The Eyes of the Woods - A story of the Ancient Wilderness
by Joseph A. Altsheler
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

In order to gain once more upon the pursuit and give himself a chance to rest later on, he increased his speed greatly and also took precautions to hide his trail, which was not difficult where there were so many little streams. When he stopped about midnight he believed that he was at least ten or twelve miles ahead of the nearest warriors, who must have lost a great deal of time looking for his traces; and, secure in the belief, he crept into a thicket, drew about him the blanket and the buffalo robe, which were now sufficient, and slept soundly until he was awakened by the howling of wolves. He was quite able to tell the difference between the voices of real wolves and the imitation of the Indians, and he knew that these were real.

He raised up a little and listened. The long, whining yelp came again and again, and he was somewhat surprised. He concluded at last that the wolves, driven hard by hunger, were hunting assiduously in large packs. When mad for food they would attack man, but Henry anticipated no danger. He felt himself too good a friend of the animals just then to be molested by any of them, and he went back to sleep.

When he awoke again just before dawn he heard the wolves still howling, but much nearer, and he thought it possible that they had been driven ahead by the Indian forces. If so, it betokened a pursuit rather swifter than he had expected, and, girding himself afresh, he fled once more before the sun was fairly up.

It was the usual rolling country that lies immediately south of the Great Lakes, forested heavily then and cut by innumerable streams, great and small. The creeks and brooks were not swollen as much as those farther south, and Henry judged from the fact that here also the snowstorm had not passed. Nevertheless, he crossed many muddy reaches and he was compelled to ford two or three creeks the water of which reached to his knees. But his moccasins and leggings dried again as he ran on, and he was not troubled greatly by the cold.

It was a country that should abound in game, but no deer started up from his path, no wild turkeys gobbled among the boughs, and the little prairies that he crossed were bare of buffaloes. He assumed at once that it had been hunted over so thoroughly by the Indians that the surviving game had moved on. When the warriors found a new hunting ground it would come back and increase. He believed now that this accounted for the howling of the wolves deprived of their food supply and perhaps not yet finding where it had gone.

He maintained a rapid pace, and his wet leggings and moccasins dried gradually. The morning was frosty and cold, but wonderfully brilliant with sunlight, and here, where the forest had been free from snow, it glowed in autumnal colors.

He came to a deep river, but fortunately it flowed toward the northeast, the direction in which he was willing to go, and he was glad to find it, as he kept in the woods near its bank, thus protecting his left flank from any encircling movement. But a strong wind was blowing toward him and he not only heard the howling of the wolves, but the faint cry of the savages far behind them. It made him very thoughtful. Something unusual was going forward, since the wolves themselves were taking part in the pursuit or were pursued also. He could not understand it, but he resolved to dismiss it from his mind until it disclosed its own meaning.

He kept near the river, seeing it occasionally through the forest on his left, a fine sheet of clear water, over which wild ducks and wild geese flew, although the woods through which he ran seemed to be absolutely bare of game.

Then the river took a sudden curve farther east and he was compelled to turn with it. On his first impulse the thought of swimming the stream came to him, but he dismissed it, lest some swift warrior might come up and open fire while he was in the water, in which case, being practically helpless, he might become an easy victim. So he turned with the stream and, keeping its bank close on his left, he fled eastward. But he was fully aware that the change in the course of the river brought to him a new and great danger. The right wing of the pursuing host, traveling not much more than half the distance, would gain upon him very fast. Anxious not to be entrapped in such a manner he ran now at great speed for several miles, but was compelled then to slow down, owing to the nature of the country, which was growing very marshy.

Evidently heavy rains had fallen in this region recently, as he came to extensive flooded areas. It annoyed him, too, that the soft ground compelled him to leave so plain a trail, as often for considerable stretches he sank over his moccasins at every step. He walked on fallen timber whenever he could find it, making a break now and then in his trail, but he knew it would not delay the Indians long.

In order to save his breath and strength he was compelled to go yet slower, and finally he sat on a log for a rest of five minutes. Then the wind brought him a single Indian shout, not more than a quarter of a mile away, and he knew its meaning. The warriors on the right flank, coming up on a tangent of the curve, had seen his footsteps. They had not run more than half the distance he had and so must be comparatively fresh. His danger had increased greatly, but his command over himself was so complete that, instead of resting five minutes, he rested ten. He knew now that he would need all his strength, all the power of his lungs, because the chase had closed in and for a while it would be a test of speed. So he rested that every muscle might have its original strength, and he was willing for the Indians to come almost within rifle shot before he took to flight once more.

So strong was the command of his mind over his body that he saw two warriors appear among the trees about four hundred yards away before he rose. They saw him, too, and uttered the war whoop of triumph, but Henry was refreshed and he ran so fast that they sank out of sight behind him. Then he exulted, taunting them, not in words, but with his thoughts. They could never capture him, and once more he said to himself that he would keep on, even if his flight took him to the Great Lakes and beyond.

But the swampy ground intervened again, and his progress of necessity became slow. Then he heard the Indian yell once more, and he knew that the difficult country was enabling them to close up the gap anew. The wolves howled also, but more toward the south, a far, faint, ferocious sound that traveled on the wind like an echo. He did not understand it, and he had a premonition that something extraordinary was going to happen. It was curious, uncanny, and the hair on the back of his neck lifted a little.

He came through the swampy belt and to a considerable stretch of dry ground, but he heard the Indian yell for a third time, and again not more than a quarter of a mile away. The fact that this portion of the band had not run that day more than half as far as he was telling, and he recognized it. Perhaps the swamps had not been to his disadvantage, because on the dry ground they could use their reserves of strength and speed to much greater advantage.

Now he knew that his danger had become imminent and deadly and that every resource within him would be tested to the utmost. Out of the south came the Indian cry also, and it was answered triumphantly from the west. A shudder ran through Henry's blood. He was in the trap. The Indians knew it and they were signaling the truth to one another.

Now he made a great burst of speed, resolving to be well beyond their reach before the jaws of the vise closed in, and, as he ran, he longed to hear the howl of the wolves once more, a sound that he had used to hate always, but which would come now almost like the call of a friend. While he was wishing for it, the long whine rose, toward the south also, but a little ahead of the Indian cry. As before it was strange, uncanny, and a second time the hair on the back of his neck lifted a little. Evidently the wolves—instinct told him they were a great pack—were running parallel with the Indians, but for what purpose he could not surmise, unless it was the hope of food abandoned by the warriors.

His own feet grew heavy, and he heard the triumphant shouts of the Indians only a few hundred yards away. He was powerful, more powerful than any of them, but he could not run twice as long as these lean, wiry and trained children of the forest. His muscles began to complain. He had been putting them to the severest of tests, and the effect was now cumulative. A brown figure appeared among the bushes behind him and he heard the report of a shot. A bullet cut the dead leaves ten yards away, but he knew that the warriors would soon come nearer and then their aim would be better.

Now he called upon the last reserve of strength and tenacity, the portion that is left to the brave when to ordinary minds all seems exhausted, and made a final and splendid burst of speed, drawing away from the brown figures and once more opening the gap between hunted and hunters. But the shout came again from the south and on his right flank where fresh warriors were closing in, and despite himself his heart sank for a moment or two in despair. Was he to fall after so many escapes? How Braxton Wyatt and Blackstaffe would rejoice!

Despair could not last long with him. There was still another ounce of strength left, and now he used it, fairly springing through the thicket, while his heart beat hard and painfully and clouds of black motes danced before his eyes.

He saw a warrior appear among the bushes on the right, and, raising his own rifle, he fired. The stream of flame that leaped from the muzzle of his weapon was accompanied by the death cry of the savage, followed quickly by a long, fierce yell of rage from the fallen man's comrades.

Then the pursuit hung back a little, but it came on again soon, as terrible and as tenacious as ever. He reloaded his rifle as he ran, but he knew that unless some strange chance intervened soon he must turn and fight for his life. The ground dropped suddenly and he ran down a steep slope into a wide valley, the trend of which was from north to south. Here he gained a little, but he heard a shout on his right and saw three warriors coming up the valley, not thirty yards away. At the same time, the long, fierce whine of the wolves was registered somewhere on his brain, but he did not take definite note of it until afterward.

The foremost of the Indians fired and missed, to receive in return the bullet from Henry's reloaded rifle, but the other two came on, shouting. He hurled his hatchet and struck down the second, but the third paused twenty feet away and whirled his tomahawk about his head in glittering circles. Henry instinctively raised his rifle to ward off the blade in its flight, but he knew that the guard would not do. The tomahawk would leave the warrior's hand like a thunderbolt, and it would go straight to its destined mark. He saw the evil joy in the man's eyes, his anticipation of quick and savage victory, and then the cloud of motes before his own eyes increased to myriads. His heart, crying out against so much exertion, beat so painfully that he thought he could not stand it any longer, and a veil of thick mist was drawn down between him and the triumphant warrior. Then he suddenly stood erect and the hair upon his head lifted once more.

