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

It was Henry’s first thought to return to his comrades, but the way was long and he must pass by the greater Indian camp, which surely had out many sentinels.  So he changed his mind and resolved to spend the night in the woods.  Shif’less Sol and the others would not be alarmed about his absence.  They too had acquired the gift of infinite patience and would remain under cover, until he returned, content with their stone walls and roof, having plenty of venison, and fresh water running forever in their home itself.

It was his idea to seek some thicket at a distance and lie hidden there until the next night, when he might achieve a fresh irruption upon the enemy.  He had succeeded so far that he was encouraged to new attempts, and all the wilderness spirit in him came to the front.  The civilization of the house and the city sank quite away.  He was for the time being wholly a creature of the primeval forest, and while his breath was the very breath of the wild he felt with it a frolic fancy that demanded some outlet.  He must sleep, but he would like to play a new trick upon his enemies before he slept.

The spirit of the Faun, in which the old Greeks believed, was re-created within him, and where could a better place for its re-creation have been found than in this vast green wilderness stretching from east to west a thousand miles, and from north to south fifteen hundred miles, a region almost untouched by the white man, the like of which was not to be found elsewhere on the globe.

He laughed a little in his triumph, though silently.  As he strode along a stray ray of moonlight fell upon him now and then, and disclosed the tall, splendid figure, the incarnation of magnificent youth, the forest superman, one upon whom Nature had lavished every gift for the life that he was intended to live.  Although his step was light and soundless, his figure expressed strength in every movement.  It was shown in the swing of the mighty shoulders, and the long stride which without effort dropped the miles behind him.

It was destined, too, that he should have his wish for another achievement that night, one that would please the sportive fancy now so strong in him.  After recrossing the river he saw on his left an opening of considerable size, and he heard grunts and groans coming from it.  He knew that a buffalo troop was resting there.  The foolish beasts had wandered into the Indian vicinity, but they would learn the proximity of the warriors the next day and wander away.  Meanwhile Henry needed them and would use them.  Now and then he reverted to the religious imagery which he had learned when he was with Red Cloud and his Northwestern tribe.  Manitou had really sent this buffalo herd there for his particular benefit.  It was the largest that he had ever seen in Kentucky.  Fully five hundred of the great brutes rested in the opening and he needed numbers.

He passed into the thick forest near them, and then with infinite patience lighted a fire with his flint and steel.  Securing long sticks of dead wood he ignited them both until they burned with a steady and strong flame.  Strapping his rifle upon his back and holding aloft a flaming torch in either hand, and uttering fierce and wild shouts he charged directly upon the buffaloes.

He showed prodigious activity.  All the extraordinary life that was in him leaped and sang in his veins.  He rushed back and forth, uttering continuous shouts, whirling each torch until it made a perfect circle of fire.  Doubtless to the heavy eyes of the buffaloes the single human being seemed twenty, every one enveloped in bursts of flame which they dreaded most of all things.

A big bull buffalo, the leader of the herd, crouched at the very edge of the opening, decided first that it was time to move.  The whirling circles of fire with living beings inside of them filled him with terror.  His ton of flesh quivered and quaked.  He rose with a mighty heave to his feet and then with a bellow of fright took flight from the flashing devils of fire.

The whole herd was in a panic in an instant and followed the leader.  They might have scattered in their fright, but they were shepherded by a human mind, which had allied with it a body without an equal in all that million and a half square miles of forest.  As he leaped to and fro, shouting and whirling his torches, he drove the herd straight toward the camp on the river where the English officers and chiefs were even now asleep.

A few animals broke off from the herd and were lost in the bushes, but the rest ran, packed close, a long column, tapering at the front like an arrow head, with the big bull as its point.  They bellowed with fright and made a tremendous crashing as they raced over the mile that divided them from the Indian camp.  Warriors heard the uproar, like the bursting of a storm in the night, and leaped to their feet.

Now Henry fairly surpassed every effort that he had made hitherto.  He leaped more wildly than ever, and redoubled his fierce shouting.  He was so close upon the flank of the last buffaloes that they felt the torches singeing their hair, and, mad with fear lest they go to their buffalo heaven sooner than they wished they charged directly upon the Indian camp.

The wild yells of the warriors joined with Henry’s shouts.  Alloway, Cartwright and the others leaped up to see the red eyes, the short crooked horns and the huge, humped shoulders of the buffaloes bearing down upon them.  Nothing could withstand that rush of mighty bodies and white men and Indians alike ran for their lives.

The buffaloes came up against the river, and blocked by its deep flood, turned, and, running over the camp again, crashed away toward the west.  Henry, stopping at a convenient distance, tossed his torches into the river, and taking the rifle from his back sank into the bushes.  Here he laughed once more, under his breath, but with the most intense delight.  It was the hugest joke of all.

Without any great danger to himself he had made the buffaloes serve him, and he could still hear them bellowing and crashing in their frantic flight.  Although no lives had been lost, everything in the camp had been trodden flat.  All of their cooking utensils had been smashed, many of their rifles had been broken, and, the canoes drawn upon the bank, had been ground under the hoofs of the buffaloes.  A hurricane could not have made a wreck more complete.

Henry saw Alloway emerge from the forest and come back to the scene of ruin.  He had taken off his coat before he lay down, but only fragments of it remained now.  He was red with anger and he swore violently.  Yellow Panther and Red Eagle had lost their blankets, but, whatever they felt, they kept it to themselves.  They looked upon the trodden camp, but they did not lose their dignity.

“What is this?  What is this?  What is this?” stuttered Alloway in his wrath.

“We seem, sir, to have been run over by a herd of buffaloes,” said Wyatt, smoothly.

“And does this sort of thing happen often in these woods?”

“I can’t say that I’ve heard of such a case before, but even if it’s a single instance we’re the victims of it.”

Alloway glared at Wyatt, but he knew that he could not afford to quarrel with the young renegade, who had great influence with the tribes.  He picked up the fragments of his red coat and looked at them ruefully.

“I didn’t know that the herds were ever so large in this forest country,” he said to Blackstaffe.

“It’s seldom so,” said the older renegade.

“Is it their habit to rise up at midnight and gallop over men’s camps?”

“It is not.”

“Then how do you account for such behavior?”

Blackstaffe shrugged his shoulders and spoke a few words in their own tongue to the chiefs.  Then he turned back to Colonel Alloway.

“The chiefs tell me,” he said, “that the buffaloes were driven by a demon, an immense figure, preceded by whirling circles of fire.  The evil spirit, they say, is upon them.”

“And do you believe such nonsense?”

“A continuous life in the deep woods gives one new beliefs.  I thought I caught a glimpse of such a figure, but when I tried for a second look it was gone.  But whether right or wrong you can see what has happened.  Our camp has been destroyed and with it most of the canoes.  We have lost much, and the Indians are greatly alarmed.  It is superstition, not fear, that has affected them.”

“In my opinion,” said Braxton Wyatt, “it was a trick of Henry Ware’s.  He drove those buffaloes down upon us.”

“Very likely,” said Blackstaffe, “but you can’t persuade the Indians so.”

“Nor me either,” said Alloway gruffly.  “You can’t tell me that a backwoods youth can do so much.”

“But,” said Blackstaffe, “our scows were blown up, our lashed canoes were sunk, and now the buffaloes have been driven over us.  It couldn’t be chance.  I think with Wyatt that it was Ware, but the chiefs are not willing to stay here longer.  They demand that we return to the great camp in the morning, and that we abandon the attempt to take the cannon up the river.”

“Which means an infinite amount of work with the ax,” growled Alloway.  “Well, let it be so, if it must, but I will not move tonight for anything.  At least grass and trees are left, and I can sleep on one and under the other.”

The chiefs, Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, thought they ought to march at once, but they yielded to Alloway who was master of the great guns with which they hoped to smash the palisades around the settlements.  Complete cooperation between white man and red man was necessary for the success of the expedition, and sometimes it was necessary for one to placate the other.

They chose places anew upon ground that looked like a lost field of battle.  The buffaloes had practically trampled the camp into the earth.  The Indians had lost most of their blankets and in taking the canoes from the river and putting them upon the bank to escape one form of destruction they had merely met another.  But they did the best they could, seeking the most comfortable places for sleep, and resolved to secure rest for the remainder of the night.

But Red Eagle and Yellow Panther, great chiefs though they were, were troubled by bad dreams which came straight from Ha-nis-ja-o-no-geh, the dwelling place of the Evil Minded.  An enemy whom they could not see or hear, but whose presence they felt, was near.  He had brought misfortune upon them and he would bring more.  They awoke from their dreams and sat up.  The white men were sleeping heavily, but then white men were often foolish in the forest.

Everything that stirred in the wilderness had a voice for the Indian.  North wind or south wind, east wind or west wind all said something to him.  The flowing of the river, and the sounds made by animals in the darkness had their meaning.  Yellow Panther and Red Eagle were great chiefs, mighty on the war path, filled with the lore of their tribes, and they knew that Manitou expressed himself in many ways.  They spoke together and when they compared their bad dreams straight from Ha-nis-ja-o-no-geh they felt apprehension.  The wind was blowing from the northwest, and its voice was a threat.  Then came the weird cry of an owl from a point north of them, and they did not know whether it was a real owl or the same evil spirit that had sent the bad dreams.

The two chiefs, wary and brave, were troubled.  They could fight the seen, but the unseen was a foe whom no warrior knew how to meet.  Then they heard the owl again, but from another point, farther to the west, and after a while the cry came from a point almost due west.

They sent the boldest and most skillful warrior to scout the forest in that direction and they waited long for his return, but he never came back.  When the second hour after his departure had been completed the chiefs awakened all the others and announced that they would start at once for the great camp.

Alloway growled and cursed under his breath.

“What is it?” he said to Braxton Wyatt, who had been talking with Red Eagle and Yellow Panther.  “Can’t we finish in peace what’s left of the night?”

“We must yield to the chiefs, sir,” said Wyatt.  “If we don’t there will be trouble, and the whole expedition will fail before it’s fairly started.  While we were asleep they heard an owl hoot from several different points of the compass, and they think it an omen of evil.  They may be right, because a scout, a man of uncommon skill, whom they sent out two hours ago with instructions to return in an hour or less, has not come back.  If you consider the misfortunes that have befallen us tonight, you can’t blame ’em.”

The hoot of the owl, much nearer, came suddenly through the forest.  To the chiefs and to the white men as well it had a long menacing note.  It was an omen of ill and it came from the Place of Evil Dreams.  Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, great chiefs, victors in many a forest foray, shuddered.  Fear struck like daggers at their hearts.

“Gray Beaver, our scout, will never come back,” said Yellow Panther, and Red Eagle nodded.

The surcharged air affected Alloway and the other white men also.  The obvious fears of the chiefs and the black wilderness about him created an atmosphere that the colonel could not resist.  He glanced at the dark files of the trees and listened to the low moaning of the river as it flowed past.  Then from a point in the south came that warning, plangent cry of the evil bird.  Perspiration stood out on the brows of the chiefs and Alloway himself was shaken.  Superstition and fears bred of the wilderness and its darkness entered into his own soul.  The place suddenly became hateful to him.

“Let us go,” he said.  “Perhaps it is better that we rejoin the main force.”

Braxton Wyatt had his own opinion, but he was as willing as the others to depart.  He felt that on this expedition he would be safer with the warriors all about him.  He had saved his own rifle from the rush of the herd, and putting it on his shoulder he fell in behind the chiefs.

The whole party started, but they found that although they had left an evil place they had also begun an evil march.  The owl, which the Indians were quite sure contained the soul of some great dead warrior, followed and continually menaced them.  Its cry was heard from one side and then from the other.  Colonel Alloway, a brave man, though choleric and cruel, was exasperated beyond endurance.  He raged and swore as they marched through the dark thickets, the Indians moving lightly and surely, while he often stumbled.  He insisted at last that they stop and take action.

“Do you think this is a real owl following us?” he said to Wyatt, whom he invariably used as an interpreter.

“I think it is Ware, of whom I told you.”

“You’re as bad in your way as the Indians are in theirs.  Why, the fellow would be superhuman!”

“That would not keep it from being true.”

Alloway knew from Wyatt’s tone that he meant what he said.

“We must hunt down this forest rover!” he exclaimed.  “I can see that he is striking a heavy blow at the Indians through their superstitions.”

“No doubt of that, sir.”

“Tell the chiefs for me that we must send out a half dozen trailers while the rest of us remain here.  I’m not as used as you are to midnight marches in the forest, and every bone in me aches.”

Wyatt translated and Yellow Panther and Red Eagle consented.  A half-dozen of the best trailers slipped away in different directions in the forest, and the rest sat down in a group.  They waited a long time and heard nothing.  The owl did not cry, nor did any human shout come from the haunted depths of the wilderness.

“At least they’ve driven him away,” said Alloway to Cartwright.

“I think so, sir.”

Out of the forest, low at first, but swelling on a long triumphant note, came the solemn voice of the owl.  Alloway, despite himself, shuddered.  The sinister cry expressed victory.  His own mind, like those of the Indians, had become attuned to the superstitions and fears bred of ignorance and the dark.  His heart paused, and when it began its work again the beat was heavy.

A darker blot appeared on the darkness and two warriors, bearing a third, came through the bushes.  The man whom they bore was a dark-browed, cruel savage who had carried the scalp of a white woman at his belt.  But he would hunt or scalp no more.  He had been cloven from brow to chin with the blow of a tomahawk wielded by an arm mighty like that of Hercules.  Colonel Alloway looked upon the slain savage and shuddered again.

“Ask them how it happened,” he said to Wyatt.

The young renegade, after speaking with the Indians, replied: 

“Black Fox, the dead warrior, turned aside to look into a willow thicket.  The others heard the beginning of a cry, that is one that was checked suddenly, and the sound of a blow.  Then they found Black Fox as you see him there.”

“And the one who struck him down?”

“There was no trace of him, but I, at least, have no doubt about him.  Colonel Alloway, sir, I tell you he is the greatest forester that ever lived.  He has all the different kinds of strength of the red man and the white man united, and something more, a power which I once heard a learned man say must have belonged to people when they had no weapons but clubs, and beasts far bigger than any of our time roamed the woods.  It must have been a sort of feeling or sense that we can’t understand, like the nose of a hound, and this Ware has it.”

“Pshaw!  Pshaw!  Pshaw!” exclaimed Alloway violently.  But Wyatt saw that his violence of speech was assumed to hide his own growing belief.  The two chiefs beckoned to him, and he talked with them briefly.  Then he turned to Alloway.

“Red Eagle and Yellow Panther ask me to say to you, sir, that they’ll send no more warriors into the forest.  The Evil Spirit is there and while they’re ready to fight men they will not fight devils.”

“I don’t blame ’em,” said Alloway reluctantly.  “We’ve been outwitted and made fools of, and the best thing we can do is to get back to the great camp as soon as we can.  Tell the chiefs we’re ready to march.”

But the way was long and the night was still black.  The cry of the owl came several times, first on the right and then on the left.  Every time he heard it the heart of the colonel beat with anger, tinged with awe.  It was a strange world into which he had come, and while he would not have acknowledged it to another, he knew that he was afraid.  And afraid of what?  Of a single figure, lurking somewhere in the dusk, that seemed able to strike at any moment wherever and whenever it wished.

The band, with its chiefs, its white men and its renegades marched on, the two English officers panting from such unusual exertion, and tripping often as they grew weaker.  It hurt Alloway to ask them to stop and let him rest, and he put off the evil moment as long as he could, but at last, as his breath became shorter and shorter, he was compelled to do so.

The chiefs acquiesced silently and the whole band stopped.  Alloway sat down on one of those fallen logs to be found everywhere in the primeval forest, and his breath came in long painful sobs.  He was just a little too stout for wilderness work, that is for the marching part of it, and he was hurt cruelly in both body and spirit.  As his general weakness grew, the cry of the owl directly in their path and not far away was like fire touched to an open wound.

“Can’t some of the warriors go forward, ambush and shoot that fiend?” he exclaimed in desperation to Blackstaffe.

“You saw what happened when we tried it an hour ago,” replied the renegade.  “In the darkness one man has an opportunity over many.  He knows that all are his enemies, and he can shoot the moment he hears a sound or sees a rustle in the bush.  Besides, sir, we are confronted, as Wyatt has told you, by the one foe who is the most dangerous in all the world to us.  There is something about him that passes almost beyond belief.  I’m not a coward, as these Indians will tell you, but nothing could induce me to go into the forest in search of him.”

Alloway made no reply, but he took off a cocked hat that he wore even in the wilderness, and began to fan his heated face.  A rifle cracked suddenly, and the hat flew from his hand into the air.  The Indians uttered a long wailing cry like the Seneca “Oonah,” but did not move from their places or show any sign that they wished to pursue.

