!"
"If I do I'm glad of it."
"Like it myself."
"I know you do, Tom. I know that however you may appear, and that however fierce and warlike you may be at times, your character rests upon a solid bedrock of poetry."
Tom stared and then smiled, and by this time the two had returned with their spoils to a little valley in which a little fire was burning, with the blaze smothered already, but a fine bed of coals left. The fish were cleaned with amazing quickness, and then Long Jim broiled them in a manner fit for kings. The five ate hungrily, but with due regard for manners.
"You're a good fisherman, Tom Ross," said Shif'less Sol, "but it ought to be my job."
"'Cause it's the job o' a lazy man. I reckon that all fishermen, leastways them that fish in creeks an' rivers, are lazy, nothin' to do but set still an' doze till a fish comes along an' hooks hisself on to your bait. Then you jest hev to heave him in an' put the hook back in the water ag'in."
"There's enough of the fish left for another meal," said Henry, "and I think we'd better put it in our packs and be off."
"You still favor a retreat into the north?" said Paul.
"Yes, and toward the northeast, too. We'll go in the direction of Piqua and Chillicothe, their big towns. As we've concluded over and over again, the offensive is the best defensive, and we'll push it to the utmost. What's your opinion, Sol? Who do you think will be the next leader to come against us?"
"Red Eagle an' the Shawnees. I'm thinkin' they're curvin' out now to trap us, an' that Red Eagle is a mighty crafty fellow."
They trod out the coals, threw some dead leaves over them, and took a course toward the northeast. It seemed pretty safe to assume that the ring of warriors was thickest in the south, and that they might slip through in the north. Time and distance were of little importance to them, and they felt able to find their rations as they went in the forest.
They had been traveling about an hour at the easy walk of the border, when they heard a long cry behind them.
"They've found the dead coals o' our fire," said Shif'less Sol.
"Which means that they're not so far away," said Paul.
"But we've been comin' over rocky ground, an' the trail ain't picked up so easy. An' we might make it a lot harder by wadin' a while up this branch."
The brook fortunately led in the direction in which they wished to go. They walked in it a full half mile, and as it had a sandy bottom their footprints vanished almost at once. When they emerged at last they heard the long cry again, now from a point toward the east, and then a distant answer from a point in the west. Shif'less Sol laughed with intense enjoyment.
"Guessin'! Jest guessin'!" he said. "They've found the dead coals an' they know that we wuz thar once, but that now we ain't, an' it's not whar we wuz but whar we ain't that's botherin' 'em."
"Still," said Paul, "the more distance we put between them and us the better I, for one, will like it."
"You're right, Paul," said Shif'less Sol. "I guess we'd better shake our feet to a lively tune."
They increased their walk to a trot, and fled through the great forest.
The five continued their flight all that day, seeing no enemies and hearing no further signal from them. But Henry knew intuitively that the warriors were still in pursuit. They would spread out in every direction, and some one among them would, in time, pick up the trail. After a while, they permitted their own gait to sink to an easy walk, but they did not veer from their northeastern course. Henry, all the time, was a keen observer of the country, and he noticed with pleasure the change that was occurring.
They were coming to a low sunken land, cut by many streams, nearly all sluggish and muddy. The season had been rainy, and there was an odor of dampness over all things. Great thickets of reeds and cane began to appear, and now and then they trod into deep banks of moss.
"Perhaps we'd better turn to the north and avoid it," said Paul. "This marsh region seems to be extensive."
Henry shook his head.
"We won't avoid it," he said. "On the contrary it's just what we want. I'm thinking that we're being watched over. You know the forest fire came in time to save us, then the falls appeared just when we needed 'em, and now this huge marsh, extending miles and miles in every direction, cuts across our path, not as an enemy, but as a friend."
"That is, we are to hide in it?"
"Where could we find a better refuge?"
"Then you lead the way, Henry," said Shif'less Sol. "Ef you sink in it we'll pull you out, purvidin' you don't go in it over your neck."
Henry went ahead, his wary eye examining the ground which had already grown alarmingly soft save for those trained for such marchings. But he was able to pick out the firm places, though the earth would quickly close over their footsteps, as they passed, and, now and then, they walked on the upthrust roots of trees, their moccasins giving them a securer hold.
