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

Henry and the shiftless one had not gone far, before they were deeply grateful that the undergrowth was so dense.  They distinctly heard three shots and twice the war whoop.  A small gully, so thickly covered with vines and bushes, that it was almost like a subterranean channel, allowed them to go much nearer.  There lying hidden until twilight, they distinctly heard scattered firing, war whoops and then a long piercing shout which had in it the quality of the white man’s voice.  Shif’less Sol laughed low, but with intense pleasure.

“I can’t hear his words,” he said, “but I’d know that yell in a million.  It’s Long Jim’s ez shore ez shootin’.  It’s so pow’ful loud ’cause it’s drawed up from a long distance, an’ when it does come free it comes a-poppin’.  It’s Jim tellin’ them warriors what he thinks of ’em.  He’s tellin’ ’em what scalawags they are, an’ how their fathers an’ mothers an’ grandfathers an’ grandmothers afore ’em wuz ez bad or wuss.  He’s tellin’ ’em they’re squaws painted up to look like men, an’ ez he talks Shawnee an’ Miami they’re hoppin’ mad.”

Henry even could not refrain from laughing.  It was Long Jim’s voice beyond a doubt, and his note of triumph showed that he and his comrades were safe ­so far.  Evidently he was in great fettle.  His words shot forth in a stream and Henry knew that the savages were writhing in anger at his taunts.  The report of a rifle came suddenly and echoed through the darkening forest.  When the last echo died there was a moment of silence, and then to their welcome ears came the voice of Long Jim again, pouring forth a stream of taunt and invective with undiminished speed and power.

“Ain’t he the great one?” whispered Shif’less Sol, admiringly.  “Didn’t I tell you that voice o’ his was so strong ‘cause it come up so fur.  An’ did you ever hear him do better?  Thar ain’t a word in the hull Shawnee an’ Miami languages that he hasn’t used on ’em an’ a sprinkling o’ Wyandot an’ Delaware too.  They’re so mad I kin see ’em bitin’ their lips an’ t’arin’ at thar scalp locks.  Good old Jim, give it to ’em!”

The voice went on a quarter of an hour with amazing force and speed.  Then it ceased abruptly and silence and darkness together came over the woods.  Henry and his comrade debated as they lay in the little gully.  Should they try to get in to their comrades?  Or should they try to get their comrades out?  Either would be a most difficult task, but as the night deepened, and they talked they came to a decision.

“It has to be me,” said Henry.

“I s’pose so,” said Sol, regretfully.  “You’re the likeliest hand at it, but you always take the most dangerous part.  It’s nothin’ fur me to lay ‘roun’ here in the night till you fellers come.”

Henry’s smile was invisible in the dusk.

“Of course, Sol,” he said, “you run no risk.  I read once in a book, that our teacher had at Wareville, about an outdoor amusement they called a lawn festival.  That’s what you’re going to have, a lawn festival.  While I’m gone you’ll walk about here and pick flowers for bouquets.  If any savage warrior wanting your scalp should come along he’d change his mind at once, and help you make your bouquet.”

“Stop your foolishness, Henry.  You know it ain’t no hard job fur me to hang ‘bout in the woods an’ keep out o’ danger.”

“Yes, but you may have a lot to do when you hear the signals.  Keep as close as you reasonably can, Sol, and if we come out and give the howl of the wolf you answer, according to our custom, and we’ll know which way to run.”

“All right, Henry.  I won’t be sleepin’.  Thar they are shootin’ ag’in, but not doin’ any yellin’.  So they haven’t hit anythin’.  Good-bye, an’ rec’lect that I’ll be waitin’ here.”

Strong hands clasped in the darkness and Henry slipped away on his perilous mission, reaching without event the valley that the cliff overlooked.  Then he used all the caution and skill that the superman of the forest possessed, creeping closer and closer and ever closer, until he could see, despite the darkness, the painted forms of Miami and Shawnee warriors in the thickets, all looking up at the point where the crevice in the cliff was practically hidden by the foliage.  It was an average night, quiet and dark up there, but Henry knew that three pairs of good eyes in the coign of the crevice were watching everything that went on below.

