The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter V. The Flight

Paul was half reclining against the wall, when he suddenly saw Henry look up. Paul's eyes followed his comrade's, and then he heard a soft, faint sound over their heads. He understood at once. Danger had come from a new quarter. The Shawnees were upon the board roof, through which a rifle bullet could easily pass. The menace was serious, but the men up there could not see their targets below, and they themselves were in a precarious position.

Henry once pointed his rifle toward a portion of the roof from which a slight sound came, but for a reason that he did not give he withheld his fire. Then came a dead stillness, to be broken a few moments later by fierce war cries all around the cabin and a crash of rapid shots. It seemed to Paul that an attack in great force was being made from every side, and, thrusting his rifle through the loophole, he fired quickly at what he took to be the flitting form of a foe. The next moment he became aware of a terrible struggle in the cabin itself. He heard a thud, the roar of a rifle shot within the confined space, a fall, and then, in the half darkness, he saw two powerful figures writhing to and fro. One was Henry and the other a mighty Shawnee warrior, naked to the waist, and striving to use a tomahawk that he held in a hand whose wrist was clenched in the iron grasp of his foe. Lying almost at their feet was the body of another warrior, stark and dead.

Paul sprang forward, his second and loaded rifle in his hand.

"No, no, Paul!" cried Henry. "The chimney! Look to the chimney!"

Paul whirled about, and he was just in time. A savage warrior dropped down the great wide chimney that all the log cabins had, and fell lightly on his feet among the dead embers of a month ago. His face was distorted horribly with ferocity, and Paul, all the rage of battle upon him now that battle had come, fired squarely at the red forehead, the rifle muzzle only three feet away. The savage fell back and lay still among the cinders. The next instant the deep, long-drawn sigh of a life departing came from behind, and Paul whirled about again, his heart full of sickening fear.

But it was Henry who stood erect. He had wrenched the warrior's own tomahawk from him, and had slain him with it. His face was flushed with a victorious glow, but he stood there only a moment. Then he seized his own second and loaded rifle, and ran to the chimney. But nothing more came down it, and there were no more sounds of warriors walking on the roof. The three who had come had been daring men, but they had paid the price. The shots and shouts around continued for a little space, forms dashed heavily against the door, and then, as suddenly as it began, the tumult ceased.

Paul felt a chill of horror creeping through his bones. It was all so ghastly. The dead warriors lay, each upon his back, one among the dead coals, and Paul could hear nothing but his own and Henry's heavy breathing.

"It was a daring thing to do," said Henry at last, "to come down the chimney that way; but it has been done before in Kentucky."

Then they reloaded their rifles, but Paul was like one in a dream. It seemed to him now that he could not endure the long hours in the cabin with those dead faces on the floor staring at him with their dead eyes.

"Henry," he said, "we can't keep them here."

"No," replied Henry, "we can't; but we must wait a little."

Paul sat down on the bench. He felt for a moment faint and sick. The little cabin was full of rifle smoke, and it lay heavy in his nostrils and upon his lungs. He felt as if he were breathing poisoned air. But the smoke gradually drifted away up the chimney, and the thick, clogging feeling departed from his lungs and nostrils. Strength and spirit came back.

"How are we to get rid of them?" he asked, nodding toward the dead warriors.

"Let's wait an hour at least, and I'll show you," replied Henry.

The hour passed, but to Paul it seemed two. Then Henry took the largest of the warriors and dragged him to the wall just beneath the window. The second and third he did the same way.

"Now, Paul," he said, "you must take down the bar and open the window. Then I'll pitch them out. The besiegers will be surprised, and they won't have time to get at us."

Paul accepted his part of the task eagerly. There might be danger, but better that than having the dead men lying on the floor and staring at him with dead eyes. He took down the bar and quickly held the window open. Henry heaved up the bodies of the warriors and cast them out, one by one, each falling with a dull, heavy sound to the ground below. Then Paul slammed back the window and shot the bar into place. As he did so three or four rifles flashed from the forest, and the bullets pattered upon the heavy oaken shutter.

