Read CHAPTER XIII - FIVE AGAINST A THOUSAND of The Keepers of the Trail A Story of the Great Woods , free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

Red Eagle and Blackstaffe were talking in Shawnee, every word of which Henry heard and understood.  They sat in Turkish fashion upon the ground, on the same side of the fire, and the blaze flickered redly over the face of each.  They were strong faces, primitive, fierce and cunning, but in different ways.  The evil fame of Moses Blackstaffe, second only to that of Simon Girty, had been won by many a ruthless deed and undoubted skill and cunning.  Yet he was a white man who had departed from the white man’s ways.

Red Eagle, the great Shawnee chief, was older, past fifty, and his bronzed face was lined deeply.  His broad brow and the eyes set wide apart, expressed intellect ­the Indian often had intellect in a high degree.  He too was cruel, able to look upon the unmentionable tortures of his foes with pleasure, but it was a cruelty that was a part of his inheritance, the common practices of all the tribes, bred into the blood, through untold generations of forest life.

Henry felt a certain respect for Red Eagle, but none at all for Blackstaffe.  Him he hated, with that fierceness of the forest, some of which had crept into his blood, and if he met him in battle he would gladly send a bullet through his heart.  The man’s face, burnt almost as dark as that of an Indian, showed now in its most sinister aspect.  He was suffering from chagrin, and he did not take the trouble to hide it, even from so great a man as Red Eagle, head chief of the Shawnees.

They were talking of Wyatt and the band they had left behind for the siege, and Henry, with a touch of forest humor, enjoyed himself as he listened.

“We did not see well those with whom we fought tonight and who escaped us,” said Red Eagle, “but they showed themselves to be warriors, great white warriors.  They were more than a match for my young men.”

“It is true,” said Blackstaffe.  “I didn’t see them at all, but only the five whom we left besieged in the cave could do what they did.”

“But Wyatt and good warriors hold them there.”

“So they hoped, but do they, Red Eagle?  The manner in which those scouts escaped from our circle makes me believe their leader could have been none but this Henry Ware.”

“One of them was outside the cave.  He may have come through the forest and have met other white men.”

“It might be so, but I’m afraid it isn’t.  They have broken the siege in some manner and have eluded Wyatt.  I had hoped that if he could not kill or capture them he would at least hold them there.  It is not well for us to have them hanging upon our army and ambushing the warriors.”

“You speak wisely, Blackstaffe.  The one they call Ware is only a youth, but he is full of wisdom and bravery.  There was an affair of the belt bearers, in which he tricked even Yellow Panther and myself.  If we could capture him and make him become one of us, a red warrior to fight the white people to whom he once belonged, he would add much to our strength in war.”

Blackstaffe shook his head most emphatically.

“Don’t think of that again, great chief,” he said.  “It is a waste of time.  He would endure the most terrible of all our tortures first.  Think instead of his scalp hanging in your wigwam.”

The eyes of Red Eagle glistened.

“It would be a great triumph,” he said, “but our young men have chased him many times, and always he is gone like the deer.  We have set the trap for him often, but when it falls he is away.  None shoots so quickly or so true as he, and if one of our young men meets him alone in the forest it is the Shawnee over whom the birds sing the death song.”

“It’s not his scalp that we want merely for the scalp’s sake.  You are a brave and great chief, O Red Eagle, and you know that Ware and his comrades are scouts, spies and messengers.  It’s not so much the warriors whom we lose at their hands, but they’re the eyes of the woods.  They always tell the settlements of our coming, and bring the white forces together.  We must trap them on this march, if we have to spread out a belt of a hundred warriors to do it.”

“I hope the net won’t have any holes in it.  We overtake the great band tomorrow, and then you’ll have all the warriors you need.  They can be spread out on the flank as we march.  Hark, Red Eagle, what was that?”

Henry himself in his covert started a little, as the long whine of a wolf came from a point far behind them.  One of the warriors on the other side of the fire returned the cry, so piercing and ferocious in its note that Henry started again.  But as the chief, the renegade and all the warriors rose to their feet, he withdrew somewhat further into the thicket, yet remaining where he could see all that might pass.

