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The Eyes of the Woods - A story of the Ancient Wilderness
by Joseph A. Altsheler
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As the fire threw out abundant heat he reveled in it. Now he knew better than ever before that fire was life. He could feel the blood which had seemed to be ice in his veins thawing and flowing in a full warm flood again. The beat of his heart grew stronger and the stiff hands acquired their old flexibility. His face stung at first, but he rubbed ice over it, and presently it too responded to the grateful heat. An immense comfort seized him and he felt drowsy. Comfort would become luxury if he could lie down and sleep, but he knew too much to yield to the demands of his body. After spending two hours by the fire and becoming thoroughly soaked in heat, he put out the coals and went on again. As he walked, he ate the last of his food, and now he must soon find more. The problem of his escape from the Indians had been solved, but the problem of finding his comrades was upon his mind, though it must be put off while he solved that of food.

He considered it a miracle that his rifle had not gone into the water with the two warriors. But was it a miracle? Was it not rather another intercession of the greater powers in his favor? Alone in the wilderness at such a time a rifle was at least half of life, even more, it was the very staff of it. Without it he would surely perish. He patted the rifle with the genuine affection one must feel for so true a weapon. It was a fine rifle, beautiful in his eyes, with a long, slender barrel of blued steel, and a polished and carved stock. It had never failed him, and he knew that it would not fail him now.

He thought of the rabbits which had been such an abundant resource once. Many of them must be in their nests under the ice and snow, and he searched for hours but found none. Yet he could go two or three days without food, and he did not despair, showing all his usual pertinacity, never ceasing to look. The hunt led him into rocky ground, and, between the ledges, he noticed an opening that caused him to take a second look. Several coarse hairs were on the stone at the entrance, and when he saw them he knew. It was his animal brother at home, and he did not forget his gratitude, but he must live.

He seized a long stick and thrust it savagely inside. The bear, awakened from the winter sleep which he had begun luxuriously not long ago, growled fiercely and rushed out. Then Henry snatched up his rifle and shot him. The bear had lost much of his fat, but he was a perfect treasure house of supplies, nevertheless, and steaks from his body were soon broiling over the coals. Henry, remembering how much food he needed in such intense cold, and, while he was undergoing physical exertions so great, ate heavily. As much more as he could conveniently carry he added to his pack, knowing that he could freeze it at night, and that it would keep indefinitely. He would have liked the bearskin too, but he did not care to add so much to his burden, and so he left it reluctantly.

He was a new man now, made over completely. The wilderness, so far from being desolate and hostile, took on its old comfortable aspects. It was a provider of food and shelter to one who knew how to find them, and certainly none knew better than he. The wants of the body being satisfied, he began to plan anew for the junction with his comrades. The great cold would not last much longer. A temperature twenty or thirty degrees below zero never endured more than a few days. Like as not, it would break up in a warm rain, to be followed by moderate weather, and then he could hunt the trail of the four in comfort.

His pack was much heavier when he started and the icy coating of the earth was still slippery, but he made excellent progress, and he was able to fix in his mind the direction in which the marks on the trees had pointed. He knew that he must turn back somewhat toward the north in order to reach that line, and such a change in his course would increase the danger from the Indians, but he did not hesitate. He made the angle at once, and then he began to observe the trees with all the patience and minuteness of which a forest runner in such a crisis was capable.

It was almost dusk when he found the sign, four slashes of a tomahawk, eye-high on the stalwart trunk of an oak, and a hundred yards farther on a similar sign. He traced them fully a mile, and then as the night shut down, dark and impenetrable, he was compelled to stop. He dared another fire, the cold was so intense, and began his journey again the next morning over the ice.

The rise in the temperature that he had expected did not occur, nor were there any signs of a change. Evidently the great cold had come to stay much longer than usual, and, while it hindered his own journey, it also hindered possible pursuit by the Indians, of whom he saw no traces anywhere until the third day after he had killed the bear. Then he observed a great smoke in the south, and he approached near enough to discover that it was an Indian village, probably Shawnees. It seemed to be snowed up for the winter, holed up like a bear, and, anticipating no danger from it, he continued his leisurely hunt eastward.

He lost the traces for a whole day, but recovered them the next morning, and now they were much fresher. Sap, not yet dead in some of the trees, had oozed but lately into the cuts, and his heart beat very hard. His comrades could not be far away. He might reach them the next day or the day after, and now he was actuated by a curious motive, and yet it was not curious, when his character is considered.

He built a fire by the side of one of the pools, with which the forest was filled. Breaking the ice and daring the fierce chill of the water, he took a quick bath. Then, while he was wrapped in the blankets and the painted coat, he washed all his clothing thoroughly, as he had done once before, and dried it by the fire. When he was able to put it on again, he washed the blankets in their turn and dried them. He would have served the painted coat in a similar manner, but, as that was impossible, he rubbed and pounded it thoroughly.

His forest toilet complete, Henry felt himself a new man once more, inwardly and outwardly, freshened up, made presentable to the eye. He knew that he was haggard and worn. Hercules himself would have been, after such a flight and pursuit, but at least he was dressed as a forest runner, neat by nature and careful in his attire, should be.

Now he followed the traces with renewed strength and speed, and he found that they came more closely together, a fact indicating the absence of Indians from the immediate region, as the four would not leave so broad a trail, unless they knew it would not bring a strong force of Indians upon them. Straight now it led, and he crossed numerous frozen streams and pools or lagoons, and then the night that he felt sure was to be the last one came, as bitterly cold as ever.

The next morning he did not put out his fire as usual, instead he built it up higher, and, passing one of the blankets rapidly back and forth over it, sent up ring after ring of smoke. They did not thin away and vanish until they were high in the clear, intensely cold blue sky.

When his eyes had followed the rings a little while he turned them toward the eastern horizon and watched there closely. Despite all the efforts of his will his heart throbbed hard. Would the answer come? He waited a full half hour, and then his pulses gave a great leap. Rings of smoke began to rise there under the sky's rim a full mile away, ascending like his own into the cold air, where, high up, they thinned away and vanished. Then his pulses gave another great leap as a second series of rings rose close beside the first, to be followed quickly by a third and a fourth. Four fires and four groups of smoke rings rising into the air! The last doubt disappeared. Paul, the shiftless one, the silent one, and Long Jim were there. Doubtless they had signaled before, and now at last he had called to them.

In his wild exultation he kicked the coals of his own fire apart and started swiftly toward the four groups of smoke rings. On his way he sent forth a long thrilling cry that pierced and echoed far through the wintry forest, and like the distant song of a bugle a similar cry came back. As he broke into a run, four human figures appeared upon the crest of a low hill and burst into a simultaneous shout. Then they exclaimed, also together:

"Henry!"

After that, although their emotion was deep, they made no great show of it. The border was always terse.

"I knowed you'd shake 'em off, Henry," said the shiftless one.

"But it must have been a long chase," said Paul.

"Wish I'd been with you," said Long Jim.

"Big work," said Tom Ross.

"I didn't do it all my myself," said Henry. "I was helped by the people of the forest. They came to my aid again and again."

Paul looked at him wondering, and Henry told them how he had been warned by the animals one after another, and he could not believe it was mere chance.

"The woods are full o' strange things," said Shif'less Sol, thoughtfully. "An' I never try to explain 'em all to myse'f. I let 'em go fur what they are."

"How has it been with all of you?" asked Henry.

"We stayed a long time on the oasis in the swamp," replied Paul, "and then we started toward the north, hanging on to the rear of the pursuit, and trying for a chance to help you, though we never found it. At last the great cold made us seek shelter, but we were sure it would compel the warriors to abandon the chase and drive them into their villages."

"After all, it was King Winter that intervened finally in my behalf."

"That's true. And while we were hovering about, hoping to help you, we left the long trail which I suppose you saw."

"Yes, I came upon it, and it led me to you."

"An' now," said Shif'less Sol, "sence all the warriors hev been drove into winter quarters, an' none o' us hez been killed or took, s'pose we go into them kind a' quarters ourselves, an' keep warm."

"Whar?" asked Silent Tom.

"Why, our old hollow in the cliff!" exclaimed Paul. "The warriors would not think of marching against it again before next spring, if at all, and it's the warmest, safest and finest place in all the wilderness."

"A good choice," said Henry.

"Right thar we'll go," said Shif'less Sol.

"Ez soon ez we kin make tracks fur it," said Long Jim.

"Shore," said Tom Ross.

They started at once, and all things turned in their favor. The wilderness remained frozen and bitter cold, but there was no pursuit. By all rules, game should have been scarce at such a time, but they found plenty of it. Day after day they traveled through the woods, crossing the Ohio on the ice, and at last they drew near the rocky home they had defended so valiantly, and which once more extended to them a silent welcome.

Now they built their fires anew, killed game and obtained abundant supplies of food and furs, though for two weeks Henry was not allowed to join the others in the chase, resting like Hercules after his mighty labors. Then, while the great cold lasted, they, the eyes of the woods, built up their strength and spirit for new labors and dangers in the spring.

THE END

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