He crouched lower and lower, until he blended with earth and thicket and still watched.  He saw one of the warriors raise his rifle and fire at the hidden mark.  Then he heard two impacts of the bullet, first as it struck upon stone, and then as glancing, it fell among the leaves.  Out of the mouth of the fissure came a great booming voice, speaking Shawnee and ridiculing their lack of skill with the rifle.

The voice said that if they did not improve in their firing he would come outside, sit in the best moonlight he could find, and let them take turns at him as a target.  He would even mark off spots on his chest and offer prizes to any one who might hit them, but he knew very well that none of them would ever succeed.  If he had a six-year-old boy who should do as badly as they were doing he would take him away and whip him with willow switches.

Henry, lying close in his covert, laughed inwardly.  Long Jim was in good form.  Upon occasion he had a wonderful command of language, and the present occasion was better than any other that Henry could remember.  Events, chief of which was a successful defense, had inspired in him a wonderful flow of language.  His great sonorous voice again pealed out wrath, defiance and contempt.

“Oh, you dogs! sons uv dogs! an’ grandsons uv dogs!” he shouted.  “Why don’t you come an’ take us?  Here we are, only a few, jest settin’ an’ waitin’ fur you!  An’ thar are twenty or more uv you!  Oh, you Shawnees an’ Miamis, an’ Wyandots, why are you waitin’ down thar when jest a few uv us are up here, ready to give you welcome?  I don’t think you’re re’lly warriors.  You’re jest old squaws painted up to look like ’em, an’ the real fightin’ men uv your tribe are at home, asleep in the lodges, afraid to face the bullets uv the white men, while they send thar old women here to make a noise!”

Henry laughed again that soundless laugh behind his teeth.  He read everything as plainly as if it had been written in a book before him.  Nobody in the stony hollow had been hurt, else Long Jim’s voice would not have been so exultant.  They were confident, too, that they could hold the narrow opening indefinitely, else he would not have sent forth such intolerable taunts.  He made his position a little easier and again laughed deep in his throat and with unction.  He had never known Long Jim to be in finer form.  Shif’less Sol was the acknowledged orator of the five, but tonight the cloak of inspiration was spread over the shoulders of Long Jim Hart.

“Why don’t you come into our little house?” he shouted.  “It’s a nice place, a warm place, an’ the rain can’t git at you here.  Won’t you walk into our parlor, ez the spider said to the fly!  It’s a good place, better than any wigwam you’ve got, nice an’ warm, with a roof that the rain can’t get through, an’ plenty of cool runnin’ water!  An’ ef you want our scalps you’d never find grander heads uv ha’r.  They’re the finest an’ longest an’ thickest that ever grew on the head uv man.  They’re jest waitin’ to be took.  Any warrior who took one uv ’em would be made a chief right away.  Why don’t you come on an’ git ’em?  It can’t be that you’re afraid, you Shawnees and Miamis an’ Delawares an’ Wyandots.  Here’s our gyarden, jest waitin’ fur you, the door open an’ full uv good things.  Why don’t you come on?  Ef I had a dog an’ told him to run after a b’ar cub an’ he wouldn’t run I’d kill him fur a coward!”

Henry heard a roar of rage from the thickets, and once more he laughed behind his teeth.  Long Jim Hart was still in his grandest form, and although many Indian chiefs were great orators, masters of taunt and satire, Long Jim, inspired that night, was the equal of their best.  The gift of tongues had come to him.

“I heard a noise down thar in the holler!” he shouted.  “Wuz it made by warriors, men?  No! it wuz dogs barkin’ an’ crows cawin’ an’ wolves whinin’ an’ rabbits squeakin’.  Sech ez them would never come up ag’in a white man’s rifle.  I hear the wind blowin’ too, but it don’t bring me no sound ‘cept that uv dogs barkin’, low-down curs that would run away from a chipmunk with their tails atween their legs.  I’m gittin’ mighty tired now uv waitin’ fur them that called theirselves warriors, but are nothin’ but old squaws in war paint.  Ef I don’t hear from ’em ag’in soon I’ll go to sleep an’ leave here my little boy, ten years old, to meet ’em with a switch ez they come up.”

There was another roar of rage from the brush, and Henry said under his breath: 

“Well done, Long Jim!  Well done, twice and again!”

Long Jim now softened his voice and began to beg.

