Six men were sitting around a camp fire, and they showed every sign of comfort and cheerfulness. It was a big fire, a glowing fire, a warm fire, and it took all trace of damp from the rain or cold of the autumn morning. They were just having breakfast, and their food was buffalo hump, very tender as it came from beneath a huge bed of red-hot embers.
The men seemed to have no fear of an enemy, perhaps because their fire was in an open space, too far from the forest for the rifle shot of an ambushed foe to reach them. Perhaps, too, they felt security in their numbers and valor, because they were certainly a formidable-looking party. All were stalwart, dressed in wilderness fashion--that is, in tanned deerskin--and every one carried the long, slender-barreled Kentucky rifle, with knife and hatchet at his belt. There was Tom Ross, the guide, of middle years, with a powerful figure and stern, quiet face, and near him lounged a younger man in an attitude of the most luxurious and indolent ease, Shif'less Sol Hyde, who had attained a great reputation for laziness by incessantly claiming it for himself, but who was nevertheless a hunter and scout of extraordinary skill. Jim Hart, a man of singular height and thinness, whom Sol disrespectfully called the "Saplin'"--that is, the sapling, a slim young tree--was doing the cooking. The others were typical frontiersmen--lean, big of build, and strong.
The shiftless one curled himself into an easier position against a log, and regarded with interest a particularly juicy piece of the buffalo hump that lay on the grass some distance from him.
"Say, Saplin'," he drawled, "I wish you'd bring me that piece o' hump. I think it would just suit my teeth."
"Git it yourself," replied Saplin' indignantly. "Do you think I'm goin' to cook for a lazy bag o' bones like you, an' then wait on you, too?"
"Well, I think you might," said Shif'less Sol sorrowfully. "I'm pow'ful tired."
"If I wuz to wait on you when you wuz tired, I'd wait on you all my life."
"Which 'ud he puttin' yourself to a mighty good use," said Sol tolerantly. "But if you won't bring it to me, I reckon I'll have to go after it."
He rose, with every appearance of reluctance, and secured the buffalo meat. But he stood with it in his hand and regarded the forest to the east, from which two figures were coming. Ross had already seen them, but he had said nothing. The keen eyes of the shiftless one were not at fault for a moment.
"Paul Cotter an' Henry Ware," he said.
"Yes," said Tom Ross.
"And Paul's just about done up."
"Yes," said Tom Ross.
"Looks like they've had a big fight or a big run, one or t'other or both."
"Yes," said Tom Ross.
Then all went forward to meet the two boys, so well known to them. Paul was staggering a little, and there was a high color, as of fever, in his face, but Henry showed signs of neither fatigue nor excitement.
"We're glad to find you," said Henry briefly.
"We're glad, awful glad!" began Paul, with more fervor; but he suddenly reeled, and everything grew dim about him. Shif'less Sol caught him.
"Here, Paul," he said, "stand up. You're a heavy weight for a tired man to hold."
His words were rough, but his tone was kindly. Paul, all his pride aroused, made a great effort and stood straight again. Slowly the world about him swam back, into its proper position.
"Who said I wasn't standing up?" he asked.
"Nobody," replied Shif'less Sol; "but if I'd been through what I reckon you've been through, I'd fall flop on the ground, an' Jim Hart would have to come an' feed me or I'd starve to death right before his eyes."
Paul laughed, and then he felt more like himself. Ross, too, had been regarding him with sympathy, but he glanced inquiringly at Henry.
"You've had it hot an' hard?" he said.
"Yes," replied the boy laconically; "we've run against Shawnees, and about everything that could has happened to us."
"Then it's fire, warmth, meat, rest, an' sleep for Paul right away," said Ross.
Paul was looking at the fire, which seemed to him the most glorious one ever built, and he did not notice anything more until he was lying beside it, stretched on a blanket, and eating the very piece of tender buffalo meat that Shif'less Sol had coveted for himself. Despite his relaxed and half-dreamy condition, his imagination leaped up at once to magnificent heights. All danger and hardship were gone. He was surrounded by a ring of dauntless friends, and the fire glowed splendidly.
Shif'less Sol sat down near him, and regarded him with the deepest sympathy, mingled with a certain amount of envy.
"Paul," he said, "I wish I wuz in your place for an hour or two. They've jest got to wait on you. Nobody ever believes me when I say I'm sick, though I'm took pow'ful bad sometimes, an' they don't care whether I'm tired or not. Now, Paul, take all the advantages o' your position. Don't you reach your hand for a thing. Make 'em bring it to you. Ef I can't get waited on myself, I like to see another fellow waited on. Here, Saplin', some more o' that buffalo steak for Paul, who is mighty hungry."
