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

It could almost be said of them, so sensitive were they to sound or even to a noiseless presence, that usually when sleeping they were yet awake, that, like the wild animals living in the same forest, warnings came to them on the wind itself, and that, though the senses were steeped in slumber, the sentinel mind was yet there.  But this morning it was not so.  They slept, not like forest runners, who breathe danger every hour, both day and night, but like city dwellers, secure against any foe.

It was Silent Tom who awoke first, to find the day advanced, the sun like a gigantic shield of red and gold in the western heavens, and the wind of spring blowing through the green foliage.  He shook himself, somewhat like a big, honest dog, and not awakening the others, walked to the edge of their island in the swamp, the firm land not being more than thirty feet across.

But on this oasis the trees grew large and close and no one on the mainland beyond the swamp could have seen human beings there.  The swamp was chiefly the result of a low region flooded by heavy spring rains, and in the summer would probably be as dry and firm as the oasis itself.  But, for the present, it was what the pioneers called “drowned lands” and was an effective barrier against any ordinary march.

Silent Tom looked toward the north, and saw a coil of smoke against the brilliant blue of the sky.  It was very far away, but he was quite sure that it came from the Indian camp, and its location indicated that they had not yet crossed the river.  He felt intense satisfaction, but he did not even chuckle in his throat, after the border fashion.  He had not been named Silent Tom for nothing.  He was the oldest of the five, several years older than Long Jim, who was next in point of age, and he was often called Old Tom Ross, although in reality the “old” in that case was like the “old” that one college boy uses when he calls another “old fellow.”

But if Silent Tom did not talk much he thought and felt a very great deal.  The love of the wilderness was keen in him.  Elsewhere he would have been like a lion in an iron-barred cage.  And, like the rest of the five, he would have sacrificed his life to protect those little settlements of his own kind to the south.  It has been said that usually when the five slept they were yet almost awake, but this morning when Silent Tom was awake he was also dreaming.  He was dreaming of the great triumph that they had won on the preceding day:  Five against a thousand!  Rifles against cannon!  A triumph not alone of valor but of intellect, of wiles and stratagems, of tactics and management!

He did not possess, in the same great degree, the gift of imagination which illuminated so nobly the minds and souls of Henry and Paul and the shiftless one, but he felt deeply, nevertheless.  Matter-of-fact and practical, he recognized, that they had won an extraordinary victory, to attempt which would not even have entered his own mind, and knowing it, he not only gave all credit to those who had conceived it, but admired them yet the more.  He was beginning to realize now that the impossible was nearly always the possible.

Life looked very good to Tom Ross that day.  It was bright, keen and full of zest.  A deeply religious man, in his way, he felt that the forest, the river, and all the unseen spirits of earth and air had worked for them.  The birds singing so joyously among the boughs sang not alone for themselves, but also for his four comrades who slept and for him also.

He listened awhile, crossed the swamp on the fallen trees, scouted a little and then came back, quite sure that no warrior was within miles of them, as they were marching in another direction, and then returned to the oasis.  The four still slept the sleep of the just and victorious.  Then Tom, the cunning, smiled to himself, and came very near to uttering a deep-throated chuckle.

Opening his little knapsack, he took out a cord of fishing line, with a hook, which, with wisdom, he always carried.  He tied the line on the end of a stick, and, then going eastward from the oasis, he walked across the fallen or drifted trees until he came to the permanent channel of a creek, into which the flood waters drained.  There he dropped his hook, having previously procured bait, worms found under a stone.

Doubtless no hook had ever been sunk in those waters before, and the fish leaped to the bait.  In fifteen minutes he had half a dozen fine fellows, which he deftly cleaned with his hunting knife.  Then he returned, soft-footed, to the island.  The four, as he wished, still slept.  After all, he did have imagination and, a feeling for surprise, and the dramatic.  Had his comrades awakened then, before his preparations were complete, it would have spoiled his pleasure.

It was a short task for one such as he to use flint and steel, and kindle a fire on the low side of the island, facing toward the east, but yet within the circle of the trees.  Dead wood was lying everywhere and it burned rapidly.  Then, quickly broiling the fish on sharpened ends of twigs and laying them on green leaves, he went back and awakened the four, who opened their eyes and sat up at the same time.

“What’s the smell that’s ticklin’ my nose?” exclaimed Long Jim.

“Fish,” replied Silent Tom gruffly.  “Breakfast’s ready!  Come on!”

The four leaped to their feet, and followed the pleasant odor which grew stronger and more savory as they advanced.

“Ain’t cooked like you kin do it,” said Silent Tom to Long Jim, “but I done my best.”

“Kings could do no more,” said the shiftless one, “an’ this is the finest surprise I’ve had in a ‘coon’s age.  I wuz gettin’ mighty tired o’ cold vittles.  A lazy man like me needs somethin’ hot now an’ then to stir him up, don’t he Jim?”

“Guess he does, an’ so do I,” said Long Jim, reaching hungrily for a fish.

