The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter IV. The Siege

The whole night passed without event and the day came. Paul saw the light grow deeper and deeper, but nothing stirred in the forest. It stretched before him, a living curve of glowing red and yellow and brown, but it was now like a sea of dangerous depths, and the little cabin was their sole island of safety.

"It's a good thing we brought the extra rifles with us," said Henry. "They look like good weapons, and they may save us in case of a rush. Ah, there they come!"

Paul had noticed nothing, but Henry had seen the bushes at the edge of the forest quiver, and then move contrary to the wind. His eye did not rest upon any brown body, but he knew as well as if they had cried out that the warriors were there. How many? That was the question that concerned him most. If a great war party, they might hang on a long time; but if only a small one, he and Paul might beat them off as often as they came. They had four rifles, plenty of ammunition, enough food to last several days, and he thanked God for the providential presence of the rain barrel.

These were but brief passing thoughts, and he never ceased to watch the forest. Still no sign of a face, but now and then the unnatural quiver of the bushes, and above them the sun spinning a fine golden, veil over all the great wilderness.

"Our guests have come, Paul," said he, "but from safe cover they are inspecting our front yard."

"And they don't know yet whether or not they would like to disport themselves on our lawn."

"That is just it. They have doubts about their welcome."

"That being so," said Paul, in the light, jesting spirit that he loved, "I'll just wait until they knock at our door. Meanwhile I'll take a drink from that lucky cistern of ours."

He bent his head into the barrel, and as he drank he felt fresh strength and courage rushing into his veins.

"It was great luck, wasn't it, to find this barrel?" he said.

"It certainly was," replied Henry, and his words came from the bottom of his heart. "Now you watch while I take a drink."

Paul did so, but he noticed nothing unusual in the woods. The faint signs that Henry read with such an unerring eye were hidden from him. But his skill was sufficient to cover all the cleared space. No warrior could pass there unseen by him. Henry rejoined him.

"You watch from one side and I'll take the other," he said.

They did so, but the single room of the cabin was so small that they were only a few feet from each other, and could talk together in low tones.

"It will be a trial of patience," said Henry. "The Indian always has more time than anybody else in the world, and he is willing to make the most of it."

Paul, too, knew that Shawnees, no matter what their numbers, would not yet risk a headlong attack on the cabin, and now his curiosity as to what they would do was aroused. It was surprise that Henry and he must guard against. What was to be expected? His sense of curiosity was as keenly aroused as his sense of danger.

Over an hour dragged slowly by, minute by minute. The sun blazed brilliantly over the wilderness, and the shut little cabin grew close and hot. No fresh air came except by the loopholes, and it was not enough for coolness. Paul's forehead grew damp, and his eyes ached from continual watching at the loophole. Curiosity now began to give way to anger. If they were going to do anything, why didn't they do it? He watched the forest so much and so intently that he began to create images there for himself. A tall stump was distorted into the figure of an Indian warrior, a clump of bushes took the shape of an entire group of Shawnees, and many savage, black eyes looked from the leaves. Paul's reason told him that he beheld nothing, but his fancy put them there, nevertheless. He saw presently a little jet of smoke, rising like a white feather; he heard a report, and then the sound of a bullet burying itself with a soft sigh in a log of the cabin. He laughed at the futility of it, but Henry said:

"They're just trying us a little--skirmishing, so to speak. Be careful there, Paul! A chance bullet might catch you in the eye at the loophole."

More lead came from the forest, and there was a sharp crackle of rifle fire. Bullets thudded into the stout walls of the cabin, and Paul's soul swelled with derision. His vivid mind pictured himself as safe from the warriors as if they were a thousand miles away. He was attracted suddenly by a slight, gurgling sound, and then a cry of dismay from Henry. He wheeled in alarm. Henry had sprung to the water barrel, the precious contents of which were oozing from a little round hole in the side, about two thirds of the way up. A bullet had entered one of the loopholes and struck the barrel. It was an unfortunate chance, one in a thousand, and had not Henry's acute ear detected at once the sound of flowing water, it might have proved a terrible loss.

But Henry was rapidly stuffing a piece of buckskin, torn from his hunting shirt, into the little round hole, and he waved Paul back to the wall.

"You stay there and watch, Paul," he said. "I'll fix this."

