Read CHAPTER XVI - THE RETURN TRAIL 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.

Henry, with the aid of Boone and Kenton, rolled the trunk of a small fallen tree to the river.  Then he took off his clothes, made them and his arms and ammunition into a bundle, which he put on the log, said good-by to the two men, and launched himself and his fortunes once more upon the Ohio.  He pushed the log before him, taking care to keep it steady, and swam easily with one hand.

Fifty yards back he looked out and saw the two hunters standing on the bank, leaning on the muzzles of their long rifles.  They were watching him and he waved his free hand in salute.  Boone and Kenton took off their raccoon skin caps in reply.  He did not look back again until he was nearly to the northern shore, and then they were gone.

He reached the bank without obstruction, moored his log among some bushes, and, when he was dry, dressed again.  Then he went down stream along the shore for several miles, keeping a watch for landmarks that he had seen before.  It was a difficult task in the night, and after an hour he abandoned it.  Finding a snug place among the bushes, he lay down there and slept until dawn.  Then he renewed his search.

Henry, at present, was not thinking much of the fleet.  His mind was turning to his faithful comrades who had dropped one by one on the way.  Both fleet and fort could wait a while.  So far as he was concerned, they must wait.  He roved now through the bushes and along the water’s edge, looking always for something.  It was a familiar place that he sought, one that might have been seen briefly, but, nevertheless, vividly, one that he could not forget.  He came at last to the spot where he and Shif’less Sol had sprung into the water.  Just there under the bank the shiftless one had drifted away, while he swam on, drawing the pursuit after him.  It had been only a glimpse in the dusk of the night, but he was absolutely sure of the place, and as he continued along the bank he examined every foot of it minutely.

Henry did not expect to find any traces of footsteps after so many days, but the bank for some distance was high and steep.  It would not be easy to emerge from the river there, but he felt sure that Shif’less Sol had left it ­if he survived ­at the first convenient point.

In about three hundred yards he came to a dip in the high bank, a gentle slope upon which a man could wade ashore.  Shif’less Sol, wounded and drifting with the current, would certainly reach this place and use it.  Henry, without hesitation, turned aside into the woods and began to look for a trail or a sign of any kind that would point a way.  Twenty yards from the landing he found a dark stain on an oak tree, a little higher than a man’s waist.

“Shif’less Sol,” he murmured.  “He was wounded and he leaned here against this tree to rest after he came from the river.  Now, which way did he go?”

He tried to make a reckoning of the point at which Tom Ross had been compelled to turn aside, and he reckoned that it lay northwest.  It seemed likely to him that Shif’less Sol, if he could travel at all, would go in the direction or supposed direction of Tom Ross, and Henry went northwestward for about a mile before stopping, following a narrow little valley, leading back from the river and not well wooded.  The traveling was easy here, and easy traveling was what a wounded man would certainly seek.  His stop was made because he had come to a brook, a clear little stream that flowed somewhere into the Ohio.

Henry again used his reasoning faculties first, and his powers of observation afterward.  Wounds made men hot and thirsty, and hot and thirsty men would drink cool water at the first chance.  He got down on his knees and examined the grass minutely up and down the brook on both banks.  He was not looking for footprints.  He knew that time would have effaced them here as it had done back by the river.  He was searching instead for a dim spot, yellowish red, somber and ugly.

He came presently to the place, larger and more somber than he had anticipated.  “Here is where Sol knelt down to drink,” he murmured, “and his blood flowed upon the grass while he drank.  Poor old Sol!” He was afraid that Sol had been steadily growing weaker and weaker, and he dreaded lest he should soon find a dark, still object among the bushes.