There was a horrible growl and a gigantic wolf, shooting out of the mist, launched himself straight at the warrior's throat. Henry heard the man's terrible cry and saw him go down, and then he saw the figures of other wolves, enlarged by the vapors, following their leader. But that was all he beheld then. Uttering a cry of his own, wrenched from him by the appalling sight, he snatched up his hatchet, turned and ran up the valley, with strength coming from new and unknown sources.

The heavy mists that were floating over the low ground enclosed Henry, but he did not look back. He knew instinctively that he was no longer followed. Once he thought he heard the horrible growling again, and shouts, but he was not sure. Too much had impinged upon his mind for him to distinguish between fancy and reality yet awhile, but a powerful feeling that another miracle had been wrought in his behalf seized upon him and would not let go. The wolves, whether it was chance or not so far as they were concerned, had come in time and their giant leader himself had cut down the warrior who was about to cleave the fugitive's head with his tomahawk.

The Indians would stop, appalled, and for a while would be overwhelmed with superstition. But he knew that the paralyzing spell could not last long. Blackstaffe and Wyatt at least would urge them on, and it was for him to use the time that had been granted to him by miraculous chance.

When exhaustion came he had will enough to stop again and remain quite still until the fierce pains in his chest ceased and there was air for his lungs once more. He was sure of a quarter of an hour, and a forest runner such as he could do wonders in that space. A quarter of an hour meant for him the difference between life and death, and although his feet strove of their own accord to go on, his mind held them back at least twothirds of the time. Then he allowed his body to have its way, and he went down the valley not at a run, but a prudent walk, in order to give his lungs, heart and muscles a chance for further recovery.

The valley seemed to be about a quarter of a mile wide, heavily forested, and with a small creek flowing down the center. The hills that walled it in on either side were high and steep, and Henry thought it would be wiser to take to them, but, for the present, he did not feel like making the climb. He was not willing to put any check upon the new store of strength that was flooding his veins.

Ten minutes more and he heard a fierce whoop behind him. The Indians evidently had driven off the wolves, and, under the insistence of the renegades, would renew the pursuit. Another momentary sinking of his heart came. The numbers of the warriors, who could spread out in every direction, many of whom were yet comparatively fresh, were an obstacle that he could not overcome. The wolves had brought delay, but not escape.

Then his courage came back, not slowly or gradually, but like a leaping tide. He had seen only half of the new miracle. While he thought it finished, the other half was coming, was upon hunted and hunters even now. The veil of mist that had floated between him and the wolf and its victim was spreading up and down the valley, rising from the wet ground, dense and heavy, opaque like ink, despite its whiteness. Presently the great whitish cloud would enclose him and the warriors, hiding them from one another, and it would be strange if he could not escape them in the white gloom, where only ears served.

Turning his eyes upward to the skies that he could not now see, he gave thanks to the superior powers that were guarding him so well. Then he turned at a sharp angle, crossed the creek, and began to climb the hills on the east.

All the time the fog, thick and white, was pouring over the valley and the slopes. Half way up the hill Henry paused and looked back, seeing nothing but a vast white gulf. Then he heard the warriors in the gulf calling to one another, and now the spirit to laugh at them came back to him. They did not know that he was protected by a force greater than theirs that snatched him again and again from the savage band before it could close upon him.

He sat down among the bushes and continued to look at the valley, which reminded him now of a vast white river, all of it flowing northward, with the signals of the warriors still coming out of its depths, puzzled evidently, as they had a good right to be. Although they were only a few hundred yards away, Henry felt that there was little danger. The miracle was continuing. The great white flood poured steadily down the valley and rose higher and higher on the slopes. He went to the top of the hill, where it followed him and spread over the forest.

When he found a comfortable place in a thicket he lay down and drew around him the painted robe that had served him so often and so well. He knew the warriors would ascend the slopes, but the chances were a thousand to one against their finding him in so dense a mist, and the longer he rested the better fitted he would be for flight. Meanwhile the fog increased in thickness, rolling up continually in dense masses, and he inferred that he could not be far from some large stream or a lake or great flooded areas. Perhaps the creek that flowed down the valley emptied not far away into a river.

If he had not been so worn by the tremendous tests to which he had been put he would have gone on, despite everything, in the fog over the hills, but instead he lay close like an animal in its lair, adjusted anew about him the blanket and the painted coat and luxuriated. At intervals he heard the warriors calling in the valley, and once the sound of footsteps not more than twenty yards away reached him, but he was not disturbed. The chance that they would stumble upon him was still only one in a thousand.

He remained at least four hours in the bushes, and throughout that time he scarcely moved, having acquired the forest art of keeping perfectly still when there was nothing to be done. Then he saw the fog thinning somewhat, but he was completely restored. Youth had its way. His nerves and muscles were as strong as ever, and the great mental elation had returned. Why not? It was obvious that he was protected by the supreme powers. Miracle after miracle had occurred in his behalf. They had sent the wolves just in time, and then they had drawn the fog from the earth, hiding him from the warriors and giving him a covert in which he could lie until his strength was restored.

He rose now and began his cautious passage through the white veil over the hills. The fog was not lifting yet, but it was continuing to thin. He could see in it ten or fifteen feet, and he was not sorry, as the distance was enough for the choosing of a path, but not enough for the warriors to come within sight of him before they were heard.

Twice, the sounds of the searching warriors came to him, but each time he lay in the bush until they passed, when he would rise and continue his judicious flight.

Near the close of the day, and going toward the northeast, he was far from the valley, but obviously was coming to another, as the hills were sinking fast and he saw the tops of trees below him. The fog had been thinning until it was mere wisps and tatters, and now a smart wind seizing all these remnants whirled them off to the east, leaving a glorious clear sky, suffused in the west with the red and gold of the setting sun, a deep brilliant light that touched the whole horizon with fire.

Henry looked upon it and worshiped. He worshiped like a forest runner and a man of the old, old time, when nothing of heaven or of religion was revealed. He worshiped like an Indian to whom, as to many other races, the sun was a symbol of warmth, of light and life, almost the same as Manitou, that is to say, almost the same as God. Nor did he forget to be grateful once more. It was not for any merit of his that protection had been given to him so often, but because he was an instrument in a good purpose. So thinking, he was full of humility and meant to continue in the perilous path that he had chosen, the path of service for others.

The spiritual quality was strong in Henry's nature; in truth, it was rooted in the characters of all the five, although it differed in its manifestations, and he gazed long at the western heavens, where the splendid colors of the setting sun blazed in their deepest hues and then faded, leaving only a warm glow behind. The night, as the forecast already showed, would be clear and cold, and he descended into the new valley, which was much wider than the one he had left. It was comparatively free of undergrowth, and he saw through the trees the gleam of water which proved to be a river on his right, and of fair size.

He believed that the larger valley would receive the smaller one and its draining creek not far ahead, and a new problem was presented. Unless he swam the river and kept to the east the warriors would come on anew from the west and pin him against the stream.

Should he plunge into the cold waters? It was not a prospect that he liked; but, while he considered it, he became aware that the miracle created in his behalf was not yet finished. He had thought that it was done when the wolves intervened, and again that it was done when the great fog came, but there was yet another link in the lengthening chain of marvelous events.

A sound from the river and he stepped hastily to the shelter of a great tree trunk. It was the plash of a paddle, and as he looked, peeping from the side of the trunk, a warrior stepped from a canoe at the river's brink and took a long look at the forest. Henry judged that he was an outpost or sentinel of some kind, or perhaps a member of a provision fleet. The man tied his canoe with a willow withe to a sapling and strode away out of sight, doubtless intending to meet the band to which he belonged. Henry's heart leaped. He was always quick to perceive and to act, and he saw his opportunity.

Twenty swift steps and he was at the margin of the stream, one slash of his knife and the willow withe was cut, one sweep of the paddle and the stout canoe was far out in the stream, bearing with it the brave youth and his fortunes.

Henry exulted. Truly chance—or was it chance?—served him well! He had a singular feeling that the canoe had been put there especially for his use. No more running through the forest. He could call a new set of muscles into play, and there before him lay the stream, broad and deep and straight, a clear path for the good canoe that he had made his own.

He did not allow his exultation to steal away his caution, but after the first few sweeps of the paddle he sent the canoe close to the eastern bank, under the shadow of vast masses of overhanging willows. Here it blended with the dusk, and he handled the paddle so smoothly that he made no splash to betray his presence.

Now he examined his canoe, and he saw that, in truth, it bore supplies for a band, venison, buffalo meat, wild turkey, and, what he craved most of all, bread of Indian corn. The supplies were sufficient to last him two weeks at least, and he felt with all the power of conviction that the miracle was still working.

He sped down the stream with long, silent strokes, keeping always in the dusk of the overhanging foliage. The stars came out, and with them a full, bright moon, which he also worshiped as a sign and an emblem of the Supreme Will that had saved him. He fell into an intense mood of exaltation. The powers of earth and air and water had worked together in a singular manner. Never was his fancy more vivid. The flowing of the stream sang to him, and the willows over his head sang to him also. The light from the moon and stars grew. The dusk was shot with a silver glow. Apprehension, weariness went from him, and he shot down the river, mile after mile, apparently the only figure in the ancient wilderness.

