The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VIII. At the River Bank

The days dragged into a week, and the Shawnees still clung to the banks of the great river, occasionally hunting, but more often idling away their time in the deep woods near the shore. Paul's wonder at their actions increased. He could not see any purpose in it, and he spoke several times to Braxton Wyatt about it. But Wyatt always shrugged his shoulders.

"I do not know," he said. "It is true they build no camp fires, at least no big ones, and they do not seem to be much interested in hunting; but I cannot guess what they are about, and I should not dare to ask Red Eagle."

Paul noticed that Red Eagle himself often went down to the bank of the river, and would watch its surface with the keenest attention. But Paul observed also that he always looked eastward--that is, up the stream--and never down it.

Paul and Wyatt were allowed an increasing amount of liberty, but they were held nevertheless within a ring through which they could not break; Paul was shrewd enough to perceive it, and for the present he made no effort, thinking it a wise thing to appear contented with his situation, or at least to be making the best of it. Braxton Wyatt commended his policy more than once.

On the morning of the seventh day the chief went down to the bank of the river once more, and began to watch its surface attentively and long, always looking up the stream. Paul and Braxton Wyatt and some of the warriors stood among the trees, not fifty feet away. They also could see the surface of the river for a long distance, and Paul's eyes followed those of the chief, Red Eagle.

The Ohio was a great yellow river, flowing slowly on in its wide channel, the surface breaking into little waves, that crumpled and broke and rose again. Paul could see the stream for miles, apparently becoming narrower and narrower, until it ended in a yellow thread under the horizon. Either shore was overhung with heavy forest red with autumn's touch. Wild fowl occasionally flew over the current. It was inexpressibly weird and lonely to Paul, seemingly a silent river flowing on forever through silent shades.

He saw nothing on the stream, and his eyes came back to the thin, hatchet-faced chief, who stood upon the bank looking so intently. Red Eagle had begun to interest him greatly. He impressed Paul as being a thorough savage of savages, fairly breathing cruelty and cunning, and Paul saw now a note of expectation, of cruel expectation, in the fierce black eyes of the Shawnee. And as he looked, a sudden change came over the face of the chief. A gleam appeared in the black eyes, and the tall, thin figure seemed to raise itself a little higher. Paul again looked up the stream, and lo! a tiny dark spot appeared upon its surface. He watched it as the chief watched it, and it grew, coming steadily down the river. But he did not yet know what it was.

Now the spirit of action descended quickly upon the whole band. The chief left the shore and gave quick, low orders to the men, who sank back into the forest, taking Paul and Braxton Wyatt with them. Two warriors, having Paul between them, crouched in a dense thicket, and one of them tapped the unarmed boy meaningly with his tomahawk. Paul did not see Braxton Wyatt, but he supposed that he was held similarly by other warriors, somewhere near. In truth, he did not see any of the savages except the two who were with him. All the rest had melted away with the extraordinary facility that they had for hiding themselves, but Paul knew that they were about him, pressed close to the earth, blurred with the foliage or sheltered by tree trunks.

The boy's eyes turned back to the river, and the black blot floating on its surface. That blot, he knew, had caused this sudden disappearance of a whole band of Shawnees, and he wanted to know more. The black blot came down the stream and grew into shape and outline, and the shape and outline were those of a boat. An Indian canoe? No; it rapidly grew beyond the size of any canoe used by the savages, and began to stand up from the water in broad and stiff fashion. Then Paul's heart thumped, because all at once he knew. It was a flatboat, and it was certainly loaded with emigrants coming down the Ohio, women and children as well as men, and the Shawnees had laid an ambush. This was what the crafty Red Eagle had been waiting for so long.

It was the final touch of savagery, and the boy's generous and noble heart rebelled within him. He started up, propelled by the impulse to warn; but the two warriors pulled him violently back, one of them again touching him significantly with his tomahawk. Paul knew that it was useless. Any movement or cry of his would cause his own death, and would not be sufficient to warn those on the boat. He sank back again, trembling in every nerve, not for himself but for the unsuspecting travelers on the river.

The boat came steadily on, Paul saw a number of men, some walking about and others at the huge sweeps with which it was controlled. And--yes, there was a woman and a child, too; a little girl with long, yellow curls, who played on the rude deck. Paul put his hand to his face, and it came back wet.