A hundred yards further he found something else that his eyes easily read.  The ground had been soft when a man passed and, hardening later, had preserved the footsteps.  The trail lay before him, clear and distinct for a distance of about a rod, but it was that of a staggering man.  A novice even could have seen it.  The line zigzagged, and the footprints themselves were at irregular distances.  “Poor old Sol,” Henry murmured again.  Just beyond the soft ground he found another of the somber splotches, and his heart sank.  No one could stand a perpetual loss of blood, and for a dark moment or two Henry was sure that Shif’less Sol had succumbed.  Then his natural hopefulness reasserted itself.  Shif’less Sol was tough, enduring, the bravest of the brave.  It seemed to Henry’s youthful mind that his lion-hearted comrade could not be killed.

He continued his advance, examining the ground carefully everywhere, and following that which offered the least obstacle to a wounded and weak man.  He saw before him a mass of grass, high and inviting, and when he looked in the center of it he found what he hoped, but not what he dreaded.  Some one had lain down there and had rested a long time or slept, perhaps both, and then had been able to rise again and go on.

The crushed grass showed plainly the imprint of the man’s body, and the somber stains were on either side of the impression.  But the grass had not been threshed about.  The man, when he lay there, had scarcely moved.  Henry was in doubt what inference to draw.  It was certain that Shif’less Sol had not been feverish, or he might have lain in utter exhaustion.

As long as the grass lasted, its condition, broken or swept aside, showed the trail, but when he came into the woods again it was lost.  There was no grass here and the ground was too hard.  Nor did the lie of the land itself offer any hint of Shif’less Sol’s progress.  It was all level and one direction was no more inviting than another.  Henry paused, at a loss, but as he looked around his eyes caught a gleam of white.  It came from a spot on a hickory tree where the bark had been deftly chipped away with a hatchet or a tomahawk, leaving the white body of the tree, exposed for two or three square inches.  Henry read it as clearly as if it had been print.  In fact, it was print to him, and he knew that it had been so intended.  Shif’less Sol had felt sure that Henry would come back after his friend, and this was his sign of the road.  Shif’less Sol knew, too, that the attention of the tribes would be concentrated upon the fort and the fleet, and the warriors would not be hunting at such a time for a single atom like himself.

Henry found a second chipped tree, a third, and then a fourth.  The four made a line pointing northwestward, but more west than north.  He was quite sure now of the general direction that he must pursue, and he advanced, the chipped trail leading deeper and deeper into a great forest.  At the crossing of another brook he looked for the somber sign, but it was not there.  Instead, a short distance farther on, he found some tiny fragments of buckskin, evidently cut into such shape with a sharp knife.  Near them were several of the reddish stains, but much smaller than any he had seen before.

It was again a book of open print to Henry, and now he felt a surge of joyous feeling.  Shif’less Sol had washed his wound at the brook back there and he had stopped here to bind it up with portions of his buckskin clothing, cutting the bandage with his sharp knife.  The act showed, so Henry believed, that he was gaining in strength, and when he next saw a chipped tree he observed the mark carefully.  It was about the same in width and length, but it was much deeper than usual.  A piece of the living wood had gone with the bark.

Henry smiled.  His strong imagination reproduced the scene.  There was Shif’less Sol standing erect and comparatively strong for the first time since the last night of the flight.  He had raised his tomahawk, and then, in the pride of his strength, had sunk it four times into the tree, cutting out the thick chip.  Henry murmured something again.  It was not now “Poor old Sol,” it was “Good old Sol.”

He lost the trail at the end of another mile, but after some searching found it again in another chipped tree, and then another close by.  It still pointed in a northwesterly direction, more west than north, and Henry hence was sure that he could never lose it long.  Soon he came upon a little heap of ashes and dead coals with feathers and bones lying about.  The feathers were those of the wild turkey, and this chapter of the book was so plain that none could mistake it.  Sol had shot a wild turkey, and here he had cooked it and eaten of it.  His fever had gone down or he would have had no appetite.  Undoubtedly he was growing much stronger.

He traveled several miles further without seeing anything unusual, and then he came abruptly out of the deep forest upon a tiny lake, a genuine jewel of a little lake.  It was not more than a half of a mile long, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards across, and its deep waters were very clear and beautiful.

