Read CHAPTER VII - ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS of The Riflemen of the Ohio, A Story of the Early Days along "The Beautiful River", free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

When Henry looked back a third time and saw that no Wyandot had yet come into view, he made another spurt, one in which he taxed his power of muscle and lung to the utmost.  He maintained his speed for a half mile and then slowed down.  He had no doubt that he had increased his lead over them, and now he would use cunning in place of strength and speed.  It was a country of springs and brooks, and he looked for one in order that he might use this common device of the border ­wading in the water to hide his tracks.  But he saw none.  Here fortune was not kind, and he ran on in the long, easy stride like the gallop of a horse.

He still sought to keep a perfectly straight course toward the southeast.  It would not permit that deadly half circle to close in, and it would carry him toward his friends and the fleet.  He reached rougher ground, low hills with many outcroppings of stone, and he leaped lightly from rock to rock.  His moccasined feet, for a space, left no traces, and when he came to the softer earth again he paused.  They would certainly lose the trail at the hills, and it would take them five, perhaps ten, minutes to find it once more.

He leaned against a tree, drawing great breaths and relaxing his muscles.  He permitted everything to give way for a minute or two, knowing that in such manner he would procure the most rest and resiliency.  Meanwhile he listened with all the powers of those wonderful, forest-bred ears of his, but heard nothing save a far, faint call or two.

After about five minutes he resumed his flight, going at the long, easy frontier lope, and a little later he came to a great mass of tangled and fallen forest where a hurricane had passed.  Fortune that had failed him with the brook served him with the trees, and he ran lightly along in the path of the hurricane, leaping from trunk to trunk.  He had turned for the first time from his direct course, but now he could afford to do so.  It would take the shrewdest of the Wyandot warriors some time to pick up a trail that was lost for a full quarter of a mile, and he did not leave the windrow until fully that distance was covered.

He passed some low hills again, and just beyond them he came to a large creek flowing between fairly high banks.  This was better luck than he had hoped.  The waters felt cool and fresh, and, hot from his long run, he drank eagerly.  But the creek would serve another and better purpose, the hiding of his trail.  It flowed in the very direction in which he was going, and he waded down stream for forty or fifty yards.  Then he went over his head.  The creek had suddenly deepened, but he came up promptly and swam easily with the current.

Swimming rested him in a way.  A new set of muscles came into play, and he swam placidly for two or three hundred yards.  Then he turned over on his back and floated as far again.  Now, as he floated, he found time to take thought.  He saw that the sun was still shining brilliantly overhead, and the forest grew in a dense green wall to the water’s edge on either side.

He had come so far.  It seemed that he had made good his escape, but he was able for the first time to take a survey of his situation.  He was alone in the wilderness and without arms.  What a ship is to the sailor, so the rifle was to the borderer.  It was his meat and drink, his defense, his armor, his truest and trustiest comrade; without it he must surely perish, unless some rare chance aided him, as once in a thousand times the shipwrecked sailor reaches the lone island.

Henry knew that he was a long distance from the Ohio, and it would be difficult to locate the fleet.  It would have to move slowly, and it may have tied up several times for weather.

He floated two or three hundred yards further, and then at a dip in the bank he emerged, the water running in streams from his clothing.  He stood there a minute or two, watching and listening, but nothing alarming came to his eye or ear.  Perhaps he had shaken off the Wyandots, but he was far too well versed in forest cunning and patience to take it for granted.  He was about to start again when he felt a little pain in his side.  He remembered now the light impact as if a pebble had struck him, and he knew that the wound had been caused by a bullet.  But no blood was there.  It had all been washed away by the waters of the creek.  The cold stream, moreover, had been good for the wound.

He lifted his wet clothing and examined his hurt critically.  It might be serious.  It would certainly weaken him after a few hours, although the bullet had passed through the flesh, and a few hours now were more precious to him than weeks later.  But his pride and joy in life were not yet diminished.  He was free and he would not be re-taken.  The country around him was as beautiful as any that he had ever seen.  The banks of the creek were high and rocky, and its waters were very clear.  Splendid forests swept away from either side, and on one far horizon showed the faint line of blue hills.  The sun was still shining bright and warm.