All fell to.  The fish were of the finest flavor, and they had been cooked well.  Silent Tom said nothing, but he glowed with satisfaction.

“How’d you do it, Tom?” asked Shif’less Sol.

“Line, hook, bait, water, fish,” replied Ross, waving his hand in the direction of the creek.

“Ain’t he the pow’ful talker?” laughed the shiftless one.  “When Tom dies an’ goes up to heaven to take his place in them gran’ an’ eternal huntin’ groun’s that we’ve already talked about, the Angel at the gate will ask him his name.  ‘Tom Ross,’ he’ll say.  ‘Business on earth?’ ‘Hunter an’ scout,’ ‘Ever betrayed a friend?’ ‘Never,’ ’Then pass right in,’ That’s all old Tom will say, not a word wasted in explanations an’ pologies.”

“It’ll be shorter than that,” said Long Jim.

“How’s that?”

“The Angel will ask him jest one question.  He’ll say, ’Who’s your best friend on earth?’ an’ Tom will answer ‘Long Jim Hart, what’s comin’ on later,’ an’ the Angel will say:  ’That’s enough.  Go right in and pick out the best place in Heaven fur yourself an’ your friends who will be here, some day.’”

Silent Tom blushed under the praise which was thoroughly sincere, and begged them, severally, to take another fish.  But they had enough, and prepared to travel again, to forge another link in the chain which they were striving so hard to complete.

“What’s the plan, Henry?” asked the shiftless one in his capacity as lieutenant.

“I think we ought to complete that circle around the Indian army, curving to the west and then to the north, until we’re in their rear.  Then we can complete the impression that two forces are attacking ’em, one in front and the other behind.  What do you think?”

“I’m hot fur roundin’ out the circle,” replied Shif’less Sol.  “I always like to see things finished, an’ I want to make the warriors think a couple o’ hundred white riflemen march where only five really make tracks.”

“Same here,” said Jim Hart, “Suits me ’cause I’ve got long legs, made out uv steel wire, close wrapped.  I see clear that we’ve got to do a power o’ marchin’, more of it than fightin’.”

“I don’t believe any one can think of a better plan,” said Paul, “and yours, Henry, certainly promises well.”

“I’m for it,” said Silent Tom.

“Then we go now,” said Henry.

The smoke that Tom had seen earlier was gone, and the five believed that the Indian army, discovering the absence of their foe, had probably crossed the river.

“Since they’re on the march again,” said Henry, “we can take it slowly and need not exhaust ourselves.”

“Jest dawdle along,” said Shif’less Sol, “an’ let ’em pass us.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“We’ll keep far enough away to avoid their scouts and hunters,” said Paul.

It was really the hunters against whom they had to keep the most watchful guard, as so numerous a force ate tremendous quantities of game, and, the men seeking it had to spread out to a considerable distance on either flank.  But if the hunters came, the five were sure that they would see them first, and they felt little apprehension.

They passed out of the swampy country, and entered the usual rolling region of low hills, clothed in heavy forest, and abounding in game.  Here they stopped a while in their task of completing the circle, and waited while the Indian army marched.  Henry calculated that it could not go more than a dozen miles a day, since the way had to be cut for the cannon, and even if they remained where they were, the Indian army when night came, would be very little farther south than the five.

“I vote we turn our short stop into a long one,” said Shif’less Sol, “since, ef we went on we’d jest have to come back again.  An’ me bein’ a lazy man I’m ag’in any useless work.  What do you say, Saplin’?”

“I’m with you, Sol, not ‘cause I’m lazy, which I ain’t, an’ never will be, but cause it ain’t wuth while to go back on our tracks an’ then come forward ag’in.  What I do say is this; since Tom Ross is such a good fisher I reckon he might take his hook an’ line an’ go east to the creek, which can’t be fur from here, an’ ketch some more fish jest ez good ez them we had this mornin’.  After dark I’ll cook ’em, takin’ the trouble off his hands.”

All fell in with the suggestion, including Tom himself, and after a while he went away on the errand, returning in due time with plenty of fish as good as the others.  This time Long Jim cooked them when night came, in a low place behind the trees, and once more they had warm and delicate food.

When the moon rose in a clear sky, they were able to trace the smoke of the Indian campfire, almost due west of them, as they calculated it would be, and a long distance away.  Henry regarded it thoughtfully and Paul knew that his mind was concentrated upon some plan.

“What is it?” he asked at last.

“I think some of us ought to go late tonight and see what chance we have at the guns.”

“You’ll take me with you, Henry?”

“No, Paul.  It’ll have to be Shif’less Sol, while the rest of you stand by as a reserve.  What call shall we use, the owl or the wolf?”

“Let it be the wolf,” said the shiftless one, “’cause I feel like a wolf tonight, ready to snap at an’ bite them that’s tryin’ to hurt our people.”

“Sol gits mighty ferocious when thar ain’t anythin’ more terrible than a rabbit close by,” said Long Jim.

