Read CHAPTER VIII - THE PATH OF DANGER of The Keepers of the Trail A Story of the Great Woods , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

Both Henry and Shif’less Sol had a clear idea of direction, and they could lay a line, like a chain bearer, toward the rock fortress, where they felt sure their comrades were lying in comfortable and hidden security.  But back now in the deep forest the atmosphere of peace and content that they had breathed in the happy valley was gone, instead it was surcharged with war and danger.

“I miss our Garden o’ Eden,” whispered Shif’less Sol regretfully.  “We’re already back where men are fightin’ an’ tryin’ to kill.”

“I thought perhaps most of the army had already gone south, but there’s the column of smoke as big as ever, and also the second column nearer to our home.”

“An’ here’s a creek that we’ll hev to cross.  Looks deep too.  Strike a feller ’bout the middle.”

“Maybe we can find a shallower place or a tree that has fallen all the way across it.”

They ran along its bank for some distance, but finding no place where the water looked shallow plunged in, holding their weapons and ammunition clear of the surface.  As they emerged on the other shore, a warrior standing in the bushes about forty yards away uttered a shout and fired at them.  But the Indian is never a good marksman and in the dusk his bullet cut the leaves at least three feet over their heads.

His warning shout and shot was followed by a yell from at least twenty others who lay about a small fire in a glade a hundred yards beyond.  Thick bushes had hid the coals from the sight of Henry and the shiftless one and now, taking no time to reply to the bullet of the warrior, who stood, empty gun in hand, they turned and ran swiftly toward the north, while after them came the whole yelling pack.

“We’ve shorely left the Garden o’ Eden, Henry,” said the shiftless one.  “They didn’t do sech things ez these thar in Adam or Eve’s times, nor in ourn.  We come purty nigh walkin’ plum’ into a trap.”

“And we’ve got to shake ’em off.  We mustn’t run toward the stone hollow, because that would merely draw ’em down on all of us.  We must lead away to the west again, Sol.”

“You’re right, Henry, but that confounded creek’s in the way.  I kin see it off on the left an’ I notice that it’s growin’ wider an’ deeper, ez it flows on to the Ohio.  They’ve got us hemmed in ag’inst it.”

“But Sol, they’ll have to do a lot before they catch such as you and me.”

“That’s so, Henry.  I guess we’re right hard to ketch.  I’m proud to be a fugitive ‘long o’ you.”

Henry glanced back and saw the long line of dusky figures following them through woods over hills and across valleys with all the tenacity of a pack of wolves pursuing a deer.  He knew that they would hang on to the last, and while he was sure that he and Shif’less Sol could distance them, if they used their utmost speed, he was in continuous apprehension lest they stir up some other band or at least stray warriors, as the forest was full of them.  The creek was a bar holding them to an almost straight line.  It was wide and too deep except for swimming, rising almost to the proportions of a river.  Henry calculated too that the creek did not flow far west of their hollow in the rock, and thus they were forced, despite their wishes, to run toward the very place they wished to avoid.

“We’ve certainly had bad luck,” he said to Sol, “and I think we’ve stirred up a regular hornet’s nest.  Hark to that!”

From their right came a swelling war whoop with the ferocious whining note at the end, and the eyes of the two fugitives met.  Each, despite the dark, could read the alarm in the face of the other.  They had not run out of the trap.  Instead the trap was about to be sprung upon them.  With the unfordable stream on one side of them, an Indian band on the other, and an Indian band behind them their case was indeed serious.  The transition from the Garden of Eden to a world of danger was sudden and complete.

The band in the rear gave answer to the cry of their comrades in the west, and Henry and the shiftless one had never before heard a whoop so full of exultation and ferocity.  Henry understood it as truly as if it had been spoken in words.  It said that the fugitives were surely theirs, that they would be caught very soon, that they would be given to the torture and that all the warriors should see the flames lick around their bare bodies.

A red mist appeared before the eyes of Henry.  The wonderful peace, and the kindness toward all things that had enwrapped him, as he lay all day long in the happy valley, were gone.  Instead his veins were flushed with anger.  The warriors would exult over the torture and death of his comrades and himself.  Well, he would show them that a man could not be burnt at the stake, until he was caught, and it was easy to exult too soon.