“Why don’t you come up here, you red Indian fellers?” he cried.  “All my friends, knowin’ thar is no danger, hev gone to sleep, leavin’ me to welcome the guests, when they stan’ afore our door.  I’m waitin’!  I’ve been waitin’ a long time, an’ ef you don’t come soon I’ll hev to go to sleep leavin’ you outside our door.”

The Indians were always susceptible to oratory and now another shout of rage came from them.  The taunts of Long Jim were too much, and a dozen dusky forms sprang from the undergrowth and rushed up the slope.  There was a puff of smoke from the cleft in the cliff and the foremost warrior fell, shot squarely through the forehead.  A second puff and a second warrior was gone to a land where the hunting is always good.  Before such accurate shooting with only the moonlight to aid, the other warriors shrank back appalled, and quickly hid themselves in the undergrowth.

“Good boys!  Good boys!” exclaimed Henry under his breath.  “Splendid shooting!  They’re bold warriors who will now face the Keepers of the Pass.”

All the warriors save the two who had been slain were hidden in the dense thicket or behind stony outcroppings, and again the tremendous voice of Long Jim floated on waves of air above them.

“Why don’t you keep comin’?” he shouted.  “I invited you to come an’ you started, but you’ve stopped!  Everythin’ is waitin’ fur you, all the gaudy Roman couches that my friend Paul has told me about, an’ the gushin’ fountains, an’ the wreaths uv rose leaves to wrap aroun’ your necks, an’ the roses droppin’ from the ceilin’ on the table loaded with ven’son, an’ turkey, an’ wild pigeons, an’ rabbits an’ more other kinds uv game than I kin tell you about in a night.  Why don’t you come on an’ take the big places you’re invited to at our banquet, you miserable, low-down, sneakin’, wrinkled old squaws!”

A wild yell of rage came once more from the bushes, and again Henry laughed deep in his throat.  He knew how the taunt stung the Indians, and Long Jim’s eloquence, the dam now having been taken down, flooded on.

“Here, you red-skinned barbarians!” he shouted.  “Come into our house an’ we’ll teach you how to live!  The tables are all set an’ the couches are beside ’em.  The hummin’ birds’ tongues are done to a turn an’ the best singers an’ dancers are all on hand to entertain you!”

Henry knew that Jim’s patter had come from Paul’s stories of the old Romans, and now he was applying it with gusto to the wild scene lost in the vast green wilderness.  But he was sure that the Indians would not return to a headlong charge.  The little fortress in stone was practically impregnable to frontal attack and they would resort instead to cunning and subterfuge.

“Ain’t you comin’!” thundered the voice of Long Jim.  “I hev done give you an invite to the banquet an’ you stop an’ hang ‘roun’ thar in the woods, whar I can’t see you.  Five minutes more an’ the invites are all withdrawed.  Then the eatin’ an’ the singin’ an’ the playin’ will all go on without you, an’ ef you are found hangin’ ‘roun’ our door I’ll hev the dogs to chase you away.”

No answer came from the woods, but Henry knew how the hearts of the warriors were consumed with rage.  Those whom they wished to take were so near and so few and yet they held an almost invincible fortress.  Rage stabbed at the Indian heart.

Long Jim continued his taunts for some time, speaking both Shawnee and Miami, and also a little Wyandot and Delaware.  His vocabulary acquired a sudden richness and depth.  He called them names that implied every manner of cowardice and meanness.  Their ancestors had been buzzards feeding on offal, they themselves were mangy, crippled and deformed, and, when the few that were left alive by the white men returned home, they would be set to work cooking, and caring for the lodges.  When they died they would return to the base forms of their ancestors.  They would be snakes and toads and turtles, and the animals that walked on four legs and looked straight before them would laugh at them whenever they saw them.

Long Jim had never before been so eloquent, and never before had his voice been so unctuous.  He thundered forth challenges and insults after the Indian fashion.  He told them that he and his comrades found it a poor amusement to fight with such men, but when they finished with their eating and drinking and sleeping they might go north to the Indian villages and whip the warriors in the presence of their squaws with willow switches.  Meanwhile they intended to sleep and rest, but if any of the old women out there came into their cavern and annoyed their slumbers he would chase every one of them out with a switch.