The colonel’s empty hand remained poised in the air, and he gazed with mingled anger and wonder at his hat, lying upon the ground, and perforated neatly by a bullet.  Wyatt, Blackstaffe and Cartwright looked at him but said nothing.  Even Wyatt felt a thrill of awe.

“That, sir, was a warning,” he said at last.  “He could have shot you as easily.”

“But why don’t the warriors pursue?  He could not have been much more than a hundred yards away!”

“They’re afraid, sir, and I don’t blame ’em.”

Wyatt himself showed apprehension.  He knew the bitter hatred the borderers felt toward all renegades.  The name of Girty was already one of loathing.  Blackstaffe was another who could expect little mercy, if he ever fell into their hands, and Wyatt himself knew that he had fully earned the Kentucky bullet.  He did not feel the superstition of the warrior, but he regarded the gloomy depths of the forest with just as much terror.  There was no reason why the silent marksman who hung upon them should not pick him out for a target.

They came to a creek running three feet deep, but they waded it and then stood for a minute or two on the bank, wringing the water out of their clothing.  Colonel Alloway still cursed under his breath, and bemoaned the fate that had befallen him.  It seemed a cruel jest that he, who had served in Flanders and Germany, in open country that had been civilized many centuries, should be sent from Detroit to march as an ally of savages in that enormous and unknown wilderness.

The cry of the owl came from a point straight ahead, and not more than four hundred yards away.  Not a savage moved.  But Alloway’s whole frame shook with furious anger.  It was preposterous that they should be harried so on their march by a single enemy.  Once more he turned to Wyatt and said: 

“Can’t we spread out in some manner and catch this impudent fellow?  Are thirty men to be driven all night through the woods by a single border rover?”

“I can put your question to the chiefs,” Wyatt replied, “but I doubt whether anything will come of it.”

He talked a little with Yellow Panther and Red Eagle and found that they were willing to try again.  They were pursued by a devil, but, mysterious as he was, they would send forth the warriors, and perhaps they might trap him.  They gave the signal and a dozen savages plunged at once into the bush, spreading out like a fan, and advancing toward the point from which the owl had sent his haunting cry.

The others waited a long time by the creek, and Alloway’s rage still burned.  It was past endurance that a gentleman and an officer should be hunted through the woods in such a manner, insulted even by a bullet through his fine cocked hat, and hope being the father of belief, he was sure that the warriors would finish him this time.

He heard a sudden sharp report in the woods behind them, on the other side of the creek that they had crossed, and a bullet buried itself in the tree against which he was leaning, not very far from his face.  He uttered a deep oath, but Yellow Panther and Red Eagle signaled to their forces to take the trail once more.  The one in whom the Evil Spirit dwelled and who had come to mock them could not be caught.  They would waste no more time, but would march as fast as they could to the main camp.  They sent out cries that called in the warriors and then they set off at a great pace.

But all through the remainder of the night the Evil Spirit hung upon them, sometimes beside them, and sometimes behind them, and the terror of the warriors grew.  Upon more than one face the war paint was damp with perspiration, and Colonel Alloway, his red face dripping, was forced to keep up with them, stride for stride.

Their terror did not diminish at all until the daylight came.  Red Eagle and Yellow Panther, great chiefs, were glad to see the glow over the eastern forest that told of the rising sun.  Even then they did not stop, but kept on at high speed, until the morning was flooded with light, when they stopped for fresh breath.

The English officers threw themselves upon the ground and gasped.  They were not ashamed to show now to the Indians that they were weary almost to death.

“I think I left at least twenty pounds in that cursed forest,” said Alloway.

“I’m not anxious for another such march,” said Cartwright with sympathy.  “But, sir, you can see a big smoke rising not more than a mile ahead.  That must be the main camp.”

“It is,” said Braxton Wyatt, “and there are some of the scouts coming to meet us.”

Far behind them rose the long hoot of the owl, but Wyatt knew that they would hear it no more that day.  He regarded the English officers grimly.  They had patronized him and Blackstaffe, and now they made the poorest showing of all.  In the woods they were lost.

Alloway and Cartwright rose after a long rest and limped into the camp.  The colonel reflected that he had lost prestige but there were the cannon.  The warriors could not afford to march against Kentucky without them, and only he and his men knew how to use them.  In a huge camp, with a brilliant sun driving away many of the fancies that night and the forest brought, his full sense of importance returned.  He began to talk now of pushing forward at once with the guns, in order that they might strike before the settlers were aware.