He whirled for an instant, raised his rifle, fired, whirled back again and then ran on.  The whole motion, the brief curve about, and then the half circle back, seemed one, and yet, as the two ran on, they heard a warrior utter a death shout, as he fell in the forest.

“I reckon they’ll keep back a little when they learn how we kin shoot,” said Shif’less Sol.  “Yes, they’re not so close, by at least thirty yards.  Now, how foolish that is!”

The Indians fired a dozen shots, but all their bullets flew wild.  Then a pattering upon leaves and bark, but neither of the flying two was touched.

“Foolish, so it was,” said Henry, “but it was anger too.  Now, hark to that, will you!”

The shots were succeeded by a war cry, again on their right, but much nearer than before.  Henry took a longing to look at the creek, but if they attempted to ford it the warriors would almost certainly shoot them while swimming.  He and his comrade must make a great spurt to escape being cut off by the second force.

“Now, Sol,” he said, “you’re a good runner.  So am I, and we need to fly like deer.  You know why.”

“I reckon I do.”

The speed of the two suddenly increased.  They went forward now, as if they were shot from a bow.  Fortunately there were no pitfalls.  The ground was not strewn with vines and brush to entrap them, and seeing that the two fugitives would be well ahead before the junction of the two bands could be formed, the band behind them sent forth its war whoop.  But to Henry with his sensitive ear attuned to every shade of feeling that night the cry was not so full of exultation and triumph as the one before.

“Afraid the trap will fail to shut down on us,” he said to the shiftless one.

“I read it that way.”

“A little faster, Sol!  A little faster!  We must make sure!”

Fortunately the creek now curved to the left, which enabled them to draw away from the second band, and both feeling that the crisis was at hand put forth their utmost powers.  Under a burst of magnificent speed the ground spun behind them.  Trees and bushes flitted past.  Then they heard the disappointed yell, as the two bands joined, and the firing of shots that fell short.

“One danger escaped,” breathed Henry as they slackened speed.

“But thar’s more to come.  Still, I’m glad I don’t hev to run so fast fur a time.  It’s fine to be a race horse, but you can’t be a racin’ all the days an’ nights o’ your life.”

“We must cross the creek some way or other, Sol.  I don’t think our rock fortress can now be more than ten miles away and we can’t afford to bring the warriors down on it.”

Shif’less Sol nodded.  They kept very near to the creek and he noticed suddenly that the current was shallowing, and had grown much swifter.  He inferred that rapids were ahead, but this was surely the place to cross, and he called Henry’s attention to it.  The bank was about six feet above the water and Henry said instantly: 

“Jump, Sol, jump!  But be sure that you land squarely on your feet!”

The shiftless one nodded.  Certainly a man could not choose a poorer time to turn an ankle.  Without stopping speed but balancing himself perfectly he sprang far out, and Henry sprang with him.  There were two splashes, as they sank almost to the waists in the water, but they were able to keep their powder and weapons dry, and in an instant they were at the far bank climbing up with all the haste of those who know they are about to become targets for bullets.

They heard the yell of disappointment anew, and then the scattering fire of bullets.  Two or three pattered on the stream, but they did not hear the whizz of the others, and in an instant they were safely up the bank and into the forest.

“Hit, Sol?” said Henry.

“Nary a hit.  An’ you?”

“Untouched.”

“Come down straight on your feet in the creek?”

“Straight as straight can be.  And you?”

“Split the water like a fish.  Wet to the middle, but happy.  I reckon we kin slow down a little now, can’t we?  I’m a good runner, but I wuzn’t made up to go forever.”

“We’ll stop a little while in these bushes until we can get the fresh breath that we need so badly.  But you know, Sol, they’ll cross the creek, hunt for our trail and follow us.”

“Let ’em come.  We ain’t hemmed in now, an’ with a thousand miles o’ space to run in I reckon they won’t git us.”

They lay panting in the bushes a full ten minutes.  Then their hearts sank to a normal beat, strength flowed back into their veins, and, rising they stole away, keeping a general course toward the west.  They went at a rather easy gait for an hour or more, but when they rested fifteen minutes they heard at the end of that time sounds of pursuit.  The warriors were showing their usual tenacity on the trail, and knowing that it was not wise to delay longer they fled again toward the west, though they took careful note of the country as they went, because they intended to come back there again.