The far wolf howled again, and the near wolf replied.  After that followed a long silence, with the renegade, Red Eagle and his men, standing waiting and eager.  The signals showed that friends were coming to join friends, and Henry was as eager as they to see the arrivals.  Yet he had a shrewd suspicion of their identity.

Dusky figures showed presently among the trees, as a silent line came on.  Red Eagle and Blackstaffe were standing side by side, and the renegade broke into a low laugh.

“So Wyatt comes with his men, or most of them,” he said.

“I see,” said the chief in a tone of chagrin.

“And he comes without any prisoners.”

“But perhaps he brings scalps.”

“I see no sign of them.”

“It is yet too far.”

“If they came bearing scalps they would raise the shout of victory.”

Red Eagle, great chief of the Shawnees, shook his head sadly.

“It is sure that those whom we pursued in vain tonight were those whom we left besieged in the cave.”

“I fear that you speak the truth.  They bring no scalps, nor any prisoners to walk on red hot coals.”

He spoke sadly and Henry noted a certain grim pathos in his words, which were the words of a savage.  Yet the attitude of Red Eagle was dignified and majestic as he waited.

The file came on fast, Braxton Wyatt at its head.  When the younger renegade reached the fire, he flung himself down beside it, seized a piece of deer meat, just cooked, and began to eat.

“I’m famished and worn out,” he said.

“What did you do with the scalps, Braxton?” asked Blackstaffe, in silky tones ­it may be that he thought the younger renegade assumed too much at times.

“They’re on the heads of their owners,” growled Wyatt.

“And how did that happen?  You had them securely blockaded in a hole in a stone wall.  I thought you had nothing to do but wait and take them.”

“See here, Blackstaffe, I don’t care for your taunting.  They slipped out, although we kept the closest watch possible, and as they passed they slew one of our best warriors.  I don’t know how it was managed, but I think it was some infernal trick of that fellow Ware.  Anyway, we were left with an empty cave, and then we came on as fast as we could.  We did our best, and I’ve no excuses to make.”

“I do not mock you,” said Red Eagle gravely.  “I have been tricked by the fox, Ware, myself, and so has Yellow Panther, the head chief of the Miamis.  But we will catch him yet.”

“It seems that we have not yet made any net that will hold him,” said Blackstaffe with grim irony.  Since it was not he directly, but Red Eagle and Wyatt who had failed, he found a malicious humor in taunting them.  “It is the general belief that it was this same youth, Ware, who blew up the scows on which we were to carry our cannon, and then sank the lashed canoes.  He seems to be uncommonly efficient.”

Among the broken men and criminals who fled into the woods joining the Indians and making war upon their own kind, Moses Blackstaffe was an outstanding character.  He was a man of education and subtle mind.  It was understood that he came from one of the oldest of the eastern provinces, and that there was innocent blood on his hands before he fled.  But now he was high in the councils of the Indian nations, and, like the white man of his type who turns savage, he had become more cruel than the savages themselves.

His gaze as he turned it upon Braxton Wyatt was lightly ironical, and his tone had been the same.  Again the younger renegade flushed through his tan.

“I have never denied to him wonderful knowledge and skill,” he said.  “I have warned you all that he was the obstacle most to be dreaded.  He has just proved it.  Had he not been there to help ’em at the cave we should have got ’em all.”

“And they are giving the laurels of Shif’less Sol to me,” said Henry to himself in the thicket.  “I shall have to hand them over to him when we go back.”

But the great Shawnee chief, Red Eagle, had heard enough talk between the two white men.  He was full of the wisdom of his race, and he did not intend that Blackstaffe and Wyatt should impair their value to the tribes by creating ill feeling against each other.

“Peace, my sons,” he said in his grave and dignified manner.  “It is not well for those who march with us to taunt each other.  Words that may be light in the village, breed ill will on the war path.  As head chief of the Shawnees it is for me to say these things to you.”

As Red Eagle stood up with his arms folded across his broad breast and his scarlet blanket hooked over his shoulder, he looked like a forest Roman.  Henry thought him an impressive figure and such a thought, too, was most likely in the mind of Blackstaffe, as he said: 

“The words of the chief are wise, and I obey.  Red Eagle has proved many and many a time that he is the best fitted of all men to be the head chief of the Shawnees.  Wyatt, I was only jesting.  You and I must be good comrades here.”