He re-entered the forest, continuing his flight toward the southeast, and swung along at a good pace.  Exercise restored the warmth to his body and also brought with it now and then the little stitch in his side.  His clothing gradually dried upon him, and he did not cease his long, easy trot until he noticed that the sun was far down in the west.  It had already taken on the fiery red tint that marks it when it goes, and in the east gray shadows were coming.

Henry believed that he had shaken off the pursuit for good now, and he sat down upon a log to rest.  Then a sudden great weakness came over him.  The forest grew dim, the earth seemed to tip up, and there was a ringing sound in his ears.  He looked at his hand and saw that it was shaking.  It required a great effort of the will to clear his vision and steady the world about him.  But he achieved it, and then he took thought of himself.

He knew very well what was the matter.  His wound had begun to assert itself, and he knew that he could no longer refuse to listen to its will.

The sun sank in a sea of red and yellow fire, and the veil of darkness was drawn over the vast primeval wilderness.  Henry welcomed the coming of the dusk.  Night is kindly to those who flee.  He left the log and walked slowly toward the horizon, on which he had seen the dim, blue line of the hills.  He would be more likely to find there rude shelter of some sort.

The reflex from long and strenuous action both physical and mental ­no one fights for anything else as he does for his life ­had come, and his body relaxed.  The dizziness returned at times, and he knew that he must have rest.

He was aware, too, that he needed food, but it was no time to hunt for it.  That must be done on the morrow, and intense longing for his rifle assailed him again.  It would be more precious to him now than gold or diamonds.

A melancholy note came lonesomely through the forest and the twilight.  It was the cry of the whippoorwill, inexpressibly mournful, and Henry listened to it a minute or two.  He thought at first that it might be a signal cry of the Wyandots, but when it was twice repeated he knew that it was real.  He banished it from his mind and went on.

A gobble came from a tree near by.  He caught the bronze gleam of the wild turkeys sitting high on the branches.  They may have seen him or heard him, but they did not stir.  Something sprang up in the bushes, ran a little way and stopped, regarding him with great lustrous eyes.  It was a deer, but it was unafraid.  The behavior of deer and turkey was so unusual that a curious idea gripped Henry.  They knew that he was unarmed, and therefore they did not feel the need to run.

He always felt a close kinship with the wild things, and he could not put aside this idea that they knew him as he now was, a helpless wanderer.  It humiliated him.  He had been a lord of creation, and now he was the weakest of them all.  They could find their food and shelter with ease, but only luck would bring him either.  He felt discouragement because he had suddenly sunk to the lowest place among living things, and that stitch in his side began to grow stronger.  It did not come now at intervals but stayed, and soon he must lie down and rest if he had nothing more than the shelter of a tree’s outspread boughs.

But he came to the hills and, after some hunting, found a rocky alcove, which he half filled with the dead leaves of last year.  There he lay down and drew some of the leaves over him.  It was wonderfully soothing and peaceful, and the stitch in his side became much easier.  As his nerves resumed their normal state, he grew very hungry.  But he would have to endure it, and he tried to think of other things.

It was quite dark now, but he heard noises about him.  He knew that it was the night prowlers, and some of them came very near.  It was true that they knew him to be unarmed.  In some mysterious way the word had been passed among them that their greatest enemy, man, could do them no harm, and Henry saw bright little eyes looking at him curiously through the darkness.

The boy felt deeply his sense of helplessness.  Small shadowy forms hopped about through the thickets.  He fancied that they were rabbits, and they came very near in the most reckless and abandoned fashion.  He was overwhelmed with shame.  That a little rabbit eight inches long and weighing only two or three pounds should defy him who had slain bears and buffaloes, and who had fought victoriously with the most powerful and cunning of Indian warriors, was not to be endured.  He raised himself up a little and threw a stone at them.  They disappeared with a faint noise of light, leaping feet, but in a few moments they came back again.  If he frightened them it was only for an instant, and it took an effort of his will to prevent an unreasoning anger toward the most timid and innocent of forest creatures.

The night now was well advanced, but full of dusky beauty.  The stars were coming out, bright and confident, and their silvery twinkle lighted up the heavens.  Henry looked up at them.  They would have been to most people mere meaningless points in the vast, cold void, but they made him neither lonely nor afraid.  The feeling of weakness was what troubled him.  He knew that he ought to sleep, but his nerves were not yet in the perfect accord that produces rest.

He resolutely shut his eyes and kept them shut for five minutes.  Then he opened them again because he felt a larger presence than that of the rabbits.  He saw another half circle of bright eyes, but these were much higher above the ground, and presently he made out the lean forms, the sharp noses, and the cruel white teeth of wolves.  Still he was not afraid.  They did not seem to be above four or five in number, and he knew that they would not attack him unless they were a large pack, but he felt the insult of their presence.  He hated wolves.  He respected a bear and he admired a buffalo, but a wolf, although in his way cunning and skillful beyond compare, did not seem to him to be a noble animal.

Such contempt for him, a hunter and a warrior, who could slay at two hundred yards, given his rifle, must be avenged, and he felt around at the edge of the hollow until his hand closed upon a stone nearly as large as his fist.  Then he closed his eyes all but a tiny corner of the right one and lay so still that even a wolf, with all his wolfish knowledge and caution, might think him asleep.  By the faint beam of light that entered the tiny corner of his right eye he saw the wolves drawing nearer, and he marked their leader, an inquiring old fellow who stood three or four inches taller than the others, and who was a foot in advance.

The wolves approached slowly and with many a little pause or withdrawal, but the youth was fully as patient.  He had learned his lessons from the forest and its creatures, and on this night nothing was cheaper to him than time.  It was another proof of natural power and of the effect of long training that he did not move at all for a quarter of an hour.  The old wolf, the leader, who stood high in the wolf tribe, who had won his position by genuine wolfish wisdom and prowess, could not tell whether this specimen of man was alive or dead.  He inclined to the opinion that he was dead.  Certainly he did not move, he could not see a quiver of the eyelash, and he noticed no rising and falling of the chest under the buckskin hunting shirt.  A doubled up hand ­the one that enclosed the stone ­lay pallid and limp upon the leaves, and it encouraged the wise old leader to come closer.  He had seen a dead warrior in his time, and that warrior’s hand had lain upon the grass in just such a way.

The old leader took a longer and bolder step forward.  The dead hand flashed up from the leaves, flew back, and then shot forward.  Something very hard, that hurt terribly, struck the leader on the head, and, emitting a sharp yelp of pain and anger, he fled away, followed by the others.  The warrior, whom he in all his wisdom had been sure was dead, had played a cruel joke upon him.

Henry Ware laughed joyously, and turned into a more comfortable position upon the leaves.  He was not in his normal frame of mind, or so small an incident would not have caused him so much mirth.  But it brought back the divine spark of courage which so seldom died within him.  Unarmed as he was, he was not without resources, and he had driven off the wolves.  He would find a way for other things.

The wind began to blow gently and beneficently, and the murmur of it among the leaves came to him.  He interpreted it instantly as the wilderness voice that, calling to him more than once in his most desperate straits, had told him to have faith and hope.  He fell asleep to its music and slept soundly all through the night.

He awoke the next morning after the coming of the daylight, and sprang to his feet.  The sudden movement caused a slight pain in his side, but he knew now that the wound was not serious.  Had it been so it would have stiffened in the night, and he would now be feverish, but he felt strong, and his head was clear and cool.  Another proof of his healthy condition was the fierce hunger that soon assailed him.  A powerful body was demanding food, the furnace needed coal, and there was no way just yet to supply it.  This was the vital question to him, but he took wilderness precautions before undertaking to solve it.

He made a little circle, searching the forest with eye and ear, but he found no sign that the Wyandots were near.  He did not believe that they had given up the pursuit, but he was quite sure that they had not been able to find his last trail in the night.  When he had satisfied himself upon this point, he washed his wound carefully in the waters of a brook, and bound upon it a poultice of leaves, the use of which he had learned among the Indians.  Then he thought little more about it.  He was so thoroughly inured to hardship that it would heal quickly.

Now for food, food which he must take with his bare hands.  It was not late enough in the year for the ripening of wild fruits and for nuts, but he had his mind upon blackberries.  Therefore he sought openings, knowing that they would not grow in the shade of the great trees, and after more than an hour’s hunting he found a clump of the blackberry briars, loaded with berries, magnificent, large, black, and fairly crammed with sweetness.

Henry was fastidious.  He had not tasted food for nearly a day, and he ached with hunger, but he broke off a number of briars containing the largest stores of berries, and ate slowly and deliberately.  The memory of that breakfast, its savor and its welcome, lingered with him long.  Blackberries are no mean food, as many an American boy has known, but Henry was well aware that he must have something stronger, if he were to remain fit for his great task.  But that divine spark of courage which was his most precious possession was kindled into a blaze.  Food brought back all his strength, and his veins pulsated with life.  Somehow he would find a way for everything.

He fixed his course once more toward the southeast.  The country here was entirely new to him, much rougher, the hills increasing in height and steepness, and he inferred that he was approaching a river, some tributary of the Ohio.

When he reached the crest of a hill steeper than the rest, he dropped down among the bushes as if he had been shot.  He had happened to look back, and he caught a passing glimpse of brown among the green.  It was quick come, quick gone, but he had seen enough to know that it was an Indian following him, undoubtedly one of the pursuing Wyandots, who, by chance, had hit upon his trail.

Had Henry been armed he would have felt no fear.  He considered himself, with justice, more than a match for a single warrior, but now he must rely wholly upon craft, and the odds against him were more than ten to one.  He was at the very verge of a steep descent, and he knew that he could not slip down the crest of the hill and get away without being seen by the Wyandot, who, he was sure, was aware of his presence.

He lay perfectly still for at least five minutes, watching for the warrior and at the same time trying to form a plan.  He saw only the waving green bushes, but he knew that he would hear the warrior if he approached.  His trained ear would detect the slightest movement among grass or bushes, and he had no doubt that the Wyandot was as still as he.

Luck had been against Henry because the crest of the hill was bare, so if he undertook to slip away in that direction he would become exposed, but it favored him when it made the thicket dense and tall where he lay.  As long as he remained in his present position the Wyandot could not see him unless he came very close, and he resolved that his enemy should make the first movement.

The infinite test of patience went on.  A quarter of an hour, a half hour, and an hour passed, and still Henry did not stir.  If a blade of grass or a twig beside him moved it was because the force of the wind did it.  While he lay there, he examined the thicket incessantly with his eyes, but he depended most upon his ears.  He listened so intently that he could hear a lizard scuttling through the grass, or the low drone of insects, but he did not hear the warrior.

He looked up once or twice.  The heavens were a solid, shimmering blue.  Now and then birds, fleet of wing, flashed across its expanse, and a blue jay chattered at intervals in a near tree.  The peace that passeth understanding seemed to brood over the wilderness.  There was nothing to tell of the tragedy that had just begun its first act in the little thicket.

After the first hour, Henry moved a little, ever so little, but without noise.  He did not intend to get stiff, lying so long in one position, and, as he had done when a prisoner in the lodge, he cautiously flexed his muscles and took many deep breaths, expanding his chest to the utmost.  He must rely now upon bodily strength and dexterity alone, and he thanked God that Nature had been so kind to him.

He flexed his muscles once more, felt that they were elastic and powerful, and then he put his ear to the earth.  He heard a sound which was not the scuttling of a lizard nor the low drone of insects, but one that he ascribed to the slow creeping of a Wyandot warrior, bent upon taking a life.  Henry was glad that it was so.  He had won the first victory, and that, too, in the quality in which the Indian usually excelled, patience.  But this was not enough.  He must win also in the second test, skill.

The stake was his life, and in such a supreme moment the boy had no chance to think of mercy and kindliness.  Nearly all the wilderness creatures fought for their lives, and he was compelled to do so, too.  He now sought the Wyandot as eagerly as the Wyandot sought him.

He resumed the pursuit, and he was guided by logic as well as by sight and hearing.  The Wyandot knew where he had first lain, and he would certainly approach that place.  Henry would follow in that direction.

Another dozen feet and he felt that the crisis was at hand.  The little waving of grass and bushes that marked the passage of the Wyandot suddenly stopped, and the slight rustling ceased to come.  Nerving everything for a mighty effort, Henry sprang to his feet and rushed forward.  The Wyandot, who was just beginning to suspect, uttered a cry, and he, too, sprang up.  His rifle leaped to his shoulder and he fired as the terrible figure sprang toward him.  But it was too late to take any sort of aim.  The bullet flew wide among the trees, and the next instant Henry was upon him.

The Wyandot dropped his empty rifle and met his foe, shoulder to shoulder and chest to chest.  He was a tall warrior with lean flanks and powerful muscles, and he did not yet expect anything but victory.  He was one of the many Wyandots who had followed him from the village, but he alone had found the fugitive, and he alone would take back the scalp.  He clasped Henry close and then sought to free one hand that he might draw his knife.  Henry seized the wrist in his left hand, and almost crushed it in his grasp.  Then he sought to bend the Indian back to the earth.

The Wyandot gave forth a single low, gasping sound.  Then the two fought wholly in silence, save for the panting of their chests and the shuffling sound of their feet.  The warrior realized that he had caught a foe more powerful than he had dreamed of and also that the foe had caught him, but he was still sure of his triumphant return to the village with the fugitive scalp.  But as they strove, shoulder to shoulder and chest to chest, for full five minutes, he was not so sure, although he yet had visions.

The two writhed over the ground in their great struggle.  The warrior endeavored to twist his hand loose, but in the unsuccessful attempt to do so, he dropped the knife to the ground, where it lay glittering in the grass whenever the sunbeams struck upon its blade.  Presently, as they twisted and strove, it lay seven or eight feet away, entirely out of the reach of either, and then Henry, suddenly releasing the warrior’s wrist, clasped him about the shoulders and chest with both arms, making a supreme effort to throw him to the ground.  He almost succeeded, but this was a warrior of uncommon strength and dexterity, and he recovered himself in time.  Yet he was so hard pushed that he could make no effort to reach the tomahawk that still hung in his belt, and he put forth his greatest effort in order that he might drag his foe from his feet, and thus gain a precious advantage.

The last lizard scuttled away, and the drone of the insects ceased.  Henry, as he whirled about, caught one dim glimpse of a blue jay, the same that had chattered so much in his idle joy, sitting on a bough and staring at the struggling two.

It was a titanic contest to the blue jay, two monstrous giants fighting to the death.  All the other forest people had fled away in terror, but the empty-headed blue jay, held by the terrible fascination, remained on his bough, watching with dilated eyes.  He saw the great beads of sweat stand out on the face of each, he could hear the muscles strain and creak, he saw the two fall to the ground, locked fast in each other’s arms, and then turn over and over, first the white face and then the red uppermost, and then the white again.

The blue jay’s eyes grew bigger and bigger as he watched a struggle such as he had never beheld before.  They were all one to him.  It did not matter to him whether white or red conquered, but he saw one thing that they did not see.  As they rolled over and over they had come to the very brink of the hill, and the far side went down almost straight, a matter of forty or fifty feet.  But this made no impression upon him, because he was only a blue jay with only a blue jay’s tiny brain.

The two monstrous giants were now hanging over the edge of the precipice, and still, in their furious struggles, they did not know it.  The blue jay, perceiving in a dim way that something tremendous was about to happen in his world, longed to chatter abroad the advance news of it, but his tongue was paralyzed in his throat, and his eyes were red with increasing dilation.

The two, still locked fast in each other’s arms, went further.  Then they realized where they were, and there was a simultaneous writhe to get back again.  It was too late.  The blue jay saw them hang for a moment on the brink and then go crashing into the void.  His paralyzed voice came back to him, and, chattering wildly with terror, he flew away from the terrible scene.