It was precarious and dangerous work, but they went deeper and deeper into the heart of the great swamp, through thickets of bushes, cane and reeds, the soil continually growing softer and the vegetation ranker and more gloomy. Often the canes and reeds were so dense that they had difficulty in seeing their leader, as he slipped on ahead. Sometimes snakes trailed a slimy length from their path, and, hardened foresters though they were, they shuddered. Occasionally an incautious foot sank to the knee and it was pulled out again with a choking sigh as the mud closed where it had been. Mosquitoes and many other buzzing and stinging insects assailed them, but they pressed on without hesitation.
They came to a great black pond on which marsh fowl were swimming, but Henry led around its miry edges, and they pressed on into the deeper depths of the vast swamp. He judged that they had now penetrated it a full two miles, but he had no intention of stopping. The four behind him knew without his telling for what he was looking. The swamp, partly a product of an extremely rainy season, must have bits of solid ground somewhere within its area, and, when they came to such a place, they would stop. Yet it would be all the better if they did not reach it for a long time, as the farther they were from the edge of the swamp the safer they could rest.
No island of firm earth appeared, and the traveling grew more difficult. Often they helped themselves along with vines that drooped from scrubby trees, swinging their bodies over places that would not bear their weight, but always, whether slow or fast, they made progress, penetrating farther and farther into the huge blind maze.
The sun was low when they stopped for a long rest, hoping they would reach refuge very soon.
"I don't think the warriors kin ever find us in here," said Long Jim, "but what's troublin' me is whether we'll ever be able to git out ag'in."
"Mebbe you wouldn't be so anxious to show yourse'f, Jim Hart, on solid ground ef you could only see yourse'f ez I see you," said Shif'less Sol. "You're a sight, plastered over with black mud, an' scratched with briers an' bushes. Lookin' at you, an' sizin' you up, I reckon that jest now you're 'bout the ugliest man in this hull round world."
"Ef I ain't, you are," said Long Jim, grinning. "Fact is, thar ain't a beauty among us. I don't mind mud so much, but I don't like it when it's black an' slimy. How fur do you reckon this flooded country goes, Henry?"
"Twenty miles, maybe, Jim, but the farther the better for us. Here's an old fallen log which I think will hold our weight. Suppose we stop here and rest a little."
They were glad enough to do so. When they sat down they heard the mournful sigh of a light wind through the black and marshy jungle, and the splash now and then of a muskrat in the water. Their refuge seemed dim and inexpressibly remote, as if it belonged to the wet and ferny world of dim antiquity. But every one of the five felt that they were safe, at least for the present, from pursuit.
"We might plough a trail a yard deep," said Shif'less Sol, "but the mud would close over it ag'in in five minutes, an' Red Eagle with five hundred o' the best trailers in the hull Shawnee nation couldn't foller us."
"It's strange and grim," said Paul, "but, when you look at it a long time there's a certain kind of forbidding beauty about it, and you're bound to admit that it's a friendly swamp, since it's hiding us from ruthless pursuers."
"Perhaps that's why you find the beauty in it," said Henry. "Come on, though. The Shawnees are not likely to reach us here, but we must find some snug place in which we can camp."
"After all," said Paul, "we're like travelers in a great desert looking for an oasis."
"We ain't as hungry ez all that," said Long Jim.
"You won't get angry if I laugh, Jim, will you?" asked Paul.
"Don't mind me. Go ahead an' laugh all you want."
"An oasis is not something to eat, Jim. It's a green and watered place in an ocean of sand."
"Seems to me that we waste time lookin' fur a place that's more watered than all these we're crossin'. What I want is a dry place, a piece out uv that ocean uv sand you're talkin' 'bout."
"The conditions are merely reversed. My illustration holds good."
"What did you say, Paul? Them wuz mighty big words."
"Never mind. You'll find out in due time. Just you pray for an oasis in this swamp, because that is what we want, and we want it bad."
"All right, Paul, I'm prayin'. I ain't shore what I'm prayin' fur, but I take your word fur it."