He held out his hand and as Wyatt took it, his face cleared.  Then the three turned to animated talk about their plans.  It was agreed that they should push on in the morning at all speed, and join the main band and the artillery.  Dangerous as these cannon were, Henry saw that the Indians gave them almost magic powers.  They would completely blow away the settlements, and the forests would soon grow again, where the white man had cut a little open place for himself with the ax.

The conference over, Red Eagle wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down with his feet toward the fire.  Again Henry felt an impulse of respect for him.  He was true to his race and his inheritance, while the renegades were false in everything to theirs.  He did not depart from the customs and thoughts bred into him by many generations, but the renegades violated every teaching of their own race that had brought civilization to the world, and he hated and despised them.

He saw Blackstaffe and Wyatt wrap themselves in their blankets and also lie down with their feet to the fire.  All the Indians were at rest save two sentinels.  Henry watched this strange scene a few minutes longer.  The coals were dying fast and now he saw but indistinctly the figures of white men and red men, joined in a compact to destroy his people utterly, from the oldest man and woman to the youngest child.

Henry did not know it, but he was as much a knight of chivalry and romance as any mailed figure that ever rode with glittering lance.  Beneath the buckskin hunting shirt beat a heart as dauntless as that of Amadis of Gaul or Palmerin of England, although there were no bards in the great forest to sing of his deeds and of the deeds of those like him.

He intended to stay only two or three minutes longer, but he lingered nevertheless.  The Indian campfire gave forth hardly a glimmer.  The figures save those of the sentinels became invisible.  The wind blew gently and sang among the leaves, as if the forest were always a forest of peace, although from time immemorial, throughout the world, it had been stained by bloodshed.  But the forest spell which came over him at times was upon him now.  The rippling of the leaves under the wind he translated into words, and once more they sang to him the song of success.

This new task of his, straight through the heart of danger, had been achieved, and in his modesty, which was a modesty of thought as well as word, he did not ascribe it to any strength or skill in himself, but to the fact that a Supreme Being had chosen him for a time as an instrument, and was working through him.  Like nearly all who live in the forest and spend most of their lives in the presence of nature, he invariably felt the power of invisible forces, directed by an omniscient and omnipotent mind, which the Indian has crystallized into the name Manitou, the same as God to Henry.

For that reason this forest spell was also the spirit of thankfulness.  He had been guided and directed so far, and he felt that the guidance and direction would continue.  All the omens and prophecies remained good, and, with the wind in the leaves still singing the song of victory in his ears, he silently crept away, inch by inch, even as he had come.  Well beyond the Indian ear, he rose and returned swiftly to his comrades.

Ross was still on guard and the others sleeping when Henry’s figure appeared through the dusk, but they awoke and sat up when he called, low, to them.

“What are you wakin’ us up fur, Henry?” asked the shiftless one, as he rubbed a sleepy eye.  “Are the warriors comin’?  Ef so, I’d like to put on my silk knee breeches, an’ my bee-yu-ti-ful new silk stockin’s an’ my new shoes with the big silver buckles, afore I run through the forest fur my life.”

“No, they’re not coming, Sol,” said Henry.  “They’re asleep off there and tomorrow morning Blackstaffe, Braxton Wyatt, Red Eagle and the others hurry on to join the main band.”

“How do you know that, Henry?”

“They told me.”

“You’ve been settin’ laughin’ an’ talkin’ with ’em, right merry, I reckon.”

“They told me, just as I said.  They told me their plan in good plain Shawnee.”

“An’ how come Braxton Wyatt with Red Eagle and Blackstaffe?”

“Leaving a fruitless quest, he overtook them.  I was lying in the thicket, in hearing distance, when Wyatt came up with his men, joined Blackstaffe and Red Eagle, and had to tell them of his failure.”

“You shorely do hev all the luck, Henry.  I’d hev risked my life an’ risked it mighty close, to hev seed that scene.”

Then Henry told them more in detail of the meeting and of the plans that Red Eagle and the two renegades had talked over, drawing particular attention to the net the Indians intended to spread for the five.

“’Pears to me,” said Shif’less Sol, “that the right thing fur us to do is to make a big curve ­we’re hefty on curves ­an’ go clear ‘roun’ in front of the band.  They’ll be lookin’ fur us everywhere, ’cept right thar, an’ while they’re a-plottin’ an’ a-plannin’ an’ a-spreadin’ out their nets, we’ll be a-plottin’ an’ a-plannin’ an’ mebbe a-doin’ too what we’ve undertook to do.”

“The very thing,” said Henry.

“A true strategic march,” said Paul.

“Looks like sense,” said Silent Tom.

“You do hev rays o’ reason at times, Sol,” said Long Jim.

“Then it’s agreed,” said Henry.  “We’ll take a little more rest, and, soon after daylight, we’ll start on one of our great flying marches.”

Paul and Long Jim kept the watch, and, not long after the sun rose, they were up and away again.  They were now beginning to forge another link in their chain, and, as usual, the spirits of all five rose when they began a fresh enterprise.  Their feet were light, as they sped forward, and every sense was acute.  They were without fear as they marched on the arc of the great circle that they had planned.  They were leaving so wide a space between themselves and the great trail that they could only meet a wandering Indian hunter or two, and of all such they could take care easily.

In truth, so free were they from any kind of apprehension, that plenty of room was left in their minds to take note of the wilderness, which was here new to them.  But it was their wilderness, nevertheless, all these fine streams and rolling hills, and deer that sprang up from their path, and the magnificent forest everywhere clothing the earth in its beautiful robe of deepest green, which in the autumn would be an equally beautiful robe of red and yellow and brown.

Their curve was toward the west, and all that day they followed it.  They saw the golden sun go creeping up the blue arch of the heavens, hang for a while at the zenith, as if it were poised there to pour down perpendicular beams, and then go sliding slowly down the western sky to be lost in a red sea of fire.  And the view of all the glory of the world, though they saw it every day, was fresh and keen to them all.  The shiftless one was moved to speech.

“When I go off to some other planet,” he said, “I don’t want any new kind o’ a world.  I want it to be like this with big rivers and middle-sized rivers and little rivers, all kinds o’ streams an’ lakes, and the woods, green in the spring an’ red an’ yellow in the fall, an’ winter, too, which hez its beauties with snow an’ ice, an’ red roarin’ fires to keep you warm, an’ the deer an’ the buff’ler to hunt.  I want them things ’cause I’m used to ’em.  A strange, new kind o’ world wouldn’t please me.  I hold with the Injuns that want to go to the Happy Huntin’ Grounds, an’ I ‘xpect it’s the kind o’ Heaven that the Book means fur fellers like me.”

“Do you think you’re good enough to go to Heaven, Sol?” asked Long Jim.

The shiftless one deliberated a moment and then replied thoughtfully: 

“I ain’t so good, Jim, but I reckon I’m good enough to go to Heaven.  People bein’ what people be, an’ me bein’ what I am, all with a pow’ful lot to fight ag’inst an’ born with somethin’ o’ the old Nick in us, an’ not bein’ able to change our naturs much, no matter how hard we try, I reckon I hev a mighty fine chance o’ Heaven, which, ez I said, I want to be a world, right smart like this, only a heap bigger an’ finer.  But I don’t mean to go thar for seventy or eighty years yet, ’cause I want to give this earth a real fa’r trial.”

In which the shiftless one had his wish, as he lived to be a hundred, and his eyes were clear and his voice strong to the last.

“That’s a mighty fine picture you draw, Sol,” said Long Jim, appreciatively, “an’ if you’re up thar settin’ on the bank uv a river that looks plum’ like runnin’ silver with green trees a thousand feet high risin’ behind you, you ketchin’ fish thirty or forty feet long, an’ ef you should happen to turn an’ look ‘roun’ an’ see comin’ toward you a long-legged ornery feller that you used ter cahoot with in the wilderness on both sides uv the Ohio, would you rise up, drop them big fish an’ your fishin’ pole, come straight between the trunks uv them green trees a thousand feet high toward that ornery lookin’ long-legged feller what wuz new to the place, stretch out your right hand to him, an’ say:  ‘Welcome to Heaven Long Jim Hart.  Come right in an’ make yourself to home, ‘cause you’re goin’ to live with us a million an’ a billion years, an’ all the rest uv the time thar is.  Your fishin’ pole is down thar by the bank.  I’ve been savin’ it fur you.  Henry is ’bout a mile farther up the stream pullin’ in a whale two hundred feet long that he’s had his eye on fur some time.  Paul is down thar, settin’ under a bush readin’ a book uv gold letters on silver paper with diamonds set in the cover, an’ Tom Ross is on that hill, ‘way acrost yonder, lookin’ at a herd uv buff’ler fifty miles wide which hez been travelin’ past fur a month.’  Now, Sol, would you give your old pardner that kind uv a welcome?”

“Would I Jim?  You know I would.  I’d blow on a trumpet an’ call all the boys straight from what they wuz doin’ to come a-runnin’ an’ meet you.  An’ I’d interduce you to all our new friends.  An’ I’d show you the best huntin’ grounds an’ the finest fishin’ holes right away, an’ when night come all o’ us with our new friends would hev a big feast an’ celebration over you.  An’ all o’ us thar in Heaven that knowed you, Jim, would be right proud o’ you.”

“I knowed that you’d take me right in, Sol,” said Long Jim, as they shook hands over the future.

“Now for the night,” said Henry.  “We must be at least fifteen miles west of the great trail, and as the woods are so full of game I don’t think any of the Indian hunters will find it necessary to come this far for it.  So, I propose that we have a little warm food ourselves.  We need it by this time.”

“That’s the talk,” said Long Jim.  “It would be jest a taste uv Heaven right now.  What wuz you thinkin’ to hev fur our supper table, Henry?”

“I had an idea that all of us would like turkey.  I’ve been noticing turkey signs for some time, and there, Jim! don’t you hear that gobbling away off to the right?  They’re settling into the trees for the night, and it should be easy to get a couple.  Just now I think turkey would be the finest thing in the world.”

“I’ve a mighty strong hankerin’ after turkey myself an’ the way I kin cook turkey is a caution to sinners.  Ever since you said turkeys a half minute ago, Henry, I’m famishin’.  Bring on your turkey, the cook’s ready.”

“Me an’ Sol will go an’ git ’em,” said Tom Ross, and the two slipped away in the twilight toward the sound of the gobbling.  Presently they heard two shots and then the hunters came back, each with a fat bird.  Selecting a dip from which flames could be seen only a little distance, they dressed the turkeys in frontier fashion and Long Jim, his culinary pride strong within him, cooked them to a turn.  Then they ate long, and were unashamed.

“Jest a touch o’ Heaven right now,” said Shif’less Sol, in tones of deep conviction.  “This is the healthy life here, an’ it makes a feller jump when he oughter jump.  Me bein’ a naterally lazy man, I’d be likely to lay ‘roun’ an’ eat myself so fat I couldn’t walk, but the Injun’s don’t give me time.  Jest when I begin to put on flesh they take after me an’ I run it all off.  You wouldn’t think it, but Injuns has their uses, arter all.”

“Keep people from comin’ out here too fast,” said Ross.  “Think they wuz put in the wilderness to save it, an’ they will, long after my time.”

“Why, Tom,” said the shiftless one, “you’re becomin’ real talkative.  I think that’s the longest speech I ever heard you make.”

“Tom is certainly growing garrulous,” said Paul.

Silent Tom blushed despite his tan.

“I’m through, anyway,” he said.

“Guess Sol thought Tom wuz takin’ part uv his time,” said Long Jim Hart.  “That’s why he spoke up.  Sol claims all uv his own time fur talkin’, all uv Tom’s, an’ all the rest that may be left over by any uv us.”

“Mighty little you ever leave over, Jim,” said the shiftless one.  “Besides, there’s a dif’rence between you an’ me talkin’.  When I talk I’m always sayin’ somethin’; but yourn is jest a runnin’ gabble, like the flowin’ uv a creek, always the same an’ meanin’ nothin’.”

“Well,” said Henry, “we’ve had plenty of good fat turkey, an’ it was cooked mighty fine, in Long Jim’s best style, but there’s some left, which I think we’d better pack in our knapsacks for tomorrow.”

After putting away the food for a later need, they carefully smothered the last coal of the fire, and then, as a precaution, should the flame have been seen by any wandering warrior, they moved a mile farther west and sat down in a little hollow where they remained until well past midnight, all sleeping save a guard of one, turns being taken.  About two o’clock in the morning they started again, traveling at great speed, and did not stop until noon of the next day.  They delayed only a half-hour for food, water and rest, and pressed on at the long, running walk of the border that put miles behind them at an amazing rate.

Late in the afternoon they came to high hills clothed, like the rest of the country, in magnificent forest, and, while the others watched below, Henry climbed the tallest tree that he could find.  The sun was declining, but the east was yet brilliant, and he saw faintly across it a dark line that he had expected.  The great Indian camp surely lay at the base of the dark line, and when he descended he and his comrades began to curve toward the east.

Morning would find them ahead of the Indian army, and between it and the settlements.  Every one of them felt a thrill of excitement, even elation.  The forging of the new link in the chain was proceeding well, and brilliant success gives wonderful encouragement.  They did not know just what they would do next, but four trusted to the intuition and prowess of their daring young leader.

Their minds were at such high tension that they did not sleep much that night, and when dawn came again they had traveled so far that they calculated they had arrived at the right point of the circle.  It was a question, however, that could be decided easily.  Henry again climbed the highest tree in the vicinity, and looking toward the north now saw the smoke of the same campfire apparently three or four miles away.

“Are they thar, Henry?” asked Shif’less Sol, as he climbed down.

“Yes.  They haven’t moved since sundown yesterday, and I judge they’re in no hurry.  I fancy the warriors suppose the cannon can easily secure them the victory, no matter how much we may prepare against them, and the Englishmen are probably weary from hard traveling through the forest.”

“I guess all that’s true, but they’ll shorely start in an hour or two anyway, an’ then what are we to do to stop ’em?”

The eyes of the great youth filled with sudden fire.

“We’re five against a thousand,” he said.  “We’ve rifles against cannon, but we can do something.  We’re coming to the edge of a country that I know.  Three miles to the south of us is a river or deep creek that can’t be waded, except at a place between two hills.  The Indians know that ford, and so they’ll make for it.  We’ll be on the other side, and we’ll hold the ford.”

The others stared at him.

“Henry,” exclaimed Paul, “you just said that we were five against a thousand, and rifles against cannon, now how could we possibly hold the ford against such an army?  Besides, the Indian warriors, by scores, could swim the river elsewhere, and flank us on either side.”

“I don’t mean that we shall hold it a long time.  We’ll make ’em give battle, stop ’em for a while, and then, when the flankers swim the stream we’ll be gone.  We will not let ourselves be seen, and they may think it a large force, retiring merely because their own army is larger.”

“That is, we’ve got to give ’em a skeer,” said Long Jim.

“Exactly.  We want to make those Indians think that Manitou is against ’em.  We want to sow in their minds the seeds of fear and superstition.  You know how they’re influenced by omens and things they can’t understand.  If we give ’em a brisk little fight at the ford, and then get away, unseen, it will set them to doubting, and plant in their minds the fear of ambush by large forces.”

The face of the shiftless one shone.

“That suits me clean down to the ground,” he said.  “It’s wile an’ stratagem which I like.  Lead on to this ford, Henry, an’ we’ll lay down an’ rest beside it till they come up.”

The others showed as much enthusiasm, and, carefully hiding their trail, they reached the ford, which they found highly favorable to their purpose.  Save here the banks of the river were high on both sides, and the gorge, through which the red army with its cannon and wagons must approach the ford, was not more than twenty feet wide.  On both banks the forest was unbroken and there were many dense thickets.

“This place was shorely made fur an ambush,” said the shiftless one as they waded across.  “Ef we had a hundred good men we could turn back their whole army for good, ’cause they can’t flank so easy, ez them high banks on both sides run ez fur ez I kin see.”

“And here is the thicket in which we can lie,” said Paul.

“They can’t catch a glimpse of us from the other side.  They can see only the fire and smoke of our rifles,” said Henry.

“An’ since we’re here in our nest,” said Shif’less Sol, “we’d better set still an’ rest till they come up.  I ‘low we’ll need all our strength an’ nerves then.”