Saplin' cast a look of scorn upon Shif'less Sol, but he brought the steak, and Paul ate again, for he was voraciously hungry. But one cannot eat always, and by and by he had enough. Then his restful, dreamy feeling grew. He saw Henry and the men talking, but he either did not hear what they said or he was not interested. Soon the whole world faded out, and he slept soundly. And as he slept the touch of fever left him. Shif'less Sol looked down at him kindly.
"I'm tired, too," he said, "but I suppose if I wuz to go to sleep some o' you 'ud be mean enough to shove me in the side with his foot."
"I'd try to be the first," said Jim Hart, "an' I'd shove pow'ful hard."
"It 'ud be jest like you," said Shif'less Sol, "but I suppose you can't any more help bein' mean, Jim, than I can help bein' tired."
Jim shrugged his shoulders and returned to his cooking, his tall, lean form bent over like a hoop. Paul slept peacefully on the blanket, but the others talked much and earnestly. Henry, as he ate of the buffalo meat, told them all that had happened to him and Paul in that brief period which yet looked so long. That the band would pick up the trail, daylight now come, and follow on, he did not doubt. There he stopped, and left the conclusion to the others. Shif'less Sol was the first to speak.
"This gang," he said, "come out to hunt buffalo, an', accordin' to what Henry says, a war party--he don't know how big--is comin' this way huntin' him an' Paul. Well, ef it keeps on huntin' him an' Paul, it's bound to run up agin us, because Paul an' Henry are now a part o' our gang. Ez fur me, I've done a lot o' trampin' after buffalo, an' I feel too tired to run, I jest do."
"I ain't seen no better place for cookin' than this," said Jim Hart, undoubling himself, "an' I like the looks o' the country round here pow'ful well. I'd hate to leave it before I got ready,"
"'Tain't healthy to run afore you're ready," said Ike Stebbins, a short, extremely thick man. "It ain't good for the stomach. Pumps the blood right up to the heart, an' I ain't feelin' very good just now, noway. Can't afford to take no more risks to my health."
A slight smile passed over the stern, bronzed face of Tom Ross.
"I expected to hear you talk that way, boys," he said, "it's in your blood; but thar's a better reason still for our not goin'. If this war band stays around here, it'll be pickin' off settlers, an' it's fur us to stop it. Now, them Shawnees are comin' a-huntin' us. I jest wish to say that we don't mean to be the hunted; we're to be the hunters ourselves."
Sharp exclamations of approval broke from all these fierce spirits of the border. But the deepest and most dangerous gleam of all was in the eyes of Henry Ware. All his primeval instincts were alive, and foremost among them was the desire to fight. He was tired of running, of seeking to escape, and his warlike blood was up and leaping. Two more men who had been out ranging the woods for buffalo, or any other worthy game that might happen in their way, came in presently, and the little army, with the addition of the two boys, was now raised to the number of ten. And a real little army it was, fortified with indomitable hearts and all the skill and knowledge of the wilderness.
When Paul awoke beneath the pressure of Henry's hand on his shoulder, the sun was much higher, and the forest swam in limpid light. He noticed at once that the fire was out, trampled under strong heels, and that all the men looked as if ready for instant conflict. He rubbed his eyes and sprang to his feet, half in shame that he should have slept while others watched. It was Shif'less Sol who came to his rescue.
"It's all right, Paul," he drawled. "We all know you were pow'ful tired, an' I'd have slept, too, ef them fellows hadn't been mean enough to keep me from it. You wuz just nacherally overpowered, an' you had to do it."
Paul looked around at the little group, and he read the meaning in the eye of every man.
"You are going to fight that war band?" he said.
"It 'pears to me that it's a sight less tirin' than runnin' away," replied Shif'less Sol, "though we hate to drag you, Paul, into such a fracas."
The blood flushed into Paul's face.
"I'm ready for it!" he exclaimed. "I'm as ready as any of you! Do you think I want to run away?"
"We know, Paul, that you've got ez much grit ez anybody in the world," said Tom Ross kindly; "but Sol maybe didn't think a boy that's a big scholar, an' that kin read an' understand anything, would he as much interested in a real hair-raisin' fight as the rest o' us."
Paul was mollified. He knew their minds now, and in a way it was an unconscious tribute that these wild borderers paid to him.