"Too late," said Henry, "We took 'em by surprise, as I thought we should."

Paul drew a long and deep breath. The cabin had taken on a brighter aspect.

"I'm mighty glad that's done," he said.

"If you'll listen carefully, I think you'll hear something later," said Henry.

Henry was right. In about half an hour they heard soft, shuffling noises beside the cabin, just under the window.

"They're taking away the dead warriors," said Henry.

"I don't want to fire on them while they're doing it," said Paul.

"Nor I," said Henry. "We might reach 'em, but I'm glad they're doing what they are."

The slight, sliding noises continued for a little while, and then they heard only the light sweep of the rain. On the roof it became a patter, and here and there a drop made its way between the boards and fell on the floor. It was soothing to Paul after the excitement of those terrible moments, and he felt a queer, pleasant languor. His eyes half closed, but his vague look fell on somber, dark spots on the floor, and the sight was repellent to him. He went to the hearth, heaped up the whole of the embers and ashes, and sprinkled them carefully over the spots, which would have been red in the light, but which were black in the night and gloom of the cabin. Henry watched him do it, but said nothing. He understood Paul, and gave him his sympathy.

Paul sat down again on the floor, and leaned against the wall. The pleasant, languorous feeling came once more, but he was roused suddenly by scattered rifle shots, and sprang up. Henry laughed.

"They're not attacking," he said. "It was only a volley, fired from the wood, to show how angry they are. I don't think we need expect anything more to-night. You might really go to sleep, Paul, if you feel like it."

"No, I will not!" exclaimed Paul with energy. "I won't do all the sleeping, and let you do all the watching. Besides, I couldn't sleep, anyhow; my nerves wouldn't let me. I looked sleepy just because I was tired, it's your time."

"All right," said Henry. "Now, you watch good, Paul."

Then Henry lay down upon the floor and closed his eyes. He might not have done so, but he felt sure that nothing more would be attempted that night; and if, by any chance, they should attack again, Paul would be sure to waken him in time. The rain grew harder on the roof, and its steady patter was like the rocking of a cradle to a child. His nerves were of steel, and the mechanism of his body and brain were not upset at all. The half-dropped lids dropped down entirely, and he slept, breathing peacefully.

Paul watched, his brief lethargy gone; but his accustomed eyes could see little now through the loopholes, only the dim forest and the rain, falling slowly but steadily. He and Henry seemed to be alone in the world. Outside all the wilderness was in gloom, but in the little cabin it was dry and warm. The few drops that came through the boards now and then, and fell with a little pat on the floor, were nothing. He and Henry were dry and safe, and it seemed to him that so far, at least, they had all the better of the battle. The glow of triumph came again.

Paul watched until dawn, and saw the sun spring up over the eastern forests. Then he awakened Henry, and the great youth, stretching himself, uttered a long sigh.

"That was fine, Paul!" he said, "fine! Now, what are our friends outside doing?"

"Nothing that I can see. There are only stumps in the clearing, and trees and hushes in the forest. I see no warrior."

Henry laughed, and his laugh had a most cheerful tone.

"They are not far away," he said. "It is likely they'll try to starve us out, or rather conquer us with thirst. They don't know anything about our barrel of water."

"Blessed barrel!" ejaculated Paul.

It seemed that Henry was right in his prediction. As long hours passed, the sun rose higher and higher, and it grew very close in the little cabin. Paul thought the warriors must have gone away, disgusted with their losses, but Henry cautioned him against savage patience. Toward noon they ate a little more of their pigeon and dried venison, and Paul looked with some dismay at the small portions that were left.

"Henry," he exclaimed, "there is enough for supper, and no more."

"Just so," said Henry, "and our enemies remain on guard. They'll wait for us."