Twice the Indian horde behind them gave tongue, sign that the pursuit would be followed to the bitter end, but Henry and the shiftless one now had little fear for themselves.  Their chief apprehension was lest they be driven so far to the west they might not return in time to allay the doubts and fears of their comrades.

They soon passed from hills into marshy regions which to their skilled eyes betokened another creek, flowing like its parallel sister into the Ohio.  All these creeks overflowed widely in the heavy spring rains, and they judged that the swampy territory had been left by the retreating waters.

“Ez I think I told you before,” said Shif’less Sol, “I’m a mighty good runner.  But thar are some things I kin do besides runnin’.  Runnin’ all night, even when you slow up a bit, gits stale.  Your mind grows mighty tired o’ it even if your feet do plant themselves one after another jest like a machine.  Now, my mind is sayin’ enough, so I think, Henry, we might git through this swamp, leavin’ no trail, o’ course, an’ rest on some good solid little bit o’ land surrounded by a sea o’ mud.”

“That’s right, Sol.  It’s what we must do, but we must cross to the other side of the creek before we find our oasis.”

“Oasis!  What’s an oasis?”

“It’s something, surrounded by something else,” Henry explained.  “Come on now, Sol.  Watch your footing.  Don’t get yourself any muddier than you can help.”

“I’m follerin’, steppin’ right in your tracks, over which the soft mud draws the minute my foot has left ’em.  I’m glad thar are lots o’ bushes here, ‘cause they’ll hide us from any warriors who may be in advance o’ the main band.”

The creek was not as deep and wide as the other, and they crossed it without trouble.  Two hundred yards further on they found a tiny island of firm ground set thick with saplings and bushes, among which they crawled and lay down, until regular breathing came back.  Then they scraped the mud off their moccasins and leggings and sat up on the hard earth.

“An’ so this is an oasis?” said Shif’less Sol.

“Yes, solid ground, surrounded for a long distance by mud.”

“An’ with saplin’s an’ bushes so thick that the sharpest eyed warrior ever born couldn’t see into it.  Henry, I’m thinkin’ that we’ve found another little home.”

“One that hides us from people passing by, but that does not put a roof over our heads or give us food to eat.”

“Do you care to rec’lect, Henry, that all our venison is gone?”

“Don’t talk to me about it now.  I know we’ll be hungry soon, but we’ll just have to be hungry, and that’s all.”

“I wish it wuz all.  I’m hungry right now, an’ I know that the longer I lay here the hungrier I’ll git.  I’m lookin’ ahead, Henry, an’ I see the time when we’ll hev to shoot a deer, even ef thar are ten thousand warriors in a close ring about us.”

“Peep between those vines, Sol, and you can see them now among the bushes on the far side of the creek.”

The shiftless one raised himself up a little, and looked in the direction that Henry had indicated.  There was sufficient moonlight to disclose four or five warriors who had come to the edge of the swamp and stopped.  They seemed at a loss, as the mud had long since sunk back and covered up the trail, and perhaps, also, they hesitated because of the dreaded rifles of the two white men, which might be fired at them from some unsuspected place.  As they hesitated another figure emerged from the background and joined them.

“Braxton Wyatt!” said Shif’less Sol.  “He must hev been in the second band that come up.  Do you think I could reach him with a long shot, Henry?”

“No, and even if you could you mustn’t try.  We are well hidden now, but a shot would bring them down upon us.  Let Braxton Wyatt wait.  His time will come.”

“Here’s hopin’ that it’ll come soon.  I’m beginnin’ to feel a sight better, Henry.  Lookin’ over all that mud they don’t dream that the fellers they’re lookin’ fur are layin’ here in this little clump o’ bushes, like two rabbits in their nests.”

“They won’t find us because there is no trail leading here.  They’ll be searching the forests on the other side, and we can stay here until they go away.”

“Which would leave us happy ef I wuzn’t so hungry.  It’s comin’ on me strong, Henry, that hungry feelin’.  You know that I’m gen’ally a pow’ful feeder.”

“I know it, but this is a time when you’ll have to resist.”

“I ain’t so shore.  I notice that them that want things pow’ful bad an’ go after ’em pow’ful hard are most always them that gits ’em, an’ that’s me tonight.”