Then he remembered, and his heart leaped up. The river was a mile wide, and the boat was keeping near the middle of the stream. No bullet from the savages could reach it. Then what was the use of this ambush? It had merely been a chance hope of the savages that the boat would come near enough for them to fire into it, but instead it would go steadily on! Paul looked exultantly at the two warriors beside him, but they were intently watching the boat, which would soon be opposite them.

Then a ghastly and horrible thing occurred. A white face suddenly appeared upon the shore in front of Paul--the face of a white youth whom he knew. The figure was in rags, the clothing torn and tattered by thorns and bushes, and the hair hung in wild locks about the white face. Face and figure alike were the picture of desolation and despair.

The white youth staggered to the very edge of the water, and, lifting up a tremulous, weeping voice, cried out to those on the boat:

"Save me! Save me! In God's name, save me! Don't leave me here to starve in these dark woods!"

It was a sight to move all on the boat who saw and heard--this spectacle of the worn wanderer, alone in that vast wilderness, appealing to unexpected rescue. Fear, agony, and despair alike were expressed in the tones of Braxton Wyatt's voice, which carried far over the yellow stream and was heard distinctly by the emigrants. To hear was also to heed, and the great flatboat, coming about awkwardly and sluggishly, turned her square prow toward the southern shore, where the refugee stood.

Braxton Wyatt never ceased to cry out for help. His voice now ran the gamut of entreaty, hope, despair, and then hope again. He called upon them by all sacred names to help him, and he also called down blessings upon them as the big boat bore steadily toward the land where two score fierce savages lay among the bushes, ready to slay the moment they came within reach.

Paul was dazed at first by what he saw and heard. He could not believe that it was Braxton Wyatt who was doing this terrible and treacherous thing. He rubbed away what he thought might be a deceptive film before his eyes, but it was still Braxton Wyatt. It was the face of the youth whom he had known so long, and it was his voice that begged and blessed. And there, too, came the boat, not thirty yards from the land now! In two more minutes it would be at the bank, and its decks were crowded now with men, women, and children, regarding with curiosity and pity alike this lone wanderer in the wilderness whom they had found in such a terrible case. Paul heard around him a rustling like that of coiled snakes, the slight movement of the savages preparing to spring. The boat was only ten yards from the shore! Now the film passed away from his eyes, and his dazed brain cleared. He sprang up to his full height, reckless of his own life, and shouted in a voice that was heard far over the yellow waters:

"Keep off! Keep off, for your lives! It is a renegade who is calling you into an ambush! Keep off! Keep off!"

Paul saw a sudden confusion on the boat, a running to and fro of people, and a bucking of the sweeps. Then he heard a spatter of rifle shots, all this passing in an instant, and the next moment he felt a heavy concussion. Fire flashed before his eyes, and he sank away into a darkness that quickly engulfed him.

When Paul came back to himself he was lying among the trees where he had fallen, and his head ached violently. He started to put up his hand to soothe it, but the hand would not move, and then he realized that both hands were bound to his side. His whole memory came back in a flash, and he looked toward the river. Far down the stream, and near the middle of it, was a black dot that, even as he looked, became smaller, and disappeared. It was the flatboat with its living freight, and Paul's heart, despite his own desperate position, leaped up with joy.

From the river he glanced back at the Indian faces near him, and so far as he could tell they bore no signs of triumph. Nor could he see any of those hideous trophies they would have been sure to carry in case the ambush had been a success. No! the triumph had been his, not theirs. He rolled into an easier position, shut his eyes again to relieve his head, and when he opened them once more, Braxton Wyatt stood beside him. At the sight, all the wrath and indignation in Paul's indomitable nature flared up.

"You scoundrel! you awful scoundrel! You renegade!" he cried. "Don't you ever speak to me again! Don't you come near me!"

Braxton Wyatt did not turn back when those words, surcharged with passion, met him full in the face, but wore a sad and downcast look.

"I don't blame you, Paul," he said gently, "for speaking that way when you don't understand. I'm not a renegade, Paul. I did what I did to save our lives--yours as well as mine, Paul. The chief, Red Eagle, threatened to put us both to the most awful tortures at once if I didn't do it."