He thought it best to put the case plainly and in all its hideous phases to Paul. While savages sometimes abandoned a siege very soon, they did not show signs of ceasing now. Perhaps they relied on starving out the besieged, and if they only knew the state of affairs within the cabin theirs was a good reliance.

Their brief dinner over, the two boys sat down on the floor, and from the loopholes on either side watched the forest. To Paul the whole air and atmosphere of the cabin had now become intolerably oppressive. At first it had been such a strong, snug place of refuge that he rejoiced, but at last his sensitive spirit was weighed down by the long delay, the gloom, and the silence. The sight of their limited rations brought to him all the future--the vigilant enemy on guard, the last little piece of food gone, then slow starvation, or a rush on the savage bullets and sure death. As usual, his uncommon imagination was depicting everything in vivid colors, far in advance.

But he said nothing, nor did Henry. They had already exhausted all subjects for talk, and they waited--Henry with real, and Paul with assumed patience. Fully two hours passed in silence, but after that time it was naturally Paul who spoke first.

"Henry," he said in a tone that indicated unbelief in his own words, "don't you think that they must have got tired and gone away?"

"No, they are surely in the forest about us; but since they won't go, Paul, you and I must leave to-night."

"What do you mean?" Paul's words expressed the greatest surprise.

Henry stood up, and figure, face, and words alike showed the greatest decision.

"Paul," he said, "our last piece of venison will soon be gone, and the Shawnees, I think, will stay, expecting to starve us out, which they can do; but the night shows all the signs of being very dark, and you and I must slip through their lines some way or other. Are you ready to try it?"

It was like a signal to Paul, those words, "Are you ready to try it?" He was ready to try anything now, as a release from the cabin, and a fine flare of color mounted to his cheeks as he replied:

"I'll follow you anywhere, Henry."

Henry said nothing more; Paul's reply was sufficient; but he resumed his position at the loophole, and attentively watched the heavens. Somber clouds were rolling up from the southwest and the air was growing cooler, but heavy with damp. Already the sun, so bright and pitiless in the morning, was obscured, and mists and vapors hung over the forest. He judged that it would be a dark night, with flurries of mist and rain, just suited to his purpose, and he felt a sensation of relief.

"Paul," he said, after a while, "I think we'd better take the two captured rifles with us again. If we come face to face with 'em, a couple of extra shots might save us."

"Whatever you say, Henry," replied Paul.

The afternoon passed slowly away, and the night came on thick and dark, as Henry had hoped. The rain fell again in intermittent showers, and it was carried in gusts by the wind. The two boys drank deeply from the barrel, and ate what was left of the venison.

"Be sure your powder horns are stopped up tight, Paul," said Henry. "We've got to keep our powder dry. The sooner we go the better, because the Shawnees won't be expecting us to come out so soon."

The darkness was now rolling up so thick and black that to Paul it seemed like a great sable curtain dropping its folds over them. It enveloped the forest, then the clearing, then the hut, and those within it. The inky sky was without a star. The puffs of rain rattled dismally on the roof of the old cabin. But all this somberness of nature brought comfort and lightness of heart to the besieged. Paul's spirits rose with the blackness of the night and the wildness of the rain.

"Are you all ready, Paul?" asked Henry.

"Yes," replied Paul cheerfully.

Accustomed as they were to the darkness of the cabin, they could not see each other's faces now, only the merest outlines of their figures.

"We must keep close together," said Henry. "It won't do to lose sight of each other."

He slipped to the door, lifted the bar and put it soundlessly on one side, and he and Paul stood together in the open space, just a moment, waiting and listening.

The rush of air and raindrops on Paul's face felt wonderfully cool and invigorating. His chest expanded and his spirits rose to the top. It was like leaving a prison behind.

"Step more lightly than you ever did before in your life," said Henry, and he and Paul put foot together on mother earth. The very pressure of the damp earth felt good to Paul all the way through his moccasins. A step or two from the door they paused again, waiting and listening. The forest was invisible, and so were the stumps in the clearing. But nothing stirred. Henry's acute ear told him that.