“Well, lie close, and we’ll see what happens, there’s Wyatt within reach of my rifle right now, and it’s a strong temptation to put a bullet into him.  The temptation is just as strong in me, Sol, as it has been in you.”

“Then why don’t you do it an’ take the chances?  We kin git away anyhow.”

“For several reasons, Sol.  I doubt whether we could get away, and escape is important not only to ourselves ­I like my life and you like yours ­but to others as well.  Besides, I can’t draw trigger on Braxton Wyatt from cover.  Cruel as he is, and he’s worse than the savages, because he’s a renegade, I can’t forget that we were boys at Wareville together.”

“Still your bullet, most likely, would save the life o’ many a man an’ o’ women an’ children too.  But it’s too late anyhow.  He’s gone, an’ them warriors hev gone with him.  By the great horn spoon, what wuz that!”

They had now gone to the extreme eastern edge of their little covert and a sudden floundering and gasping there startled them.  A large black figure rose up from a dense thicket of alders, pawpaws and small willows and gazed at them a moment or two with frightened red eyes.

“A bear,” exclaimed Shif’less Sol.  “Oh, Henry, let me shoot!  I kin see his steaks fryin’ over the coals now.  Thar’s our supper, settin’ on its hind legs not ten feet from us.”

“Don’t you dare do such a thing!” exclaimed Henry, laughing.  “Why, your shot would bring a whole tribe of Indians down upon us!”

“I know it, but I do want that bear, an’ I want to put the responsibility o’ not gittin’ him on you.”

“All right.  I take it.  There he goes and your chance, too, is lost.”

The bear threshed out of his den, clattered across the mud flats and entered the forest, whence came in a minute the sound of a shot.

“Thar, the warriors hev got him!” exclaimed Shif’less Sol, deep disappointment showing in his tone, “and in two or three hours they’ll be cookin’ him.  An’ he was our bear, too.  We saw him first.  I could see that he was nice an’ fat, even ef it wuz early in the year, an’ them steaks belong to us.”

“Maybe they did, but we’ve lost ’em.  Now, I think we’d better keep quiet.  The Indians are probably far ahead of us, thinking that we’ve gone that way.”

The shiftless one subsided into an indignant silence.  The oasis was an ideal place for two situated as they were, and having the wisdom of the woods they remained still and quiet in its cover.  But after three or four hours the shiftless one became restless.  He was a man of great strength, and despite his lazy manner, of wonderful bodily activity.  It took much food to satisfy the demands of that powerful frame, and he was growing hungrier and hungrier.  Moreover a light wind began to blow from the west, bringing upon its edge a faint aroma that caused him to sit up and sniff inquiringly.  The odor grew stronger, and he no longer had need to ask questions with his nose.  He knew, and he knew too well.

“Henry,” he said, “thar’s our bear jest as I expected.  They’re cookin’ him, an’ it’s not so fur away either!”

“I think you’re right, but we can’t help it.  We have to be resigned.”

“Mebbe we can’t help it, an’ then ag’in mebbe we kin, but anyway I ain’t goin’ to be resigned.  I’m protestin’ all the time, ’cause it’s my bear.  I saw him first.”

The savory odor grew stronger, and the anger and indignation of the shiftless one increased.  And with these two emotions came a third which hardened into a resolution.

“Henry,” he said, “you’re our leader, an’ we most always do what you say, but this time I reckon I’ve decided fur myself what I’m goin’ to do.  I’m growin’ hungrier an’ hungrier.  Sometimes I put that hunger down but in a minute it bounces back up ag’in stronger than ever.  It’s my master, gittin’ control over ev’ry inch o’ me, an’ I’ve got to listen to what it says.  I know I’m makin’ a long speech, talkin’ like an Injun chief at a council, but I’ve got to explain an’ make clear ez day why I’m goin’ to do the thing I’m goin’ to do.”

“Go on, Sol.  Talk as much as you please.  We’ve all night before us.”

“Which is good.  Ez I said, hunger has laid hold o’ ev’ry inch o’ me, an’ is workin’ mighty fast.  When I git into that state I’m plum’ distracted on the question o’ food, though it makes me smarter an’ more keerful than ever on the ways to git it.  I jest wanted to tell you, Henry, that I’m goin’ to leave this oasis an’ come back with a load o’ them bear steaks that rightfully belong to me.”