Henry rose and led on again, anxious of heart. They were well hidden, it was true, in the great swamp, but they must find some place to lay their heads. It was impossible to rest in the black ooze that surrounded them, and if they did not reach firmer ground soon he did not know what they would do. The sun was already low, and, in the east, the shadows were gathering. Around them all things were clothed in gloom. Even that touch of forbidding beauty, of which Paul had spoken was gone and the whole swamp became dark and sinister.
Henry was compelled to walk with the utmost care, lest he become engulfed, and finally all of them cut lengths of cane with which they felt about in the mire before they advanced.
"Pray hard, Long Jim," said Paul. "Pray hard for that oasis, because the night will soon be here, and if we don't find our oasis we'll have to stand in our tracks until day, and that's a mighty hard thing to do."
"I wuz never wishin' an prayin' harder in my life."
"I think your prayer is answered," interrupted Henry, who was thrusting here and there with his cane. "To the right the ground seems to be growing more solid. The mire is not more than a foot deep. I think I'll venture in that direction. What do you say, boys?"
"Might ez well try it," said Shif'less Sol. "It may be a last chance, but sometimes a last chance wins."
Henry, feeling carefully with the long, stout cane, plunged into the slough. He was more anxious than he was willing to say, but at the same time he was hopeful. As the swamp was due, at least in large part, to the great rains, it must have firm ground somewhere, and he had noticed also in the thickening twilight that the bushes ahead seemed much larger than usual. A dozen steps and the mire was not more than six inches deep. Then with a subdued cry of triumph he seized the bushes, pulled himself among them, and stood not more than moccasin deep in the mud.
"It's the best place we've come to yet," he said. "I can't see over the thicket, but I'm hoping that we'll find beyond it some kind of a hill and dry ground."
"I know we will," said Long Jim, confidently. "It's 'cause I wished an' prayed so hard. It's a lucky thing, Paul, that you had me to do the wishin' an' prayin', 'stead o' Shif'less Sol, 'cause then we'd hev walked into black mire a thousan' feet deep. Ef the prayers uv the sinners are answered a-tall, a-tall, they're answered wrong."
Shif'less Sol shook his head scornfully.
"Let's go on, Henry," he said, "afore Long Jim talks us plum' to death, a thing I'd hate to hev happen to me, jest when we're 'bout to reach the promised land."
Henry pushed his way through dense bushes and trailing vines, and he noticed with intense joy that all the time the earth was growing firmer. The others followed silently in his tracks. In five minutes he emerged from the thicket, and then he could not repress an exclamation of pleasure. They had come upon a low hill, an acre perhaps in extent, as firm as any soil and well grown with thick low oaks. Where the shade was not too deep the grass was rich, and the five, the others repeating Henry's cry of joy, threw themselves upon it and luxuriated.
"It's fine," said Shif'less Sol, "to lay here an' to feel that the earth under you ain't quiverin' like a heap o' jelly. I turn from one side to the other an' then back ag'in, an' I don't sink into no mud, a-tall, a-tall."
"An' this, Paul, is the o-sis that you wuz talkin' 'bout, an' that I wished an' prayed into the right place fur us?" said Long Jim.
"Oasis, Jim, not o-sis," said Paul.
"Oasis or o-sis, it's jest ez good to me by either name, an' I think I'll stick to o-sis, 'cause it's easier to say. But, Paul, did you ever see a finer piece uv land? Did you ever see finer, richer soil? Did you ever see more splendiferous grass or grander oaks?"
"I feel about it just as you do," laughed Paul.
Henry lay still a full ten minutes, resting after their tremendous efforts in the swamp, then he rose, walked through their oasis and discovered that at the far edge a fine large brook was running, apparently and in some mysterious way, escaping at that point the contamination of the mud, although he could see that farther on it lost itself in the swamp. But its cool, sparkling waters were a heavenly sight, and, walking back, he announced his discovery to the others.
"All of you know what you can do," he said.
"We do," said Paul.
"First thought in my mind," said Shif'less Sol.
"An' we'll do it," said Long Jim.
"Now!" said Silent Tom.
They took off their clothing, scraped from it as much mud as they could, and took a long and luxurious bath in the brook. Then they came out on the bank and let themselves dry, the night which had now fully come, fortunately being warm. As they lay in the grass they felt a great content, and Long Jim gave it utterance.