"We'll follow the wall around to the other side of the cabin," he whispered to Paul. "They don't know yet that we've come out, and naturally they'll watch the door closest. Be careful where you put your feet."

But the very dampness prevented any rustle in the weeds and grass, and they passed to the other side of the cabin without an alarm coming from the forest. There they paused again, and once more Henry whispered his instructions.

"I think we'd better get down and crawl," he said. "It's a hard thing to do with two rifles each, but we must do it until we get to the woods."

It was difficult, as Henry had said, and Paul felt, too, a sense of humiliation; but then one's life was at stake, and without hesitation he dropped to his knees, crawling slowly after the dark figure of his comrade. Henry made no sound and Paul but a little, not enough to be heard ten feet away. Henry stopped now and then, as if he would listen intently a moment or two, and Paul, of course, stopped just behind him. Fortune seemed to favor their daring. The great silence lasted, broken only by puffs of wind and rain, and the wet leaves of the forest rubbing softly against each other. Paul looked back once. The cabin was already melting into a blur, although not twenty yards distant, and in as many yards more it would be lost completely in the surrounding darkness.

Now the forest was only a few yards away, but to Paul it seemed very far. His knees and wrists began to ache, and the two rifles became awkward for him to carry. He wondered how Henry could go forward with so much ease, but he resolved to persist as long as his comrade led the way.

The dark outline of the wood slowly came nearer, then nearer yet, and then they entered it, pressing silently among the hushes and the black shadows of the lofty trees. Here Henry rose to his feet and Paul imitated him, thankful to rest his aching knees and wrists, and to stand up in the form and spirit of a man.

"We may slip through unseen and unheard," whispered Henry, "and then again we may not. Come on; we'll need all our caution now."

But as they took the first step erect, a cry arose behind them, a cry so full of ferocity and chagrin that Paul absolutely shuddered from head to foot. It came from the clearing, near the hut, and Paul, without the telling of it, knew what had happened.

"They've tried the door of the cabin, only to find it open and the place empty," whispered Henry. "Now, we must not go too fast, Paul. In this pitchy darkness not even a Shawnee could see us ten feet away, but he could hear us. No noise, Paul!"

They stole forward, one close behind the other, going but slowly, seeking with sedulous care to avoid any noise that would bring the savages upon them. The rain, which had grown steadier, was a Godsend. It and the wind together kept up a low, moaning sound that hid the faint pressure of Paul's footsteps. The cry behind them at the cabin was repeated once, echoing away through the black and dripping forest. After that Paul heard nothing, but to the keener ears of Henry came now and then the soft, sliding sound of rapid footsteps, a word or two uttered low, and the faint swish of bushes, swinging back into place after a body passed. He knew that the warriors were now seeking eagerly for them, but with the aid of the intense darkness he hoped that he and Paul would steal safely through their lines. They went slowly forward for perhaps half an hour, stopping often and listening. Once Henry's hand on Paul's shoulder, they sank a little lower in the bushes, and Henry, but not Paul, saw the shadowy outline of a figure passing near.

Fortunately the forest was very dense, but unfortunately the clouds began to thicken, and a rumble dull and low came from the far horizon. Then the clouds parted, cut squarely down the middle by a flash of lightning, and for a moment a dazzling glow of light played over the dripping forest. Everything was revealed by it, every twig and leaf stood out in startling distinctness, and Paul, by impulse, sank lower to hide himself among the bushes.

The glow vanished and Henry had seen nothing; he was sure, too, that no one had seen them, but he knew that it was only luck; another flash might reveal them, and he and Paul must now hasten, taking the chances of discovery by noise. He spoke a word to his comrade, and they plunged more rapidly through the undergrowth. The thunder kept up an unceasing and threatening murmur on the far horizon, and the lightning flared fitfully now and then, but they were still unseen, and Henry hoped that they had now passed the ring of savages in the forest and the dusk.