"I'm with you to the end of it," he said. And they, too, were satisfied. Then the entire party moved forward into the deep woods, watching and listening for the slightest sign of the Shawnee advance. Tom Ross naturally took command, but Henry Ware, as always, was first scout. No other eye was so keen as his, nor any other ear. All knew it, and all admitted it willingly. His form expanded again, and fierce joy surged up in his heart. As Ross truly said, the hunted had turned into the hunter.
It was the purpose of the men to circle to the east, and to strike the war party on the Hank. They knew that the Shawnees had already discovered the junction of the fugitives with a larger force, but the warriors could not yet know that the new party intended to stand and fight. Ross, therefore, like the general of a great army going into battle, intended to seek the best possible position for his force.
They traveled in a half circle for perhaps two hours, and then Henry struck a trail, calling at once to Ross. They examined it carefully, and judged that it had been made by a force of about twenty warriors, undoubtedly the band that was following Henry and Paul.
"We're behind 'em now," said Henry.
"But they'll soon be coming back on our trail," said Ross. "They know that they are more than two to one, and they will follow hard."
"I'm gittin' mighty tired ag'in," said Shif'less Sol. "It 'pears to me thar's a pow'ful good place fur us to rest over thar among all them big trees on that little hill."
Ross and Henry examined the hill, which was not very high, but small, and crowned with mighty beeches. The great tree-trunks would offer admirable cover for the wilderness fighter.
"It does kinder invite us," said Ross meaningly, "so we'll jest go over thar, Sol, an' set a while longer."
A few minutes later they were on the hill, each man lying behind a tree of his own selection. Shif'less Sol had chosen a particularly large one, and luckily there was some soft turf growing over its roots. He stretched himself out luxuriously.
"Now, this jest suits an easy-goin' man like me," he said. "I could lay here all day jest a-dreamin', never disturbin' nobody, an' nobody disturbin' me. Paul, you and me ain't got no business here. We wuz cut out fur scholars, we wuz."
Nevertheless, lazy and luxurious as he looked, Shif'less Sol watched the forest with eyes that missed nothing. His rifle lay in such a position that he could take aim almost instantly.
There was a long and tense silence, full of strangeness to Paul. He could never get used to these extraordinary situations. When preparing for combat, as well as in it, the world seemed unreal to him. He did not see why men should fly at each other's throats; but the fact was before him, and he could not escape it.
The little hill was so situated that they could see to a considerable distance at all points of the compass, but they yet saw nothing. Shif'less Sol stretched himself in a new position and grumbled.
"The wust thing about this bed o' mine here," he said to Paul, "is that sooner or later I'll be disturbed in it. A fellow never kin make people let him alone. It's the way here, an' it's the way back in the East, too, I reckon. Now, I'm only occupyin' a place six feet by two, with the land rollin' away thousands o' miles on every side; but it's this very spot, six feet by two, that the Shawnees are a-lookin' fur."
Paul laughed at the shiftless one's complaint, and the laugh greatly relieved his tension. Fortunately his tree was very close to Sol's, and they could carry on a whispered conversation.
"Do you think the Shawnees will really come?" asked Paul, who was always incredulous when the forest was so silent.
"Come! Of course they will!" replied Shif'less Sol. "If for no other reason, they'll do it jest to make me trouble. I ought to be back thar in the East, teachin' school or makin' laws fur somebody."
Paul's eyes wandered from Sol to his comrade, and he saw Henry suddenly move, ever so little, then fix his gaze on a point in the forest, three or four hundred yards away. Paul looked, too, and saw nothing, but he knew well enough that Henry's keener gaze had detected an alien presence in the bushes.
Henry whispered something to Ross, who followed his glance and then nodded in assent. The others, too, soon looked at the same point, Jim Hart craning his long neck until it arched like a bow. Presently from a dense clump of bushes came a little puff of white smoke, and then the stillness was broken by the report of a rifle. A bullet buried itself in one of the trees on the hill, and Shif'less Sol turned over with a sniff of contempt.
"If they don't shoot better'n that," he said, "I might ez well go to sleep."
But the forest duel had begun, and it was a contest of skill against skill, of craft against craft. Every device of wilderness warfare known to the red men was practiced, too, by the white men who confronted them.
Paul at first felt an intense excitement, but it was soothed by the calm words of Shif'less Sol.
"I'd be easy about it, Paul," said the shiftless one. "That wuz jest a feeler. They've found out that we're ready for 'em. There ain't no chance of a surprise, an' they shot that bullet merely as a sort o' way o' tellin' us that they had come. Things won't be movin' fur some time yet."
