The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter VII. What Happened in the Dark

Shif'less Sol rose to a sitting position, and carefully cracked his joints, one by one.

"I wuz a bit afeard, Paul," he said, "that I had jest petrified, layin' thar so long. A tired man likes to rest, but thar ain't no sense in turnin' hisself into a stone image."

Sol seemed so careless and easy that Paul drew an inference from his manner.

"You are not expecting anything more from them just now, Sol?"

His nod toward the forest indicated the "them."

"No, not yet a while," replied Shif'less Sol. "I guess they'll lay by until night."

His face showed some apprehension as he spoke of night, but it was gone quickly. Shif'less Sol was not a man who took troubles to heart, else he never would have earned his name.

"We'll jest chaw a little more venison, Paul," he said. "I know you think a drink o' water would go pow'ful well with it, an' so do I; but since it ain't to be had, we'll jest do without it and say no more."

The remainder of the day passed undisturbed, but as the first wan shade of twilight appeared the men began to look closely to their arms. Horns were held up to the light in order that the powder line might show, bullets were counted, and flints examined. Paul knew what it all meant. The Shawnees would attack in the darkness, and there would be all the confusion of a midnight battle, when one might not be able to tell friend from friend nor foe from foe. The sense of weirdness and awe overcame him again. They were but the tiniest of atoms in that vast wilderness, which would be just the same to-morrow and the next day, no matter who won.

But Paul had in him the stuff of which heroes are made, and his strong will brought his mind back to present needs. He, too, measured his powder and counted his bullets, while he strove also to forget the hot thirst that tormented him.

The sun sank in the forest, the wan twilight deepened into shadow, and the shadow darkened into night. The trees where the Shawnees lay hidden were gone in the dusk, which hung so close that Paul could see but the nearest of his comrades. Only the murmur of night insects and the faint rustle of leaves came to his ears. The feeling of awe returned, and his blood grew chill. Then it was a relief to him to know that he had a comrade in this sensation.

"Ef an owl would only hoot once or twice now," whispered Shif'less Sol, "I think I'd jump right out o' my huntin' shirt."

Paul laughed and felt better.

"Now, Paul," continued Shif'less Sol, very gravely this time, "lemme give you a piece o' mighty good advice. When the muss comes on, don't move about much. Lay close. Stick to me an' Henry, an' then thar ain't so much chance to git mixed up with them that's lookin' fur you here."

"I'll remember what you say, Sol," replied Paul earnestly, as he girded his spirit for action. He knew that the attack would come very soon, as the Indians would choose the darkest period before the moon rose. Nor was he wrong. The battle in the night began only a half hour later.

Paul first saw a pink point appear in the darkness, but he knew that it was the flame from a rifle shot. It came from a place not far away, to which some Shawnee had crawled; but the hunters paid no attention to it, nor to a second, nor to a third, as all the bullets flew wild. Paul, forgetting for the moment that those bullets were sent to kill, became engrossed in the spectacle of the fireworks. He was always wondering where the next spurt of blue or pink flame would break through the darkness, and the popping of the shots formed a not unpleasant sound in the night.

"Comin' closer, comin' closer, Paul!" whispered Shif'less Sol. "One o' them bullets flyin' in the dark may hit somethin' putty soon."

Sol was a prophet. A hunter not far away uttered a low cry. He was struck in the shoulder, but after the single cry he was silent. Henry was the first to see one of the creeping brown bodies and fired, and after that the shots on either side increased fast. It was all confused and terrible to Paul. The darkness, instead of thinning to accustomed eyes, seemed to him to grow heavier. The pin points of light from the rifle fire multiplied themselves into hundreds, and the front of the foe shifted about, as if they were trying to curve around the defenders.

Paul could not definitely say that he saw a single savage, but he fired now and then at the flashes of light, and also tried to obey Sol's injunction about sticking close to him and Henry. But he was not always sure that the figures near him were theirs, the darkness remaining so intense. He heard occasional low cries, the light impact of bullets, and the shuffling sound of feet, but he was fast losing any ordered view of the battle. He knew now that the savages were very close, that the combat was almost hand to hand, but he knew little else. The night enclosed all the furious border conflict, and hid the loss or gain of either side from all but the keenest eyes.

Paul could never tell how long this lasted, but he felt confident that the area of conflict was shifting. Having first faced one side, they were now facing another, as the savages wheeled about them. He rose to his feet in order to keep with his friends. He had been loading and firing more rapidly than he knew, and the barrel of his rifle was hot to his touch. He stood a moment listening for the savages, and then turned to two indistinct figures near him.

"Sol," he said, "can you and Henry see them?"

The two indistinct figures suddenly became distinct, and sprang upon him. He was seized in a powerful grasp and hurled down so violently that he became unconscious for a little while. Why he was not killed he did not know that night, nor ever after--probably they wished to show a trophy. When he gathered his scattered senses he was being dragged away, and his hands were bound. He was too dazed to cry aloud for rescue, but he remembered afterwards that the battle behind him was waning at the time.

He was dragged deeper into the forest, and the shots on the hill became fainter and fewer. His sight cleared, but the darkness was so great that he could yet see little except the warrior who pulled him along. Paul made an effort and gained a better footing. It hurt his pride to be dragged, and now he walked on in the path that the warrior indicated.

They stopped after a while in an open space in the forest. The moon was clearing a little, and Paul saw other warriors standing about. Nearly all were wounded. Hideous and painted they were, with savage eyes filled with rage and disappointment, and the looks they gave Paul made him consider himself as one dead.

As the moon cleared, more warriors drifted back into the glade. Some of these, too, bore wounds, and Paul's heart leaped up with fierce joy as he saw that they had been defeated. The firing had ceased and the wilderness was returning to silence, broken only by the low words of the savages and the soft sound of their moccasins on the earth.

Paul was still in a sort of daze. The warriors were grouped about him, their sole visible trophy of the battle, and they regarded him with vengeful eyes. But he had passed through so much that he was not afraid. His only feeling was that of dull stupefaction, and mingled with it a sort of lingering pride that his comrades had been the victors, although he himself was a prisoner. He did not know whether they would kill him or take him with them, and at that moment his mind was so dulled that he felt little curiosity about the question.

A thin, sharp-faced warrior of middle years seemed to be the leader of the band, and he talked briefly to the others. They nodded toward Paul, and then, with a warrior on each side of the prisoner, they started northward. Paul, his brain clearing, judged that they were taking him as a trophy, as a prize to show in their village before putting him to death.

They marched silently through the forest, curving far to the left of the battlefield. The warriors were about a score in number, and Paul thought they must have lost at least half as many in battle. Their hideous paint and their savage faces filled him with repulsion. Their wild life and the mystery of wild nature did not appeal to him as they had once appealed to Henry in a similar position. To Paul, the chief thing about the wilderness was the magnificent home it would make in the future for a great white race. Spared for the present, he expected to live. Henry had saved him once, and he and his comrades would come again to the rescue.

He stumbled at first in their rapid flight from weakness, and the warrior next to him struck him a blow as a reminder. Paul would have struck back, but his hands were tied, and he could only guard himself against another stumble. Pride sustained him.

They did not stop until nearly dawn, when they camped by the bank of a creek and ate. Paul's arms were unbound, and the hatchet-faced chief tossed him a piece of venison, which he ate greedily because he was very hungry. Then, as the warriors seemed in no hurry to move, he sagged slowly over on his side and went to sleep. Despite his terrible situation, he was so thoroughly worn out that he could not hold up his head any longer.

When Paul awoke the sun was high, and he was lying where he had sunk down. The warriors were about him, some sitting on the grass or lying full length, but the party seemed more numerous than it was the night before. He looked again. It was certainly more numerous, and there, too, sitting near him, was a white youth of nearly his own age. Paul rose up, inspired with a feeling of sympathy, and perhaps of comradeship, and then, to his utter amazement, he saw that the youth was Braxton Wyatt, one of the boys who had come over the mountains with the group that had settled Wareville.

Braxton Wyatt, a year or two older than Paul, had always been disliked at Wareville. Of a sarcastic, sneering, unpleasant temperament, he habitually made enemies, and did not seem to care. Paul disliked him heartily, but in this moment of sudden meeting he felt only sympathy and fellowship. They were captives together, and all feeling of hostility was swept from his mind.

"Braxton!" he exclaimed. "Have they got you, too?"

Wyatt rose up, came to Paul, and took his hand in the friendliest manner.

"Yes, Paul," he said. "I was out hunting, thinking that there were no savages south of the Ohio, and I was taken last night by a band which joined yours this morning while you slept."

"Why haven't they killed us?" asked Paul.

"I suppose they'd rather show us to the tribe first, or maybe they think they can adopt us, as Henry Ware was once. They haven't treated me badly."

"That may be because you were taken without any loss to them," said Paul. "We've had a big fight, and I'm the only one they got. Henry Ware, Tom Ross, Shif'less Sol, and the others beat them off."

"That was grand fighting!" said Braxton. "Tell me about it."

Wyatt's fellowship and sympathy greatly cheered Paul, and he told in detail about the battle with the band, and all that preceded it. Braxton Wyatt listened with attention, but more than once expressed surprise.

"How many did you say were left back there on the hill?" he asked at last.

"We were ten when we began the fighting," replied Paul. "One that I know of was killed, and it is likely that one or two more were. Then I'm gone. Not more than six or seven can be left, but they are the best men in all these woods. Twice their number of Indians cannot whip them."

Paul said the last words proudly, and then he added:

"Henry and Ross and Shif'less Sol will come for me. They'll be sure to do it. And they'll rescue you, too."

Braxton Wyatt looked thoughtful.

"I think you're right," he said; "but it'll be a very risky thing for them, especially if the Shawnees expect it. Be sure you don't let the Indians think you are dreaming of such a thing."

"Of course not," said Paul.

The sharp-faced chief now came up, and said something to Wyatt. Braxton replied in the Indian tongue.

"I didn't know that you understood any Shawnee," said Paul in surprise, as the chief turned away.

"I've picked it up, a word here and a word there," replied Wyatt, "and I find it very useful now. The Chief--Red Eagle is his name--says that if you'll give 'em no trouble, he won't bind your hands again, for the present, anyway. I've followed that plan, and I've found it a heap easier for myself."

Paul pondered a little. Braxton Wyatt's advice certainly seemed good, and he did not wish to be bound again. It would be better to go along in docile fashion.

"All right, Braxton," he said, "I'll do as you suggest. We won't make them any trouble now, but after a while we'll escape."

"That's the best way," said Wyatt.

Red Eagle and another warrior, who seemed to be his lieutenant, were talking earnestly. The chief presently beckoned to Wyatt, who went over to him and replied to several questions. But Wyatt came back in a few moments, and took his seat again beside Paul.

A half hour later they resumed the march, and Paul knew by the sun that they were going northward. Hence he inferred that they would make no further attack upon the white hunters, and were bound for what they called home. Refreshed by his rest and sleep, and relieved by the removal of the bandages from his wrists, he walked beside Wyatt with a springy step, and his outlook upon life was fairly cheerful. It was wonderful what the comradeship of one of his own kind did for him! After all, he had probably been deceived about Braxton Wyatt. Merely because his ways were not the ways of Henry and Paul was not proof that he was not the right kind of fellow. Now he was sympathetic and helpful enough, when sympathy and help were needed.

The march northward was leisurely. The Shawnees seemed to have no further expectation of meeting a foe, and they were not so vigilant. Paul and Braxton Wyatt were kept in the center of the group, but they were permitted to talk as much as they pleased, and Paul was not annoyed by any blow or kick.

"Have you any idea how far it is to their village, Braxton?" Paul asked.

"A long distance," replied Wyatt. "We shall not be there under two weeks, and as the party may turn aside for hunting or something else, it may be much longer."

"It will give Henry and Ross and the others more time to rescue us," said Paul.

Braxton Wyatt shrugged his shoulders.

"I wouldn't put much hope in that if I were you, Paul," he said. "This band is very strong. Since the two parties joined it numbers forty warriors, and our friends could do nothing. We must pretend to like them, to fall in with their ways, and to behave as if we liked the wild life as well as that back in the settlements, and in time would like it better."

"I could never do that," said Paul. "All kinds of savages repel me."

Braxton Wyatt shrugged his shoulders again.

"One must do the best he can," he said briefly.

The leisurely march proceeded, and they camped the next afternoon in the midst of a magnificent forest of beech, oak, and hickory, building a great fire, and lounging about it in apparently careless fashion. But Paul was enough of a woodsman to know that some of the warriors were on watch, and he and Braxton, as usual, were compelled to sit in the center of the group, where there was no shadow of a chance to escape.

Hunters whom they had sent out presently brought in the bodies of two deer, and then they had a great feast. The venison was half cooked in strips and chunks over the coals, and the warriors ate it voraciously, chattering to each other, meanwhile, as Paul did not know that Indians ever talked.

"What are they saying, Braxton?" he asked.

"I can't catch it very well," replied Wyatt, "but I think they are talking about a stay near the Ohio--for hunting, I suppose. That ought to be a good thing for us, because they certainly will not decide about our fate until we get back to their village, and the more they are used to us the less likely they are to put us to death."

Paul watched the warriors eating, and they were more repellent to him than ever. Savages they were, and nothing could make them anything else. His ways could never become their ways. But the fresh deer meat looked very good, and the pleasant aroma filled his nostrils. Braxton Wyatt noticed his face.

"Are you hungry, Paul?" he asked.

"No, not hungry; merely starving to death."

Wyatt laughed.

"I'm in the same condition," he said, "but I can soon change it."

He spoke to Red Eagle, and the thin-faced chief nodded. Then Braxton picked up two sharpened sticks that the savages had used, and also two large pieces of venison. One stick and one piece he handed to Paul.

"Now we also will cook and dine," he said.

Paul's heart warmed toward Braxton Wyatt. Certainly he had done him wrong in his thoughts when they lived at Wareville. But he was thinking the next moment about the pleasant odor of the deer meat as he fried it over the coals. Then he ate hungrily, and with a full stomach came peace for the present, and confidence in the future. He slept heavily that night, stretched on the ground before the fire, near Braxton Wyatt, and he did not awaken until late the next morning.

The Indians were very slow and leisurely about departing, and Paul realized now that, vigilant and wonderful as they were in action, they were slothful and careless when not on the war path, or busy with the chase. He saw, also, that the band was entirely too strong to be attacked by Henry and his friends.

They marched northward several days more, at the same dawdling pace, and then they stopped a week at one place for the hunting. Half the warriors would go into the forest, and the next day the other half would go, the first remaining. They brought in an abundance of game, and Paul never before saw men eat as they ate. It seemed to him that they must be trying to atone for a fast of at least six months, and those who were not hunting that day would lie around the fire for hours like animals digesting their food. He and Braxton Wyatt were still treated well, and their hands remained unbound, although they were never allowed to leave the group of warriors.

Paul was glad enough of the rest and delay, but the life of the Shawnees did not please him. He was too fastidious by nature to like their alternate fits of laziness and energy, their gluttony and lethargy afterwards, but he took care not to show his repulsion. He acted upon Wyatt's advice, and behaved in the friendliest manner that he could assume toward his captors. Wyatt once spoke his approval. "The Chief, Red Eagle, thinks of adopting you, if you should fall into their ways," said Wyatt.

"He may adopt me, but I'll never adopt him," replied Paul sturdily.

But Wyatt only laughed and shrugged his shoulders, after his fashion.

A few days later they reached the Ohio. It was running bankful, and where Paul saw it the stream was a mile wide, a magnificent river, cutting off the unknown south from the unknown north, and bearing on its yellow bosom silt from lands hundreds of miles away. The warriors took hidden canoes from the forest at the shore, and Paul thought they would cross at once and continue their journey northward, but they did not do so. Instead, they dawdled about in the thick forest that clothed the southern bank, and ate more venison and buffalo meat, although they did not kindle any fire. A day or two passed thus amid glorious sunshine, and Paul still could not understand why they waited.

Meanwhile he still clung tenaciously to his great hope. He might escape, he might be rescued, and then Henry and he would resume their task which would help so much to save Kentucky. No matter what happened, Paul would never lose sight of this end.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.