Paul had dropped back from Henry's side, but was following closely behind him. He was deeply impressed by a situation so extraordinary for one of his type. The thunder, the lightning, the darkness and the danger contained for him all the elements of awe and mystery.

"I think we've shaken them off," said Henry presently, "and unless the lightning shows us to some stray member of the band they can't pick up our trail again before morning."

Paul was grateful for the assurance, and he noticed, too, that the danger of the lightning's revelation was decreasing, as the flashes were becoming less frequent and vivid. His breathing now grew easier and his spirits rose. Much of the gloom departed from the forest. The thunder that had kept up a continuous low rolling, like a dirge, died away, and the lightning, after a few more weak and ineffectual flashes, ceased.

"We won't have any further trouble to-night, that's sure," said Henry. "They could not possibly find our trail before day, and I think we'd better push on, as nearly as we can, in the direction of our hidden powder. You know we still mean to do what we started out to do."

They traveled all night, with brief periods of rest, through rough and densely wooded country. Toward morning the rain ceased, and the clouds all floated away. The stars came out in a clear sky, and a warm wind blew over the wet forest. Henry looked more than once at Paul, and his look was always full of sympathy. Paul's face was pale, but his expression was set in firm resolve, and Henry knew that he would never yield.

After a while the dark began to lighten, and Henry stopped short in surprise. Paul was walking in such automatic fashion that he almost ran against him before he stopped. Henry pointed with a long forefinger to a red spot deep in the forest.

"See that?" he said.

"Yes, I guess it's the sun rising," said Paul, who was staggering a little, and who saw through a cloud, as it were.

Henry looked at him and laughed.

"The sun!" he said. "Well, Paul, it's the first time I ever knew the sun to rise in the west."

"The sun's likely to do anything out here where we are," rejoined Paul.

"That's a fire, a camp fire, Paul," said Henry, "and I'm thinking it must be made by white men."

"White men! Friends!" exclaimed Paul. He stood up straight, and his eyes grew brighter. An hour or two ago it had scarcely seemed possible to him that they should ever see white faces again.

"It's only my belief," said Henry. "We've got to make sure. Now, you wait here, Paul, and I'll do a little bit of scouting. Sit down among those bushes there and I'll be back soon."

Paul was fully content to do what Henry said. He found a good place in a thick clump of underbrush, and sank down easily. He would have been quite willing to lie down, because he was terribly tired and sleepy, but with an effort he held himself to a sitting posture and watched Henry. He was conscious of a vague admiration as the tall form of his comrade went forward swiftly, making no noise and hiding itself so quickly in the forest that he could not tell where it had gone.

Then Paul was conscious of a great peace, and a heavy tugging at his eyelids. Never in his life before was he so tired and sleepy. The last raindrop was gone, and the bushes and grass were drying in the gentle wind. A fine golden sun was bringing with it a silver dawn, and a pleasant warmth stole all through him. His head sank back a little more and his elbow found a soft place in the turf.

The boy, with his half-closed eyes and pale face, was not alone as he lay there among the bushes. Little neighbors came and looked at the newcomer. A hare gazed solemnly at him for a moment or two, and then hopped solemnly away. A bluebird flew down to the very tip of a bough, surveyed him at leisure, and then flew off in search of food. Neither hare nor bird was scared. Tiny creeping things scuttled through the grass, but the boy did not move, and they scuttled on undisturbed.

Paul was just sinking away into a pleasant unknown land when a shout brought him back to earth. He sprang to his feet, and there was Henry returning through the forest.

"Friends, Paul! Old friends!" he cried. "Up with you and we'll pay 'em a surprise visit!"

Paul shook his head to clear his thoughts, and followed Henry. Henry walked swiftly now, not seeming to care whether or not he made noise, and Paul followed him toward the fire, which now rapidly grew larger.

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