He did not stop until two or three hours after midnight, when at a low place in the bank he thrust the canoe into a dense mass of water weeds and bushes, put the paddle beside him and ate freely of the captured supplies. The venison and buffalo meat were excellent, and while the water of the river was not as good as that of a spring, it was nevertheless cold and refreshing. Fresh warmth and vigor flowed into his body, and he declared to himself that he had never felt better and stronger in his life. He looked with satisfaction at his stores, which would last him so long, and he also saw in the canoe a folded green blanket, which its owner evidently had left there for future use. He would use it instead, since the cold was likely to increase and he meant to be comfortable.

Henry considered the canoe a godsend. It left no trail, and he had been careful to leave none when he came to the bank for its capture. Perhaps the Indian would think he had tied it carelessly and the current had pulled its fastenings loose. In any event, the fugitive was gone and his pathway was invisible, like that of a bird in the air. He looked up once more at the cold, blue sky, the brilliant full moon, and the hosts of shining stars. Cold the sky might be to others, but it was not so to him. It bent over him like a protecting blue veil, shot with the silver glow of moon and stars.

The thicket into which he had pushed his canoe was of weeds, reeds and willows, and very dense. The keenest eyes might search its very edge and fail to see the fugitive within. There was no view except overhead, and Henry resolved to remain there the whole of the next day. If the warriors came pursuing on the river he would be once again the needle in the haystack, and even if by some chance they should spy him out, he could escape, refreshed and invigorated, to the land.

Assured of his present safety, he spread his bed in the canoe, a somewhat difficult task, as everything had to be adjusted with nicety, but the close wall of reeds and bushes helped him to keep the balance, and at last he lay on the bottom with the Indian's blanket under him and his own and the painted robe above him. Then he went to sleep and did not awaken until the next day was hours old.

A bright sun was shining through the bushes over his head, but he was glad that his body had been protected by an abundance of covers. The painted robe was white with frost, which even the hours of day had not yet melted, and near the edges there was a thin skin of ice on the river. His breath made little clouds of vapor in the cold morning. He was so warm and snug under the blankets that he felt the usual aversion in such cases to rising, and turning gently on his side, lest he tilt the canoe, he closed his eyes for that aftermath of sleep, a final and pleasant doze.

When he opened his eyes again he contemplated the sun through the veil of bushes and reeds. It was great and red, but it had a chilly effect, and he knew the day was quite cold. The willows began to shake and quiver and the wind that stirred them was nipping. He did not care. Cold stimulated him, and, making ready for new endeavors, he dipped for his breakfast into the captured stores.

Then he took note of the river, upon the surface of which much life was already passing. He saw a flock of wild ducks swimming strong and true against the current, and when they were gone a swarm of wild geese came with many honks out of the air and swam in the same direction. He knew that presently they would rise again and fly into the far south, escaping the fierce winter of the north.

The great fishing birds also wheeled and circled over the stream, and now and then one shot downward for its prey. On the opposite shore two deer pushed their bodies through the bushes and drank at the river's edge. On his own shore the puffing of a bear in the woods came to his ears. Evidently he had come from a region bare of game into a land of plenty.

The wild geese rose with a suddenness he had not anticipated and sped southward in a long arrow, outlined sharply against the sky. The great fishing birds silently disappeared, and Henry was alone on the river. He knew that the quick flight of his feathered friends was not due to chance. Undoubtedly man was coming, and he crouched low in his canoe, with his rifle ready.



Henry saw about what he expected to see, two long canoes, containing a dozen or more warriors each, with the Shawnee chief, Red Eagle, and Braxton Wyatt in the first and Yellow Panther, the Miami chief, and Blackstaffe in the second. Chiefs and renegades and warriors alike swept the shore with questing eyes, but they did not see the one for whom they had looked so long lying so near, and yet hidden so well among the reeds.

He watched them without apprehension. He had full confidence in the veil about him, and he expected them to pass on in the relentless hunt. They, too, looked worn, and he fancied that the eyes of chiefs and renegades expressed disappointment and deep anger. Nobody in the long canoes spoke, and, silent save for the plashing of the paddles they went on and out of sight.

Henry might have taken to the woods now, but he was too wary. He wished to remain on the element that left no trail, and he felt also that he had walked and run long enough. He intended to travel now chiefly with the strength of his arms, and the longer he stayed in the canoe the better he liked it. Its store of provisions was fine, and it was easier to carry them in it than on his back. So he waited with the patience that every true forest runner has, and saw the morning merge into the afternoon.

It was almost evening when the long canoes came back, passing his covert. They had found the quest vain, and concluding, doubtless, that they had gone too far, were returning to look elsewhere. But the paddlers were weary, and the chiefs and renegades, too, drooped somewhat. They did not show their usual alertness of eye as they came back against the stream, and Henry judged that the pursuit would lapse in energy, while they went ashore in search of warmth and food.

A half hour after they were out of sight he came from the weeds, and, with great sweeps of the paddle, sent the canoe shooting down the river. He was so fresh and strong now that he felt as if he could go on forever, and all through the night his powerful arms drove him toward his unknown goal. He noticed that the river was broadening and the banks were low, sometimes sandy, and he fancied that he was approaching its outlet in one of the Great Lakes. And the chase had led so far! Nor was it yet finished! The chiefs and the renegades, not finding him farther back, would reorganize the pursuit and follow again.

Day came bright and warm, much warmer than it had been farther south, and Henry paddled until evening although he found the heat oppressive. Paddling a full day and part of a night was a great task for anybody and he grew weary again. When the night came, seeing no reeds and bushes in which he could hide the canoe, he resolved to sleep on land. So he lifted it from the river and carried it a short distance inland, where he put it down in a thicket, choosing a resting place for himself not far away.

He spread one of the blankets as usual on dead leaves, and put the other and the painted coat over himself. Then, knowing that he would be warm and snug for the night, he relaxed and looked idly at the dusky woods, feeling perfectly safe as the warriors must be far to the south.

The only living being he saw was a gray squirrel on the trunk of a tree about twenty feet away. But he was a friend of the squirrel, and he regarded it with friendly eyes, noting the sharpness of its claws, the bushiness of its tail, and the alertness of its keen little nose. It was an uncommon squirrel, endowed with great curiosity, and perception, a leader in its tribe, and it was intensely interested in the large, still body lying on the leaves below.

The squirrel came farther down the tree, and stared intently at Henry, uncertain whether he was a friend or a foe. Yet he had all the aspect of a friend. There was no hostile movement, and the bold and inquiring fellow ventured another foot closer. Then he scuttled in alarm ten feet back up the trunk, as the figure raised a hand, and threw something small that fell at the foot of the tree.

But as the human being did not move again, the courage and curiosity of this uncommonly bold and inquiring squirrel returned, and, gradually creeping down the tree, he inspected the small object that had fallen there. It smelled good, and when he nibbled at it it tasted good. Then he ate it all, went back up the bark a little distance and waited gratefully for more of the same. Presently it came, and he ate that bit, too, and after a while a third. Then the human figure threw him no more such fine food, but went to sleep.

The squirrel knew he was asleep, because he left the tree, walked cautiously over the ground, and stood with his ears cocked up, scarcely a yard from the vast, still figure that breathed so deeply and with such regularity. He had seen gigantic beings before. From the safety of his boughs he had looked upon those mountains, the buffaloes, and he had often seen the stag in the forest. Mere size did not terrify him, and now he did not feel in the least afraid. On the contrary, this was his friend who had fed him, and he regarded him with benevolence.

The squirrel went back up the tree, his claws pattering lightly on the bark. He had a fine knot hole high up the trunk, and his family were sound asleep in it, surrounded by a great store of nuts. There was a warm place for him, the head of the family, but he could not stay in it. After a while he was compelled to go out again, and look at the unconscious human figure.

Emboldened by his first experience which had been so free from ill result, he descended upon the ground a second time and went toward Henry. But in an instant he turned back again. His keen little ears had heard something moving in the forest and it was not any small animal like himself, but a large body, several of them in fact. He ran up the tree, and then far out on a bough where he could see.

Five Indian warriors walking in single file were approaching. They were part of an outlying band, not perhaps looking for Henry, but, if they continued on their course, they would be sure to see him. The squirrel regarded them for a moment with little red eyes, and then ran back to the trunk of the tree.

Henry, meanwhile, slept soundly. There was nothing to disturb him. The wind did not blow and so the dry branches of the forest did not rustle. The footsteps of the approaching Indians made no noise, yet in a few more moments he ceased to sleep so well. A sound penetrated at last to his ear and he sat up. It was the chattering of the gray squirrel, and the rattling of his claws on the dry bark of the tree, his bushy tail curving far over his back, and his whole body seeming to be shaken by violent convulsions. Henry stared at him, thinking at first that he was threatened by some carnivorous prowler of the air, but, as he looked away, he caught a glimpse through the bushes of a moving brown figure and then of another and more.

Henry Ware never struck camp with more smoothness and celerity. One hand swept up his blankets and the painted robe, another grasped his rifle, and, as silent as a night bird itself, he vanished into the deeper thicket where the canoe lay. There, crouched beside it, he watched while the warriors passed. They would certainly have seen his body had it been lying where it had been, but they were not near enough to notice his traces, and they had no cause to suspect his presence. So, the silent file passed on, and disappeared in the deep woods.