"Liar, as well as scoundrel and renegade!" exclaimed Paul fiercely.

But Braxton Wyatt went on in his gentle, persuading, unabashed manner:

"It is as true as I stand here. I could not take you, too, Paul, to torture and death, and all the while I was hoping that the people on the boat would see, or suspect, and that they would turn back in time. If you had not cried out--and it was a wonderfully brave thing to do!--I think that at the last moment I myself should have done so."

"Liar!" said Paul again, and he turned his back to Braxton Wyatt.

Wyatt looked fixedly at the bound boy, shrugged his shoulders a little, and said:

"I never took you for a fool before, Paul."

But Paul was silent, and Braxton Wyatt went away. An hour or two later Red Eagle came to Paul, unbound his arms, and gave him something to eat. As Paul ate the venison, Braxton Wyatt returned to him and said:

"It is my influence with the chief, Paul, that has secured you this good treatment in spite of their rage against you. It is better to pretend to fall in with their ways, if we are to retain life, and ever to secure freedom."

But Paul only turned his back again and remained silent. Yet with the food and rest the ache died out of his head, and he was permitted to wash off the blood caused by the heavy blow from the flat of a tomahawk. Then he crossed the Ohio with the band.

Paul was in a canoe with Red Eagle and two other warriors, and Braxton Wyatt was in another canoe not far away. But Paul resolutely ignored him, and looked only at the great river, and the thick forest on either shore. He was now more lonely than ever, and the Ohio that he was crossing seemed to him to be the boundary between the known and the unknown. Below it was Wareville and Marlowe, tiny settlements in the vast surrounding wilderness, it was true, but the abodes of white people, nevertheless. North of it, and he was going northward, stretched the forest that savages alone haunted. The crossing of the river was to Paul like passing over a great wall that would divide him forever from his own. All his vivid imagination was alive, and it painted the picture in its darkest and most somber colors.

They reached the northern shore without difficulty, hid the canoes for future use, and resumed their leisurely journey northward. Braxton Wyatt, who seemed to Paul to have much freedom, resumed his advances toward a renewal of the old friendship, but Paul was resolute. He could not overcome his repulsion, Braxton Wyatt might plead, and make excuses, and talk about the terror of torture and death, but Paul remained unconvinced. He himself had not flinched at the crucial moment to undo what Wyatt was doing, and in his heart he could find no forgiveness for the one whom he called a renegade.

Wyatt refused to take offense. He said, and Paul could not but hear, that Paul some day would be grateful for what he was doing, and that it was necessary in the forest to meet craft with craft, guile with guile.

The days passed in hunting, eating, resting, and marching, and Paul lost count of time, distance, and direction. He had not Henry's wonderful instinct in the wilderness, and he could not now tell at what point of the compass Wareville lay. But he kept a brave heart and a brave face, and if at times he felt despair, he did not let anyone see it.

They came at last to a place where the forest thinned out, and then broke away, leaving a little prairie. The warriors, who had previously been painting themselves in more hideous colors than ever, broke into a long, loud, wailing chant. It was answered in similar fashion from a point beyond a swell in the prairie, and Paul knew that they had come to the Indian village. The wailing chant was a sign that they had returned after disaster, and now all the old squaws were taking it up in reply. Paul was filled with curiosity, and he watched everything.

The warriors emerged from the last fringe of the forest, their faces blackened, the hideous chant for their lost rising and falling, but never ceasing. Forward to meet them poured a mongrel throng--old men, old squaws, children, mangy curs, and a few warriors. Paul was with Red Eagle, and when the old squaws saw him, they stopped their plaintive howl and sent up a sudden shrill note of triumph. In a moment Paul was in a ring of ghastly old faces, in every one of which snapped a pair of cruel black eyes. Then the old women began to push him about, to pinch him, and to strike him, and they showed incredible activity.

Thoroughly angry and in much pain, Paul struck at the hideous hags; but they leaped away, jabbered and laughed, and returned to the attack. While he was occupied with those in front of him, others slipped up behind him, jabbed him in the back, or violently twitched the hair on his neck. Tears of pain and rage stood in Paul's eyes, and he wheeled about, only to have the jeering throng wheel with him and continue their torture. At last he caught one of them a half blow, and she reeled and fell. The others shouted uproariously, and the warriors standing by joined in their mirth.