"An o-sis is a fine thing," he said. "I'm glad you invented 'em, Paul, 'cause I don't know what we'd a-done without this un."
Henry rose and began to dress. The others did likewise.
"I think we'd better eat the rest of Tom's fish and then go to sleep," he said. "Tomorrow morning we'll have to hold a grand council, and consider the question of food, as I think we're very likely to stay in here quite a while."
"Are you really looking for a long stay?" asked Paul.
"Yes, because the Indians will be beating up the woods for us so thoroughly that it will be best for us not to move from our hiding place. It's a fine swamp! A glorious swamp! And because it's so big and black and miry it's all the better for us. The only problem before us is to get food."
"And we always get it somehow or other."
They wrapped themselves in their blankets to keep off any chill that might come later in the night, lay down under the boughs of the dwarf oaks, and slept soundly until the next day, keeping no watch, because they were sure they needed none. Tom Ross himself never opened his eyes once until the sun rose. Then the problem of food, imminent and pressing, as the last of the fish was gone, presented itself.
"I think that branch is big enough to hold fish," said Tom Ross, bringing forth his hook and line again, "an' ef any are thar they'll be purty tame, seein' that the water wuz never fished afore. Anyway I'll soon see."
The others watched him anxiously, as he threw in his bait, and their delight was immense, when a half hour's effort was rewarded with a half dozen perch, of fair size and obviously succulent.
"At any rate, we won't starve," said Henry, "though it would be hard to live on fish alone, and besides it's not healthy."
"But we'll get something else," said Paul.
"I don't know, but I notice when we keep on looking we're always sure to find."
"You're right, Paul. It's a good thing to have faith, and I'll have it, too. But we can eat fish for several meals yet, and then see what will happen."
They devoted the morning to a thorough washing and cleaning of their clothing, which they dried in the sun, and they also made a further examination of the oasis. The swamp came up to its very edge on all three sides except that of the brook, and a little distance beyond the brook it was swamp again. It would have been hard to imagine a more secluded and secure retreat, and Henry dismissed from his mind the thought of immediate pursuit there by the Indians. Their present problems were those of food and shelter.
"I think," he said, "that we ought to build a bark hut. There's a natural site between the four big trees which will be the corners of our house, and the ground is just covered with the kind of bark we want."
In the warm sunshine and with a clear sky above them they seemed to have no need of a house, but all of them knew how quickly the weather could change in the great valley. It would be hard to stand a fierce storm on the oasis, and one of the secrets of the great and continued success of the five was to prepare for every emergency of which they could think.
Long practice had given them high skill, and four of them set to work with their tomahawks to build a hut of bark and poles, working swiftly, dextrously and mostly in silence, while Silent Tom went back to the fishing. They toiled that day and at least half the night with poles and bark, and by noon the next day they had finished a little cabin, which they were sure would hold, with the aid of the great trees, against anything. It had a floor of poles smoothed with dead leaves, one small window and a low door, over which they purposed to hang blankets if a blowing rain came.
Throughout their hard labors they had an abundance of fish, but nothing else, and they not only began to long for other food, but health demanded it as well.
"Ef Long Jim Hart offers fish to me, ag'in," said the shiftless one, "I'll take it an' cram it down his own throat."
"And then how'll you live?" asked Paul.
"I think I'll take Long Jim hisself an' eat him, beginnin' at his head, which is the softest part o' him."
"Now that the cabin is done," said Henry, "maybe we can devote some attention to hunting."
"Huntin' in black mud that'll suck you down to your waist in a second?" said Shif'less Sol.
"I think I might find a pathway on the other side of the stream, and this swamp ought to hold a lot of game. Bears love swamps, and I might run across a deer."
"Would the Indians hear you if you fired?" asked Paul.
"No, we're too far in for the sound of a rifle to reach 'em. Still, I won't start today. I suppose we can stand the fish until tomorrow."
"We have to stand 'em," said Shif'less Sol, "an' that bein' the case I think I'll look ag'in at our beautiful house which hasn't a nail or a spike in it, but is jest held together by withes an' vines, but held together well jest the same."