Henry stood up, and once more he felt a great access of wonder and gratitude. The superior powers were surely protecting him, and were even watching over him while he slept. He walked back a little and looked at the tree, on which the gray squirrel had chattered and rattled his claws. He thought he caught a glimpse of a bushy tail among the boughs, but he was not sure. In any event, he bore in mind that while great animals had served him, the little ones, too, had given help as good. Then he bore the canoe back to the river, put in it all his precious possessions, and continued his flight by water.

There was a chance that warriors might see him from the banks, since he had proof of their presence in the woods, but relying upon his skill and the favors of fortune, he was willing to take the risk. He had an idea, too, that he would soon come to the lake, and he meant to hide among the dense thickets and forests, sure to line its low shores.

His surmise was right, as some time before noon the river widened abruptly, and a half hour later he came out on the border of a vast lake, stretching blue to the horizon and beyond. A strong wind blowing over the great expanse of water came sharp and cold, but to Henry, naturally so strong and warmed by his exertions, it furnished only exhilaration. He felt that now the great flight and chase had come to an end. He could not cross this mighty inland sea in his light canoe, and doubtless the chiefs and the renegades, unable to follow his trail by water, where he left no trail at all, would give up at last, and hope for more success another time.

So believing, and confident in his belief, he looked around for a temporary home, and marked a low island lying out about five miles from the shore. The five had found good refuge on an island once before, and he alone might do it again, and lie hidden there, until all danger from the great hunt had passed.

He acted with his usual boldness and decision, and paddled with a strong arm toward the island which seemed to be about a mile each way and was a mass of dense forest. His canoe rocked on the waves, which were running high before the wind, but he came without mishap to the island, and, pushing his canoe through thickets of reeds and willows, landed.

Leaving the canoe well hidden, he examined the island and was well pleased with it, as it seemed to be suited admirably to his purpose. The forest was unbroken and very dense. Probably human beings never came there, as the game seemed very tame. Two or three deer looked at him with mild, inquiring eyes before they moved slowly away, and he saw where wild turkey roosted in numbers at night.

In the center of the island was a small dip, where only bushes grew, and he decided that he would make his camp there, as the great height of the trees surrounding it would hide the smoke that might arise from his subdued campfire. But he did no work that day, as he wished to be sure that his passage to the island had not been observed by any wandering warriors on the mainland. There was no sign of pursuit, and he knew now that fortune had favored him again.

He slept the night through in the canoe, and the next morning he set to work with his hatchet to make a bush shelter for himself, a task that took two days and which he finished just in time, as a fierce wind with hail swept over the island and the lake. He had removed all his supplies from the canoe to the hut, and, wrapped in the painted robe, he watched hail and wind beat upon the surface of the lake, until it drove in high waves like the sea. There was no danger of warriors trying the passage to the island in such weather, and his look was that of a spectator not that of a sentinel. The great nervous strain of the long flight, and its many and deadly perils, had passed, and he found a pleasure in watching the turmoil of the elements.

The old feeling that he belonged for the time to a far, far distant past returned. He was alone on his island, as many a remote ancestor of his must have been alone in the forest in his day, and yet he felt not the least trace of loneliness or fear. Everything was wild, primeval and grand to the last degree. The huge lake, curving up from the horizon, had turned from blue to lead, save where the swift waves were crested with white. The hail beat on the trees and bushes like myriads of bullets, and the wind came with a high, shrill scream. The mainland was lost in the mist and clouds, and he was not only alone on his island, but alone in his world, and separated from his foes by tumbling and impassable waters.

Henry's mind was in tune with the storm. He looked upon it as a celebration of his triumph, the end of the flight and the chase, a flight that had been successful for him, a chase that had been unsuccessful for the chiefs and the renegades, and the blood merely flowed more swiftly in his veins, as the hail beat upon him. He did not care how long wind and hail lasted; the longer the better for him, and, flinging out his hands, he waved a salute to the storm god.

He remained for hours looking upon the great spectacle, that pleased him so much, and then kept dry by the huge painted coat, he went back to the brush hut. But night only and the necessity to sleep could have sent him there. He did not yet light a fire, contenting himself with the cold food from the canoe, nor did he do so the next day, as the storm was still raging. When it ceased on the third day all the trees and bushes were coated with ice, and he was a dweller in the midst of a silver forest. Then, with much difficulty he lighted a small fire before the hut, warmed over some venison and a little of the precious bread. He would not have to kill any game for a week or ten days and he was glad that it was so, since he was still averse to slaying any member of the kingdom of the animals that had befriended him so much.

The peace of the elements lasted only a few hours. Then they were in a more terrible turmoil than ever. The wind whistled and shrieked, and the snow came down, driven here and there in whirling gusts, while the lake roared and thundered beneath the drive of the hurricane. Although there were lulls at times, yet as a whole the storm lasted a whole week, and it was remembered long by the Indians living in those northern regions as the week of the great storm, unexampled in its length and ferocity.

But Henry found nothing in it to frighten him. Rather, the greater powers were still watching over him, and it was sent for his protection. His own bold and wild spirit remained in tune with it at all times. The brush hut was warm and snug and it held fast against wind, hail and snow. Now and then he lighted the fire anew to warm over his food or merely to see the bright blaze.

At the end of the week he shot a deer among a herd that had found shelter in extremely deep woods at the north end of the island, and never did he do a deed more reluctantly. But it gave an abundance of fresh food, which he now needed badly, and he added to his stores two wild turkeys.

When the storm ceased entirely a very deep snow fell, and he put off his intention to leave. He expected to use the canoe, but he might be forced to leave it, and, traveling in the woods with the snow above a man's knees, would be too hard. So he waited patiently, and made his little home as comfortable as he could.

In another week the snow began to melt fast, and he set forth on his great return journey. The canoe was well supplied with provisions and the lake was quiet. He paddled for the mouth of the river, and, when he passed within the stream, the whole country looked so wintry that he believed the Indians must have gone to their villages for warmth and shelter. Firm in his opinion he paddled boldly against the current and took his course southward, though he did not relax his caution, as the Indians often sent out parties of hunters, despite cold or storm. They were not a forehanded people, and the plenty of summer was no guard against the scarcity of winter. They must find game or die, and Henry had very little real fear of anything except these questing bands.

But he paddled on all the day without interruption. The dense forest on either shore was white and silent, and, when night came, he drew the canoe into the bushes, making his camp on land. The temperature had taken a great fall in the afternoon, and with the dark intense cold had come. The mercury went far below zero and the bitter wind that blew bit through the painted coat and all his clothing clean into the bone. It was so intense that he resolved to risk everything and build a fire.

He managed to set a heap of dead wood burning in the lee of a hill, and he fed the fire for a long time, at last letting it die down into a great mass of coals that threw out heat like a furnace. Over this he hovered and felt the cold which had clutched him like a paralysis leaving his body. Then he wrapped the two blankets around the painted coat and slept in fair comfort till morning, sure that the intense cold would prevent any movement of the Indians in the forest.

But the dawn disclosed a river frozen over to the depth of four inches, and his canoe, which he had taken the precaution to put on land, would be useless, at least for several days, as the ice could not melt sooner. Most forest runners, in such a case, would have abandoned the canoe, and would have gone on through the forest as best they could, but Henry had learned illimitable patience from the Indians. If the cold put a paralysis on his movements it did as much for those of the warriors. So he looked to the preservation of the canoe, and boldly built his fire anew, eating abundantly of the deer and wild turkey and a little of the bread, which he husbanded with such care. At night he slept in the canoe and occasionally he scouted in the country around, although the traveling was very hard, as the deep snow was covered with a sheet of ice, and he was compelled to break his way. He saw no Indian trails and he concluded that the hunting parties even had taken to their tepees, and would wait until the thaw came.

His task for the next seven or eight days was to keep warm, and to preserve his canoe in such manner that it would be water tight when he set it afloat once more on the river. He built another brush shelter, very rude, but in a manner serviceable for himself, and with a fire burning always before it he was able to fend off the fierce chill. The mercury was fully thirty degrees below zero, but fortunately the wind did not blow, or it would have been almost unbearable.

Henry chafed greatly at the long delay, but he endured it as best he could, and, when the huge thaw came and all the earth ran water, he put his canoe in the river once more and began to paddle against the flooded current. It was a delicate task even for one as strong and skillful as he, as great blocks of ice came floating down and he was compelled to watch continually lest his light craft be crushed by them. His perpetual vigilance and incessant struggle against the stream made him so weary that at the end of the day he lifted the canoe out of the water, crept into it and slept the sleep of exhaustion.

The next day was quite warm, and the floating ice in the river having diminished greatly he resumed his journey without so much apprehension of dangers from the stream, but with a keen watch for the hunting parties of warriors which he was sure would be out. Now that the great snow was gone, Miamis and Shawnees, Wyandots and Ottawas would be roaming the forest to make up for the lack of food caused by their customary improvidence. Moreover, it was barely possible that on his return journey he might run into the host led by Yellow Panther and Red Eagle.

He kept close to the bank in the unbroken shadow of the thickets and forests, and as he paddled with deliberation, saving his strength, a warm wind began to blow from the south. The last ice disappeared from the river and late in the afternoon he saw distant smoke which he was sure came from an Indian camp, most likely hunters.

It was to the east of the river, and hence he slept that night in the dense forest to the west, the canoe reposing among the bushes by his side. The following day was still warmer and seeing several smokes, some to the east and some to the west, he became convinced that the forest was now full of warriors. After being shut up a long time in their villages by the great snow and great cold they would come forth not only for game, but for the exercise and freedom that the wilderness afforded. The air of the woods would be very pleasant to them after the close and smoky lodges.

Now Henry, who had been living, in a measure an idyll of lake and forest, became Henry the warrior again, keen, watchful, ready to slay those who would slay him. He never paddled far before he would turn in to the bank, and examine the woods and thickets carefully to see whether an enemy lay there in ambush. If he came to a curve he rounded it slowly and cautiously, and, at last, when he saw remains from some camp farther up floating in the stream he seriously considered the question of abandoning the canoe altogether and of taking to the forest. But his present mode of traveling was so smooth and easy that he did not like to go on a winter trail through the woods again.

The mouth of a smaller and tributary river about a mile farther on solved the problem for him. The new stream seemed to lead in the general direction in which he wished to go, and, as it was deep enough for a canoe, he turned into it and paddled toward the southwest, going about twenty miles in a narrow and rather deep channel. He stopped then for the night, and, before dark came, saw several more smokes, but had the satisfaction to note that they were all to the eastward, seeming to indicate that he had flanked the bands.

As usual, he took his canoe out of the water and laid it among the bushes, finding a similar covert for himself near by, where he ate his food and rested his arms and shoulders, wearied by their long labors with the paddle. It was the warmest night since the big freeze, but he was not very sleepy and after finishing his supper he went somewhat farther than usual into the woods, not looking for anything in particular, but partly to exercise his legs which had become somewhat cramped by his long day in the canoe. But he became very much alive when he heard a crash which he knew to be that of a falling tree. He leaped instantly to the shelter of a great trunk and his hand sprang to his gunlock, but no other sound followed, and he wondered. At first, he had thought it indicated the presence of warriors, but Indians did not cut down trees and doubtless it was due to some other cause, perhaps an old, decayed trunk that had been weighted down by snow, falling through sheer weariness. In any event he was going to see, and, emerging from his shelter, he moved forward silently.

He came to a thicket, and saw just beyond it a wide pool or backwater formed by a tributary of the creek. In the water, stood a beaver colony, the round domes of their houses showing like a happy village. It was evident, however, that they were doing much delayed work for the winter, as a half dozen stalwart fellows were busy with the tree, the falling crash of which Henry had just heard, and which they had cut through with their sharp teeth.

He crouched in the thicket and, all unsuspected by the industrious members of the colony, watched them a little while. He did not know just what building operation they intended, but it must be an after thought. The beaver was always industrious and full of foresight, and, if they were adding now to the construction of their town carried out earlier in the year, it must be due to a prevision that it was going to be a very cold, long and hard winter.

Henry watched them at work quite a while, and they furnished him both amusement and interest. It was a sort of forest idyll. Their energy was marvelous, and they worked always with method. One huge, gray old fellow seemed to direct their movements, and Henry soon saw that he was an able master who tolerated neither impudence nor trifling. In his town everybody had not only to work, but to work when, where and how the leader directed. It gave the hidden forest runner keen pleasure to watch the village with its ordered life, industry and happiness.

He felt once more his sense of kinship with the animals. He was a thoughtful youth, and it often occurred to him that the world might be made for them as well as for man.

The beaver was an animal of uncommon intelligence and he could learn from him. The big gray fellow was a general of ability, perhaps with a touch of genius. All his soldiers were working according to his directions with uncommon skill and dispatch. Henry concentrated his attention upon him, and presently he had a feeling that the leader saw him, had known all the time that he was lying there in the thicket, and was not afraid of him, convinced that he would do no harm. It added to his pleasure to think that it was so. The old fellow looked directly at him at least a half dozen times, and presently Henry was compelled to laugh to himself. As sure as he was living that big old beaver had raised his head a little higher out of the water than usual, and glancing his way had winked at him.

He forgot everything else in the play between himself and the beaver king, and a king he surely was, as he had time to direct, and to direct ably, all the activities of his village, and also to carry on a kind of wireless talk with the forest runner. Henry watched him to see if he would give him the wink again, and as sure as day was day he dived presently, came up at the near edge of the pool, wiped the dripping water from his head and face and winked gravely with his left eye, his expression being for the moment uncommonly like that of a human being.

Henry was startled. It certainly seemed to be real. But then his fancy was vivid and he knew it. The circumstances, too, were unusual and the influences of certain remarkable instances was strong upon him. Moreover, if the king of the beavers wanted to wink at him there was nothing to keep him from winking back. So he winked and to his great astonishment and delight the old king winked again. Then the beaver, feeling as if he had condescended enough for the time, dived and came up now on the far side of the pool, where he infused new energy into his subject with a series of rapid commands, and hurried forward the work.

Henry's delight remained with him. The old king had been willing to put the forest runner on an equality with himself by winking at him. They two were superior to all the others and the king alone was aware of his presence. Since the monarch had distinctly winked at him several times it was likely that he would wink once or twice more, when enough was done for dignity's sake. So he waited with great patience.

But for a little while the king seemed to have forgotten his existence or to have repented of his condescension, as apparently he gave himself up wholly to the tasks of kingship, telling how the work should be done, and urging it on, as if apprehensive that another freeze might occur before it could be finished. He was a fine old fellow, full of wisdom, experience and decision, and Henry began to fear that he had been forgotten in the crush of duties pertaining to the throne.

In about ten minutes, the gray king dived and came up a second time on the near side of the pool. It was quite evident, too, that he was winking once more, and Henry winked back with vigor. Then the beaver began to swim slowly back and forth in a doubtful fashion, as if he had something on his mind. The humorous look which Henry persuaded himself he had seen in his eye faded. His glance expressed indecision, apprehension even, and Henry, with the feeling of kinship strong upon him, strove to divine what his cousin, the beaver, was thinking. That he was not thinking now what he had been thinking ten minutes before was quite evident, and the youth wondered what could be the cause of a change so abrupt and radical.

He caught the beaver's eye and surely the old king was troubled. That look said as plain as day to Henry that there was danger, and that he must beware. Then the beaver suddenly raised up and struck the water three powerful blows with his broad flat tail. The reports sounded like rifle shots, and, before the echo of the last one died, the great and wise king of his people sank like a stone beneath the water and did not come into view again, disappearing into his royal palace, otherwise his domed hut of stone-hard mud. All of his subjects shot from sight at the same time and Henry saw only the domes of the beaver houses and the silent pool.

He never doubted for an instant that the royal warning was intended for him as well as the beaver people, and he instantly slid back deeper into the thicket, just as a dozen Shawnee warriors, their footsteps making no noise, came through the woods on the other side, and looked at the beaver pool.



Henry was quite sure that the beaver king had given him a direct warning, and he never liked afterward to disturb or impair the belief, and, moreover, he was so alive with gratitude that it was bound to be so. Lying perfectly still in the depths of the thicket he watched the Indians, powerful warriors, who, nevertheless, showed signs of strain and travel. Doubtless they had come from the edge of the lake itself, and he believed suddenly, but with all the certainty of conviction, that they were following him. They were on the back trail, which, in some unexplained manner, they had struck merely to lose again. Chance had brought them to opposite sides of the pond, but he alone had received the warning.

They stood at the water's edge three or four minutes, looking at the beaver houses and talking, although Henry was too far away to understand what they said. He knew they would not remain long, but what they did next was of vital moment to him. If they should chance to come his way he would have to spring up and run for it, but if they went by another he might lie still and think out his problem.

The leader gave a word of command, and, dropping into the usual single file, they marched silently into the south. Henry lay on the north side of the pool, and when the last of the warriors was out of sight, he rose and walked back to his canoe, which he must now reluctantly abandon. He could not think of continuing on the water when he had proof of the eye that many warriors were in the woods about the creek.

The canoe had served him well. It had saved him often from weariness, and sometimes from exhaustion, but dire need barred it now. He put on the painted coat, made the blankets and provisions into a pack which he fastened on his back, hid the light craft among weeds and bushes at the creek's margin, and then struck off at a swift pace toward the west and south.

While bands would surely follow him, he did not believe the Indian hosts could be got together again for his pursuit and capture. After their great failure in the flight and pursuit northward they would melt away largely, and winter would thin the new chase yet more. His thought now was less of the danger from them than of his four brave comrades from whom he had been separated so long and whom he was anxious to rejoin. It was more than likely that they had left the oasis and had come a long distance to the north, but where they were now was another of the serious problems that confronted him from day to day. In a wilderness so vast four men were like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

But Henry trusted to luck, which in his mind was no luck at all, rather the favor of the greater powers which had watched over him in his flight and which had not withdrawn their protection on his return, as the king of the beavers had shown. All the following day he fled southward, despite the heavy pack he carried, and made great speed. Here, he judged, the winter had not been severe, since the melting of the great snow that he had encountered on his way toward the lake, and he slept the next night in the lee of a hill, his blankets and the painted coat still being sufficient for his comfort.