“It ain’t that.  It’s my knowin’ that you’ll run to my help ef I git into trouble,” said Shif’less Sol.

Paul felt a little disappointment, but it disappeared quickly.  He knew that Shif’less Sol was the one who ought to go, and in the high tasks they had set for themselves there were enough dangers for all.

“Then it will be the cry of the wolf,” said Henry.  “To most people their yelps are alike, but not to us.  You won’t forget the particular kind of howl that Sol and I give forth?”

“Never,” said Long Jim.  “Thar ain’t another sech wolf in the woods ez Shif’less Sol.”

A few more brief words and Henry and his comrade were gone, traveling at a swift rate toward the Indian camp.  Dark and the forest separated the two from the three, but they could send their signal cries at any time across the intervening space, and communication was not interrupted.  They advanced in silence several miles, and then they became very cautious, because they knew that they were within the fringe of scouts and hunters.  With so many to feed it was likely that the Indians would hunt by night, especially as the wild turkeys were numerous, and it was easy to obtain them in the dark.

Both Henry and Shif’less Sol saw turkey signs, and their caution increased, when they noticed a dozen dusky figures of large birds on boughs near by, sure proof that the warriors would soon be somewhere in the neighborhood, if they were not so already.  They began to stoop now, and use cover all the way, and presently Henry felt that their precautions were well taken, as a faint but distant sound, not native to the forest, came to his ear.

“There, Sol!” he whispered.  “Did you hear it?  To the right.”

The shiftless one listened a moment or two and replied: 

“Yes, I kin make it out.”

“I say it’s the twang of a bowstring, Sol.”

“So do I, Henry.”

“They’re probably shooting the turkeys out of the trees with arrows.  Saves noise and their powder and lead, too.”

“Wherein the Injun shows a heap o’ sense, Henry.”

“I can hear more than one bow twanging now, Sol.  The turkeys must be plentiful hereabouts, but even with bows and arrows only used against ’em they’re bound to take alarm soon.”

“Yes, thar go some o’ ’em gobblin’ now, an’ they’re flyin’ this way.”

They heard the whirr of wings carrying heavy bodies, and frightened turkeys flew directly over their heads.  As the Indians might come in pursuit, Henry and Shif’less Sol lay down among the bushes.  A shouting broke out near them, and the forest, for a wide space, was filled with the whirring of wings.

“The biggest flock o’ wild turkeys that ever wuz must hev roosted right ‘roun’ us,” said Shif’less Sol, “’cause I seem to see ’em by the dozens.”

“More likely fifteen or twenty flocks were scattered about through the woods, and now they have all joined in a common flight.”

“Mebbe so, but whether one flock or twenty j’ined, this is suttinly Turkeyland.  An’ did you ever see sech fine turkeys.  Look at that king gobbler, Henry, flyin’ right over our heads!  He must weigh fifty pounds ef he weighs an ounce, an’ his wattles are a wonder to look at.  An’ I kin see him lookin’ right down at me, ez he passes an’ I kin hear him sayin’:  ‘I ain’t afeared o’ you, Sol Hyde, even ef you hev got a gun in your hand.  I kin fly low over your head, so low that I’ll brush you with my wings, and with my red wattles, which are a wonder to see, an’ you dassn’t fire.  I’ve got you where I want you, Sol Hyde.  I ain’t afeard o’ anything but Injuns tonight.’”

Shif’less Sol’s words were so lugubrious that Henry was compelled to laugh under his breath.  It did look like an injustice of fate, when hunters so keen as they, were compelled to lie quiet, while wild turkeys in hundreds flew over their heads, and although the shiftless one may have exaggerated a little about the king gobbler, Henry saw that many of them were magnificent specimens of their kind.  Yet to lie and stir not was the price of life, as they soon saw.

Indians came running through the great grove, discharging arrows at the turkeys, many of which flew low, and the air was filled with the twanging of bow strings.  Not a rifle or musket was fired, the warriors seeming to rely wholly upon their ancient weapons for this night hunt.  They appeared to be in high good humor, too, as the two crouching scouts heard them laughing and chattering as they picked up the fallen birds, and then sent arrows in search of more.

Shif’less Sol became more and more uneasy.  Here was a grand hunt going well forward and he not a part of it.  Instead he had to crouch among bushes and flatten himself against the soil like an earthworm, while the twanging of the bows made music, and the eager shouts stirred every vein.

The hunt swept off to the westward.  The dusky figures of warriors and turkeys disappeared in the brush, and Henry and Shif’less Sol, ceasing to be earthworms, rose to their knees.

“They didn’t see us,” said the shiftless one, “but it was hard to stay hid.”

“But here we are alive and safe.  Now, I think, Sol, we’d better go on straight toward their camp, but keep a lookout at the same time for those fellows, when they come back.”

They could not hear the twang of bowstrings now, but the shouts still came to them, though much softened by the distance.  Presently they too died away, and with silence returning to the forest Henry and Shif’less Sol stood upright.  They listened only a moment or two, and then advanced directly toward the camp.  Crossing the brook they went around a cluster of thorn bushes, and came face to face with two men.  Shif’less Sol, quick as a panther, swung his clubbed rifle like lightning and the foremost of the two, a Shawnee warrior, dropped like a log, and Henry, too close for action, seized the other by the throat in his powerful hands.

It was not a great and brawny throat into which those fingers of steel settled, and its owner began to gasp quickly.  Then Henry noticed that he held in his grasp not an Indian, but a white man, or rather a boy, a fair English boy, a youthful and open face upon which the forest had not yet set its tan.

He released his grasp slowly.  He could not bear the pain and terror in the eyes of the slender English youth, who, though he wore the uniform of a subaltern, seemed so much out of place there in the deep woods.  Yet the forester meant to take no needless risk.

“Promise that you will not cry out and I spare you,” he said, his blue eyes looking straight into those of the lad, which returned his gaze with defiance.  The steel grasp settled down again.

“Better promise,” said Henry.  “It’s your only chance.”

The obstinate look passed out of his eyes, and the lad nodded, as he could not speak.  Then Henry took away his hand and said: 

“Remember your word.”

The English youth nodded again, gurgled two or three times, and rubbed his throat: 

“’Twas a mighty grip you had upon me.  Who are you?”

“The owners of this forest, and we’ve jest been tellin’ you that you’ve no business here on our grounds,” said the shiftless one.

The boy ­he was nothing more ­stared at them in astonishment.  It was obvious to the two forest runners that he had little acquaintance with the woods.  His eyes filled with wonder as he gazed upon the two fierce faces, and the two powerful figures, arrayed in buckskin.

“Your forest?” he said.

“Yes,” replied Henry quietly, “and bear in mind that I held your life in my hands.  Had you been an Indian you would be dead now.”

“I won’t forget it,” said the youth, who seemed honest enough, “and I’m not going to cry out and bring the warriors down upon you for two very good reasons ­because I’ve promised not to do so, and if I did, I know that your comrade there would shoot me down the next instant.”

“I shorely would,” said Shif’less Sol, grimly.

“And now,” said Henry, “what is your name and what are you doing here?”

“My name is Roderick Cawthorne, I’m a subaltern in the British army, and I came over to help put down the rebels, in accordance with my duty to my king and country.  All this land is under our rule.”

“Do you think so?” asked Henry.  “Do you think that this wilderness, which extends a thousand miles in every direction, is under your rule?”

The young subaltern looked around at the dark forest and shivered a little.

“Technically, yes,” he replied, “but it’s a long way from Eton.”

“What’s Eton?”

“Eton is a school in England, a school for the sons of gentlemen.”

“I see.  And would I be considered the son of a gentleman?”

Young Cawthorne looked up at the tanned and powerful face bent over him.  He had already noted Henry’s good English, and, feeling the compelling gaze of one who was born to be a master, he replied, sincerely and cheerfully: 

“Yes, the son of a gentleman, and a gentleman yourself.”

“An’ I’m a gentleman too,” said Shif’less Sol.  “My good rifle says so every time.”

“It was the power of earlier weapons that started the line of gentlemen,” said Cawthorne.  “Now what do you two gentlemen propose to do with me?”

“Do you know what would be done with us if things were changed about?” asked Henry, “and we were the prisoners of you and the colonel and the red men with whom you travel?”

“No.  What would it be?”

“You’d have the pleasure of standing by and seeing the two of us burned alive at the stake.  We wouldn’t be burned quickly.  It can be protracted for hours, and it’s often done to our people by your allies.”

The young Englishman paled.

“Surely it can’t be so!” he said.

“But surely it is so!” said the young forester fiercely.

“I’m at your mercy.”

“We ain’t goin’ to burn you now,” said Shif’less Sol.  “We can’t afford to set up a big torch in the forest, with our enemies so near.”

Cawthorne shivered.

“Do you still feel,” asked Henry, “that you’re the ruler over the wilderness here, five thousand miles from London?”

“Technically only.  At the present time I’m making no boasts.”

“Now, you go back to your colonel and the renegades and the red chiefs and tell them they’ll find no thoroughfare to the white settlements.”

“So, you don’t mean to kill me?”

“No, we don’t do that sort of thing.  Since we can’t hold you a prisoner now, we release you.  It’s likely that you don’t know your way to your own camp, but your red comrade here will guide you.  My friend didn’t break his skull, when he struck him with the butt of his rifle, though it was a shrewd blow.  He’s coming to.”

Cawthorne looked down at the reviving savage, and then looked up to thank the foresters, but they were gone.  They had vanished so quickly and silently that he had not heard them going.  Had it not been for the savage who was now sitting up he would not have believed that it was real.

Henry and the shiftless one had dropped down in the bushes only a little distance away, and, by the moonlight, they saw the look of bewilderment on the face of the young Englishman.

“It don’t hardly look fair to our people that we should let him go,” said the shiftless one.

“But we had to,” Henry whispered back.  “It was either kill him or let him go, and neither you nor I, Sol, could kill him.  You know that.”

“Yes, I know it.”

“Now, the warrior has all his senses back, though his head is likely to ache for a couple of days.  We don’t lose anything by letting them have their lives, Sol.  The talk of their encounter with us will grow mightily as they go back to the Indian army.  The warrior scarcely caught a glimpse of us, and he’s likely to say that he was struck down by an evil spirit.  Cawthorne’s account of his talk with us will not weaken him in his belief.  Instead it will make him sure that we’re demons who spared them in order that they might carry a warning to their comrades.”

“I see it, Henry.  It’s boun’ to be the way you say it is, an’ our luck is still workin’ fur us.”

They saw the English lad and the warrior turn back toward the camp, and then they rose, going away swiftly at a right angle from their original course.  After pursuing it a while, they curved in again toward the camp.

In a half-hour they saw the distant flare of lights, and knew that they were close to the Indian army.  They were able by stalking, carried on with infinite pains and skill, to approach so near that they could see into the open, where the fires were burning, but not near enough to achieve anything of use.

Alloway, Cartwright, the renegades and the chiefs stood together, and Cawthorne, and the warrior who had been with him, stood before them.  Evidently they had just got back, and were telling their tale.  Both of the foresters laughed inwardly.  Their achievement gave them much pleasure, and they felt that they were making progress toward forging the new link in the chain.

“Can you see the cannon?” whispered Shif’less Sol.

“Over there at the far edge.  The ammunition wagons carrying the powder and the balls and the grapeshot are drawn up between them.  But we can’t get at ’em, Sol.  Not now, at least.”

“No, but see, Henry, a lot of them warriors are beginnin’ to dance, an’ thar are two medicine men among ’em.  They’ve overheard the news o’ what we’ve done, an’ they’re gittin’ excited.  They’re shore now the evil sperrits are all ‘roun’ ’em.”

“Looks like it, Sol, and those medicine men are not afraid of Alloway, the renegades, the chiefs or anybody else.  They’re encouraging the dancing.”

Henry and the shiftless one saw the medicine men through the glow of the lofty flames, and they looked strange and sinister to the last degree.  One was wrapped in a buffalo hide with the head and horns over his own head, the other was made up as a bear.  The glare through which they were seen, magnified them to twice or thrice their size, and gave them a tint of blood.  They looked like two monsters walking back and forth before the warriors.

“The seed we planted is shorely growin’ up good an’ strong,” whispered Shif’less Sol.

More and more warriors joined in the chant of the medicine men.  The two saw Alloway gesture furiously toward them, and then they saw Yellow Panther and Red Eagle shake their heads.  The two interpreted the movements easily.  Alloway wanted the chiefs to stop the chanting which had in it the double note of awe and fear, and Yellow Panther and Red Eagle disclaimed any power to do so.

Again the foresters laughed inwardly, as the monstrous and misshapen figures of the two medicine men careered back and forth in the flaming light.  They knew that at this moment their power over the warriors was supreme.  The more Alloway raged the more he weakened his own influence.

“An’ now they’re dancin’ with all their might,” whispered the shiftless one.  “Look how they bound an’ twist an’ jump!  Henry, you an’ me have seed some wild sights together, but this caps ’em.”

It was in truth a most extraordinary scene, this wild dance of the hundreds in the depths of the primeval forest.  Around and around they went, led by the two medicine men, the bear and the buffalo, and the hideous, monotonous chant swelled through all the forest.  It did not now contain the ring of triumph and anticipation.  Instead it was filled with grief for the fallen, fear of the evil spirits that filled the air, and of Manitou who had turned his face away from them.

Alloway and the white men who were left, drew to one side.  Henry could imagine the rage of the colonel at his helplessness, and he could imagine too that he must feel a thrill of awe at the wild scene passing before him.  The time and the circumstances must work upon the feelings of a white man, no matter how stout his heart.

“If we could strike another good strong blow now,” said the shiftless one, “I think they would break into a panic.”

“True,” said Henry, “but we must not depart from our original purpose to get at the cannon.  I don’t think we can do it tonight and so we’d better withdraw.  Maybe we’ll have another chance tomorrow night.”

“I’m agreein’ with you, Henry, an’ I’m beginnin’ to think mighty like the warriors do, that Manitou, which is jest their name for our God, turns his face upon you or turns his face away from you.”

“It looks so, Sol.  I suppose the Indians in most ways don’t differ much from us.  Only they’re a lot more superstitious.”

Slowly they crept away, but when they finally rose to their feet in the depths of the forest they could still see the glow of the great fires behind them.  Henry and the shiftless one knew that the Indians had been heaping logs upon coals until the flames sprang up fifteen or twenty feet, and that around them nearly the whole army was now dancing and singing.  The wailing note of so many voices still reached them, shrill, piercing and so full of lament that the nerves of the forest runners themselves were upset.

“I want to git away from here,” said the shiftless one, and then he added wistfully:  “I wish we could strike our big blow, whatever it is, tonight, Henry.  Their state o’ mind is terrible.  They’re right on edge, an’ ef we could do somethin’ they’d break, shore.”

“I know it,” said Henry, “but we’re not able to get at what we want to reach.”

Nevertheless they stood there, and listened some time to the wailing note of all the hundreds who were oppressed and afraid, because the face of Manitou was so obviously turned from them.

Henry and the shiftless one, as they returned toward their comrades whom they had left behind, did not relax their caution, knowing that hunting parties were still abroad, and that veteran chiefs like Yellow Panther and Red Eagle had sent scouts ahead.  Twice they struck trails, and fragments of feathers left on the bushes by warriors returning with turkeys.

They were at least two miles from the camp when they heard noises that indicated the passage of a small body of the Indians, and as they stepped behind trees to conceal themselves Shif’less Sol’s foot suddenly sank with a bubbling sound into an oozy spot.  In an instant, all the Indians stopped.  Henry and his comrade heard rustling sounds for a moment, and then there was complete silence.  The two knew that the warriors had taken to cover, and that probably they would not escape without a fight.  They were intensely annoyed as they wished to return to Paul, Long Jim and Silent Tom.

The shiftless one withdrew his foot from the ooze, and he and Henry crouched on dry ground, watching with eye and ear for any movement in the thicket opposite.  They knew that the warriors, with infinite patience, were waiting in the same manner, and it was likely that the delay would be long.

“Luck has turned ag’in us fur a little bit,” whispered Shif’less Sol, “but I can’t think that after favorin’ us fur so long it’ll leave us fur good.”

“I don’t think so either,” said Henry.  “I hear one of them moving.”

“That bein’ the case we’ll lay nearly flat,” said Shif’less Sol.

It was well they did so, as a rifle flashed in the thicket before them, and a bullet cut the leaves over their heads.  They did not reply, but crept silently to one side.  A few minutes later another bullet crashed through the bushes at the same place, and this time Henry fired by the flash.  He heard a low cry, followed by silence and he was sure that his bullet had struck a target.  Shif’less Sol held his rifle ready in case a rush should come, but there was none, and Henry reloaded rapidly.

A full half-hour of waiting followed, in which only a single shot was fired, and that by the warriors, to go wide of the mark, as usual, and the wrath of Henry and the shiftless one, at being held there so long, became intense.  It seemed the veriest piece of irony that this unfortunate chance should have occurred, but Henry presently recalled the arrangement they had made with the three, wondering why they had not thought of it sooner.

“The warriors are before us,” he whispered to Shif’less Sol, “and Long Jim, Paul and Tom are behind us.  They may have heard the rifle shots or they may not, but at any rate there is something that will carry further.”

“You mean the howl of the wolf!  O’ course, that’s our call to them.”

“Yes, and if we bring ’em up it won’t be hard to drive off this band.”

“Let me give the signal then, Henry.  Ef Long Jim is the best yeller among us mebbe I’m the best howler.  I’m right proud o’ bein’ a wolf sometimes, an’ I feel like one jest now.”

“Go back then some distance,” said Henry.  “When the boys come up you must meet ’em and not let ’em run into any ambush.”

The shiftless one glided away toward the rear, and Henry, lying almost flat on the grass and watching the thickets in front of him so intensely that no warrior could have crept out of them unseen, waited.  At the end of five minutes he heard behind him a note, low at first, but swelling gradually so high that it pierced the sky and filled the forest.  It was fierce, prolonged, seeming to come from the throat of a monster wolf, and, as it died away, a similar cry came from a point far back in the forest.  The wolf near by howled again, and the wolf deep in the forest replied in like fashion.  The signal was complete, and Henry knew that Paul, Silent Tom and Long Jim would come fast to help.

There was a stirring in the thicket before him, evidently prompted by the signals, and another vain bullet crashed through the bushes.  Henry fired once more at the flash, but he could not tell whether or not he had hit anything, although it was sufficient to hold the warriors in the bush.  Evidently they did not consider themselves strong enough for a rush, and again he waited patiently, judging that the three would arrive in twenty minutes at the furthest.

They came several minutes within the allotted time.  He heard soft rustlings behind him, and then the five were reunited and ready for action.

“Sol, you creep around on the right flank, and Tom, you take the left,” whispered the young general.  “They’re not in numbers and I think we can soon rout ’em without loss to ourselves.”

The flanking movement was carried out perfectly.  Shif’less Sol and Silent Tom opened fire on the right and on the left at the same time, and the other three, sending in bullets from the center, began to shout the charge, although they did no charging.  But it was sufficient.  They saw dusky figures darting away, and then, rising from the bushes the three divisions of their small army met victoriously upon the field, abandoned by the enemy in such haste.

They saw red stains, and then a dark form almost hidden in the grass, a powerful warrior, painted hideously and dead an hour.  Henry looked down at him thoughtfully.  The retreating warriors had taken away his weapons, but his paint bag and the little charms against evil spirits remained, tied to his belt.  It was the paint bag that held Henry’s eye, and, holding it, gave him the idea.

He detached the bag, the waistcloth and moccasins, and calling to his comrades retreated farther into the forest.  Every one of them, as they watched his actions, divined his intent.

“You’re going to disguise yourself and go into the Indian camp,” said Paul, when they stopped.  “I wouldn’t do it.  The risk is too great.  Besides, what can you do?”

“I went among ’em once and came back alive,” said Henry, “and I think I can do it again.  Besides, I mean to accomplish something.”

“I’m to go with you, o’ course?” said Shif’less Sol, eagerly.

Henry shook his head.

“No, Sol,” he said reluctantly.  “There’s only equipment for one, and it must be me.  But the rest of you can hang on the outskirts, and if I give a cry for help you may come.  It will be, as before, the howl of the wolf, and now, boys, we will work fast, because I must strike, while they’re still in the frenzy, created by the medicine men.”

Henry took off his own clothing, and, with a shudder, put on the leggings and breechcloth of the dead Indian.  Then Shif’less Sol and Tom Ross painted him from the waist up in a ghastly manner, and, with their heartfelt wishes for his safety and success, he departed for the camp, the others following in silence not far behind.  He soon heard the sound of the chant and he knew that the orgie was proceeding.  An Indian dance could last two days and nights without stopping, fresh warriors always replacing those who dropped from exhaustion.

It was now far past midnight, and Henry was quite sure that all the hunters had gone.  The little party which he and his comrades had fought had probably spread already the tale of a mysterious foe with whom they had met, and who had slain one of their number.  And the story, exaggerated much in the telling, would add to the number and power of the evil spirits oppressing the red army.

Keeping for the present well hidden in the forest, Henry approached the fires which had now been heaped up to an amazing height, from which lofty flames leaped and which sent off sparks in millions.  The chant was wilder than ever, rolling in weird echoes through the forest, the dancers leaping to and fro, their faces bathed in perspiration, their eyes filled with the glare of temporary madness.  The Englishmen and renegades had gone to small tents pitched at the edge of the wood, but Yellow Panther and Red Eagle stood and watched the dancers.

All things were distorted in the mingled dusk and glow of the fires, and Henry, bending low that his great stature might not be noticed, edged gradually in and joined the dancers.  For a while, none was more furious than he.  He leaped and he swung his arms, and he chanted, until the perspiration ran down his face, and none looked wilder than he.  In the multitude nobody knew that he was a stranger, nor would the glazed eyes of the dancers have noticed that he was one, anyhow.

Nevertheless he was watching keenly, while he leaped and shouted, and his eyes were for the cannon, drawn up just within the edge of the forest, with the ammunition wagons between them.  After a while he moved cautiously in their direction, threw himself panting on the grass, where others already lay in the stupor of exhaustion, and then, taking hold of one of the burning brands which the wind had blown from the bonfires, he edged slowly toward the forest and the wagons.

This was the last link in the chain, but if it were not forged all the others would be in vain.  Three or four times he stopped motion altogether, and lay flat on the ground.  Through the red haze he dimly saw the figures of Yellow Panther and Red Eagle who stood side by side, and he saw also the two medicine men, the Bear and the Buffalo, who danced as if they were made of steel, and who continually incited the others.

Henry himself began to feel the effect of the dancing and of the wild cheering, which was like a continuous mad incantation.  His blood had never before leaped so wildly and he saw through a red haze all the time.  He felt for the moment almost like an Indian, or rather as if he had returned to some primeval incarnation.  But it did not make him feel one with those around him.  Instead it incited him to extreme effort and greater daring.

He edged himself forward slowly, dragging the torch upon the ground.  He still saw Blackstaffe and Wyatt at the edge of the opening some distance away, but they were gazing at the great mass of the dancers.  Alloway presently came from his tent and also stood looking on, though he did not join the renegades.  Henry could imagine his feelings, his bitter disappointment.  But then, one must know something about Indians before undertaking to go on campaigns with them.  He hoped, however, that young Cawthorne would remain in his tent.

His slow creeping lasted ten minutes.  He felt now that he had reached the very crisis of the campaign made by the five, and he must not make the slightest slip of any kind.  He reached the grass behind the wagons and lay there four or five minutes without stirring.  He discovered then that besides those between the cannon there were four behind them loaded with powder.  The horses were tethered in the woods two or three hundred yards away.  He was glad that so much distance separated them from the cannon and powder.

The torch, although he kept it concealed in the grass, was beginning to crackle.  The problem was not yet simple, but he thought rapidly.  The wagons were covered with canvas.  Reaching up, he quickly cut off a long strip with his hunting knife.  Then he inserted the strip inside the wagon and into the powder, driving the knife deep through canvas and wood, and leaving it, thrust there to hold the strip fast.

The other end of the thick canvas fell from the wagon to the ground, a length of about a foot lying in the grass.  He ignited this with his torch, and saw it begin to burn with a steady creeping flame.  Then he moved swiftly away until he reached the edge of the forest, when he rose and ran with all his might.  Three or four hundred yards distant, he stopped and uttered the cry of the wolf.  The answer came instantly from a point very near, and in two minutes the four joined him.

“Is it arranged?” exclaimed Paul.

“Yes,” replied Henry.  “There’s a chance of a slip, of course.  The torch is set and burning.  An Indian may see it and put it out, but I don’t ­”

The sentence was never finished.  The night was rent by a terrible crash, and as they were looking toward the Indian camp they saw a pyramid of fire shoot far up into the sky, and then sink back again.  A half minute of dreadful silence followed, when every leaf and blade of grass seemed to stand still, and then through the distance came a long and piercing lament.

“It’s done!” said the shiftless one, speaking in a tone of awe.

“The cannon are blown to pieces,” said Paul.

“Nothin’ but scattered metal now!” said Long Jim.

“Busted up, shore!” said Silent Tom.

“They’ll be running in a panic presently,” said Henry, “and they won’t stop until they’re far across the Ohio.”

The hearts of the five swelled.  They alone, five against a thousand, rifles against cannon, had defeated the great Indian army headed by artillery.  They had equalled the knights of old ­perhaps had surpassed them ­although it was not done by valor alone, but also by wile and stratagem, by mind and leadership.  Intellect had been well allied with bravery.

But they said little, and turning back into the deeps of the forest, they slept until morning.

The five rose at dawn, and went swiftly to the place where the Indian camp had stood, to find there, as they had expected, complete silence and desolation.  The ruin was utter.  All the wagons had been blown to bits, and the cannon were shattered so thoroughly that they lay in fragments.  Probably Indians near by had been killed, but the warriors, following their custom, had taken their dead away with them.

Henry, looking near the edge of the forest, suddenly started back at a gleam of red among the bushes.  He knew that it had come from a red coat, and when he looked again he saw the body of Colonel Alloway lying there.  He had been hit in the head by a piece of flying metal and evidently had been killed instantly.  Doubtless the other English had wanted to bury him, but the panic of the Indians had compelled them to leave him, although they took their own dead.

“We’ll bury him, because he was a white man,” said Henry.

They dug a grave with their knives and hatchets and laid him in it, putting stones over the dirt to keep prowling wild animals from digging there, and then took the Indian trail.

It was a trail so wide and deep that a blind man could have followed it.  The panic evidently had been terrible.  The warriors had thrown away blankets, and in some cases weapons.  Henry found a fine hunting knife, with which he replaced the one he had used to pin down his fuse, and Silent Tom found a fine green blanket which he added to his own.

They followed to the Ohio River, and some distance beyond.  Then, satisfied that this expedition was routed utterly, they came back into Kentucky.

“I’d like to go to that little house of ours inside the cliff,” said Paul.

“So would I,” said Long Jim.  “It’s the snuggest home we’ve ever found inside the wilderness.”

“An’ Indian proof, ez we’ve proved,” said the shiftless one.

“Good fur rest,” said Silent Tom.

“Then we go there,” said Henry.

They reached the valley the next day and climbed up into the cleft which had been a home and a fortress for them.  It was sweet and clean, full of fresh, pure air, and the tiny rill was trickling away merrily.  Nothing had been disturbed.

“Now ain’t this fine?” said Long Jim, coming outside and looking over the hills.  “Paul, I’ve heard you talk about palaces, them that the old Greeks an’ Romans had, an’ them that they hev now in Europe, but I know that thar has never been one among ’em ez snug an’ safe an’ cozy ez this.”

“At least,” said the shiftless one, “I don’t believe any o’ ’em ever had a water supply like ourn, clean, cool, an’ unfailin’.”

Silent Tom took something from his knapsack.

“I’m goin’ to git some fish in that creek farther down,” he said.  “You’d better hev your fire ready.  Out here on the shelf is a good place.”

Long Jim, happy in the task that he liked, hurried away in search of dead wood.  The others carried dried leaves into the hollow and made places for their beds.

Silent Tom caught plenty of good fish, to which they added venison and buffalo steaks, and, sitting on the shelf they ate and were at peace.  The glow of triumph was still in their hearts.  Alone, they had achieved a great deed for the sake of humanity.  They had been through their Iliad, and like the heroes of antiquity, they took their well-earned rest.

The foliage was now in its deepest flush of green.  Henry, as he looked over a vast expanse of wilderness, saw nothing but green, green, the unbroken green that he loved.

A bird in a tree over their heads began to pour forth a volume of clear, triumphant song, and the five looked upon it as a voice meant for them.

“It’s the last touch,” said Paul.

“And the victory is complete,” said Henry.