Paul found that Shif'less Sol was right. The long waiting customary in such forest combats endured, but he was now becoming more of a stoic, and he used the time, at least in part, for rest, although every nerve and muscle was keyed to attention. It was fully an hour later when a shot came from behind a tree much nearer to them, and a bullet cut a fragment of bark from the gigantic beech that sheltered Shif'less Sol. There was a second report before the sound of the first had died away, and a Shawnee, uttering a smothered cry, fell forward from his shelter, and lay upon the ground, quite still. Paul could see the brown figure, and he knew that the man was dead.
"It was Tom Ross who did that," said Shif'less Sol. "The savage leaned too fur forward when he fired at me, an' exposed hisself. Served him right fur tryin' to hurt me."
Then Sol, who had raised himself up a little, lay down again in his comfortable position. He did not seem disturbed at all, but Paul kept gazing at the figure of the dead warrior. Once more his spirit recoiled at the need of taking life. Presently came a spatter of rifle fire--a dozen shots, perhaps--and bullets clipped turf and trees. The Shawnees had crept much nearer, and were in a wide semicircle, hoping thus to uncover their foes, at least in part, and they had a little success, as one man, named Brewer, was hit in the fleshy part of the arm.
Paul saw nothing but the smoke and the flashes of fire, and he was wise enough to save his own ammunition--he had long since learned the border maxim, never to shoot until you saw something to shoot at.
But the enemy was creeping closer, hiding among rocks and bushes, and a second and longer spatter of rifle fire began. One man was hit badly, and then the borderers began to seek targets of their own. Their long, slender-barreled rifles flashed again and again, and more than one bullet went straight to the mark. The plumes of white smoke grew more numerous, united sometimes, and floated away in little clouds among the trees.
Paul saw that his comrades were firing slowly, but with terrible effect, as five or six still, brown figures now lay in the open. Shif'less Sol, at the next tree, only four feet away, was stretched almost perfectly flat on his face on the ground, and every movement he made seemed to be slow and deliberate. Yet no one was firing faster or with surer aim than he, and faint gleams of satisfaction showed now and then in his eyes. Paul could not restrain speech.
"It seems to me, Sol, that you are not tired as you said you were," he said.
"Perhaps not," replied Sol slowly, "but I will be."
The savages suddenly began to shout, and kept up a ferocious yelling, as if they would confuse and terrify their opponents. The woods echoed with the din, the long-drawn, whining cry, like that of a wolf, and despite all the efforts of a strong will, Paul shuddered as he had not shuddered at the sound of the rifle fire.
"'Tain't no singin' school," said Shif'less Sol, in a clear voice that Paul could hear above the uproar, "but, then, yellin' don't hurt nobody, either. I'd be pow'ful tired ef I used my mouth that way. But jest you remember, Paul, that noise ain't bullets."
It seemed to Paul that the Shawnees had come to the same conclusion, because all the yelling suddenly ceased, and with it the firing. Brown forms that had been flitting about disappeared, too, and all at once there was silence in the wilderness, and nothing to be seen save the hunters and the still, brown figures among the rocks and bushes. To Paul it was wonderful, this melting away of the battle, and this disappearance of the foe, all in a flash. He rubbed his eyes, and could scarcely believe that it was real. But there were the still, brown figures, and by a tree near him lay another still figure, in hunting shirt and leggings, with his face upturned to the sky. One of the hunters had been shot through the heart, and had died instantly and without noise. Three others had been wounded, but they were not complaining.
Presently a little hum of talk arose, and Shif'less Sol once more moved comfortably.
"Bit off more'n they could chaw," he said reflectively. "Will wait a while before takin' another bite. Guess I'll rest now."
He stretched himself luxuriously, took out a piece of venison and began to eat it, at the same time handing a piece to Paul.
"Atween fights I allus eat," he said. "Better do the same, Paul."
But Paul had no appetite. He crawled over to Henry, and asked him what he expected to happen next.
"They won't give up," replied Henry, "that is sure. They know that they outnumber us two or three to one, and I've an idea that this is a band of picked warriors."
"You think, too, they'll want to revenge their losses?"
"Of course. And they're likely to attack again before night. It's not noon yet, and they have lots of time."
Paul crawled back to his tree, and, knowing that he would have to wait again, forced himself to eat the venison that Shif'less Sol had given to him.
The Shawnees remained silent and hidden in the forest, and the white men, voiceless, too, lay waiting behind the trees. Between them stretched the fallen, their brown faces upturned to the red sun, which sailed peacefully on in a sky of cloudless blue.