Read CHAPTER II - THE BIG GUNS of The Keepers of the Trail A Story of the Great Woods , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

Despite the brilliant sunset, the night was dark, drifting clouds veiling the moon at times, while the stars lay hidden behind mists and vapors, making the conditions suitable for those who wished to scout and spy upon an enemy, as fierce and implacable as the Indian.

“All that color when the sun went down means rain,” said Tom Ross, who was weatherwise.

“But not tonight,” said Henry.

“No, not tonight, but tomorrow, sometime, it’ll come, shore.  Them warriors hev built up their fires mighty big.  Can’t you smell the smoke?”

The wind was blowing toward them and upon it came the faint odor of burning wood.

“They’re indulging in what we would call a festival,” said Paul.  “They must have an immense bonfire, and it must be a huge camp.”

“Beyond a doubt,” said Henry.

Examining their weapons carefully they left the cup, dropping into their usual order, as they made their silent way through the forest, Henry leading, the shiftless one next, then Paul, followed by Long Jim while Silent Tom covered the rear.  There was no noise as they passed.  They slipped by the boughs and every moccasined foot instinctively avoided the rotten stick that would break beneath its weight.

As they advanced the odor of burning wood grew stronger.  It might not have been noticed by the dwellers in peaceful lands, but it was obvious at once to senses trained like theirs in the hardest of all schools, that of continuous danger.  Henry twice heard the swish of a heavy night bird over their heads, but he knew the sound and paid no attention to it.  Faint sliding noises in the thickets were made by the little animals, scuttling away in fright at the odor of man.

They crossed a shallow valley, in which the forest was extremely dense, and emerged upon a low hill, covered with oak, maple and elm, without much undergrowth.  Here Henry was the first to see a low, barely discernible light upon the eastern horizon, and he called the attention of the others to it.  All of them knew that it was the glow of the Indian campfire, and apparently nothing but heavy forest lay between them and the flames.

They held a consultation, and agreed that Henry and Shif’less Sol, the best two trailers, should go forward, while the other three should remain in reserve to cover their retreat, if it were forced, or to go forward to possible rescue, if they did not return before morning.  The decision was reached quickly.  The superiority was accorded at once and without jealousy to Henry and the shiftless one.

But they moved forward in a group, until the glow rose higher and grew brighter.  Then the three who were to stay lay close in a clump of bushes growing near the base of a great elm that Henry and Shif’less Sol marked well.  Faint whoops or their echo came to them, and they knew that the warriors were rejoicing.

“A mighty big camp, bigger even than we thought,” said Silent Tom.

“We’ll soon see,” said Henry, as he and his comrade in the daring venture slid away among the bushes.  Then the two went forward with unbelievable skill.  Not even the ear of a warrior could have heard them fifteen feet away, and they never relaxed their caution, although they did not believe that the Indians were keeping very close watch.

They had seen at first a glow more pink than red.  Now it was a deep scarlet, showing many leaping tongues against the forest.  The odor of burning wood became strong, and they saw sparks and wisps of smoke flying among the leaves.  Long fierce whoops like the cry of animals came at times, but beneath them was an incessant muttering chant and the low, steady beat of some instrument like a drum.

“The war dance,” whispered Henry.

The shiftless one nodded.

They redoubled their caution, creeping very slowly, lying almost flat upon the ground and dragging their bodies forward, like crawling animals.  They were coming to one of the openings, like a tiny prairie, frequent in early Kentucky, sheltered on the side they were approaching by a dense canebrake, through which they were making their way.

The open space was several acres in extent, and at the far end were tepees, which the two knew were intended for chiefs of high degree.  In the center burned an immense bonfire, or rather a group of bonfires, merged into one, fed incessantly by warriors who dragged wood from the adjoining forest, and threw it into the flames.

But it was not the sight of the fire or the tepees that stirred Henry.  It was that of hundreds of Indian warriors gathered and indulging in one of those savage festivals upon which nobody could look at night without a thrill of wonder and awe.  Here primeval man was in his glory.

The Indians of North America were a strange compound of cruelty and cunning, leavened at times by nobility and self-sacrifice.  Most of the tribes were perfect little political organizations, and the league of the Iroquois was worthy of a highly civilized race.  They were creatures of circumstances, and, while loyal to friends, they were merciless to enemies, devising incredible methods of torture.

It was this knowledge that made Henry shudder as he looked upon the great camp.  He knew the Indian and liked him in many respects ­his captivity in the northwest had been no pain ­but he was white and he must fight for the white man, and hence against the red.

The warriors were intoxicated not with liquor, but with the red fury of the brain.  Vast quantities of game, freshly dressed, were heaped upon the earth.  Every man would seize a piece to suit himself, broil it hastily on coals and then eat.  He ate like the savage he was, and the amounts they devoured were astonishing, just as they could fast an amazing number of days, if need be.

Whenever one had eaten enough for the time he would rush into a mass of dancers near the eastern edge of the opening.  Then he would begin to leap back and forth and chant with unnatural energy.  They could keep up this manner of dancing and singing for many hours, and they quit it only to obtain more food or to fall down exhausted.

“It’s the war dance,” whispered Henry.

Shif’less Sol nodded.  It was, in truth, just approaching its height as the two crept near.  Four powerful warriors, naked except for the breech clout, were beating incessantly and monotonously upon the Indian drums.  These drums (Ga-no-jo) were about a foot in height and the drummer used a single stick.  The dance itself was called by the Shawnees, Sa-ma-no-o-no, which was the name bestowed upon this nation by the Sénecas, although the Iroquois themselves called the dance Wa-ta-seh.

Few white men have looked upon such a spectacle at such a time, in the very deeps of the wilderness, under a night sky, heavy with drifting clouds.  The whole civilized world had vanished, gone utterly like a wisp of vapor before a wind, and it was peopled only by these savage figures that danced in the dusk.

Near the trees stood a group of chiefs, among whom Henry recognized Yellow Panther, the Miami, and Red Eagle, the Shawnee, imposing men both, but not the equals of an extremely tall and powerful young chief, who was destined later to be an important figure in the life of Henry Ware.  They stood silent, dignified, the presiding figures of the dance.

The war drums beat on, insistent and steady, like the rolling of water down a fall.  The very monotony of the sound, the eternal harping upon one theme, contained power.  Henry, susceptible to the impressions of the wilderness, began to feel that his own brain was being heated by it, and he saw as through a dim red mist.  The silent and impassive figures of the chiefs seemed to grow in height and size.  The bonfires blazed higher, and the monotonous wailing chant of the warriors was penetrated by a ferocious under note like the whine of some great beast.  He glanced at the shiftless one and saw in his eyes the same intense awed look which he knew was in his own.

The mass of men who had been dancing stopped suddenly, and the chant stopped with them.  The warriors gathered into two great masses, a lane between them.  Save the chiefs, all were naked to the breech clout, and from perspiring bodies the odor of the wild arose.

The fires were blazing tremendously, sending off smoke, ashes and sparks that floated over the trees and were borne far by the wind.  At intervals, prolonged war whoops were uttered, and, heavy with menace, they rang far through the woods, startling and distinct.

Then from the edge of the forest emerged about forty warriors painted and decorated in a wildly fantastic manner and wearing headdresses of feathers.  The drums beat again, furiously now, and the men began to dance, swinging to and fro and writhing.  At the same time they sang a war song of fierce, choppy words, and those who were not dancing sang with them.

The lane wound around and around, and, as the singers and dancers went forward they increased in vehemence.  They were transported, like men who have taken some powerful drug, and their emotions were quickly communicated to all the rest of the band.  Fierce howls rose above the chant of the war songs.  Warriors leaping high in the air made the imaginary motions of killing and scalping an enemy.  Then their long yells of triumph would swell above the universal chant.

All the while it was growing darker in the forest.  The heavy drifting clouds completely hid the moon and stars.  The sky was black and menacing, and the circular ring of woods looked solid like a wall.  But within this ring the heat and fury grew.  The violence and endurance of the dancers were incredible, and the shouting chant of the multitude urged them on.

Henry caught sight of a white figure near the chiefs, and he recognized the young renegade, Braxton Wyatt.  Just behind him was another and older renegade named Blackstaffe, famed along the whole border for his cunning and cruelty.  Then he saw men, a half-dozen of them, in the red uniforms of British officers, and behind them two monstrous dark shapes on wheels.

“Can those be cannon?” he whispered to Shif’less Sol.

“They kin be an’ they are.  I reckon the British allies o’ the Injuns hev brought ’em from Detroit to batter down the palisades o’ our little settlements.”

Henry felt a thrill of horror.  He knew that they were cannon, but he had hoped that the shiftless one would persuade him they were not.  They were probably the first cannon ever seen in that wilderness, the sisters of those used later with success by the Indians under English leadership and with English cannoneers from Detroit against two little settlements in Kentucky.

But startled as Henry was, his attention turned back to the dancers.  Old customs, the habits of far-off ancestors, slumbered in him, and despite himself something wild and fierce in his blood again responded to the primeval appeal the warriors were making.  A red haze floated before his eyes.  The tide of battle surged through his blood, and, then, with a fierce warning to himself, he stilled his quivering body and crouched low again.

A long time they watched.  When a dancer fell exhausted another leaped gladly into his place.  The unconscious man was dragged to one side, and left until he might recover.

“I think we’ve seen enough, don’t you?” whispered Henry.  “I’d feel better if I were further away.”

“Stirs me like that too,” said Shif’less Sol.  “It ain’t healthy fur us to stay here any longer.  ’Sides, we know all we want to know.  This is a big war party, mostly Miamis and Shawnees, with some Wyandots an’ a few Iroquois and Delawares.”

“And the English and the cannon.”

“Yes, Henry, an’ I don’t like the looks o’ them cannon, the first, I reckon, that ever come across the Ohio.  Our palisades can turn the bullets easy ’nuff, but they’d fly like splinters before twelve pound round shot.”

“Then,” said Henry with sudden emphasis, “it’s the business of us five to see that those two big guns never appear before Wareville or Marlowe, where I imagine they intend to take them!”

“Henry, you hit the nail squar’ on the head the fust time.  Ef we kin stop them two cannon it’ll be ez much ez winnin’ a campaign.  I think we’d better go back now, an’ j’in the others, don’t you?”

“Yes, I don’t see that we can do anything at present.  But Sol, we must stop those cannon some way or other.  We beat off a great attack at Wareville once, but we couldn’t stand half a day before the big guns.  How are we to do it?  Tell me, Sol, how are we to do it?”

“I don’t know, Henry, but we kin hang on.  You know we’ve always hung on, an’ by hangin’ on we gen’rally win.  It’s a long way to Wareville, an’ while red warriors kin travel fast cannon can’t get through a country covered ez thick with woods an’ bushes ez this is.  They’ll hev to cut a road fur ’em nigh all the way.”

“That’s so,” said Henry more hopefully.  “They’ll have to go mighty slow with those big guns through the forests and thickets and canebrake, and across so many rivers and creeks.  We’ll hang on, as you say, and it may give us a chance to act.  I feel better already.”

“They ain’t likely to move fur a day or two, Henry.  After the dances an’ the big eatin’ they’ll lay ‘roun’ ‘till they’ve slep’ it all off, an’ nobody kin move ’em ’till they git ready, even if them British officers talk ‘till their heads ache.  They’re goin’ on with the dancin’ too.  Hear them whoops.”

The long shrill cries uttered by the warriors still reached them, as they stole away.  Henry passed his hand across his forehead.  All that strange influence was gone now.  He no longer saw the red mist, and his heart ceased to beat like a hammer.  The healthy normal forest was around him, full of dangers, it was true, but of dangers that he could meet with decision and judgment.

They returned rapidly, but occasionally they looked back at the red glare showing above the trees, and for most of the way the faint echoes of the whoops came to them.  When they approached the bushes in which they had left the others Henry uttered a low whistle which was promptly answered in like fashion by Silent Tom.

“What did you see?” asked Paul, as they emerged from their hiding place.

“Nigh on to a thousand warriors,” replied Shif’less Sol, “an’ it was a mighty fine comp’ny too.  We saw two chiefs, Yellow Panther, the Miami, an’ Red Eagle, the Shawnee, that we’ve had dealin’s with before, an’ our old friend Braxton Wyatt, an’ the big renegade Blackstaffe, an’ British officers.”

“British officers!” exclaimed Paul.  “What are they doing there?”

“You know that our people in the East are at war with Britain,” said Henry, “and I suppose these officers and some men too have come from Detroit to help the warriors wipe us out in Kentucky.  They’ve brought with them also two very formidable allies, the like of which were never seen in these woods before.”

“Two new and strange allies, Henry?” said Paul.  “What do you mean?”

“Something that rolls along on wheels, and that speaks with a voice like thunder.”

“I don’t understand yet.”

“And when it speaks it hurls forth a missile that can smash through a palisade like a stone through glass.”

“It must be cannon.  You surely don’t mean cannon, Henry?”

“I do.  The big guns have crossed the Ohio.  The Indians or rather the English with ’em, mean to use ’em against us.  It’s our business to destroy ’em.  Sol and I have agreed on that, and you are with us, are you not?”

“O’ course!” said Tom Ross.

“Uv course!” said Long Jim.

“Through everything,” said Paul.

“What do you think we’d better do right now?” asked Ross.

“Go back to the cup and sleep,” replied Henry.  “It’ll be safe.  The Indians will be so gorged from their orgie, and will feel so secure from attack that they’ll hardly have a scout in the forest tomorrow.”

“Good plan,” said the shiftless one.  “I expect to be in that shady little place in a half-hour.  Long Jim here, havin’ nothin’ else to do, will watch over me all through the rest of the night, an’ tomorrow when the sun comes out bright, he’ll be settin’ by my side keepin’ the flies off me, an’ me still sleepin’ ez innercent ez a baby.”

“That won’t happen in the next thousand years,” said Long Jim.  “Ef thar’s anything fannin’ you tomorrow, when you wake up, a Shawnee or a Miami warrior will be doin’ it with a tomahawk.”

They quickly retraced their course to the cup, being extremely careful to leave no trail, and were about to make ready for the night.  Every one of them carried a light blanket, but very closely woven and warm, upon which he usually slept, drawing a fold over him.  The dry leaves and the blankets would make a bed good enough for any forest rover at that time of the year, but Henry noticed a stone outcrop in a hill above them and concluded to look farther.

“Wait till I come back,” he said, and he pushed his way through the bushes.

The outcrop was of the crumbling limestone that imparts inexhaustible fertility to the soil of a great region in Kentucky.  It is this decaying stone or a stone closely akin which makes it the most wonderful cave region in the world.

Higher up the slope Henry found deep alcoves in the stone, most of them containing leaves, and also a strong animal odor, which showed that in the winter they had been occupied as lairs by wild animals, probably bears.

Looking a little farther he found one that penetrated deeper than the rest.  It might almost have been called a cave.  It was so placed that at that time of night the opening faced a bit of the moon that had made a way through the clouds, and, Henry peering into the dusky interior, judged that it ran back about twenty feet.  There was no odor to suggest that it had been used as a lair, perhaps because the animals liked the alcoves better.

He threw in some twigs, but, no growl coming forth, he entered boldly through an aperture about three feet across and perhaps five feet high.  He stepped on smooth stone, but as soon as he was inside he stopped and listened intently.  He heard a faint trickling sound, evidently from the far side of the cave, which appeared to be both deeper and wider than he had thought.

Henry surmised that the sound was made by running water, and standing a long time, until his eyes could grow used, in some degree, to the dusky interior, he, at length, made out the opposite wall which was of white stone.  Stepping carefully he found that a tiny stream flowed in a groove made by itself, coming out of one side of the wall and disappearing in the other.

It was such a thin little stream that it created no dampness in the cave and Henry, drinking some of the water from the palm of his hand, found it fresh and cold.  He experienced a singular pleasure in discovering the water, one that he did not understand.  Perhaps it was a prevision.

He explored fully this room in stone, and found it dry and clean throughout.  His ancestors, hundreds of thousands of years ago, would have rejoiced to find such a place, and Henry rejoiced now for reasons which were akin to theirs.  He returned quickly to the cup.

“We won’t sleep here,” he said.

“Why not?” asked Paul.

“Because I’ve found a better place.”

“But this is fine.”

“I know, but I have a finer.”

“What is it?”

“A beautiful stone mansion, built generations ago.  It has no furniture in it now, but we don’t need any.  It’s built very solidly and it’s been waiting for us a long time.”

“A hole in the limestone,” hazarded Shif’less Sol.

“Partly right.  It’s more than a hole.  It’s a room, and we’ve had great luck to find it, I tell you, this stone room specially made a million years ago for our use.”

“Well, it’s been waitin’ a good while, but we’re here.”

“Come along, I’ll lead you,” said Henry, “and be sure not to leave any trace of a trail.  This house is intended for us only, and we don’t want any wandering warriors, no matter what their nation, knocking at our doors.”

“Hurry,” said Shif’less Sol.  “I’m gittin’ pow’ful sleepy.”

Henry led the way, and, as he did so, taking a comprehensive look at the heavens, he was glad for other reasons as well as safety that they had found their stone house in the hill.  The bit of a moon was gone and the clouds hung lower and darker.  He felt the damp in the air.

The mouth of the cave was almost hidden by a heavy growth of bushes, but Henry, pulling them aside a little, pointed to the opening.

“In there with you,” he said to Long Jim, who was nearest.

“Who?  Me?” said Long Jim, “an’ run squar’ into a b’ar’s mouth?  Let Sol go.  He’s the fattest, an’ the b’ar would like him best.”

“No bear is inside,” said Henry.  “I’ve seen to that.  A herd of about fifty was in there, the first bear herd I ever saw, but I killed them all with my knife and threw them down the cliff before I saw you.”

“Then ez you’ve cleared out the place, Henry,” said Long Jim, “I guess it’s all safe, an’ here goes.”

He bent down from his mighty height and entered, the others following silently in single file, swallowed up by the dusk.  Then they stood in a group, until they could see one another, the faint light from the door helping.

“Well,” said Henry, proudly, “haven’t I done well by you?  Isn’t our new house equal to my announcement of it?”

“Equal, and more than equal!” exclaimed Paul with enthusiasm.  “Why, we haven’t had such a place since that time we lived on the island in the lake, and this is a greater protection from danger.”

“An’ we hev plenty o’ water, too, I see,” said Shif’less Sol.  “Look at the river over thar, runnin’ along ag’in the wall.  ’Tain’t more’n three inches wide, an’ an inch deep, but it runs fast.”

“I’ve no doubt that a cave family lived here two or three hundred thousand years ago,” said Paul, his vivid fancy blossoming forth at once.

“What are you talkin’ about, Paul?” said Long Jim.  “People livin’ here two or three hundred thousand years ago!  Why, the world is only six thousand years old!  The Bible says so!”

“In the Biblical sense a year did not mean what a year does now, Jim.  It may have been a thousand times as long.  Men did live in caves several hundred thousand years ago.  A book that Mr. Pennypacker has says so.”

“If the book says it, I reckon it’s so,” said Long Jim, with the borderer’s sublime faith in the printed word.

“The man of that time was a big, hairy fellow.  He didn’t have even bows and arrows.  He fought with a stone club or ax of stone.”

“An’ do you mean to tell me, Paul, that a man with jest a club could go out an’ meet the arrers of the Injuns?  Why, all uv them warriors kin shoot arrers pow’ful hard an’ straight.  What chance would the man with the club hev had?”

“There were no Indians then, Jim.”

“No Injuns then!” exclaimed Long Jim indignantly.  “Why the fust white man that ever come through these parts found the woods full uv ’em.  I take a heap from you, Paul, ’cause you’re an eddicated boy, but I can’t swaller this.”

“I’ll prove it to you some day,” said Paul laughing, “but whether you believe me or not this place suits us.”

“How much venison have we got, Tom?” asked Henry.

“’Nough in a pinch to last three days.”

“Now you fellers kin keep on talkin’ ef you want to,” said the shiftless one, “but ez fur me I’m a man o’ sense, a lazy man who don’t work when he don’t hev to, an’ I’m goin’ to sleep.”

He spread his blanket on the stone floor, lay down and kept his word.

“We might as well follow,” said Henry.  “Sol’s a man of intelligence, and, as he says, when there’s nothing to do, rest.”

“I ain’t sleepy,” said Tom Ross.  “Guess there’s no need uv a watch, but I’ll keep it awhile, anyhow.”

He sat down on his blanket and leaned against the wall, near the mouth of the room.  The others stretched out, even as Shif’less Sol had done, and breathing a sigh or two of satisfaction followed him into a land without dreams.

Although Henry’s sleep was dreamless, it did not last very long.  He awoke in three or four hours.  It was quite dark, but, as he lay on his back and gazed steadily, he was able to make out the figure of Silent Tom, crouched on his blanket beside the door, his rifle across his knees.  Although saying nothing Henry had paid attention to what Paul had said about the ancient cave man, and now it was easy for his fancy to transform Ross into such a being.  The rifle on his knees was his stone club, and he watched by the opening all through the night lest an enemy should come.  For the present, at least, it was as much reality as fancy, because here was the cave, and here they were, guarding against a possible foe.

“Tom,” he called softly.

Ross looked around.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m restless.  I can’t sleep any more, and, as I’m going to stay by the opening, you’d better persuade yourself to go to sleep.”

“Are you bent on watchin’, Henry?”

“Yes, I intend to sit up.”

“Then I’ll go to sleep.”

He lay down on his blanket, and Henry took his place by the wall.