The buckskin stopped all the flow but a slight drip. Then, with his strong hunting knife, he cut a piece of wood from the bench, whittled it into shape, and drove it tightly into the bullet hole.

"That's all secure," he said, with a sigh of relief. "Now I must get it out of range."

He wheeled it to a point in the cabin at which no chance bullet could reach it, and then resumed the watch with Paul.

"Aren't you glad, Paul," said Henry, "that you were not in the place of the water barrel?"

"Yes," replied Paul lightly, "because a piece of buckskin and a round stick wouldn't have healed the damage so quickly."

He spoke lightly because he was still full of confidence. The little cabin was yet an impregnable castle to him. The crackle of rifle fire died, the last plume of white smoke rose over the forest, drifted away, and was lost in the brilliant sunshine. Silence and desolation again held the wilderness.

"Nothing will happen for some hours now," said Henry cheerfully, "so the best thing that we can do, Paul, is to have dinner."

"Yes," said Paul, with his quick fancy. "We can dine sumptuously--venison and pigeon and spring water."

"And lucky we are to have them," said Henry.

They ate of the venison and pigeon, and they drank from the barrel. They were not creatures of luxury and ease, and they had no complaint to make. When they finished, Henry said:

"Paul, you ought to take a nap, and then you'll be fresh for to-night, when things will be happening."

Paul at first was indignant at the idea that he should go to sleep with the enemy all about them, but Henry soon persuaded him what a wise thing it would be. Besides, the air was all the time growing closer and warmer in the little cabin, and he certainly needed sleep. His head grew heavy and his eyelids drooped. He lay down on the bed, and in a surprisingly quick time was slumbering soundly.

Henry looked at the sleeping lad, and his look was a compound of great friendship and admiration. He knew that Paul was not, like himself, born to the wilderness, and he respected the courage and skill that could triumph nevertheless. But it was only a fleeting look. His eyes turned back to the forest, where he watched lazily; lazily, because he knew with the certainty of divination that they would not attempt anything until dark, and he knew with equal certainty that they would attempt something then.

He awakened Paul in two hours, and took his place on the bench. He had not slept at all the night before, when they were expecting a foe who had not yet come, and he, too, must be fresh when the conflict was at hand.

"When you see shadows in the clearing, wake me, without fail, Paul," he said.

Then he closed his eyes, and like Paul slept almost at once. Neither the weary waiting nor the danger could upset his nerves so much that sleep would not come, and his slumber was dreamless.

The afternoon waned. Paul, peeping from the loophole, saw the sun, red like fire, seeking its bed in the west, but the shadows were not yet over the clearing. Refreshed by his sleep, and his nerves steadied, he no longer saw imaginary figures in the wilderness. It was just a wall of red and yellow and brown, and it was hard to believe that men seeking his life lay there. By and by the east began to turn gray, and over the clearing fell the long shadows of coming twilight. Then Paul awakened Henry, and the two watched together.

The shadows lengthened and deepened, a light wind arose and moaned among the oaks and beeches, a heavy, dark veil was drawn across the sky, and the forest melted into a black blur. Now Henry looked with all his eyes and listened with all his ears, because he knew that what the warriors wanted, the covering veil of the night, had come.

It was a very thick and black night, too, and that was against him and Paul, as the objects in the clearing were hidden almost as well now as anything in the forest. Hence he trusted more to ear than to eye. But he could yet hear nothing, save the wind stirring the leaves and the grass. Inside the little cabin it grew dark, too, but their trained eyes, becoming used to the gloom, were able to see each other well enough for all the needs of the defense.

Time passed slowly on, and to Paul every moment was tense and vivid. The darkness was far more suggestive of danger than the day had been. He took his eyes now and then from the loophole, for a moment, to glance at Henry's face, and about the third or fourth time he saw a sudden light leap into the eyes of his comrade. The next instant Henry thrust his rifle into the loophole and, taking quick aim, fired.

A long, quavering cry arose, and after that came a silence that lay very still and deadly upon Paul's soul. Henry had seen in the shadow a deeper shadow quiver, and he had fired instantly but with deadly aim. Paul, looking through the loophole on his own side of the cabin, could see nothing for a little space, but presently arose a patter of feet, and many forms darted through the dusk toward the cabin. He quickly fired one rifle, and then the other, but whether his bullets hit he could not tell. Then heavy forms thudded against the log walls of the hut, and through the loophole he heard deep breathing.

"They've gained the side of the cabin," said Henry, "and we can't reach 'em with our rifles now."

"I did my best, Henry," said Paul ruefully. Conflict did not appeal to him, but the wilderness left no choice.

"Of course, Paul," said Henry, with every appearance of cheerfulness, "it's not your fault. In such darkness as this they were bound to get there. But they are not inside yet by a long sight. Be sure you don't get in front of any of the loopholes."

There came a heavy push at the door, but neither it nor the bar showed the slightest sign of giving way. Henry laughed low.

"They can't get enough warriors against that door to push it in," he said.

The two boys rapidly reloaded the empty rifles, and now each crouched against the wall, where no chance bullet through a loophole could reach him. An eye unused to the darkness could have seen nothing there. Their figures were blended against the logs, and they did not speak, but each, listening intently, could hear what was going on outside. Paul's fancy, as usual, added to the reality. He heard men moving cautiously, soft footfalls going pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat around the cabin, and it seemed to him a stray word of advice or caution now and then.

The silence was broken suddenly by a blaze of fire that seemed to come through the wall, a report that roared like a cannon in the cabin. A spurt of smoke entered at one of the holes, and a bullet burled itself in the opposite wall. A savage had boldly thrust the muzzle of his rifle into a loophole and fired.

"Be still, Paul," whispered Henry. "They can't hit us, and they are wasting their ammunition."

A second shot was tried by the besiegers, but the result was only the roaring, echoing report, the smoke and the flame, and the bullet that found a vain target of wood. But to Paul, with an imagination fed by stories of mighty battles, it was like a cannonade. Great guns were trained upon Henry and himself. A thin, fine smoke from the two shots had entered the cabin, and it floated about, tickling his nostrils, and adding, with its savor, to the fever that began to rise in his blood. He dropped to his knees, and was creeping, rifle ready, toward one of the loopholes, eager with the desire to fire back, when Henry's strong hand fell upon his shoulder.

"I understand what you want, Paul," he whispered. "I, too, feel it, but it pays us to wait. Let 'em waste their lead."

Paul stopped, ashamed of himself, and his blood grew cooler. He was not one to wish anybody's life, and again his mind rebelled at the necessity of conflict.

"Thank you, Henry," he said, and resumed his place by the wall.

No more shots were fired. The warriors could not know whether or not their bullets had hit a human mark, and Henry inferred that they would wait a while, crouched against the cabin. He reckoned that when they did move they would attack the door, and he noiselessly made an additional prop for it with the heavy wooden bench. But the faint sound of footsteps suddenly ceased, and Henry, listening intently, could hear nothing save the rising wind. He looked through one of the loopholes, but he could not see anything of the savages. Either they were still crouching against the wall, or had slipped back to the forest. But he saw enough to tell him that the night was growing cloudy, and that the air was damp.

Presently rain fell in a slow drizzle, but Henry still watched at the loophole, and soon he caught a glimpse of two parallel rows of men bearing something heavy, and approaching the cabin. They had secured a tree trunk, and would batter down the door; but they must come within range, and Henry smiled to himself. Then he beckoned to Paul to come to his side.

"Bring me your two rifles," he whispered. "This is the only place from which we can reach them now, and I want you to pass me the loaded guns as fast as I can fire them."

Paul came and stood ready, although his mind rebelled once more at the need to shoot. Henry looked again, and saw the brown files approaching. He thrust the muzzle of the rifle through the hole and fired at a row of brown legs, and then, with only a second between, he discharged another bullet at the same target. Cries of pain and rage arose, there was a thud as the heavy log was dropped to the ground, and Henry had time to send a third shot after the fleeing warriors as they ran for the forest.

"They won't try that again," said Henry. "They cannot approach the door without coming within range of the loophole, and they'll rest a while now to think up some new trick."

"What will be the end of it?" asked Paul.

"Nobody can say," replied the great youth calmly. "Indians don't stick to a thing as white men do; they may get tired and go away after a while, but not yet, and it's for you and me, Paul, to watch and fight."

A certain fierce resolve showed in his tone, and Paul knew that Henry felt himself a match for anything.

"Better eat and drink a little more, Paul," said Henry. "Take the half of a pigeon. We'll need all our strength."

Paul thought the advice good, and followed it. Then came another period of that terrible waiting.

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