"Ain't it fine?" said Long Jim with genuine admiration. "It's jest 'bout the finest house that ever stood on this o-sis."
"That, at least, is true," said Paul.
They did not sleep in the cabin that night, as they intended to use it only in bad weather, but made good beds on the leaves outside. Shif'less Sol was the first to awake, and it was scarcely dawn when he arose. Happening to look toward the brook delight overspread his face like a sunrise, and laughing softly to himself he took his own rifle and Long Jim's. Then he crept forward without noise, and making sure of his aim, fired both rifles so closely together that one would have thought it was a double barreled weapon.
The four leaped to their feet, and, clearing the sleep from their eyes, ran in the direction of the shots. But the shiftless one was already walking proudly back toward them.
"What is it, Sol?" cried Paul.
"Only these," replied Shif'less Sol, and he held up a fat wild duck in either hand. "They wuz swimmin' in the branch, waitin' to be cooked an' et by five good fellers like us, an' seein' they wuz in earnest 'bout it I hev obliged 'em. So here they are, an' you, Long Jim, you, you set to work at once an' cook 'em, 'cause I'm mighty hungry fur nice fat duck, not hevin' et anythin' but fish fur the last year or two."
"Jest watch me do it," said Long Jim. "Ain't I been waitin' fur a chance uv this kind? While I'm cookin' 'em you fellers will stan' 'roun', an' them sav'ry smells will make you so hungry you can't bear to wait, but you'll hev to, 'cause I won't let you touch a duck till it's br'iled jest right. Are thar any more whar these come from, Sol?"
"Not jest at this minute, Jim, but thar wuz, an' thar will be. A dozen jest ez good ez these fat fellers flew away when I fired, an' whar some hez been more will come."
"Curious we didn't think of the wild fowl," said Henry. "We noticed that the swamp had big permanent ponds besides running water, and it was a certainty that wild ducks and wild geese would come in search of their kind of food, which is so plentiful in here."
"Maybe we can set up traps and snares and catch game," said Paul. "It will save our ammunition, and besides there would be no danger that a wandering Indian in the swamp might hear our shots and carry the news of our location."
"Wise words, Paul," said Henry. "We must put our minds on the question of traps."
"But not this minute," said Long Jim. "Bigger things are to the front. Here, you lazy Sol, he'p me clean these ducks, an' Paul, you an' Tom build me a fire quicker'n lightnin'. The sooner you do what I tell you the sooner you'll git juicy duck to eat."
They worked rapidly, with such an incentive to effort, and soon the savory odors of which Long Jim had boasted incited their hunger to an extreme pitch. He did not keep them waiting long, and when they were through nothing was left of the ducks but bones.
"It would be better to have bread, too," said Paul, as he sighed with satisfaction, "but since we can't have it we must manage to get along without it."
"Mustn't ask fur too much," said Silent Tom.
"Sol," said Henry, "after we rest an hour or so suppose you and I set the snares for the ducks and geese. Likely no human being has ever been in here before, and they won't be on guard against us. The rest of you might do more work on the house. We ought to provide food and shelter as well as we can before stormy weather comes."
While Henry and the shiftless one were busy down the stream, the other three put more strength into the hut, lashing the poles and bark fast with additional tenacious withes and feeling all the interest that people have when they erect a fine new house.
"It's surely a tight little cabin," said Paul, standing off and examining it with a critical eye. "I don't think a drop of rain could get in even in the heaviest storm. There, did you hear that?"
"Yes, a rifle shot," said Long Jim. "It wuz Henry or Sol, but it don't mean no enemy. They hev got some kind uv game that they didn't expect."
The shot was followed in a few moments by a shout of triumph, and Henry and Sol emerged from the swamp carrying between them a small but very fat black bear.
"Thar's rations fur some time to come," said Long Jim. "I guess he wuz huntin' berries in the swamp when Sol or Henry picked him off, an' I'm shore thar'll be more uv the same kind. It begins to look like a mighty fine swamp to me."
It was the shiftless one who had shot the bear, and he was proud of his triumph, as he had a right to be, having secured such a supply of good food, because there was nothing better that the forest furnished than fat young bear. It did not take experts, such as they, long to clean the bear, and cut its flesh into strips for drying.