“Have you lost your mind, Sol?  You’d be killed and scalped in an hour!”

“I knowed you’d say that.  That’s the reason I come around to it gradual like, an’ in a circle, but Henry, it ain’t no use talkin’.  I’m goin’.  My mind is clean made up.  Besides, I won’t be scalped an’ I won’t be killed.  Jest you lay down an’ afore long I’ll be back here with my property.”

Henry saw that it was no use to argue.  The mind of the shiftless one was made up, and occasionally he could be as resolute as Henry himself.

“If you’re bound to go I can’t help it,” Henry said.  “I don’t know your plan of action, and I won’t ask it, but if you don’t come back I’ll feel pretty bad, Sol.”

“But I’ll come back.  That’s shore.  The night has jest this minute turned darker, which is a sign.  Darkness is what I need, an’ it tells me that I’m goin’ to git through.”

Henry saw his comrade depart with keen regret.  He did not look upon him as lost, because his skill was great.  But so was the danger, and he thought the risk was out of proportion to the purpose.  But there was nothing more for him to say and he watched the shiftless one as he left the oasis, glided over the mud flat and disappeared in the forest to the west.

Then came a long and painful wait.  Twice he heard the warriors, through the medium of the wolf’s howl, calling to one another, but he did not believe the cries had any bearing upon the adventure of Shif’less Sol.  Then he heard a faint chorus of yells in the western forest, whence his comrade had gone, and he knew that something had happened.  He was filled with apprehension, but he could do nothing, except to lie still in the covert.

The yell was not repeated, but he intently watched the edge of the forest on all sides except the west.  After a while he saw the faint figure of a man, scarcely a tracery, appear in the north, and then come skipping like a swift shadow across the flat.  His heart did not rise merely, but took a sudden jump upward.  It was the shiftless one returning to their lair, and doubtless in triumph.

He had not time to think much about it before Shif’less Sol was on the oasis, crouched among the bushes, laughing low, but in a tone that was fairly redolent of triumph.

“I done done it, Henry!” he exulted.  “I done done it!”

He held up the hind quarter of a bear that had been cooked to a turn over a bed of coals.

“I haven’t tasted it yet,” he said, “but jest smell it!  Did sech an odor ever afore tickle your nose?  Did your mouth ever afore water so much?  Here, Henry, fall on!”

He took out his knife, cut off a big piece and handed it to Henry, who began to eat eagerly.  Then the shiftless one fell to in like fashion.

“How did you manage it?” he asked.

The shiftless one grinned.

“Didn’t I tell you that the sudden darkness wuz a sign favorin’ me?” he said.  “Paul is always tellin’ about them old Greeks an’ Romans not goin’ into battle till they had talked with the omens, mostly the insides o’ cows an’ sheep.  I believe in signs too.  Mine wuz a lot better, an’ it worked.  I found that they hed jest finished roastin’ the bear on the coals, after hevin’ dressed him an’ cut him into four quarters.  ’Pears that most o’ ’em hed gone deeper into the woods to look fur somethin’.  I come close up in the bushes, an’ began a terrible snarlin’ an’ yelpin’ like a hull pack o’ wolves.  The three that wuz left, the cooks, took torches from the fire, an’ run in after me.  But I hed flew like lightnin’ ‘roun’ to the other side, jumped in, grabbed up one o’ the quarters by the leg, an’ wuz away afore they could fairly see what had happened, an’ who had made it happen.  Then they set up one yell, which I guess you heard, but I kept on flyin’ through the woods to the north, curved about, came over the mud flats whar no trail kin last a minute, an’ here I am with our bear, or ez much of it ez we want o’ him.”

“You’ve done a great deed, Sol.  I didn’t think you could go through with it, but you have, and this bear is mighty fine.”

“He wuz ourn, an’ I wuz bound to hev a part o’ him.”

“We’ll put the rest in our knapsacks and there ought to be enough for two days more.  It relieves us of a great anxiety, because we couldn’t go without food, and we really needed it badly.”

“I’m feelin’ like two men already.  I wonder what the boys are doin’ up thar in the holler?  A-layin’ ‘roun’ on the stone floor, I s’pose, eatin’, drinkin’ cold water, an’ hevin’ a good time.”

“But remember their anxiety about us.”