At noon of the next day, coming into low ground, mostly a wilderness of bushes and reeds, he heard shots and soon discovered that they came from the rifles and muskets of Indians hunting buffalo and deer, which could not easily escape them in the marshes. For fear of leaving a trail, sure to be seen in such soft ground, he lay very close in a dense thicket of bushes until night, which was fortunately very dark, came. Then he made off under cover of the darkness, and saw Indian fires both to the right and to the left of him. He passed so close to the one on his right that he heard the warriors singing the song of plenty, indicating that the day had yielded them rich store of deer and buffalo. Most of the Indians were not delicate feeders and they would probably eat until they could eat no more, then, lying in a stupor by the fire, they would sleep until morning.

He did not stop until after midnight, and slept again in the protection of a steep hill, advancing the next day through a country that seemed to swarm with warriors evidently taking advantage of the weather to refill the wigwams, which must have become bare of food. Henry, knowing that his danger had been tripled, advanced very slowly now, traveling usually by night and lying in some close covert by day. His own supplies of food fell very low, but at night, at the edge of a stream, he shot a deer that came down to drink, and carried away the best portions of the body. He took the risk because he believed that if the Indians heard the shot they would think it was fired by one of their own number, or at least would think so long enough for him to escape with his new and precious supplies.

He was correct in his calculations, as he was not able to detect any trace of immediate pursuit, and, building a low fire between two hills, he cooked and ate a tender piece of the deer meat.

That night he saw a faint light on the horizon, and believing that it came from an Indian camp, he decided to stalk it. Placing all his supplies inside the blankets and the painted robe, he fastened the whole pack to the high bough of a tree in such a manner that no roving wild animal could get them, and then advanced toward the light, which grew larger as he approached. It also became evident very soon that it was a camp, as he had inferred, but a much larger one than his original supposition. It had been pitched in a valley for the sake of shelter from cold winds, and on the western side was a dense thicket, through which Henry advanced.

The Indians were keeping no watch, as they had nothing to guard against, and he was able to come so near that he could see into the whole bowl, where fully two hundred warriors sat about a great fire, eating all kinds of game and enjoying to the full the warmth and food of savage life. Henry, although they were his natural foes, felt a certain sympathy with them. He understood their feelings. They had gone long in their villages, half starved, while the great snow and the great cold lasted, but now they were in the midst of plenty that they had obtained by their skill and tenacity in hunting. So they rejoiced as they supplied the wants of the primeval man.

The scene was wild and savage to the last degree. Most of the warriors, in the heat of the fires, had thrown off their blankets, and they were bare to the waist, their brown bodies heavily painted and gleaming in the firelight. Every man roasted or broiled for himself huge pieces of buffalo, deer or wild turkey over the coals, and then sat down on the ground, Turkish fashion, and ate.

At intervals a warrior would spring to his feet and, waving aloft a great buffalo bone, would dance back and forth, chanting meanwhile some fierce song of war or the chase. Others would join him, and a dozen, perhaps twenty, would be leaping and contorting their bodies and singing as if they had been seized by a madness. The remainder went on with the feast, which seemed to have no ending.

The wind rose a little and blew, chill, through the forest. The dry boughs rustled against one another, and the flames wavered, but roared the louder as the drafts of air fanned them to greater strength. The warriors, heated by the heaps of coals and the vast quantities of food they were devouring, felt the cold not at all. Instead, the remaining few who wore their blankets threw them off, and there was a solid array of naked brown bodies, glistening with paint and heat. Innumerable sparks rose from the fires and floated high overhead, to die there against the clear, cold skies. When a group of singers and dancers ceased, another took its place, and the fierce, weird chant never stopped, the wintry forest continually giving back its echoes.

The wilderness spectacle had a remarkable fascination for Henry, who understood it so well, and, knowing that there was little danger from men who were spending their time in what to them was a festival, he crept closer, but was still well hidden in the dense thicket. Then his pulses gave a great leap, as four figures which had been on the other side of the fire came distinctly into his view. They were Red Eagle, head chief of the Shawnees; Yellow Panther, head chief of the Miamis; and the renegades, Braxton Wyatt and Moses Blackstaffe, who had pursued him so long and with such tenacity. They were talking earnestly, and he crept to the very edge of the thicket, where scarcely three feet divided him from the open.

He knew that only a chance would bring the four near enough for him to understand their words, but after a half hour's waiting the chance came. Blackstaffe, who took precedence over Wyatt because of his superior years and experience, was doing most of the talking, and the subject, chance or coincidence bringing it about, was Henry himself.

"The warriors discovered a white trail, the trail of one," said the renegade, "but we don't know it was Ware's. He may have perished in the great freeze, and if so we are well rid of a dangerous foe, an eye that has always watched over our movements, and a bold spirit that always takes the alarm to the settlements below. I give him full credit for all his skill and courage, but I'd rather his bones were lying in the forest, picked clean by the wolves."

Henry felt a little thrill of satisfaction. "Picked clean by the wolves?" Why, the wolves themselves had saved him once!

"I don't think he's dead," said Braxton Wyatt. "I don't know why, but I believe I understand him better than any of you do. I tell you he's even stronger and more resourceful than you suppose! Look how often he has escaped us, when we were sure we held him fast! He'd find a way to live in the big freeze, or anywhere. I've an idea that he's back up there by the lake somewhere, and that the trail the warriors found was that of another of the five, perhaps the traces of the fellow Shif'less Sol."

Henry's pulse leaped again, now with joy. The shiftless one had not been taken nor slain, and doubtless none of the others either, or they would have referred to it. But he waited to hear more, and not a dead leaf nor a twig stirred in the thicket, he was so still.

"It seems strange," said Blackstaffe, thoughtfully, "that we have not been able to take him, when more than a thousand warriors were in the hunt, carried on without stopping, except during the big snow and the big freeze. And the warriors are the best in the west, men who can come pretty near seeing a trail through the air, men without fear. It almost seems to me that there's been something miraculous about it."

Then one of the chiefs spoke for the first time, and it was Yellow Panther, the Miami.

"Blackstaffe has spoken the truth," he said. "Ware is helped by evil spirits, spirits evil to us, else he could not have slipped from our traps so often. He has powerful medicine that calls them to his aid when danger surrounds him."

Yellow Panther spoke with all the gravity and earnestness that became a great Miami chief, and, as he finished, he looked up at the skies from which the fugitive had summoned spirits to his help. The great Shawnee chief, Red Eagle, standing by his side, nodded in emphatic confirmation. Henry felt a peculiar quiver run through his blood. Had he really received miraculous help, as the two chiefs thought? Lying there in such a place at such a time there was much to make him think as they did.

"We've spread a mighty net, and we've caught nothing," said Braxton Wyatt, deep disappointment showing in his tone. "We've not only failed to get the leader of the five, but we've failed to take a single one of them."

Now Henry's heart gave a great leap. He had inferred that all of his comrades were yet safe, but here was positive proof in the words of Wyatt. Why had he ever feared? He might have known that when he drew off the Indian power they would be able to take care of themselves.

"I think," said Blackstaffe, "that we'd better continue our march to the south, and also keep a large force in the north. If we don't stumble upon him in a week or two our chance will be gone, at least until next spring. All the wild fowl flew south very early and the old men and women of the tribes have foretold the longest and hardest winter in two generations. Is it not so, Yellow Panther?"

"The cold will be so great that all the warriors will have to seek their wigwams," replied the Miami chief, "and they will stay there many days and nights, hanging over the fires. The war trail will be deserted and the Ice King will rule over the forest."

"I've no doubt the old men and old women are right," said Braxton Wyatt, "and you make me shiver now when you tell me what they say. Perhaps the spirits will turn over to our side and give all the five into our hands."

They moved on out of hearing, but Henry now knew enough. His comrades were untaken and he understood their plan of campaign. If he and the four could evade it a little longer, a mighty winter would shut in, and that would be the end. He was glad he had come to spy upon the host. He had been rewarded more richly than he had hoped. Now he crept silently away, but for a long time, whenever he looked back, he still saw the luminous glow of the great fires on the dusky horizon.

He was so sure that no warriors would come, or, if they did come, that his trained faculties would give him warning in time, that he slept in a thicket within two miles of the camp. He was up before dawn and on the southern trail, knowing that the Indian host would soon be on the same course, though going more slowly. His trail lay to the east of that which had led him north, but the country was of the same general character. Everywhere, save for the little prairies, it was wooded densely, and the countless streams, whether creeks or brooks, were swollen by the winter thaw.

The desire to rejoin his comrades was very strong upon Henry, and he began to look for proofs that they had been in that region. He knew their confidence in him, their absolute faith that he would elude the pursuit and return in time. Therefore they would be waiting for him, and wherever they had passed they would leave signs in the hope that he might see them. So, as he fled, he watched not only for his enemies, but for the trail of his friends.

He was compelled to swim a large river, and the cold was so great that he risked everything and built a fire, before which he warmed and dried himself, staying there nearly two hours. A half hour before he left, he saw distant smoke on his right and then smoke equally distant on his left. Each smoke was ascending in spiral rings, and he knew that they were talking together. He knew also that their engrossing topic was his own smoke rising directly between. A fantastic mood seized him, and he decided to take a part in the conversation. Passing one of his blankets back and forth over his own fire, he, too, sent up a series of rings, sometimes at regular intervals, and again with long breaks between.

It was a weird and drunken chain of signals and he knew that it would set the Indians on the right and the Indians on the left to wondering. They would try their best to read his signals, which he could not read himself; they would strive to put in them meaning, where there was no meaning at all; and he worked with the blanket and the smoke with as much zest and zeal as he had shown at any time in his flight for life.

No such complicated signals had ever before been sent up in the wilderness, and he enjoyed the perplexity of the warriors to the utmost as he saw them talking to one another and also trying frantically to talk to him. The more they said, the more he said and the more complicated was the way in which he said it, until the smoke on his right and the smoke on his left began to sweep around in gusts of indignation and disappointment.

His fantastic humor deepened. He sincerely hoped that Blackstaffe was at the foot of one smoke and that Braxton Wyatt was at the foot of the other, and the more they were puzzled and vexed the better it suited his temper. He sent up the most extraordinary spirals of smoke. Sometimes they rose straight up in the heavens, now they started off to the right, and then they started off to the left. Although they meant nothing, one could imagine that they meant anything or everything. They were a frantic call for help or an insistent message that the trail of the fugitive had been discovered, or merely a wild statement that the night was not going to be cold, nor the next day either, or an exchange of compliments, or whatever those who saw the things chose to imagine.

After hoping for a while so intensely that Braxton Wyatt and Blackstaffe were on either side of him, Henry felt sure it was true, so ready is eager hope to turn its belief into a fact, and he rejoiced anew at their vexation, laughing silently and long. Then he abruptly kicked the coals apart, smothered the smoke, and taking up his pack fled again, much amused and much heartened, for further efforts. He could not remember when he had spent a more enjoyable half hour.

He maintained his flight until far after midnight, when, coming into stony ground, he found excellent shelter under a great ledge, one projecting so widely that when he awoke in the morning and found it raining, he was quite dry. It poured heavily until the afternoon, and he did not stir from his covert, but, wrapped in the painted coat and blankets, and taking occasional strips of the deer meat, he enjoyed the period of rest.

It rained so hard that he could not see more than fifty yards away, and in the ravine before his ledge the water ran in a cold stream. The forest looked desolate and mournful, and he would have been desolate and mournful himself if it had not been for the single fact that he was able to keep dry. That made all the difference in the world, and the contrast between his own warm and sheltered lair and the chill and dripping woods and thickets merely heightened his sense of comfort.

When the rain stopped it was followed by an extremely cold night that froze everything tight. Every tree, bush and the earth itself was covered with glittering ice, a vast and intricate network, a wilderness in white and silver. It was alike beautiful and majestic, and it made its full appeal to Henry, but at the same time he knew that his difficulties had been increased. He would have to walk over ice, and, as he passed through the thickets, fragments of ice brushed from the twigs would fall about him. For a while, at least, the Ice Age had returned. It was sure, too, to make game very scarce, as all the animals would stay in their coverts as long as they could at such a time, and he must replenish his supplies of food soon. But that was a difficulty to which he gave only a passing thought. Others pressed upon him with more immediate force.

His moccasins had become worn from long use and they slipped on the ice as if it were glass. He met this difficulty by cutting pieces from one of the blankets and tying them tightly over his feet with thin strips from his buckskin garments. He was then able to walk without slipping, and he made good progress again through the forest, the exertion of travel keeping him warm. Meanwhile he watched everywhere for a sign, a sign from the four, keeping an especial eye for the trees, for it was upon them that the forest runners wrote their letters to one another. In his soul he craved such a letter and he did not really know how intensely he craved it. The bonds of friendship that united the five were the ties of countless hardships and dangers shared, and not one of them would have hesitated an instant to risk his life for any one of the others.

It was characteristic of Henry's patience and thoroughness that, though he found nothing, he kept on looking. He wanted a letter, and he wanted it so long and with so much concentration that he began to believe he would find it. It was only a short letter that he wished, merely a word from his friends saying they had passed that way. A straight, tall figure, with eager, questing eyes, he went on through the silver forest. When the light wind blew, fragments of the ice that sheathed every bough and twig fell about him and rattled like silver coins as they struck the ice below, but mostly the air was quiet, and the glow from a mighty setting sun began to shoot such deep tints through the silver that it was luminous with red gold. Thinking little now of its beauty and majesty, the hunter pressed on, not the hunter of men nor even a hunter of game, but a hunter for a word.

The mighty sun sank farther. Most of the gold in its rays was gone, and it burned with an intense red fire, lighting up the icy forest with the glow of an old, old world. Henry still looked. The dark would come soon, when he must abandon the search for the word and seek shelter instead. But his hope was still high that he would find it before night closed down.

When the red glow was at its deepest he saw in the very core and heart of it that for which he was looking. Eye-high on the stalwart trunk of an oak were four parallel slashes from the keen blade of a tomahawk. They could not have been put there by chance. A powerful hand had wielded the weapon and the four cuts were precisely horizontal and close together. He had found his word. It was as plain as day. The four had passed there and they had left for him a letter telling him all about it. This was only the first paragraph in the letter, and he would find others farther on, but he devoted a little time to the examination of the first.

He studied minutely the cuts and the cloven edges of the bark, and he decided that they were at least two weeks old. So the letter had been posted some time since, and doubtless its writers had gone on to another region. But if they posted one letter they would post others, and he felt now that communication had been established. True, the chain connecting them was long, but it could be shortened inch by inch.

He made a series of widening circles about the tree, looking for the second paragraph of the letter, and he found it about a hundred yards to the eastward, exactly like the first, four parallel slashes of a tomahawk, eye-high, deep into the trunk of a stalwart oak. He found a third paragraph precisely like the first and the second, a hundred yards farther on, and then no more. But three were enough. They indicated clearly the course of the four which was into the northeast. In the morning he would change his own direction to conform with theirs.

The letter gave him a great surge of the heart, but the night came down quickly, dark and cold, the bitter wind blew again, and the ice fell about him in a rain of chill crystals. He knew that the temperature was falling fast, and that it would be his hardest night so far. He must have a fire, risk or no risk, and it was a full three hours before he was able to coax one from dead wood that he dragged from sheltered recesses. Then it felt so good that he built a second, intending to sleep between them. His supply of food was low, but knowing how needful it was to preserve his strength and the full fresh flow of his blood, he ate of it heartily, and, then when the ground, wet between the fires from the melted ice, had been dried by the heat, he made his bed and slept well, although he awoke once in the night and finding the cold intense put fresh wood on the fires.

The next morning was one of the coldest he had felt, and he was reluctant to leave the beds of coals, but his comrades had given him a sign, and he would not dream of ignoring it. He threw ice upon the fires, and with a sigh felt their heat disappear. Then he followed the trail to the northeast, hunting at intervals for a renewal of the sign lest he go wrong. Three times he found it, always the four cuts, eye-high, always in the trunk of a stalwart oak, and always they led in the direction in which he was going. The cuts were very deep, and he was quite sure that they had been made by Shif'less Sol, who added to remarkable strength wonderful cunning and mastery in the use of a tomahawk.

About noon, he came to a vast, shallow, flooded area, a third of a mile or more across, but extending farther to north and south than he could see either way. Doubtless the four had crossed there before the heavy rains made the flood, and as he was unwilling to take the long circuit to north or south he decided to make the passage on the ice which was thick and strong.

He had been so free from danger for some time that he took little thought of it now, but when it was absent from his mind it came. When he was well out upon the ice he heard the crack of a rifle behind him and a bullet whizzed by his ear. He ran forward at great speed before he looked back, and then he saw a dozen warriors standing at the edge of the ice, but making no motion to pursue. As he was now out of range, he stopped and examined them, wondering why they did not follow him. The solution came quickly.

The band suddenly united in a tremendous war whoop and from the woods on the other side of the ice came an answering whoop. He was trapped between them, and they could afford to be deliberate. His heart sank, but as usual his courage came back in an instant, stronger than ever. Alert, resourceful, the best marksman in all the West, he did not mean to be taken or slain, and he looked about for the means of defense. As it was not a lake, upon the frozen surface of which he stood, merely a great shallow flooded area, there were clumps of bushes and little islands of earth here and there, and he ran to one not twenty feet away, a tiny place, well covered with big bushes. The Indians, seeing him take refuge, set up a yell from both shores, and Henry, settling down in his covert, waited for them to make the first move.

He knew that the warriors would be deliberate. Considering their victim secure in the trap, they would reckon time of no value, and would take no unnecessary risk. He believed they were hunting bands, not those that had trailed him directly, and that his encounter with them was chance, a piece of bad fortune, nothing more than he should expect after such a long run of good fortune.

Warriors of the different bands sent far signals to one another across the ice, and then slowly and with care each party built a large fire, around which the men sat basking in the heat, and now and then, with a cry or two, taunting the fugitive whom they considered so tight in the trap. The red gleam of the flames upon the ice, contrasting with his own situation, struck a chill into Henry. The wind had a clear sweep over the frozen lagoon, and the rustling of the icy bushes above him was like a whisper from the cold. He wrapped himself thoroughly in the painted coat and the two blankets, put the rifle in front of him, where he could snatch it up instantly, and beat his hands together at times to keep them warm, and at other times held them under the blankets.

He understood human nature, and he knew that they were rejoicing in their own comfort, while he might be freezing. They felt that way because it was their way, and he did not blame them. It was merely his business to thwart their plans, so far as they concerned himself. He recognized that it was a contest in which only superior skill could defeat superior numbers, and he summoned to his aid every faculty he possessed.

The Indians did not move for an hour, luxuriating by their fires, and occasionally taunting him with cries. Then four warriors from either shore went upon the ice at the same time, and began to advance slowly toward his island, making use of the clumps of bushes that thrust here and there through the frozen surface of the lagoon.

Henry slipped his hands from the blankets and watched both advancing parties with swift glances, right and to left. They were using shelter and advancing very slowly, but beyond a certain point both were bound to come in range. He smiled a little. Much of his forest life recently had been in the nature of an idyll, but now the wild man in him was uppermost. They came to kill and they would find a killer.

He knelt among the bushes, which were thin enough to allow him a clear view in every direction, and put his powder horn and bullet pouch on the snow in front of him. He could reload with amazing rapidity. They did not know that. Nor did they know that they were advancing upon the king of riflemen. Naturally, they would suppose him to be a wandering hunter lost in a dangerous region.

The party on the west presently began to pass from the shelter of one tuft of bushes to another, twenty yards away, and in doing so the four were wholly exposed. It was a long shot, much too long for any of the Indians, but not too long for Henry. He fired at the leading warrior, and, before he had time to see him crashing on the ice, he was reloading his rifle with all the speed of dexterous fingers. He heard a yell of rage from the Indians, and, glancing up, saw the three dragging away the body of the fallen man. But the party on the other side, knowing that his rifle had been emptied, but not knowing with what speed he could reload, came running.

His weapon flashed a second time, and with the same deadly aim. The leading warrior in the second party fell also, dead, when his body touched the ice, and his comrades gave back in fear. They had not known such terrible sharpshooting before, and the man whom they had thought so securely in the trap must have two rifles at least. Both parties, carrying their dead with them, retreated swiftly to shore, and gathered about the fires again.

Henry reloaded a second time, patted affectionately the rifle that had served him so well, put it once more in front of him, and sheltered his hands as before under the blankets. The bands had received a dreadful lesson. The loss of two good warriors was not to be passed over lightly, and he knew they would delay some time before taking further action. Meanwhile, the night was coming fast and the cold was increasing so greatly that it alarmed him, despite the blankets and the painted robe. The wind sweeping over the frozen surface of the lagoon had an edge that cut like steel. The very blood in his veins seemed to grow chill, and he felt alarm lest his hands grow too stiff with cold to handle the rifle. The bushes, although they hid him from a distant enemy, did not afford much protection. Instead, they were like so many icicles.

The two bands built their fires higher, until the flames threw a glow far out on the ice, and Henry saw their hovering figures outlined in black against the red. They filled him with anger, because they could maintain the siege in comfort, while he had to fight not only a human foe, but the paralyzing cold as well. He stood up now, stretched his arms, stamped his feet and exercised himself in every manner of which he could think, until a certain amount of warmth came to his body. But he knew it would not last long. Presently the cold would settle back fiercer and more intense than ever.

The night advanced, the dusk deepened and the siege of Henry by the warriors and the cold grew more formidable. He was anxious for the Indians to make another attack, but he knew now they would not do it. They would wait patiently for the fugitive in the trap to fall inert into their hands. After all he was in the trap! And it was a trap worse than any other he had ever met. Then he said fiercely to himself that he might be in the trap, but he would break out of it.

For the second time, he took violent physical exercise to drive away the creeping and paralyzing cold, and then he resolved upon his plan to burst the trap. The night was fairly dark with streamers of cloud floating across the heavens, and it might grow darker. Far to north and south stretched the glimmering white ice, with dark spots here and there, where the clumps of bushes or trees thrust themselves above the frozen surface.

Wrapping himself as thoroughly as he could, and yet in the best way to leave freedom of action, he crept from the bushes and bending low on the ice ran to a clump about thirty yards to the south, where he crouched a while, watching the warriors at the two fires. He could still see very clearly their figures outlined in a black tracery against the flames, and they might have sentinels posted nearer, but evidently his own change of base had not been suspected. Perhaps the fear of his deadly rifle kept them from coming so near that they could see his movements, and they relied upon the great cold to hold him within the original clump of bushes. The blood in his veins that had grown chill seemed suddenly to turn warm again. Even a passage of a few yards from one little island to another was enough to create hope. There was no trap so tight in which he could not find a crevice, or make one, and he prepared for the second stage in his journey, a cluster of trees a full hundred yards to the south.

He would have dropped to his hands and knees if it had not been for the fear of freezing his fingers, a risk that he could not afford to take for a moment, alone in the desolate wilderness and surrounded by deadly perils. So he merely stooped low and ran for the trees, the wrappings of blanket on his feet saving him from slipping.

But he gained them and there was yet no alarm. The black tracery of the Indian figures still showed before the fires, where they were hovering for the sake of the grateful heat, and, as well as he could judge, his flight was unsuspected.

The third island was much better than the first two. Although it was only eight or ten yards across, it supported a cluster of large trees, and had a little dip in the center, in which he lay, while the cruel wind was broken off by the trees or passed over his head. There was an access of warmth, and he had a tremendous temptation to lie there, but he fought it. It was hard to distinguish warmth from numbness, and, if he remained without motion, he would surely freeze to death, despite the trees and the dip.

Reluctantly he began the fourth stage in his flight, and his reluctance was all the greater because the island for which he was making was at least three hundred yards away, and the wind, cold as the Pole and cruel as death, was rising to a hurricane. It made him waver as he ran, and his fingers almost froze to his rifle. But he reached the fourth island, where he sank down exhausted, the fierce wind having taken his breath for the time. The fires now were far away and he could not distinguish the Indians from the flames, but he did not believe any of them had come upon the ice to attack him or to spy him out. While the tremendous cold almost paralyzed him, it would also withhold their advance upon him for a while.

He rose from his covert and started again, although he felt that he was growing weaker. Such intense exertion, under such conditions, was bound to tell even upon a frame like his, but he would not let himself falter, passing from island to island, resting a little at every one, bearing toward the southeast, and intending to enter the forest about a mile from the fire on that side. Meanwhile, the chill of the deadly cold and elation over his escape fought for the mastery of him. He reached the last little island, scarcely ten yards from the shore, and as he stepped upon it, two dusky figures threw themselves upon him.

Henry was thrown back upon the ice, but though the blow was like a lightning flash, he realized, in an instant, what it meant. The warriors had not been wholly paralyzed by the cold, and they had stationed guards at other points along the lagoon to prevent his escape, but these two were seeking so hard to protect themselves from the cruel wind that they had not seen him until he was upon them. Knowing that the question of his life or death would be decided within the next half minute, he put forth every ounce of his mighty strength, and swept the two warriors together in his arms.

His rifle clattered upon the ice, and with the two men clinging to him, struggling vainly to reach tomahawk or knife, he rose to his feet, still clutching the warriors. But the feet of all three slipped from under them, and down they went again with a tremendous impact. The warriors were on the underside, and Henry fell upon them. There was a rending crash, as the ice, thinner at that point, owing to the protection of the island, broke beneath the blow.

Henry felt the grappling fingers slip from him, and he sprang back just in time to see the two warriors sink into a narrow but icy gulf, from which they never rose again. Uttering a cry of horror, he picked up his rifle and ran for the forest. He knew that chance, or perhaps the will of the greater powers, had saved him again, but, as he ran, he shuddered many times, not from the cold, but at the ghastly fate that had overtaken the warriors. The impression faded by and by. When one is in a bitter struggle for life he does not have time to think long of the fate of others, and the savage wilderness through which he fled was too bitter of aspect then to breed a long pity.

He was quite sure that he had shaken off the Indians, for the time, anyhow, and again the vital question with him was warmth. The running was bringing a measure of it, but he could not run forever, and he soon sank to a walk in order to save himself. But he maintained this gait for a long time, in truth, until dawn was only three or four hours away, and then he decided that he would build a fire. It was a risk, but he chose to take the smaller risk in order to drive off the greater.

It never before took him so long to kindle his blaze. He found a place sheltered from the wind, whittled many shavings from dead wood, and used his flint and steel until his hands ached, coaxing forth the elusive sparks and trying to make them ignite the wood. They died by hundreds, but, after infinite industry and patience, they took hold, and he sheltered the tiny and timid blaze with his body, lest it change its mind and go away after all. Though it sank several times, it concluded finally to stay and grow, and, having decided, it showed vigor, burning fast while Henry fed it.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse