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

The position of the great youth was comfortable, as he sat upon his blanket, the curve of the wall fitting into the curve of his back, his rifle resting across his knee, and his figure motionless.  He carried in his belt a pistol, the keen hatchet of the border and also a long hunting knife, but it was the rifle upon which he depended mainly, a beautiful piece, with its carved stock and long blue barrel, and in the hands of its owner the deadliest weapon on the border.

Henry, like Tom, did not stir.  He was a match for any Indian in impassivity, and every nerve rested while he thus retained complete command over his body.  He could see from his position the bushes beyond the opening, and, above them, a broad belt of black sky.  He rejoiced again that they had found this cave or rather stone room as they called it.

The dark heavens were full of threat, the air heavy with damp, and low thunder was just beginning to mutter.  Tom Ross had read the gorgeous sunset aright.  It betokened a storm, and the most hardened hunters and scouts were glad of shelter when the great winds and rains came.  The dryness and safety of the room made Henry feel all the more snug and content, in contrast with what was about to happen outside.  It seemed to him that Providence had watched over them.  Truly they had never known a finer or better place.

His mind traveled again to those old, bygone people of whom Paul had talked, how they lived in caves, and had fought the great animals with stone clubs.  But he had a better room in the stone than most of theirs, and the rifle on his knees was far superior to any club that was ever made.  His nerves quivered beneath a thrill of pleasure that was both mental and physical.  His eyes had learned to cope with the dusk in the room, and he could see his four comrades stretched upon their blankets.  All were sleeping soundly and he would let them sleep on of their own accord, because there was no need now to move.

The mutter of the thunder grew a little louder, as if the electricity were coming up on the horizon.  And he saw lightning, dim at first and very distant, then growing brighter until it came, keen, hard and brilliant, in flashing strokes.  Henry was not awed at all.  Within his safe shelter his spirit leaped up to meet it.

The thunder now broke near in a series of fierce crashes, and the lightning was so burning bright that it dazzled his eyes.  One bolt struck near with a tremendous shock and the air was driven in violent waves into the very mouth of the cave.  Shif’less Sol awoke and sat up.

“A storm!” he said.

“Yes,” replied Henry, “but it can’t reach us here.  You might as well go back to sleep, Sol.”

“Bein’ a lazy man who knows how an’ when to be lazy,” said the shiftless one, “I’ll do it.”

In a few minutes he was as sound asleep as ever, while Henry continued to watch the storm.  The sky was perfectly black, save when the lightning blazed across it, and the thunder rolled and crashed with extraordinary violence.  But he now heard an under note, one that he knew, the swish of the wind.  It, too, grew fast and he dimly saw leaves and the branches of trees flying past.  It was certainly good to be in the snug stone covert that he had found for himself and his friends!

The lightning became less bright and the thunder began to die.  Then the wind came with a mighty sweep and roar and Henry heard the drops of rain, striking on leaf and bough like bullets.  He also heard the crash of falling trees, and one was blown down directly in front of the opening, hiding it almost completely.  He was not sorry.  Some instinct warned him that this too was a lucky chance.  The rain came in driven torrents, but it passed the mouth of the cave and they were as dry and comfortable as ever.

The thunder and lightning ceased entirely, by and by, and Henry sat in the dark listening to the rush of the rain, which came now in a strong and steady sweep like the waves of the sea.  He listened to it a long time, never moving, and at last he saw a thin shade of gray appear in the eastern sky.  Day was near, although it would be dark with the storm.  But that need not trouble them.  On the other hand it would be to their advantage.  The great camp of the Indians would be broken up for a while, and they must long since have sought what shelter they could find.  They could not advance for two or three days at least, while the five lay in a splendid covert only two miles from them.

Laggard day came, with a dusky sky, obscured by heavy clouds and the rain still pouring.  It was several hours after sunrise before it ceased and the sky began to clear.  Then the others awoke and looked out.

“A big storm and I never heard a thing,” said Paul.

“No, Paul,” said the shiftless one, “you didn’t hear it but it came off anyway.  You’re a mighty good sleeper, you are, Paul.  Put you atween fine white sheets, with a feather bed under your body an’ a silk piller under your head, an’ I reckon you’d sleep a week an’ be happy all the time.”

“I suppose I would.  It’s a sound conscience, Sol.”

“I heard somethin’ once,” said Long Jim, “but knowin’ I wuz in the best place in the world I didn’t open my eyes.  I jest went to sleep ag’in an’ now, ef thar wuz anythin’ to cook an’ any place to cook it I’d git the finest breakfast any uv you fellers ever et.”

“We know that, Jim,” said Henry, “but we’ll have to stick to the dried venison for the present.  You’ll find plenty of drinking water over there by the wall.  Do you notice that our river has risen a full inch?”

“So it has,” said Paul.  “The rain, of course.  Since we’ve had this noble inn I’m not sorry about the storm.  It will stop the march of that Indian army.”

“And also hide any trail that we may have left yesterday or last night,” said Henry with satisfaction.

“What do you think we ought to do now, Henry?” asked Shif’less Sol.

“Eat our breakfasts, that is, chew our venison.  I don’t believe we can do anything today, and there is no need, since the Indians can’t move.  We’ll stay here in hiding, and at night we’ll go out again to explore.”

“A whole day’s rest,” said the shiftless one, with deep approval.  “Nothin’ to do but eat an’ sleep, an’ lay back here an’ think.  I’m not eddicated like you an’ Henry, Paul, but I kin do a power o’ hard thinkin’.  Now, ef Jim tries to think it makes his head ache so bad that he has to quit, but I guess he’s lucky anyway, ‘cause we’re always doin’ his thinkin’ fur him, while he’s takin’ his ease an’ bein’ happy.”

“Ef I had been dependin’ on your thinking’, Shif’less Sol,” said Long Jim, “my scalp would hev been hangin’ from an’ Injun lodge pole long ago.”

“Well, it would look well hangin’ thar.  You hev got good thick hair, Long Jim.”

They finished their breakfast, and all of them sat down near the opening.  The fallen tree, while it hid the aperture, did not cut off their own view.  They were so close to it that they could see well between the boughs and leaves.  The rising sun, brilliant and powerful, had now driven away all the clouds.  The sky was once more a shining blue, all the brighter because it had been washed and scoured anew by wind and rain.  The green of the forest, dripping everywhere with water, looked deeper and more vigorous.  Down in the valley they heard the foaming of a brook that had suddenly become a torrent, and which with equal suddenness would return to its usual size.

They remained all day in their retreat, seeing thin threads of smoke three or four times against the blue sky, an indication that the warriors had built their campfires anew, and were trying to dry themselves out.  Indians as well as white men suffer from rain and cold and Henry knew that they would be sluggish and careless that night.  There was a bare chance that the five might get at the cannon and ruin them in some manner, although they had not yet thought of a way.

It was decided that Henry and Shif’less Sol should make the second expedition, Paul, Tom Ross and Long Jim remaining as a reserve within their stone walls.  The two did not disturb the fallen tree at the entrance, but slipped out between the boughs, and walking on dead leaves and fallen brushwood, in order to leave as little trace as possible, reached the valley below.  This low area of land was studded for a long distance with new pools of water, which would disappear the next day, and the ground was so soft that they took to the bordering forest in order to escape the mud.

“’Pears likely to me,” said the shiftless one, “that them Britishers had tents.  They wouldn’t go on so long an expedition as this without ’em.  It’s probable then that we’ll find the renegades in or about ’em.”

“Sounds as if it might be that way,” said Henry.  “The site of their camp is not more than a mile distant now, and the tents may be pitched somewhere in the woods.”

“Reckon we’re near, Henry, I smell smoke, and it’s the smoke that comes out of a pipe.”

“I smell it too.  It’s straight ahead.  It must be one of the officers.  We’ll have to be slow and mighty particular.  There’s a big moon and all the stars are out.”

The night, as if to atone for the one that had gone before, was particularly brilliant.  The dripping woods were luminous with silvery moonlight and the three used every tree and bush as they approached the point from which the tobacco smoke came.  The woods were so dense there that they heard the men before they saw them.  It was first a hum of voices and then articulated words.

“It seems that these forest expeditions are not to be taken lightly, Wyatt,” said a heavy growling voice.

“No, Colonel Alloway,” Braxton Wyatt replied in smooth tones.  “There are no roads in the wilderness.  If we want one we’ll have to make it.  It’s the cannon that hold us back.”

“The Indians could move fast without them.”

“Yes, sir, but we must have ’em.  We can’t break through the palisades without ’em.”

“Why, young sir, these red warriors can annihilate anything to be found in Kentucky!”

“They did not do it, sir, when we attacked Wareville last year.”

“Lack of leadership!  Lack of leadership!”

“If you’ll pardon me, sir, I don’t think it was.  The Indians have to fight in their own way, and the Kentucky riflemen are the best in the world.  Why, sir, the things they can do with their rifles are amazing.  A musket is like an old-fashioned arquebus compared with their long-barreled weapons.  I know one of them ­and I must say it, though I hate him ­who could kill running deer at two hundred yards, as fast as you could hand him the rifles, never missing a shot.”

“A William Tell of the woods, so to speak!” said the heavy, gruff voice, sounding an incredulous note.

“You’ll believe me, sir, if you meet ’em,” said Wyatt earnestly.  “I don’t love ’em any more’n you do, much less perhaps, but I’ve learned enough to dread their rifles.  I was telling you about the one who is such a terrible marksman, though the others are nearly as good.  Last night before the rain one of the Wyandots found the trace of a footstep in the forest.  It was a trace, nothing more, and not even an Indian could follow it, but I’ve an idea that it’s the very sharpshooter I was telling you about.”

“And what of it?  Why should we care anything for a stray backwoodsman.”

“He’s very dangerous, very dangerous, sir, I repeat, and he’s sure to have four others with him.”

“And who are the dreadful five?” There was a note of irony in the voice.

“The one of whom I spoke is named Henry Ware.  There is another, a youth of about his own age, named Paul Cotter.  The third is Solomon Hyde, a man of amazing skill and judgment.  The other two are Tom Ross, a wonderful scout and hunter, and Long Jim Hart, the fastest runner in the West.  It was he who brought relief, when we had the emigrant train trapped.  I think that all the five are somewhere near and that we should beware.”

The heavy, gruff voice was lifted again in an ironic laugh, and Henry, creeping a yard or two more, saw through the leaves the whole group.  The English officer whom Wyatt had called Alloway, was a man of middle years, heavily built.  His confident face and aggressive manner indicated that he was some such man as Braddock, who in spite of every warning by the colonials, walked with blinded eyes into the Indian trap at Fort Duquesne, to have his army and himself slaughtered.  But now the English were allied with the scalp-takers.

A half-dozen English officers, younger men, surrounded Colonel Alloway, silent and attentive, while their chief talked with Wyatt.  The older renegade, Blackstaffe, was leaning against a tree, his arms folded across his chest, a sneering look upon his face.  Henry knew that he thought little of European officers there in the woods, and out of their element.

But the most striking figures in the scene were Yellow Panther, head chief of the Miamis, and Red Eagle, head chief of the Shawnees.  They stood erect with arms folded, and they had not spoken either while Alloway and Wyatt talked.  They were imposing men, not as tall as the young chief whom Henry had seen distantly, and who was destined to have a great part in his life later on, but they were uncommonly broad of shoulders and chest, and, though elderly they were at the very height of their mental and physical powers.

They were in full war paint, their scalp locks were braided and each had flung about him somewhat in the manner of a Roman toga a magnificent blanket of the finest weave, blue for Yellow Panther, red for Red Eagle.

Wyatt translated to them Alloway’s words, and Red Eagle at length raising his hand said to Wyatt in Shawnee, which all three of the hidden scouts understood perfectly: 

“Tell our white ally that his words are not those of wisdom.  The Indian when he goes upon the war path does not laugh at his enemy.  He knows that he is not fighting with children and he heeds the warnings of those who understand.”

His tones were full of dignity, but Wyatt, when he translated, softened the rebuke.  Nevertheless enough of it was left to make the arrogant Colonel start a little, and gaze with some apprehension at the two massive and silent figures, regarding him so steadily.  It was likely too that the grim forest, the overwhelming character of the wilderness in which he stood, affected him.  Without the Indians he and his men would be lost in that mighty sweep of country.

“Tell the officers of the King, across the great salt water,” continued Red Eagle to Wyatt, “that the word has come to us that if we go and destroy the settlements of the Yengees, lest they grow powerful and help their brethren in the East who are fighting against the King called George, we are to receive great rewards.  We use the tomahawk for him as well as for ourselves, and while we listen to Alloway here, Alloway must listen also to us.”

Wyatt veiled his look of satisfaction.  He had not fancied the haughty and patronizing manner of Alloway, and he was sure that the Colonel was making too little of the five and their possible proximity.  Despite himself, and the young renegade was bold, he felt a shiver of apprehension lest the formidable group were somewhere near in the woods.  But he added, speaking in a more persuasive tone to Alloway: 

“You’ll pardon me, sir, but the Indian chiefs are in their own country.  They’re proud and resolute men, trusting in their own methods, and they must be humored.  If you don’t defer somewhat to them it’s quite possible that they’ll take all their warriors and go back to their villages.”

Alloway’s face grew red with anger, but he had enough wisdom and resolution to suppress it.  He looked around at the vast and somber forest, in which one could be lost so easily, and knew that he must do so.

“Very well,” he said, “the chiefs and I lead jointly.  Ask them what they want.”

Wyatt talked with the two chiefs and then translated: 

“They wish to stop here a day or two, until they can obtain new supplies of food.  They wish to send out all of their best trailers in search of the scout called Ware and his comrades.  They are dangerous, and also Yellow Panther and Red Eagle have bitter cause to hate them, as have I.”

“Very well, then,” said Alloway, making the best of it.  “We’ll halt while the warriors brush away these wasps, whom you seem to fear so much.”

He walked away, followed by his men, and Henry and Shif’less Sol drew back in the thicket.  They were flattered by Braxton Wyatt’s frank admission of their power, but they were annoyed that the footprint had been seen.  Henry had felt that they could work much better, if the warriors were unaware of their presence.

“Those two chiefs will act quickly,” he whispered to his comrade.  “Maybe they had already sent out the trailers, before they had the talk with the officer.  It’s possible that they’re now between us and our new home in the cliff.  It’s always best to have a plan, and if they pick up our trail I’ll run toward the east, and draw them off, while you make your way back to Paul and Jim and our room in the cliff.”

“You let me make the chase,” said Shif’less Sol, protestingly.  “They can’t ketch me.”

“No!  We’ve pretty well agreed upon our different tasks, and this, you know, is mine.”

The shiftless one was well aware that Henry was the most fitting, yet he was more than anxious to take the chief danger upon himself.  But he said nothing more, as they withdrew slowly, and with the utmost caution, through the woods.  Twice, the red trailers passed near them, and they flattened themselves against the ground to escape observation.  Henry did not believe now that they could regain the stone room without a flight or a fight, as he was confirmed in his belief that Red Eagle and Yellow Panther had sent out numerous trailers, before their talk with the English colonel.

A quarter of a mile away, and they were forced to lie down in a gully among sodden leaves and hold their breath while two Shawnees passed.  Henry saw them through the screening bushes on the bank of the gully, their questing eyes eager and fierce.  At the first trace of a trail, they would utter the war whoop and call the horde upon the fugitives.  But they saw nothing and flitted away among the bushes.

“Comin’ purty close,” whispered Shif’less Sol, as they rose and resumed their progress.  “Warm, purty warm, mighty warm, hot!  The next time they’ll jest burn their hands on us.”

“Maybe there’ll be no next time,” said Henry as they approached the edge of a brook.  But the bank, softened by the rain, crumbled beneath them, and the “next time” had come almost at once.

Although they did not fall, their feet went into the stream with a splash that could be heard many yards away.  From three points came fierce triumphant shouts, and then they heard the low swish of moccasined feet running fast.

“Remember,” said Henry, rapidly, “hide your trail and curve about until you reach the hidden home.  Wait there for me!”

He was gone in an instant, turning off at a sharp angle into the bushes, leading directly away from the cliff.  Now the young superman of the forest summoned all his faculties.  He called to his service his immense strength and agility, his extreme acuteness of sight and hearing, and his almost supernatural power of divination, the outgrowth of a body and mind so perfectly attuned for forest work.

No fear that he would be caught entered his mind.  Alone in the forest he could double and turn as he chose, and there was no Indian so fleet of foot that he could overtake him.  A wild and exultant spirit flowed up in him.  He was the hunted.  Nevertheless it was sport to him to be followed thus.  He laughed low and under his breath, and then, swelling the cords in his throat, he gave utterance to a cry so tremendous in volume that it rang like the echo of a cannon shot through the wilderness.  But, after the Indian fashion, he permitted it to die in a long, fierce note like the whine of a wolf.

It was an extraordinary cry, full of challenge and mockery.  It said to those who should hear, that they might come on, if they would, but they would come on a vain errand.  It taunted them, and aroused every kind of anger in their breasts.  No Indian could remain calm under that cry and every one of them knew what it meant.  Their ferocious shouts replied, and then Henry swung forward in the long easy gait of the woodsman.

Mind and muscle were under perfect control.  While he ran he saw everything in the bright moonlight and heard everything.  He made no effort to conceal his trail, because he wanted it to be seen and he knew that the entire pursuit was strung out behind him.  Probably Shif’less Sol was already safe within the stone walls.

Lest the trail itself should not be enough he again uttered the defiant cry that thrilled through the forest, returning in many echoes.  He listened for the answering shouts of the warriors, and felt relieved when they came.  The spirit that was shooting through his veins became wilder and wilder.  His blood danced and he laughed once more under his breath, as wild as any of the wild men of the forest.

He was racing along a low ridge from which the rain had run rapidly, leaving fairly firm ground.  Once more he disturbed the thickets.  Startled wild animals sprang up as the giant young figure sped past.  A rabbit leaped from under his raised foot.  A huge owl looked down with red, distended eyes at the flying youth, and, in the face of the unknown, using the wisdom that is the owl’s own, flew heavily away from the forest.  Some pigeons, probably a part of the same flock that he had seen, rose with a whirr from a bough and streamed off in a black line among the trees.  The undergrowth was filled with whimperings, and little rustlings, and Henry, who felt so closely akin to wild life, would have told them now if he could that they were in no danger.  It was he, not they, who was being pursued.

He caught a glimpse of a dusky figure aiming a rifle.  Quickly he bent low and the bullet whistled over his head.  Catching his own rifle by the barrel he swung the stock heavily and the red trailer lay still in the undergrowth.  A little farther on a second fired at him, and now he sent his own bullet in reply.  The warrior fell back with a cry of pain to which his pursuing comrades answered, and Henry for a third time sent forth his fierce, defiant shout.  Those whom he had met must have been hunters coming in.

He reloaded his rifle, running, and kept a wary eye as he passed into the canebrake.  But he believed now that he had left behind the outermost fringe of the scouts and trailers.  He would encounter nobody lying in ambush, and, after making his way for a long time through the dense thickets, he sat down on a little mound to rest and observe.

He knew that the nearest of the warriors was at least four or five hundred yards away, and that none could come within rifle shot without his knowledge.  So, he sat quite still, taking deep breaths, and was without apprehension.  He was not really weary, the long swinging run had not been much more than exercise, but he wanted to look about and see the nature of the land.

The canebrake extended a great distance, but he saw far beyond it the black shadow of forest, in the interminable depths of which he might easily lose himself if the pursuit continued.  Whether it continued or not was a matter of sheer indifference to him.  He had drawn them far enough, but if they wished to go farther he would be the hunted again, although it might be dangerous for the hunters.

He saw the crests of the cane waving a little, and, rising, he resumed the race on easy foot, passing through the canebrake, and entering the forest, in which there was much rough, rocky ground.  Here he leaped lightly from stone to stone, until he knew the trail was broken beyond the possibility of finding, when he sat down between two great upthrust roots of an oak and leaned back against turf and trunk together.  He knew that the green of his deerskins blended perfectly with the grass, and he felt so thoroughly convinced that the pursuit had stopped that he decided to remain there for the night.

He unrolled the blanket from his back, put it about his shoulders, and then he laughed again at the successful trick that he had played upon these fierce red warriors.  It had been an easy task, too.  Save the two hasty shots from the trailers he had never been in serious danger, and now, as he rested comfortably, he ate a little more of the dried venison from his knapsack.  Then he fell asleep.

The hours of the night passed peacefully.  The soft turf supported his back, and only his head was against the trunk of the tree.  It was a comfortable position for a seasoned forest runner.  Toward morning the wind rose and began to sing through the spring foliage.  Its song grew louder, and before it was yet dawn Henry awoke and listened to it.  Like the Indian he heard the voice of the Great Spirit in the wind, and now it came to him with a warning note.

He stretched his limbs a little and stood up, his hand on the hammer of his rifle.  The darkness that precedes the dawn covered the woods, but he could see some distance into it, and he saw nothing.  He listened a long time, and as the dusk began to thin away before the sun he heard a low chant.  He knew that it was an Indian song, a song of triumph, coming from the south, and for a while he was puzzled.

Clearly, this was no part of the great war band, which lay to the north of him, and he concluded that it must be a small expedition which had already gone into the South and which was now returning.  But he did not like the character of the song.  It indicated victory and he thrilled with horror and repulsion.  The triumph must be over people of his own race.

The blood in every vein grew hot with anger, and the pulses in his temples beat so hard that for a while it made a little singing in his head.  The great figure stiffened and a menacing look came into his eyes.

The chant was fast growing louder and the singers would pass within a few feet of his tree.  He slipped aside, turning away a hundred yards or so, and crouched behind dense bushes.  The singers came on, about twenty warriors in single file, Shawnees by their paint, and the first three brandished aloft three hideous trophies.  Henry had more than suspected, but the reality made him shudder.

The three scalps were obviously those of white people, and the first, long, thick, blonde and fine, was that of a woman.  The warrior who waved it aloft, as he chanted, wore only the breech cloth, his naked body painted in many colors, and he exulted as he displayed his trophy, so fine to his savage heart.

A mighty rage seized Henry.  For a moment his eyes were clouded by the red mist that danced before them.  The song of the wind before the dawn had aroused him to his coming danger, but there was nothing to tell the triumphant savage that his hour was at hand.

The red mist cleared away from the great youth’s eyes.  The blood lately so hot in his veins became as cold as ice, and the pulses in his temples sank to their normal beat.  Mind and nerves were completely attuned and he was a perfect instrument of vengeance.  The rifle rose to his shoulder and he looked down the sights at a tiny bear painted in blue directly over the warrior’s heart.  Then he pulled the trigger and so deadly was his aim that the savage sank down without a cry, and the scalp fell and lay upon his own body, the long hair reddening fast with the blood that flowed from the warrior’s heart.

Henry turned instantly and darted into the depths of the forest, reloading as usual as he ran.  A single backward glance had shown him that the warriors, confused and puzzled at first, were standing in an excited group, looking down at their dead comrade.  He knew they would recover quickly and to hasten the moment he uttered that long, thrilling cry of defiance.

He was willing for them to pursue, in truth he was anxious that they should.  He had marked the other two warriors who waved the scalps, and he now had a cold and settled purpose.  He intentionally made noise as he ran, letting the boughs of bushes fly back with a swish and soon he heard the Indians, two or three hundred yards away.

He knew that their muskets or smooth bores could not reach him at the range and that his rifle had over them, an advantage of at least fifty yards.  He let them come a little nearer, and, as the country was now more open they saw him and uttered cries of mingled rage and triumph.  They were gaining perceptibly and they felt certain of capture.

The fugitive permitted them to come a little nearer, and he watched them out of the corner of one eye.  The second man in the pursuing group, a tall thin warrior, had been waving a scalp.  Even now it was swinging at his belt, and as they gained, yard by yard, Henry wheeled for a second or two and shot the scalp-bearer through the head.

Then he increased his speed, reloaded his rifle once more, and sent back that taunting cry which he knew inflamed the savage heart with ferocity and the desire for vengeance.  The Indians had hesitated, but now they uttered the war whoop all together, and came on at their utmost speed.  Henry noted the third scalp-bearer.  He was a short, powerful fellow, but he did not have speed enough to keep himself in front.  But Henry was resolved that he too should suffer.

They were running now through forest comparatively free from undergrowth.  The fugitive stumbled suddenly and then limped for a step or two.  The simultaneous yell of the Indians was fierce and exultant, but the rifle of the great youth flashed, and the short, broad warrior was gone to join his two comrades.

Then the speed of the fugitive increased at a great rate, and, as the warriors were no longer anxious to pursue, he soon disappeared in the forest.