“I do.  They shorely must hev worried a lot, seein’ that we’ve been gone so long a time.  Them are three fine fellers, Henry, Paul with all his learnin’ an’ his quiet ways, an’ Long Jim, with whom I like so pow’ful well to argy an’ who likes so pow’ful well to argy with me, ez good a feller ez ever breathed, an’ Tom Ross, who don’t talk none, givin’ all his time to me, but who knows such a tremenjeous lot.  We’ve got to git back to ’em soon, Henry.”

Henry agreed with him, and then, having eaten heartily they took turn and turn in sleeping.  Their clothing had dried on them, but their blankets had escaped a wetting entirely, and they were able to make themselves comfortable.

In the morning Henry saw that the larger column of smoke was gone, but that the smaller remained, and the fact aroused his curiosity.

“What do you make of it?” he asked Shif’less Sol.

“I draws from it the opinion that the main band with the cannon hez started off into the south, but that part o’ the warriors hev stayed behind fur some purpose or other.”

“My opinion, too.  But why has the big force gone and the small one remained?”

“I can’t say.  It’s too much fur me.”

Henry had an idea, but hoping that he was mistaken he did not utter it just then.

“If the big band has started south again,” he said, “and the absence of the column of smoke indicates it, then all the Indians in this part of the forest have been drawn off.  They’ve long since lost us, and they wouldn’t linger here in the hope of running across us by chance, when the great expedition was already on its way.”

“That’s sound argument, an’ so we’ll leave our islan’ an’ make fur the boys.”

They picked a path across the mud flats, recrossed the creek and entered the deep forest, where the two felt as if they had come back to their true home.  The wonderful breeze, fresh with a thousand odors of spring in the wilderness, was blowing.  It did not come across mud flats, but it came through a thousand miles of dark green foliage, the leaves rippling like the waters of the sea.

“The woods fur me,” said Shif’less Sol, speaking in a whisper, with instinctive caution.  “I like ’em, even when they’re full o’ warriors lookin’ fur my scalp.”

The forest here was very dense, and also was heavy with undergrowth which suited their purpose, as they would be able to approach the hollow, unseen and unheard.  Henry still did not like the presence of the smaller column of smoke, and when he reached the crest of their first hill he saw that it was yet rising.

“You had a sign last night, and it was a good one,” he said to Shif’less Sol, “but I see one now, and I think it is a bad one.”

“We’ll go on an’ find it.”

They approached the hollow rapidly, the forest everywhere being extremely dense, but when they were within less than a mile of it both stopped short and looked at each other.

“You heard it?” said Henry.

“Yes, I heard it.”

“It wasn’t much louder than the dropping of an acorn, but it was a rifle shot.”

“O’ course it wuz a rifle shot.  Neither you nor I could be mistook about that.”

“And you noticed where it came from?”

“Straight from the place where Paul and Tom and Long Jim Hart are.”

“Which may mean that their presence has been discovered and that they are besieged.”

“That’s the way I look at it.”

“And we must make a rescue.”

“That’s true, an’ we’ve got to be so mighty keerful about it that we ain’t took an’ scalped and burned by the savages, afore we’ve had a single chance at makin’ a rescue.”

The thought in the minds of the two was the same.  They were sure now from the absence of the larger smoke column that the main force had gone south, but that the smaller had remained to take their comrades, whose presence, by some chance, they had discovered.  They lay closely hidden for a while, and they heard the report of a second shot, followed by a mere shred of sound which they took to be an Indian yell, although they were not sure.

“Ef the boys are besieged, an’ we think they are,” said the shiftless one, “they kin hold out quite a while even without our help.  So I think, Henry, we’d better go an’ see whether the main camp has broke up an’ the cannon gone south.  It won’t be so hard to find out that, an’ then we kin tell better what we want to do.”

“You’re right, of course,” replied Henry.  “We’ll have to leave our comrades for the time and go to the big camp.”

They curved again toward the south and west, keeping to the thickest part of the forest and using every possible device to hide their trail, knowing its full necessity, as the day was brilliant and one, unless under cover, could be seen from afar.  Game started up in their path and Henry took it as new proof that the main body of the Indians had gone.  Deer, scared away by the hunters, were so plentiful that they would return soon after the danger for them departed.  Nevertheless both he and the shiftless one were apprehensive of wandering warriors who might see them from some covert, and their progress, of necessity, was slow.

