Read CHAPTER VII - THE FOREST POETS of The Keepers of the Trail A Story of the Great Woods , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on

Henry and the shiftless one knew that they had drawn danger upon themselves, but they had nothing to regret.  The pursuit by the wolves had become intolerable.  In time it was bound to unsettle their nerves, and it was better to take the risk from the warriors.

“How far away would you say that war whoop was?” asked Henry.

“‘Bout a quarter o’ a mile but it’ll take ’em some little time to find our trail.  An’ ef you an’ me, Henry, can’t leave ’em, ez ef they wuz standin’, then we ain’t what we used to be.”

Presently they heard the war cry a second time, although its note was fainter.

“Hit our trail!” said the shiftless one.

“But they can never overtake us in the night,” said Henry.  “We’ve come to stony ground now, and the best trailers in the world couldn’t follow you and me over it.”

“No,” said the shiftless one, with some pride in his voice.  “We’re not to be took that way, but that band an’ mebbe more are in atween us an’ our fine house in the cliff, an’ we won’t get to crawl in our little beds tonight.  It ain’t to be risked, Henry.”

“That’s so.  We seem to be driven in a circle around the place to which we want to go, but we can afford to wait as well as the Indian army can, and better.  Here’s another branch and we’d better use it to throw that band off the trail.”

They waded in the pebbly bed of the brook for a long distance.  Then they walked on stones, leaping lightly from one to another, and, when they came to the forest, thick with grapevines they would often swing from vine to vine over long spaces.  Both found an odd pleasure in their flight.  They were matching the Indian at his tricks, and when pushed they could do even better.  They knew that the trail was broken beyond the hope of recovery, and, late in the night, after passing through hilly country, they sat down to rest.

They were on the slope of the last hill, sitting under the foliage of an oak, and before them lay a wide valley, in which the trees, mostly oaks, were scattered as if they grew in a great park.  But the grass everywhere was thick and tall, and down the center flowed a swift creek which in the moonlight looked like molten silver.  The uncommon brightness of the night, with its gorgeous clusters of stars, disclosed the full beauty of the valley, and the two fugitives who were fugitives no longer felt it intensely.  Henry was an educated youth of an educated stock, and Shif’less Sol, the forest runner, was born with a love and admiration in his soul of Nature in all its aspects.

“Don’t it look fine, Henry?” said the shiftless one.  “Ef I hed to sleep in a house all the time, which, thanks be, I don’t hev to do, I’d build me a cabin right here in this little valley.  Ain’t it jest the nicest place you ever saw?  Unless I’ve mistook my guess, that’s a lot o’ buff’ler lyin’ down in the grass in front o’ us.”

“Eight of ’em.  I can count ’em,” said Henry, “but they’re safe from us.”

“I wouldn’t fire on ’em, not even ef thar wuzn’t a warrior within a hundred miles o’ us.  I don’t feel like shootin’ at anythin’ jest now, Henry.”

“It’s the valley that makes you feel so peaceful.  It has the same effect on me.”

“I think I kin see wild flowers down thar bloomin’ among the bushes, an’ ain’t that grass an’ them trees fine? an’ that is shorely the best creek I’ve seen.  Its water is so pure it looks like silver.  I’ve a notion, Henry, that this wuz the Garden o’ Eden.”

“That’s an odd idea of yours, Sol.  How can you prove it’s so?”

“An’ how can you prove it ain’t so?  An’ so we’re back whar we started.  Besides, I kin pile up evidence.  All along the edge o’ the valley are briers an’ vines, on which the berries growed.  Then too thar are lots o’ grapevines on the trees ez you kin see, an’ thar are your grapes.  An’ up toward the end are lots o’ hick’ry an’ walnut trees an’ thar are your nuts, an’ ef Adam an’ Eve wuz hard-pushed, they could ketch plenty o’ fine fish in that creek which I kin see is deep.  In the winter they could hev made themselves a cabin easy, up thar whar the trees are thick.  An’ the whole place in the spring is full o’ wild flowers, which Eve must hev stuck her hair full of to please Adam.  The more I think o’ it, Henry, the shorer I am that this wuz the Garden.”

The shiftless one’s face was rapt and serious.  In the burnished silver of the moonlight the little valley had a beauty, dreamlike in its quality.  In that land so truly named the Dark and Bloody Ground it seemed the abode of unbroken peace.

“I reckon,” said Shif’less Sol, “that after the fall Adam an’ Eve left by that rift between the hills, an’ thar the Angel stood with the Flamin’ Sword to keep ’em out.  O’ course they might hev crawled back down the hillside here, an’ in other places, but I guess they wuz afeard.  It’s hard to hev had a fine thing an’ then to hev lost it, harder than never to hev had it or to hev knowed what it wuz.  I guess, Henry, that Adam an’ Eve came often to the hills here an’ looked down at their old home, till they wuz skeered away by the flamin’ o’ the Angel’s sword.”

“But there’s nothing now to keep us out of it.  We’ll go down there, Sol, because it is a garden after all, a wilderness garden, and nothing but Indians can drive us from it until we want to go.”

“All right, Henry.  You lead on now, but remember that since Adam an’ Eve hev gone away this is my Garden o’ Eden.  It’s shore a purty sight, now that it’s beginnin’ to whiten with the day.”

Dawn in truth was silvering the valley, and in the clear pure light it stood forth in all its beauty and peace.  It was filled, too, with life.  Besides the buffaloes they saw deer, elk, swarming small game, and an immense number of singing birds.  The morning was alive with their song and when they came to the deep creek, and saw a fish leap up now and then, the shiftless one no longer had the slightest doubt.

“It’s shorely the Garden,” he said.  “Listen to them birds, Henry.  Did you ever hear so many at one time afore, all singin’ together ez ef every one wuz tryin’ to beat every other one?”

“No, Sol, I haven’t.  It is certainly a beautiful place.  Look at the beds of wild flowers in bloom.”

“An’ the game is so tame it ain’t skeered at us a bit.  I reckon, Henry, that ’till we came no human foot hez ever trod this valley, since Adam an’ Eve had to go.”

“Maybe not, Sol!  Maybe not,” said Henry, trying to smile at the shiftless one’s fancy, but failing.

“An’ thar’s one thing I want to ask o’ you, Henry.  Thar’s millions an’ millions an’ billions an’ billions o’ acres in this country that belong to nobody, but I want to put in a sort o’ claim o’ my own on the Garden o’ Eden here.  Thar are times when every man likes to be all by hisself, fur a while.  You know how it is yourself, Henry.  Jest rec’lect then that the Garden is mine.  When I’m feelin’ bad, which ain’t often, I’ll come here an’ set down ‘mong the flowers, an’ hear all them birds sing, same ez Adam an’ Eve heard ’em, an’ d’rectly I’ll feel glad an’ strong ag’in.”

“Where there’s so much unused country you ask but little, Sol.  It’s your Garden of Eden.  But you’ll let the rest of us come into it sometimes, won’t you?”

“Shorely!  Shorely!  I didn’t mean to be selfish about it.  I’ve got some venison in my knapsack, Henry, an’ I reckon you hev some too.  I’d like to hev it warm, but it’s too dangerous to build a fire.  S’pose we set, an’ eat.”

The soil of the valley was so fertile that the grass was already high enough to hide them, when they lay down near the edge of the creek.  There they ate their venison and listened to the musical tinkle of the rushing water, while the sun rose higher, and turned the luminous silver of the valley into luminous gold.  They heard light footfalls of the deer moving, and the birds sang on, but there was no human sound in the valley.  Their great adventure, the Indian camp, and the manifold dangers seemed to float away for the time.  If it was not the Garden of Eden it was another garden of the same kind, and it looked very beautiful to these two who had spent most of the night running for their lives.  They were happy, as they ate venison and the last crumbs of their bread.

“If the others wuz here,” said Shif’less Sol, “nothin’ would be lackin’.  I’m in love with the wilderness more an’ more every year, Henry.  One reason is ‘cause I’m always comin’ on somethin’ new.  I ain’t no tied-down man.  Here I’ve dropped into the Garden o’ Eden that’s been lost fur thousands o’ years, an’ tomorrow I may be findin’ some other wonder.  I rec’lect my feelin’ the first time I saw the Ohio, an’ I’ve looked too upon the big river that the warriors call the Father o’ Waters.  I’m always findin’ some new river or creek or lake.  Nothin’s old, or all trod up or worn out.  Some day I’m goin’ way out on them plains that you’ve seed, Henry, where the buff’ler are passin’ millions strong.  I tell you I love to go with the wind, an’ at night, when I ain’t quite asleep, to hear it blowin’ an’ blowin’, an’ tellin’ me that the things I’ve found already may be fine, but thar’s finer yet farther on.  I hear Paul talkin’ ‘bout the Old World, but thar can’t be anythin’ in it half ez fine ez all these woods in the fall, jest blazin’ with red an’ yellow, an’ gold an’ brown, an’ the air sparklin’ enough to make an old man young.”

The face of the shiftless one glowed as he spoke.  Every word he said came straight from his heart and Henry shared in his fervor.  The wild men who slew and scalped could not spoil his world.  He had finished his venison, and, drinking cold water at the edge of the creek, he came back and lay down again in the long grass.

“Perhaps we’d better stay here the most of the day,” said Henry.  “The valley seems to be out of the Indian line of march.  The buffaloes are over there grazing peacefully, and I can see does at the edge of the woods.  If warriors were near they wouldn’t be so peaceful.”

“And there are the wild turkeys gobblin’ in the trees,” said Shif’less Sol.  “I like wild turkey mighty well, but even ef thar wuz no fear o’ alarm I wouldn’t shoot any one in my Garden o’ Eden.”

“Nor I either, Sol.  I’m beginning to like this valley as well as you do.  Your claim to it stands good, but when we’re on our hunting expeditions up this way again the five of us will come here and camp.”

“But we’ll kill our game outside.  I’ve a notion that I don’t want to shoot anythin’ in here.”

“I understand you.  It’s too fine a place to have blood flowing in it.”

“That’s jest the way I feel about it, Henry.  You may laugh at me fur bein’ a fool, but the notion sticks to me hard an’ fast.”

“I’m not laughing at you.  If you’ll raise up a little, Sol, you can see the smoke of the main Indian campfire off there toward the northeast.  It looks like a thread from here, and it’s at least five miles away.”

“It’s a big smoke, then, or we wouldn’t see it at all, ’cause we can’t make out that o’ the smaller one nearer to the cave, though I reckon it’s still thar.”

“Perhaps so, and the warriors may come this way, but we’ll see ’em and hear ’em first.  Look, Sol, those buffaloes, in their grazing, are coming straight toward us.  The wind has certainly carried to them our odor, but they don’t seem to be alarmed by it.”

“Jest another proof, Henry, that it’s the real Garden o’ Eden.  Them buff’ler haven’t seen or smelt a human bein’ since Adam an’ Eve left, an’ ez that wuz a long time ago they’ve got over any feelin’ o’ fear o’ people, ef they ever had it.  Look at them deer, too, over thar, loafin’ ‘long through the high grass, an’ not skeered o’ anythin’.  An’ the wolves that follered us last night don’t come here.  Thar ain’t a sign o’ a wolf ever hevin’ been in the valley.”

Henry laughed, but there was no trace of irony in the laugh.  The shiftless one’s vivid fancy or belief pleased him.  It was possible, too, that Indians would not come there.  It might be some sacred place of the old forgotten people who had built the mounds and who had been exterminated by the Indians.  But the Indians were full of superstition, and often they feared and respected the sacred places of those whom they had slain.  For the boldest of the warriors, avenging spirits might be hovering there, and they would fear them more than they would fear the white men with rifles.

“Let’s go up to the head of the valley,” he said to Shif’less Sol.  “If we keep back among the bushes we won’t be seen.”

“All right,” said his comrade.  “I want to see that gate between the hills, that the creek comes from, an’ I want to take a look, too, at that grove o’ big trees growin’ thar.”

Henry reckoned the length of the valley at two miles and its width at a half mile on the average, with the creek flowing down almost its exact center.  At the head it narrowed fast, until it came to the gash between the hills, where grew the largest oaks and elms that he had ever seen.  It was in truth a magnificent grove and it gave the shiftless one extreme delight which he expressed vocally.  He surveyed the trees and the hills behind them with a measuring and comprehensive eye.

“Them hills ain’t so high,” he said, “but they’re high enough to shut out the winds o’ winter, bein’ ez they face the north an’ west, an’ here curves the creek atween ’em, through a gap not more’n ten feet wide.  An’ look how them big trees grow so close together, an’ in a sort o’ curve.  Why, that’s shorely whar Adam an’ Eve spent thar winters.  It wouldn’t take much work, thatching with poles an’ bark to rig up the snuggest kind o’ a bower.  These big trees here ag’inst the cliff almost make a cabin themselves.”

“And one that we’ll occupy the rest of the day.  It would be impossible for a warrior ten yards away to see us in here, while we can see almost the whole length of the valley.  I think we’d better stay here, Sol, and make ourselves comfortable for the rest of the day.  You need sleep, and so will I later.  It’s easy to make beds.  The dead leaves must lie a foot thick on the ground.”

“It’s a wonder they ain’t thicker, gatherin’ here ever since Adam an’ Eve moved.”

“They rot beneath and the wind blows away a lot on top, but there’s plenty left.  Now, I’m not sleepy at all.  You take a nap and I’ll watch, although I’m sure no enemy will come.”

“Reckon I will, Henry.  It’s peaceful an’ soothin’ here in the Garden o’ Eden, an’ ef I dream I’ll dream good dreams.”

He heaped up the leaves in the shape of a bed, giving himself a pillow, and, sinking down upon it luxuriously, soon slept.  Henry also piled the leaves high enough against the trunk of one of the largest trees to form a cushion for his back, and settled himself into a comfortable position, with his rifle across his knees.

Although he had been up all the night he was not sleepy.  The shiftless one’s striking fancy had exerted a great effect upon him.  This was the Garden of Eden.  It must be, and some ancient influence, something that he would probably never know, protected it from invasion.  He marked once more the fearless nature of its inhabitants.  He could see now three small groups of buffaloes and all of them grazed in perfect peace and content.  Nowhere was there a sign of the wolves that usually hung about to cut out the calves or the very old.  He saw deer in the grass along the creek, and they were oblivious of danger.

But what impressed him most of all was the profusion of singing birds and their zeal and energy.  The chorus of singing and chattering rose and fell now and then, but it never ceased.  The valley itself fairly sang with it, and in the opening before him there were incessant flashes of red and blue, as the most gaily dressed of the little birds shot past.

His eyes turned toward the gap, where the shiftless one had placed the Angel with the Flaming Sword.  It was only a few hundred yards away, and he was able to see that it was but a narrow cleft between the hills.  While he looked he saw a human figure appear upon the crest of the hill, outlined perfectly against the sun which was a blazing shield of gold behind him.

It was a savage warrior, tall, naked, save for the breech cloth, his face and body thick with war paint, the single scalp lock standing up defiantly.  The luminous glow overcoming the effect of distance, enlarged him.  He seemed twice his real height.

The warrior was gazing down into the valley, but Henry saw that he did not move.  His figure was rigid.  He merely looked and nothing more.  Presently two more figures of warriors appeared, one on either side, and they too were raised by the golden glow to twice their stature.  All three stared intently into the valley.  Henry put his hand on the shoulder of his comrade and shook him.

“What?  What?  What is it?” exclaimed the shiftless one sleepily.

“Three Indian warriors on the highest hill that overlooks the valley, but they’re not coming in.  I think that the Angel with the Flaming Sword is in the way.”

Shif’less Sol was all awake now, and he stared long at the motionless warriors.

“No, they ain’t comin’ down in the valley,” he said at last.  “I don’t know how I know it, but I do.”

“Perhaps it’s because they don’t see the remotest sign of an enemy here.”

“Partly that I reckon, an’ fur other reasons too.  Thar, they’re goin’ away!  I expect, Henry, that them warriors are a part o’ the band that wuz lookin’ fur us.  They don’t keer to come into the valley, but they might hev been tempted hard to come, ef they’d a’ saw us.  Mebbe it’s a good thing that we came here into Adam’s an’ Eve’s home.”

“It was certainly not the wrong thing.  Those warriors are gone now, and I predict that none will come in their place.”

“That’s a shore thing.  Now, ez I’ve had my nap, Henry, you take yourn.  Rec’lect that it’s always watch an’ watch with us.”

Henry knew that the shiftless one would not like it, if he did not take his turn, and, making his leafy bed, he was soothed to quick sleep by the singing of the birds.

Then the shiftless one propped his back against a bank of leaves between him and the trunk of a tree, and, with the rifle across his knees, watched.  The great peace that he had felt continued.  The fact that the Indians had merely come to the crest of the hill and looked into the valley, then going away, confirmed him in his beliefs.  As long as Henry and he stayed there, they would be safe.  But safety beyond that day was not what they were seeking.  That night they must surely reach the other three, although they would enjoy the present to the full.

Shif’less Sol’s plastic and sensitive mind had been affected by his meeting with Henry.  Despite his great confidence in the skill and strength of the young leader, he had been worried by his long absence and his meeting with him had been an immense relief.  This and their coming into the happy valley had put him in an exalted state.  The poetical side of nature always met with an immediate response in him, and like the Indian he personified the winds, and the moon and stars and sun, and all the objects and forces that were factors in wild life.