The chipped trail ­the last tree was not more than twenty feet back ­pointed straight to the middle of this lake and Henry was puzzled.  His own shore was low, but the far one was high and rocky.

Henry was puzzled.  He could not divine what had been in Shif’less Sol’s mind, and, a tall erect figure, rifle on shoulder, he stared at the lake.  Across the water came a mellow, cheerful hail:  “Henry!  Oh-h-h, Henry!”

Henry looked up ­he had recognized instantly the voice of Shif’less Sol, and there he was, standing on the bluff of the far shore.  “Swim over!” he called, “and visit me in my house!” Henry looked down toward the end of the lake.  It would be a half mile walk around it, and he decided in favor of swimming.  Again he made his clothes and arms into a bundle, and in three or four minutes was at the other side of the lake.

As he came to the cliff Shif’less Sol extended a helping hand, but Henry, noticing that he was pale and thin, did not take it until he had sprung lightly upon the rocks.  Then he took it in a mighty clasp that the shiftless one returned as far as his strength would permit.

“I’m pow’ful glad to see you, Henry,” said Shif’less Sol, “but I don’t think you look respeckable without some clothes aroun’ you.  So put ’em on, an’ I’ll invite you into my house.”

“It’s fine to see you again, Sol!  Alive and well!” exclaimed Henry joyfully.

“Wa’al, I’m alive,” said Shif’less Sol, “but I ain’t what you would sca’cely call well.  A bullet went clean through my side, and that’s a thing you can’t overlook just at the time.  I ain’t fit yet for runnin’ races with Injuns, or wrastlin’ with b’ars, but I’ve got a good appetite an’ I’m right fond o’ sleep.  I reckon I’m what you’d call a mighty interestin’ invalid.”

“Invalid or not, you’re the same old Sol,” said Henry, who had finished dressing.  “Now show me to this house of yours.”

“I can’t say rightly that it’s the mansion o’ a king,” said Shif’less Sol solemnly.  “A lot o’ the furniture hasn’t come, an’ all the servants happen to be away at this minute.  Guess I’ll have to show you ‘roun’ the place myself.”

“Go ahead; you’re the best of guides,” said Henry, delighted to be with his old comrade again.

The shiftless one, still going rather weakly, led the way a few steps up the almost precipitous face of the rock toward some bushes growing in the crevices.  Then he disappeared.  Henry gazed in amazement, but Shif’less Sol’s mellow laugh came back.

“Walk right in,” he said.  “This is my house.”

Henry parted the bushes with his hand and stepped into a deep alcove of the rock running back four or five feet, with a height of about five feet.  The entrance was completely hidden by bushes.

“Now, ain’t this snug?” exclaimed Shif’less Sol, turning a glowing face upon Henry, “an’ think o’ my luck in findin’ it jest when I needed it most.  Thar ain’t a better nateral house in all the west.”

It was certainly a snug niche.  The floor was dry and covered with leaves, some pieces of wood lay in a corner, on a natural shelf was the dressed body of a wild turkey, and near the entrance was a heap of ashes and dead coals showing where a fire had been.

“It is a good place,” said Henry emphatically, “and you certainly had wonderful luck in finding it when you did.  How did it come about, Sol?”

“I call it Fisherman’s Home,” returned the shiftless one, “because me that used to be a hunter, scout, explorer an’ Injun-fighter, has to fish fur a while fur a livin’.  When I wuz runnin’ away from the warriors, with my side an’ my feelin’s hurtin’ me, I come to this lake.  I knowed that jest ez soon ez you got the chance, providin’ you wuz still livin’, you’d foller to find me, an’ so I blazed the trail.  But when I got here it set me to thinkin’.  I saw the high bank on this side, all rocks an’ bushes.  I reckoned I could come over here an’ hide among ’em an’ still see anybody who followed my trail down to the other side.  I wuz strong enough by that time to swim across, an’ I done it.  Then when I wuz lookin’ among the rocks an’ bushes fur a restin’ place, I jest stumbled upon this bee-yu-ti-ful mansion.  It ain’t furnished much yet, ez I told you, but I’ve sent an order to Philadelphy, an’ I’m expectin’ a lot o’ gor-gee-yus things in a couple o’ years.”

“And you live by fishing, you say?”

“Mainly.  You remember we all agreed a long time ago always to carry fishin’ lines an’ hooks, ez we might need ’em, an’ need ’em pow’ful bad any time.  It looked purty dang’rous to shoot off a gun with warriors so near, although I did bring down wild turkeys twice in the night.  But mostly I’ve set here on the ledge with my bee-yu-ti-ful figger hid by the bushes, but with my line an’ hook in the water.”

“Is the fishing good?”

“Too good.  I don’t s’pose the fish in Hyde Lake ­that’s what I’ve named it ­ever saw a hook before, an’ they’ve been so full o’ curiosity they jest make my arm ache.  It’s purty hard on a lazy man like me to hev to pull in a six or seven pound bass when you ain’t rested more’n half a minute from pullin’ in another o’ the same kind.  I tell you, they kep’ me busy, Henry, when what I wuz needin’ wuz rest.”

Henry smiled.

“Were you fishin’ when you saw me?” he asked.

“I shorely wuz.  I’m mostly fishin’, an’ when I’m fishin’ I mostly keep my eyes turned that way.  I’ve been sayin’ to myself right along for the last two or three days:  ’Henry will be along purty soon now.  He shorely will.  When he comes, he’ll follow that chipped trail o’ mine right down to the edge o’ the water.  Then he’ll stan’ thar wondering an’ while he’s standin’ and wondering I’ll give him an invite to come over to my bee-yu-ti-ful mansion,’ and, shore enough, that’s jest what happened.”

Henry sat down on a heap of leaves and leaned luxuriously against the wall.

“You cook at night?” he said.

“O’ course, and I always pick a mighty dark hour.  Hyde Lake, desarvin’ its name, is full o’ eight or ten kinds o’ fine fish, an’ here are some layin’ under the leaves that I cooked last night.  I eat pow’ful often myself.  Livin’ such a lazy life here, I’ve growed to be what Paul calls a eppycure.  Remember them tales he used to tell about the old Romans and Rooshians an’ Arabiyuns and Babylonians that got so fine they et hummin’ birds’ tongues an’ sech like, an’ then the flood wuz sent to drown ’em all out ‘cause they wuzn’t fitten to live.  I don’t think hummin’ birds’ tongues a sustainin’ kind o’ diet, anyway.”

“I remember the tales, but not just that way, Sol.  However, it doesn’t matter.”

“Hev a fish, Henry.  You’ve traveled fur, an’ I made up my mind from the fust that I’d offer refreshment an’ the fat o’ the water to anybody comin’ to my house.  We kin cook the turkey to-night, an’ then eat him, too.”

He handed to Henry a fine specimen of lake trout, admirably broiled, and the boy ate hungrily.  Shif’less Sol took another of the same kind and ate, also.  Henry, from his reclining position, could see through the screen of leaves.  The surface of the little lake was silver, rippling lightly under the gentle wind, and beyond was the green wall of the forest.  He felt a great peace.  He was rested and soothed, both body and mind.  The shiftless one, too, felt a deep content, although he had always been sure that Henry would come.

For nearly a quarter of an hour neither spoke again, and Henry could hear the faint lapping of the water on the rocks below.  It was the shiftless one who at last broke the silence.

“You reached Fort Prescott, o’ course?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Henry.  “I got in, and I warned them in time.  We beat off a land attack, and then they advanced on us by the river.”

“What could canoes do against a fort on a hill?”

“They had cannon brought from Canada.”

“Cannon!  Then I s’pose they battered the fort down with ’em, an’ you’re all that’s left.”

“No, they didn’t.  They might have done it, but they lost their cannon.”

“Lost ’em!  How could that happen?”

“The boat carrying them was blown up, and the cannon with it.”

The shiftless one looked at Henry, and the boy grew uncomfortable, blushing through his tan.  Shif’less Sol laughed.

“Ef them cannon wuz blowed up ­an’ they shorely wuz ef you say so,” he said, “it’s mighty likely that you, Henry Ware, had a lot to do with it.  Now, don’t be bashful.  Jest up an’ tell me the hull tale, or I’ll drag it out o’ you.”

Henry, reluctantly and minimizing his part as much as he could, told the story of the blowing up of the flatboat and the cannon.  Shif’less Sol was hugely delighted.

“Them shore wuz lively doin’s,” he said.  “Wish I’d been thar.  I’ll always be sorry I missed it.  An’ at the last you wuz saved by Dan’l Boone an’ Simon Kenton.  Them are shorely great men, Henry.  I ain’t ever heard o’ any that could beat ’em, not even in Paul’s tales.  I reckin Dan’l Boone and Simon Kenton kin do things that them Carthaginians, Alexander an’ Hannibal an’ Caesar an’ Charley-mane, couldn’t even get started on.”

“They certainly know some things that those men didn’t.”

“More’n some.  They know a pow’ful lot more.  I reckon, Henry, that Dan’l Boone is the greatest man the world has yet seed.”

Henry said nothing.  The shiftless one’s simple admiration and faith appealed to him.  They rested a while longer, and then Henry asked: 

“Sol, do you think that we can find Tom Ross?”

“Ef he’s alive, we kin.  We jest got to.”

“I knew that would be your answer.  Do you think you will be strong enough to start in the morning?”

“I’ve been weak, Henry, but I’m gainin’ now mighty fast.  I didn’t suffer much ‘cept loss o’ blood, an’ me bein’ so healthy, I’m making gallons o’ new first-class blood every day.  Yes, Henry, I think I kin start after Tom to-morrow mornin’.”

“Then we’ll find him if he’s alive, but we’ll spend the time until then in quiet here.”

“‘Ceptin’ that I’m boun’ to cook my turkey to-night.”

Henry presently climbed to the top of the bank, a distance of eight or ten feet above the hollow, but precipitous.  It was probably this steepness that had prevented any large wild animal from using the place as a lair.  It would also make attack by Indians, should any come, extremely difficult, but Henry did not anticipate any danger from them now, as their attention was centered on the fort and the fleet.

Shif’less Sol followed him up the cliff, and when they stood on the hill Henry noticed again the thinness of his comrade.  But the color was returning to his cheeks, and his eye had regained the alert, jaunty look of old.  Henry calculated that in a week Shif’less Sol would be nearly as strong as ever.  The shiftless one saw his measuring look, and understood it.

“My time ez a fisherman is over,” he said.  “I’ll be a hunter, an’ explorer, an’ fighter of warriors ag’in.  But I think, Henry, we ought to remember the hollow, an’ keep it ez one o’ them places Paul calls inns.  Ef we wuz ever ‘roun’ here ag’in, we might want to drop in an’ rest a while.”

Henry agreed with him, and examined the country for a distance of about a half mile.  He did not see any evidence of warriors, but he knew they could not be far away and he returned to the hollow, where he and Shif’less Sol spent the rest of the day, each lying upon a bed of leaves and gazing through the screen of bushes toward the shimmering surface of the lake.  Nor did they say much, only a word or two now and then.

Henry felt a great sense of luxury.  He did not realize fully until now all that he had been through recently, the mighty strain that had been put upon his nervous organization, and the absolute freedom from any sort of effort, whether mental or physical, was precious to him.

It was almost the twilight hour when they heard the faint whirring of wings.  Henry looked up through half-closed eyes.  A cloud of wild ducks, hundreds of them, settled down upon the lake.

“I’d like to take a shot at them,” he said.  “There’s nothing better than a wild duck cooked as Jim Hart can cook it.”

“But I wouldn’t shoot jest now if I were you,” said the shiftless one, “’cause somebody else is ahead of you.”

Henry came at once from his dreamy state and rose to a sitting position.  Two Indians were walking down to the edge of the lake.  He saw them clearly through the curtain of bushes and leaves.  They held guns in their hands, and their eyes were on the ducks, which fairly blackened a portion of the lake’s surface.

“They’re lookin’ fur food, not scalps,” whispered the shiftless one.  “Tain’t likely they’ll see my blazed tree, specially since dark is comin’ on.”

The two Indians fired into the cloud of ducks, then waded in and took at least a dozen dead ones.  The foolish ducks flew further up the lake and settled down again, where a further slaughter was committed.  Then the Indians, loaded with the spoil, went away.

“Them warriors had shotguns,” said Shif’less Sol, “an’ they were out huntin’ fur some big war party, most likely, one o’ them that’s watchin’ the fort.  But they ain’t dreamin’ that fellers like you and me are aroun’ here, Henry.”

The night dropped down like a great black mask over the face of the world, and Shif’less Sol announced that he was going to cook his turkey.

“I’m tired o’ fish,” he said, “fish fur breakfast, fish fur dinner, an’ fish fur supper.  Ef it keeps on this way, I’ll soon be covered with scales, my blood will be cold, an’ I’ll die ef I’m left five minutes on dry land.  Don’t say a word, Henry, I’m goin’ to cook that turkey ef I lose my scalp.”

Henry did not say anything.  He thought there was little danger, the night was so dark, and Sol broiled his bird to a turn over smothered coals.  When it was done he took it up by the leg and held it out admiringly.

“I don’t believe Jim Hart hisself could beat that,” he said, “an’ Jim is shorely a pow’ful good cook, I guess about the best the world has ever seed.  Don’t you think, Henry, that ef Jim Hart had been thar to cook wild turkey an’ venison an’ buffler meat for all them old Romans an’ Egyptians, an’ sech like, with the cur’ous appetites, always lookin’ fur new dishes, they’d have rested satisfied, an’ wouldn’t hev decayed down to nothin’?  ‘Pears strange to me why they’d keep on lookin’ roun’ fur hummin’ bird tongues an’ them other queer things when they could have had nice cow buffler steak every day o’ thar lives.”

The two ate the turkey between them, and Shif’less Sol, thumping his chest, said: 

“Now, let us set forth.  It is Solomon Hyde hisself ag’in, an’ he feels fit fur any task.”

They started about ten o’clock, curved around the lake, and traveled in a general northwesterly course.  Henry went slowly at first, but when he noticed that Shif’less Sol was breathing easily and regularly, he increased the pace somewhat.

“What’s your opinion about the place where we’ll find Tom, if we find him at all?” he asked.

“Ef we find Tom Ross, it’ll be mighty close to the place whar we left him.  Tom never wastes any words, an’ he ain’t goin’ to waste any steps, either.  Are you shore we come along this way, Henry?  I wuz runnin’ so pow’ful fast I only hit the tops o’ the hills ez I passed.”

“Yes, this is the place,” said Henry, looking carefully at hills, gullies, rocks, and trees, “and it was certainly somewhere near here that Tom was forced to turn aside.”

“Then we’ll find him close by, livin’ or dead,” said Shif’less Sol succinctly.

“But how to do it?” said Henry.

“Yes, how?” said Sol.

They began a careful search, radiating continually in a wider circle, but the night that hid them from the warriors also hid all signs of Tom Ross.

“Tom’s the kind o’ feller who wouldn’t make the least bit o’ noise,” said Shif’less Sol, “an’ I’m thinkin’ we’ve got to make a noise ourselves, an’ let him hear it.”

“What kind of a noise?”

“We might try our old signal, the call that we’ve so often made to one another.”

“Yes,” said Henry, “that is what we must do.”