"I think our snares will hold something in the morning," said Henry, "and that will be a big help, too. What was it you said about the swamp, Jim?"
"I said it wuz gittin' to be a mighty fine swamp. First time I saw it I thought it wuz an ugly place, ugliest I ever seed, but now it's growin' plum' beautiful. Reckon it's the safest place now in all the wilderness. Knowin' that, helps it a lot, an' its yieldin' up good food helps it more. The sun is gildin' the trees, an' the bushes an' the mud an' the water a heap, an' all them things don't hurt my eyes when they linger on 'em."
"Jim is turnin' into a poet," said the shiftless one, "but I reckon he hez cause. I'm gittin' to feel 'bout the swamp jest ez he does. It's a splendid place, jest full o' beauty!"
They slept under the trees again, putting the strips of bear meat in the house to secure them from marauders of the air, and awoke the next morning to find the swamp still improving. Powerful factors in the improvement were two ducks and a fat wild goose caught in the snares, and, with more fish from Silent Tom, they had a variety for breakfast.
"I jest love wild goose," said Shif'less Sol, "speshully when it's fat an' tender, an' I'm thinkin' this swamp is a good place for wild geese. When we come in here we didn't think what a fine home we wuz findin'. Since the tribes an' the renegades have sworn to wipe us out, an' we're hid here so snug an' so tight, I don't keer how long I stay."
"Nor me either," said Long Jim. "This o-sis makes me think sure uv that island in the lake on which we stayed once, but it's safer here. Nothin' but the longest kind uv chance would make the warriors find us."
"That's true," said Henry thoughtfully. "We might have searched the whole continent, and we couldn't have discovered a better refuge, for our purpose. I know we can lie hid here a long time and let them hunt us."
Shif'less Sol began to laugh, not loud, but with great intensity, and his laugh was continued long.
"What you laffin' at, you Sol Hyde?" asked Long Jim suspiciously.
"Not at you, Jim," replied the shiftless one. "I wuz thinkin' 'bout them renegades, Wyatt and Blackstaffe. I would shorely like to see 'em now, an' look into thar faces, an' behold 'em wonderin' an' wonderin' what hez become o' us that they expected to ketch between thar fingers, an' squash to death. They look on the earth, an' they don't see no trail o' ourn. They look in the sky an' they don't see us flyin' 'roun' anywhar thar. The warriors circle an' circle an' circle an' they don't put their hands on us. That ring is tight an' fast, an' we can't break out o' it. We ain't on the outside o' it, an' they can't find us on the inside o' it. So, whar are we? They don't know but we do. We hev melted away like witches. Them renegades is shorely hoppin', t'arin' mad, but the madder they are the better we like it. 'Scuse me, Jim, while I laff ag'in, an' it wouldn't hurt you, Jim, if you wuz to laff with me."
"I think I will," said Long Jim, and action followed word. Later in the day Henry and Paul penetrated a short distance deeper into the swamp, but did not find another oasis like theirs. The entire area seemed to be occupied by mire and ponds and thickets of reeds and cane, mingled with briars. They stirred up another black bear, but they did not get a chance for a shot at him, and they also saw the footprints of a panther. They returned to the oasis satisfied with their exploration. The swampier the swamp and the greater its extent the safer they were.
That night as they slept under the trees they were awakened by the rushing of many wings. When they sat up they found the sky dark above them, although the moon was shining and all the stars were out. It was a flight of wild pigeons and they had settled in countless thousands on the trees of the oasis. The five with sticks knocked off as many as they thought they could use, and stored them for the night in the hut. They devoted the next day to picking and dressing their spoils, the living birds having gone on, and on the following day, Henry, who had entered the swamp on another trip of exploration, returned with the most welcome news of all. He had discovered a salt spring only a short distance away, and with labor they were able to boil out the salt which was invaluable to them in curing their food supply.
"Now, if we had bread, we'd be entirely happy," said Paul.
"Shucks, Paul," said Shif'less Sol with asperity, "you're entirely happy ez it is. Never ask too much an' then you won't git too little. This splendid, magnificent swamp o' ourn furnishes everythin' any reasonin' human bein' could want."