They came to several grassy openings, in one of which the buffalo were feeding, but Henry and his comrade always passed around such exposed places, even at the cost of greatly lengthening their journey.  At one point they heard a slight sound in the forest, and being uncertain whether it was made by an enemy they remained crouched in the thicket at least a half-hour.  Then they heard another faint report in the north and their keen ears told them it came from a point near the rocky hollow.

“I can’t make anything of it,” whispered Henry, “except that the boys are besieged as we feared.  I’ve tried to believe that the shots were fired by Indians at game, but I can’t force my belief.  The reports all come from the same place, and they mean exactly what we wish they didn’t mean.”

“But they mean too,” said the shiftless one, courageously, “that so long as we hear ’em the boys are holdin’ out.  The warriors wouldn’t be shootin’ off their guns fur nothin’.”

“That’s true.  Now, we haven’t heard that sound again.  It must have been made by a wildcat or a wolf or something of the kind.  So let’s press on.”

The great curve through the forest took them late in the afternoon to the site of the big camp.  They were sure, long before they reached it that it had been abandoned.  They approached very carefully through the dense woods, and they heard no sound whatever.  It was true that a little smoke floated about among the dense leaves, but both were certain that it came from dying fires, abandoned many hours ago.

“You don’t hear anything, do you?” asked Henry.

“Not a sound.”

“Then they’re gone.”

Rising from the undergrowth they boldly entered the camp, where perhaps a thousand warriors had danced and sung and feasted and slept for days.  Now the last man was gone, but they had left ample trace of their presence.  In the wide open space lay the charred coals of many fires, and everywhere were heaps of bones of buffalo, bear, dear and wild turkey.  Feathers and an occasional paint box were scattered about.

“The feast before the fight,” said the shiftless one.  “I’ve a good appetite myself, but it won’t hold a candle to that of a hungry warrior.”

A low snarling and a pattering of many feet came from the surrounding forest.

“The wolves,” said Henry.  “They’ve been here to glean, and they ran away at our approach.”

“An’ they’ll be back the moment we leave.”

“Like as not, but we don’t care.  Here are the wheel tracks, Sol, and there is the road they’ve cut through the forest.  A blind boy could follow the trail of the cannon, and do you know, Sol, I’m bothered terribly.”

“Yes, I know, Henry.  We’ve got to turn back, an’ save the boys while them warriors, with the English an’ the cannon, are goin’ on into the south to attack our people.”

“And time is often the most precious of all things.”

“So it is, Henry.”

Henry sat down on one of the logs and cupped his chin in his hands.  The problem presented to him was a terrible one, and he was thinking with all his powers of concentration.  Should he and Shif’less Sol follow and continue his efforts to destroy the cannon, or return and help their comrades who might be besieged for a week, or even longer?  But it was likely that Paul, Long Jim and Silent Tom, with all their resources of skill and courage, would hold out.  In the face of a defence such as they could make it would be almost impossible to force the cleft in the cliff, and they had some food and of course unlimited water.

They could be left to themselves, while Shif’less Sol and he hurried on the trail of the Indian army and made their great attempt.  Shif’less Sol watched him, as he sat, his chin sunk in his hand, the deep eyes very thoughtful.  Presently both looked at the column of smoke not more than a mile away that marked the presence of the smaller camp, the one that had remained and which was undoubtedly conducting the siege.  As they looked they heard once more the faint report of a shot, or its echo coming down the wind.  Henry stood up, and there was no longer a look of doubt in his eyes.

“Sol,” he said, “those three have been with us in a thousand dangers, haven’t they?”

“Nigher ten thousand, Henry.”

“And they never left us to look out for ourselves?”

“Never, Henry.”

“And they never would do it, either.”

“Never.  Warriors, an’ fires, an’ floods, an’ earthquakes all together couldn’t make ’em do it.”

“Nor can they make us.  We’ve got to go back and rescue our comrades, Sol, and then we’ll try to overtake their army and destroy the cannon.”

“I thought you’d decide that way, Henry.  No, I knowed you’d do it.”

“Now, we’ve got to bear back toward the left, and then approach the cliff.”

“An’ on our way find out jest what the warriors attackin’ it are up to.”

They began a new trail, and with the utmost exercise of skill and caution undertook to reach their comrades.