Lying closely among his leaves he watched the buffaloes and the deer.  Some of the bigger animals as the day grew and the sun increased, lay down in the grass near him, showing no sign of fear, although they must have been aware of his presence.  A flight of wild geese descended from the sky, drank at the stream, swam a little, then rose again and were gone, their forms blending into a single great arrow shooting northward through the blue.

Shif’less Sol did not wonder that they had dropped down into the valley for a moment or two, breaking their immeasurable flight into the far north.  They had known that they would be safe in this little way station, and it was yet another confirmation of his beliefs.  He watched the arrow so sharply outlined against the blue until it was gone in the vast sky, and a great wonder and awe filled the soul of the shiftless one.  He had seen such flights countless times before, but now he began to think about the instinct that sent them on such vast journeys through the ether from south to north and back again, in an endless repetition as long as they lived.  What journeys and what rivers and lakes and forests and plains they must see!  Man was but a crawler on the earth, compared with them.  Then wild ducks came, did as the geese had done, and then they too were gone in the same flight into the illimitable north that swallowed up everything.

It was in the mind of the shiftless one that he too would like to go into that vast unknown North some day, if the fighting in Kentucky ever came to an end.  He had been in the land of the Shawnees and Miamis, and Wyandots and he knew of the Great Lakes beyond, but north of them the wilderness still stretched to the edge of the world, where the polar ice reigned, eternal.  There was no limit to the imagination of Shif’less Sol, and in all these gigantic wanderings the faithful four, his friends, were with him.

Henry did not awaken until well after noon, but as usual his awakening was instantaneous, that is, all his faculties were keenly alert at once.  He glanced down the valley and saw the buffalo and deer feeding, and the great chorus of birds was going on.  The shiftless one, leaning against his bank of leaves, his rifle on his knee, was regarding the valley with an air of proprietorship.

“What’s happened while I slept?” asked Henry.

“Nothing.  You don’t expect anything to happen here.  It’s got to happen when we leave tonight.”

“I think you’re right about it, and as it’s watch and watch, you must go to sleep again now.”

His comrade without any protest stretched himself in the leaves and soon slept soundly.  Meanwhile Henry maintained vigilant watch.  In order to keep his muscles elastic he rose and walked about a little at times, but he did not leave the shelter of the thick little grove that the shiftless one had called a bower.  It well deserved the name, because the trees were so close and large, and the foliage was so dense that the sunlight could not enter.  Indians on the hills could not possibly see the two resting there.

The afternoon drew on, long and warm.  Save within their shelter the sunlight blazed brilliantly.  The buffaloes suddenly charged about for a little while and Henry at first thought they had been alarmed by the coming of man, but on second thought he put it down as mere playing.  They were well fed, full of life, and they were venting their spirits.  They ceased soon and lay down in the shade.

Later in the afternoon another Indian appeared on the summit and looked for a little while into the valley, but like the others he went away.  Henry had felt sure that he would.

Toward night the shiftless one awoke, and they ate the last of their food.  But the failure of the supply did not alarm them.  This army was very small and if hunger pressed them hard there was the forest, or they might filch from the Indian camp.  Such as they could dare anything, and achieve it, too.

The sun set, the shadows gathered, and it would soon be time to go.  The waters of the creek sang pleasantly in the ears of the shiftless one, and drawing a long breath of regret he said good-bye to the happy valley.

“Nuthin’ happened while we wuz here, Henry,” he said, “and I knowed it wouldn’t happen.  Our troubles are comin’ when we cross that line o’ hills over thar.”

He pointed toward the crests.  Beyond them, even in the twilight, the column of smoke from the great Indian camp was still visible, although it disappeared a few moments later, as the dusk turned into the dark.

“The place in the cliff lays to the right o’ that smoke,” said the shiftless one, “an’ jest about ez fur from here.”

“We ought to reach it in two hours.”

“Ef nothin’ comes in the way.”

“If nothing comes in the way.”

They crossed the valley speedily and soon stood on one of the crests that hemmed it in.

“We’ve had one fine day when we wuzn’t thinkin’ about fightin’,” said the shiftless one, looking back.

“A restful day,” said Henry.

Then the two plunged into the deep forests that lined the far slopes, and started on their journey.