Henry laughed long in his throat.  Long Jim was proving himself a forest warrior of the first quality.  It was the way of the woods, and these taunts stung the red men to the quick.  He knew that they were lying in the bushes, their hearts beating heavily with anger and the hot breath burning their lips.  Two, unable to restrain themselves, fired, but their bullets merely rebounded from the stone walls of the grotto, and the defenders did not deign to answer.

Then came a long period of silence and Henry made himself as small and obscure as possible, lest the warriors, moving about, might see him.  But, fortunately the night had now turned quite dark, and where eyes might fail his acute sense of hearing would reveal the approach of any enemy.  But as he lay close he again laughed inwardly more than once.  The three were certainly holding the grotto in most gallant fashion, and Long Jim was fast becoming one of the greatest orators of the woods.  He did not believe that the Indians could carry the fortress, but to get them out and away was another and much harder problem.

Absolute silence save for the whispering of a light wind through the leaves came over the forest.  The night, to Henry’s great joy, grew much darker.  No sound came from the room in the cliff, nor did any come from the Indians in the thickets.  Apparently the whole place was a wilderness, as lone and desolate as it was when it first emerged from the sea.  Nowhere was the sign of a human being visible, but Henry knew that vigilant eyes watched at the mouth of the stone cleft and that eyes equally as keen peered continually from the thickets.

But he meant to join his comrades before dawn.  He did not know yet just how he would do it, but such was his confidence that he felt quite sure he would be with his comrades before the rising of the sun.

Luckily the forest and thickets in the valley were extremely dense, enabling him to lie within a couple of hundred yards of the besieging force, and not fear detection.  His figure in its green clothing blended perfectly with the green bushes.

The night turned colder, and after a while a chilly drizzle began to fall.  Henry, hardened to all kinds of weather, and intent upon his task, took no note of it, except to be glad that it had come, because it would further his aims.  Night and storm might enable him to slip past the besiegers and join his friends.

But the Indians, who do not despise comfort when there is no danger in it, gathered in a cup in the side of the hill, beyond rifle shot from the hollow, and built a fire.  Henry, from his lair in the bushes, saw them distinctly, about thirty warriors, mostly of the Shawnee tribe, with their head chief, Red Eagle himself, present as a leader, and the two renegades Braxton Wyatt and Blackstaffe.  Henry noted Blackstaffe and Wyatt closely and his heart thrilled with anger that they should turn against their own people and use the tomahawk and scalping knife, and even stand beside the stake to witness their slow death by the torture of fire.

Blackstaffe was one of the worst of all the renegades, second only to Girty in cruelty and cunning, a scourge of the border destined to meet his fate from an avenging bullet years later, just after the Fallen Timbers, where Wayne crushed the allied tribes.  Now he was a young man, tall, heavily built and tanned almost as dark as an Indian by weather.  He and Braxton Wyatt had become close friends, and both stood high in the councils of the Indians.  Henry saw them clearly now, outlined against the firelight, engaged in close talk with the middle-aged Shawnee chief, Red Eagle.

Henry had much more respect for Red Eagle than for the renegades.  The Indian might be cruel, he might delight in the terrible sufferings he inflicted upon a captured enemy, but it was the immemorial custom of his race and, in fighting the white people, he was fighting those who would some day, far distant though it might be, turn the great hunting grounds into farms.  Henry, so much a son of the wild himself, could understand him, but for the renegades he had no sympathy whatever.  In all lands and in all the history of the world renegades have been hated and detested.

He judged by the fact that the head chief of the Shawnees and the two renegades had remained that they considered the taking of the little fort in the cliff of great importance.  Doubtless they imagined that all of the five were now inside, and it would rejoice the heart of Shawnee and Miami alike if they could slay them all, or better still, take them alive, and put them to the torture.  There were some old defeats that yet galled and stung, and for which revenge would be sweet.  Henry recalled these things and he knew that the siege would be close and bitter.

The Indians, feeling secure from any enemy, presently sat in a circle about the fire, drawing their blankets over their shoulders to protect themselves from the drizzling rain.  Henry surmised that several warriors were on watch near the mouth of the cave, and that those in the main body would take their ease before the coals.  His surmise proved to be correct, as they appeared to relax and to be talking freely.  They also took venison from deerskin pouches and ate.  It reminded Henry that he was hungry and he too took out and ate a portion of Shif’less Sol’s stolen bear steak that he had saved.

He did not move for another hour.  Meanwhile the wind rose, driving the drizzling rain like sleet, and moaning down the gorge.  Save for the Indians crouched around the fire no more desolate scene might have been witnessed on the continent.  The old, primeval world had come back, and forgotten monsters ranged the woods while man, weaponless save for his club, crouched in his cave and listened with terror to the snarls of the great animals, so much more powerful than himself.

It seemed to him then, when the influence of the wilderness and its immensity and desolation were so strong, that he might have lived in some such time himself, ages and ages ago.  It might have been the stories of Paul or it might have been some dim heritage from a dimmer past that made him, as he lay there under the soaking bushes, call up visions of the great beasts that once stalked the earth, the mammoth and the mastodon, the cave bear, the saber-toothed tiger, gigantic leopards and hyenas, and back of them the terrific stegosaurus in his armor-like hide and all his awful kin.  Henry was glad that he had not lived in such a time.

The fire, even though it was that of men who would gladly scalp him and torture him to death, brought back the present and the living and throbbing realities of life.  With his rifle he was more than a match for any beast that roamed the North American wilderness, and in cunning and craft he could meet the savages at their own game.

Apparently the Indians around the fire had now ceased to talk.  They sat in a circle, bent a little forward, and some had drawn their blankets over their heads.  The fire was a great mass of coals and Henry knew that it threw out an abundant heat.  He envied them a little.  He was just beginning to feel the effects of the cold rain, but their bodies glowed with warmth.

Meantime the roaring of the wind in the valley was growing and in the confined space there were many tones in its voice, now a shriek, and now a howl.  In spite of himself the ancient monsters of the primeval world came back again and these were the sounds they uttered in their rage.  He shuddered a little, then shook himself and by the mere power of will forced the return of the present.

He reckoned that the time had come for him to make his attempt.  Doubtless the sentinels were on the slope near the mouth of the cleft, but they must be chilled to some extent by the cold rain, and, after such a long silence, would naturally relax their vigilance.  He had protected his weapons from the rain with his buckskin hunting shirt, and he flexed his arms and muscles to see that they had not grown stiff from such a long stay in one position.

He began to creep through the bushes to the bottom of the valley and then up the slope toward the little fortress, and in the task he called into play all his natural and acquired powers.  An eye looking down would have taken him for a large animal stalking his prey with infinite cunning and cleverness.  The bushes scarcely moved as he passed, and he made no sound but the faintest sliding motion, audible only four or five feet away.

The strain upon his body was very great.  He did not really crawl, but edged himself forward with a series of muscular efforts.  It was painfully slow, but it was necessary, because the Indian ears were acute, and the rustling of a bush or the breaking of a twig would draw their instant attention.

As he drew himself slowly on, like a great serpent, he watched for the Indian sentinels, and at last he saw one, a Shawnee warrior crouched in the lee of a huge tree trunk to shelter himself from the driving rain, but always looking toward the mouth of the hollow in the cliff.

Henry, inch by inch, bore away and curved about him.  Twice he thought the sentinel had heard something unusual, but in each case he lay flat and silent, while the wind continued to shriek down the valley, driving the chill rain before it.  Each time the suspicions of the watcher passed and Henry moved slowly on, infinite patience allied with infinite skill.  If there was anything in heredity and reincarnation he was the greatest tracker and hunter in that old primeval world, where such skill ranked first among human qualities.  As always with him, his will and courage rose with the danger.  Crouched in the bush fifteen feet away he looked at the warrior, a powerful fellow, brawny in the chest but thin in the legs, as was usual among them.  The Indian’s eyes swept continuously in a half circle, but they did not see the great figure lying so near, and holding his life on the touch of a trigger.

Henry laughed deep in his throat.  All the wild blood in him was alive and leaping.  He even felt a certain exultation in the situation, one that would have appalled an ordinary scout and stalker, but which drew from him only supreme courage and utmost mastery in woodcraft.  He felt within him the supreme certainty that he would succeed, and bending away from the sentinel he resumed that slow, sliding motion.

He was sure that he would find on his right another warrior on watch, and, as he was moving in that direction, he looked closely.  He saw him presently, a tall fellow, standing erect among some bushes, his rifle in the crook of his arm.  He seemed discontented with his situation ­even the savage can get too much of cold and wet ­and presently he moved a little further to the right, as if he would seek some sort of shelter from the rain.  Then Henry crept straight forward toward the fortress of his friends, a scant fifty yards away.

But he did not assume that he had yet succeeded.  He knew how thoroughly the Indians kept watch upon a foe, whom they expected to take, and there must be other sentinels, or at least one, and bearing that fact in mind his progress became still slower.  He merely went forward inch by inch, and he was so careful that the bushes above him did not shake.  All the while his eyes roved about in search of that lone last sentinel whom he was sure the Indians had posted near the entrance, in order to check any attempt at an escape.

Although it was very dark his eyes had grown used to it and he could see some distance.  Yet his range of vision was not broken by the figure of any warrior, and he began to wonder.  Could the vigilance of the savages have relaxed?  Was it possible that they were keeping no guard near the entrance?  While he was wondering he crept directly upon the sentinel.

He was a huge savage, inured to cold and wet and he had lain almost flat in the grass.  Hearing a slight sound scarce a yard away he turned and the eyes of red forest runner and white forest runner looked into one another.  Henry was the first to recover from his surprise and the single second of time was worth diamonds and rubies to him.  Dropping his rifle he reached out both powerful hands and seized the warrior.  The loud cry of alarm that had started from the chest never got past the barrier of those fingers, and the compressing grasp was so deadly that the Indian’s hands did not reach for tomahawk or knife.  Instead they flew up instinctively and tried to tear away those fingers of iron.  But the man of old might as well have tried to escape from the jaws of the saber-toothed tiger.

The great forest runner was exerting all his immense strength, and he was nerved, too, by the imminent danger to his friends and himself.  No slightest sound must escape from the red throat.  A single cry would reach the warriors below, and then the whole yelling pack would be upon him.  The warrior’s hands grasped his wrists and pulled at them frantically.  He was a powerful savage with muscles like knotted ropes, but there was no man in all the wilderness who could break that grasp.  His breath came fitfully, his face became swollen and then Henry, turning him over on his back, took his fingers away.

The warrior was not dead, but he would revive slowly and painfully and for days there would be ten red and sore spots on his throat, where the fingers had sunk in.  An ordinary scout would have thrust his knife at once into the heart of the warrior.  It would have been the safest way, but Henry could not do it.  He saw the great chest of the savage trembling as the breath sought a way to his lungs.  He took his rifle, powder horn, bullet pouch, tomahawk and knife, and, bending low in the foliage, ran swiftly for the mouth of the cave.

He was quite confident that the fallen warrior was the last sentinel, and as he approached the entrance he called again and again in a loud whisper: 

“Don’t fire!  Don’t fire!  It’s me, Henry!”

At last came the whisper in reply: 

“All right, Henry, we’re waitin’.”

He recognized the voice of Silent Tom, and the next instant he was inside, his hand and that of Tom Ross meeting in a powerful grasp, while Paul and Long Jim, aroused from sleep, expressed their delight in low words and strong handshakes.

“How in thunder did you git in, Henry?” asked Long Jim.

“I was brought in a sedan chair by four strong Indians, Wyatt walking on one side and Blackstaffe on the other as an escort.  I told them that of all places in the world this was the one to which I wished most to come, and they put me down at the door, their modesty compelling them to withdraw.”

“It’s mighty good to see you again, Henry, no matter how you got here,” said Paul.  “Where is Sol?”

“Safe outside, just as I’m safe inside.  I think I’ll let him know that I’ve been successful.”

Standing just within the entrance he emitted the long-drawn howl of the wolf, piercing and carrying singularly far.  They waited a moment or two in breathless silence, and then on the edge of the shrieking wind came a similar reply, fierce, long and snarling.  Henry gave the howl again and as before came the answer in like fashion.  It was the wilderness signal, made complete.

“It’s Sol,” Henry said.  “I know now that he’s there, and he knows that I’m here.  The first part of our task is done.”

A yell of rage and disappointment came from the valley below.  It was so fierce that the air seemed to pulse with angry waves.

“What’s the matter down there, I wonder,” exclaimed Paul.

“Before I could get in here,” replied Henry, “I had to choke the breath out of one of their best warriors.  I fancy he has just come to and has told the others.”

Then the war cry died away and there was nothing but the shriek of the wind that drove drops of rain into the opening.

“How long have you been besieged here?” asked Henry.

“Today and tonight,” replied Paul.  “Either they struck our trail or some one of them may have been in this grotto once.  At any rate a band started up here and we were compelled to fire into ’em.  That’s our history, since.  What have you seen?”

“The main army has gone south with the cannon, but Red Eagle, Braxton Wyatt and Blackstaffe are here.  If they can’t rush us they’ll at least hold us three or four days, or try mighty hard.  But I want a drink of water I hear trickling over there.  I’m thirsty from all the crawling and creeping I’ve done.”

He knelt and drank deep at the pure little stream.

“Now, Henry,” said Silent Tom, “sence you’ve come I reckon you’re mighty tired.  You’ve been trampin’ about in the woods a heap.  So jest stretch out an’ go to sleep while we watch.”

“I don’t mind if I do,” replied Henry, who at last was beginning to feel the effects of his immense exertions.  “How are you fellows fixed for food?”

“This ain’t no banquet hall an’ we ain’t settin’ dinners fur kings,” replied Long Jim, “but we’ve got enough to last a good while.  Afore they found out we wuz here Tom went out one night an’ killed a deer an’ brought him in.  While he wuz gone I took the trouble to gather some wood, which is in the back part uv the place, but ‘cause o’ smoke an’ sech we ain’t lighted any fire, an’ no part of the deer hez been cooked.”

“I brought a big piece of bear myself,” said Henry, unhooking it from his back, “and it was cooked by an Indian, the best cook in all these woods except you, Jim.  He wasn’t willing for me to take it, but here it is.”

Long Jim deposited it carefully in a corner and covered it with leaves.

“Ef people always brought somethin’ when they come visitin’,” he said, “they’d shorely be welcome ez you are, Henry.”

But before he lay down Henry listened a while at the fortress mouth, and the others listened with him.  If they heard shots it would indicate that the Indians in some manner had caught sight of Shif’less Sol and were pursuing him.  But no sound came out of the vast dark void, save the shriek of the wind and the beat of the rain.  Henry had no doubt that the warrior whom he had choked nearly to death was now with his comrades, raging for vengeance, and yet he had been spared when few in like case would have shown him mercy.

The wilderness, black, cold and soaking, looked unutterably gloomy, but he felt no worry about those whom he had left behind.  The shiftless one like himself was a true son of the wilderness and he would be as clever as a fox in finding a warm, dry hole.  They had forged the first link in their intended chain, and Henry felt the glow of success.

“I think I’ll go to sleep now,” he said.  “I’m pretty well soaked with the rain, but I managed to keep my blanket dry.  If the warriors attack, Jim, wake me up in time to put on my clothes.  I wouldn’t like to go into a battle without ’em.”

He removed his wet buckskins and spread them out on the stone floor to dry.  Then he wrapped himself in his blanket, raked up some of the dry leaves as a couch, and lay down, feeling a double glow, that of warmth and that of success.  What a glorious place it was!  All things are measured by contrast.  After the black and cold wilderness, swarming with dangers, this was the other extreme.  The Cæsar in his palace hall and the Persian under his vaulted dome could not feel so much comfort, nor yet so much luxury, as Henry in this snug and warm room in the stone with his brave and faithful friends around him.

Truly it was a noble place!  He heard the trickle of the little stream, like a jet of water flowing over marble, and into a marble fountain.  Above him was a stone ceiling, carved by the ages, and beneath him was a stone floor made by the same master hand.  The leaves were very soft to one so thoroughly hardened of body as he, and the blanket was warm.  The roaring of the wind outside was turned to music here, and it mingled pleasantly with the trickle of the little stream.

While the forest runner was capable of tremendous and long exertions, he also had acquired the power of complete relaxation when the time came.  Now all of Henry’s nerves were quiet, a deep peace came over him quickly, and he slept.