One of the hags finally struck Paul a resounding smack in the face, and as he turned to pursue her another from behind seized a wisp of hair and tried to tear it out by the roots. Paul whirled in a frenzy, and so quickly that she could not escape him. He seized her withered old throat in both his hands, and then and there he would have choked her to death, but the warriors interfered, and pulled his hands loose. But they also drove the old women away, and Paul was let alone for the time. As he stood on one side, gasping as much with anger as with pain, Braxton Wyatt, who had not been persecuted at all, came to him again with ironic words and derisive gesture.

"It was just as I told you, Paul," he said. "I gave you good advice. If you had taken it, they would have spared you. What you have just got is only a taste to what you may suffer."

Paul felt a dreadful inclination to shudder, but he managed to control himself.

"I'd rather die under the torture than do what you have done, you renegade!" he said.

This was the first time since they crossed the Ohio that he had replied to Braxton, but even now he would say no more, and Wyatt, following his custom, shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Then all, mingled in one great throng, went forward to the village. Paul saw an irregular collection of buffalo-skin and deer-skin tepees, and a few pole wigwams, with some rudely cultivated fields of maize about them. A fine brook flowed through the village, and the site, on the whole, was well chosen, well watered, and sheltered by the little hills from cold winds. It was too far away from those hills to be reached by a marksman in ambush, and all about hung signs of plenty--drying venison and buffalo meat, and skins of many kinds.

When they came within the circle of huts and tents, Paul was again regarded by many curious eyes, and there might have been more attempts to persecute him, but the chief, Red Eagle, kept them off. Red Eagle was able to speak a little English, but Paul was too proud to ask him about his own fate. Not a stoic by nature, the boy nevertheless had a will that could control his impulses.

He was thrust into a small pole hut, and when the door was tightly fastened he was left alone there. The place was not more than six feet square, and only a little higher than Paul's head when he stood erect. In one corner was a couch of skins, but that was its whole equipment. Some of the poles did not fit closely together, leaving cracks of a quarter of an inch or so, through which came welcome fresh air, and also the subdued hum of the village noises. He heard indistinctly the barking of dogs, and the chatter of old squaws scolding, but he paid little heed to them because he felt now the sudden rush of a terrible despair.

The Ohio had been the great wall between Paul and his kind, and with the steady march northward, through the forests and over the little prairies, still another wall, equally great, had been reared. It seemed to Paul that Henry and Shif'less Sol and his other friends could never reach him here, and whatever fate the Shawnees had in store for him, it would be a hard one. Wild life he liked in its due proportion, but he had no wish to become a wild man all his days. He wanted to see the settlements grow and prosper, and become the basis of a mighty civilization. This was what appealed to him most. His great task of helping to save Kentucky continually appealed to him, and now his chance of sharing in it seemed slender and remote--too slender and remote to be considered.

The boy lay long on his couch of skins. The hum of the village life still came to his ears, but he paid little heed to it. Gradually his courage came back, or rather his will brought it back, and he became conscious that the day was waning, also that he was growing hungry. Then the door was opened, and Red Eagle entered. Behind him came a weazened old warrior and a weazened old squaw, hideous to behold. Red Eagle stepped to one side, and the old squaw fell on Paul's neck, murmuring words of endearment. Paul, startled and horrified, pushed her off, but she returned to the charge. Then Paul pushed her back again with more force. Red Eagle stepped forward, and lifted a restraining hand.

"They would adopt you in place of the son they have lost," he said in his scant and broken English.

Paul looked at Red Eagle. It seemed to him that he saw on the face of the chief the trace of a sardonic grin. Then he looked at the weazened and repulsive old pair.

"Put me to the torture," he said.

Now the sardonic grin was unmistakable on die face of the chief.

"Not yet," he said, "but maybe later."

Then he and the old pair left the hut, and presently food was brought to Paul, who, worn out by his trials, ceased to think about his future. When he had finished eating he threw himself on the couch again, and slept heavily until the next day.

Return to the The Forest Runners Summary Return to the Joseph A. Altsheler Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson