The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XI. A Sudden Meeting

Paul and queer, long Jim Hart spent a week together on the island, and they were pleasant days to the boy. He was sure that Henry, Ross, and Sol could take care of themselves, and he felt little anxiety about them. He and Hart stayed well in the woods in the day, and they fished and hunted at night. Hart killed another deer, this time swimming in the water, but they easily made salvage of the body and took it to land. They also shot a bear in the edge of the woods, near the south end of the lake, and Hart quickly tanned both deerskins and the bearskin in a rude fashion. He said they would need them as covers at night, and as the weather turned a little colder, Paul found that he could use one of the skins quite comfortably.

They built of sticks and brushwood a crude sort of lean-to against one of the stony sides that enclosed the cove, and when a rain came they were able to keep quite dry within its shelter. They also found rabbits on the island, some of which they killed, and thus added further to their larder. These labors of house-building and housekeeping kept them busy, and Paul was surprised to find how well content he had become. Hart did all the cooking, but Paul made amends in other directions, and at night, when they were not fishing or hunting, they would sit by the little fire and talk. Once about the noon hour they saw a smoke far to the south, and both regarded it speculatively.

"Think likely it's an Injun huntin' party," said Jim Hart, "an' they don't dream o' any white men bein' about. That's why they are so careless about their fire, because the different tribes o' these parts are all at peace with one another."

"How far away would you say that smoke is?" asked Paul.

"Three or four miles, anyway, an' I'm pow'ful glad this is a haunted islan', so they won't come over here."

"So am I," said Paul devoutly.

He lay on his back on the soft turf, and watched the smoke rising away in a thin spire into the heavens. He could picture to himself the savage party as it sat about the fire, and it gave him a remarkable feeling of comfort and safety to know that he was so well protected by the ghosts that haunted the little island.

The smoke rose there all the morning, but Paul ceased by and by to pay any attention to it, although he and Jim Hart kept well within the cove, busying themselves with additions to their lean-to. Paul had found great strips of bark shed by the trees, and he used these to patch the roof. More pieces were used for the floor, and, with the bearskin spread over them, it was quite dry and snug. Then he stood off and regarded it with a critical and approving eye.

"You haven't seen a better house than that lately, have you, Jim?" he said, in a tone of pride.

"Considerin' the fact that I ain't seen any other uv any kind in a long time, I kin truthfully say I haven't," replied Jim Hart sardonically.

"You lack appreciation, Jim," said Paul. "Besides, your imagination is deficient. Why don't you look at this hut of ours and imagine that it is a magnificent stone castle?"

Jim Hart gazed wonderingly at the boy.

"Paul," he said, "you always wuz a puzzle to me. I can't see no magnificent stone castle--jest a bark an' brush hut."

Paul shook his head reprovingly.

"I am sorry for you, Jim," he said. "I not only see a magnificent stone castle, but I see a splendid town over there on the mainland."

"You talk plumb foolish, Paul," said Jim Hart.

"They are all coming," said Paul.

But Jim Hart continued to see only the bark and brush hut on the island, and the vast and unbroken wilderness on the mainland. His eyes roved back, from the mainland to the hut.

"Now, ef I had an ax an' a saw," he said regretfully, "I could make that look like somethin'. I'm a good cook, ef I do say it, Paul, but I'd like to be a fust-class carpenter. Thar ain't no chance, though, out here, whar thar ain't nothin' much but cabins, an' every man builds his own hisself."

"Never mind, Jim," said Paul, "your time will come; and if it doesn't come to you, it will come to your sons."

"Paul, you're talkin' foolisher than ever," said Jim indignantly. "You know that I ain't a married man, an' that I ain't got no sons."

Paul only smiled. Again he was dreaming, looking far into the future.

The spire of smoke was still on the horizon line when the twilight came, but the next morning it was gone, and they did not see it again. Several days more passed in peace and contentment, and, desiring to secure more game, Paul and Hart took out the canoe one evening and rowed to the mainland.

They watched a while about the mouth of the brook, the favorite drinking place of the wild animals, but they saw nothing. It seemed likely to Paul that a warning had been sent to all the tenants of the forest not to drink there any more, as it was a dangerous place, and he expressed a desire to go farther into the forest.

"All right, Paul," said Jim Hart, "but you kain't be too keerful. Don't git lost out thar in the woods, an' don't furgit your way back to this spot. I'll wait right here in the boat and watch fur a deer. One may come yet."

Paul took his rifle and entered the woods. It was his idea that he might find game farther up the little stream, and he followed its course, taking care to make no noise. It was a fine moonlight night, and, keeping well within the shadow of the trees, he carefully watched the brook. He was so much absorbed in his task that he forgot the passage of time, and did not notice how far he had gone.

Paul had acquired much skill as a hunter, and he was learning to observe the signs of the forest; but he did not hear a light step behind him, although he did feel himself seized in a powerful grasp. This particular warrior was a Miami, and he may have been impelled by pride--that is, a desire to take a white youth alive, or at least hold him until his comrades, who were near, could come and secure him. To this circumstance, and to a fortunate slip of the savage, the boy undoubtedly owed his life.

Paul was strong, and the grasp of the Indian was like the touch of fire to him. He made a sudden convulsive effort, far greater than his natural physical powers, and the arms of the warrior were torn loose. Both staggered, each away from the other, and while they were yet too close for Paul to use his rifle, he did, under impulse, what the white man often does, the red man never. His clenched fist shot out like lightning, and caught the savage on the point of the jaw.

The Miami hit the earth with a thud, and lay there stunned. Paul turned and ran with all his might, and as he ran he heard the war cry behind him, and then the pattering of feet. But he heard no shots. He judged that the distance and the darkness kept the savages from firing, and he thanked God for the night.

He had sufficient presence of mind to remember the stream, and he kept closely to its course as he ran back swiftly toward the canoe.

"Up, Jim, up! The warriors have come!" he shouted, as he ran.

But Jim Hart, an awkward bean pole of a lion-hearted man, was already coming to meet him, and fired past him at a dusky, dancing figure that pursued. The death yell followed, the pursuit wavered for a moment, and then Jim Hart, turning, ran with Paul to the canoe, into which both leaped at the same time. But Hart promptly undoubled himself, seized the paddle, and with one mighty shove sent the boat out into the lake. Paul grasped the other paddle, and bent to the same task. Their rifles lay at their feet.

"Bend low, Paul," said Jim Hart. "We're still within range of the shore."

Paul almost lay down in the canoe, but he never ceased to make long, frantic sweeps with the paddle, and he was glad to see the water flashing behind him. Then he heard a great yell of rage and the crackle of rifles, and bullets spattered the surface of the lake about them. One chipped a splinter from the edge of the canoe and whistled by Paul's ear, singing, as it passed, "Look out! Look out!" But Paul's only reply was to use his paddle faster, and yet faster.

The boy did not notice that Jim Hart had turned the course of the canoe, and that they were running northward, about midway between the island and the mainland; but the rifle fire ceased presently, and Jim Hart said to him:

"You can take it easier now, Paul. We're out uv range, though not uv sight."

Paul straightened up, laid his paddle in the boat, and gasped for breath.

"Look over thar, Paul, ef you want to see a pleasant scene," said Jim Hart calmly.

Paul's gaze followed the long man's pointing finger, and he saw at least twenty warriors gathered on the bank, and regarding them now in dead silence.

"Mad!" said Jim Hart. "Mad clean through!"

"They've chased us on land, and now they are chasing us on water. I wonder where they will chase us next," said Paul.

"Not through the air, 'cause they can't fly, nor kin we," said Jim Hart sagely.

Paul looked back again at the ferocious band gathered on the shore, and, while he could not see their faces at the distance, he could imagine the evil passions pictured there. As he gazed the band broke up, and many of them came running along the shore. Then Paul noticed that the prow of their canoe was not turned toward the island, but was bearing steadily toward the north end of the lake, leaving the island well to the left. He glanced at Jim Hart, and the long man laughed low, but with deep satisfaction.

"Don't you see, Paul," he said, "that we kain't go to the islan' an' show to them that we've been livin' thar? That might wipe out all the spell uv the place. We got to let 'em think we're 'fraid uv it, too, an' that we dassent land thar. We'll paddle up to the head uv the lake, come down on the other side, an' then, when it's atween us an' them, we'll come across to our islan'."

They were still abreast of the island, and yet midway between it and the mainland. Paul saw the Indians running along the shore, and now and then taking a shot at the canoe. But the bullets always fell short.

"Foolish! Plumb foolish," said Jim Hart, "a-wastin' good powder an' good lead in sech a fashion!"

"That one struck nearer," said Paul, as a little jet of water spurted up in the lake. "Keep her off, Jim. A bullet that is not wasted might come along directly."

Hart sheered the boat off a little toward the island, and then took a long look at a warrior who had reached a projecting point of land.

"That thar feller looks like a chief," he said, "an' I kain't say that his looks please me a-tall, a-tall. I don't like the set uv his figger one little bit."

"What difference does it make?" said Paul. "You can't change it."

"Wa'al, now, I was a-thinkin' that maybe I could," drawled Jim Hart. "Hold the boat steady, Paul."

He laid down his paddle and took up his rifle, which he had reloaded.

"Them Injuns have guns, but they are not generally ez good ez ours," he said. "They don't carry ez fur. Now jest watch me change the set uv that savage's figger. I wouldn't do it, but he's just a-pinin' fur our blood an' the hair on top uv our heads."

Up went the long Kentucky rifle, and the moonlight fell clearly along its polished barrel. Then came the flash, the spurt of smoke, the report echoing among the hills about the lake, and the chief fell forward with his face in the water. A yell of rage arose from the others, and again bullets pattered on the surface of the lake, but all fell short. Jim Hart calmly reloaded his rifle.

"That'll teach 'em to be a little more keerful who they're a-follerin'," he said. "Now, Paul, let's paddle."

They sent the boat swiftly toward the north end of the lake, and Paul now and then caught glimpses of the Miamis trying to keep parallel with it, although out of range; but presently, as they passed the island, and could swing out into the middle of the lake, the last of them sank permanently from sight. But the two kept on in the canoe. The moonlight faded a little, and soon the hills on the shore could be seen only as a black blur.

"This is jest too easy, Paul," said Jim Hart, "With them runnin' aroun' that big outer circle, they couldn't keep up with us even ef they could see us. Let's rest a while."

Both put their paddles inside the canoe and drew long breaths. Each had a feeling of perfect safety, for the time at least, and they let the boat drift northward under the gentle wind from the south that rippled the surface of the lake.

"Water and darkness," said Paul. "They are our friends."

"The best we could have," said Jim Hart. "Are you rested now, Paul?"

"I'm fresh again."

They resumed the paddles, and, curving about, came down on the western side of the lake until they were opposite the island. Then they paddled straight for their home, and the word "home," in this case, had its full meaning for Paul. It gave him a thrill of delight when the prow of the canoe struck upon the margin of the little island, and the gloom of the great trees was friendly and protecting.

"We must hide the canoe good," said Jim Hart.

They concealed it in a thick clump of bushes, and then Hart carefully readjusted the bushes so that no one would notice that they had ever been disturbed, and they took their way to the hut in the glen. They did not light a fire, but they sat for a little while on the stones, talking.

"You're sure they won't come over to the Island?" said Paul.

"They'll never do it," replied Jim Hart confidently. "Besides, they ain't got the least suspicion that we've come here. Likely, they think we've landed at the north end uv the lake, an' they'll be prowlin' aroun' thar three or four days lookin' fur us. Jest think, Paul, uv all the work they'll hev fur nothin'. I feel like laughin'. I think I will laugh."

He kept his word and laughed low; but he laughed long, and with the most intense pleasure.

"Jest to think, Paul," he continued, "how we're guarded by dead Injuns theirselves!"

Presently the two went into the hut, and slept soundly until the next morning. They did not light a fire then, but ate cold food, and went down among the trees to watch the lake. They saw nothing. The water rippled and glowed in alternate gold and silver under the brilliant sunshine, and the hills about it showed distinctly; but there was no sign of a human being except themselves.

"Lookin' fur us among the hills," said Jim Hart. "You an' me will jest keep close, Paul, an' we won't light no fire."

The whole day passed without incident, and the following night also, but about noon the next day, as they watched from the shelter of the trees, they saw a black dot on the lake, far to the south.

"A canoe!" said Jim Hart.

"A canoe? How did they get it?" said Paul--he took it for granted that its occupants were Miamis.

"Guess they brought it across country from some river, and thar they are," replied Jim Hart. "They've shore put a boat on our lake."

His tone showed traces of anxiety, and Paul, too, felt alarm. The Miamis, after all, might defy their own superstition and land on the island. Presently another canoe appeared behind the first, and then a third and a fourth, until there was a little fleet, which the two watched with silent apprehension. Had Henry Ware been mistaken? Did the Miamis really believe it was a haunted island?

On came the canoes in a straight black file, enough to contain more than a score of warriors, and the man and the boy nervously fingered their rifles. If the Indians landed on the island, the result was sure. The two might make a good fight and slay some of their foes, but in any event they would certainly be taken or killed. Their lives depended upon the effect of a superstition.

The line of canoes lay like a great black arrow across the water. They were so close together that to the watchers they seemed to blend and become continuous, and this arrow was headed straight toward the island. Paul's heart went down with a thump, but a moment later a light leaped into his eyes.

"The line is turning!" he exclaimed. "Look, Jim, look! They are afraid of the island!"

"Yes," said Jim Hart, "I see! The ghosts are real, an' it's pow'ful lucky fur us that they are. The Miamis dassent land!"

It was true. The black arrow suddenly shifted to the right, and the line of canoes drew into the open water, midway between the island and the eastern mainland.

"Lay close, Paul, lay close!" said Jim Hart. "We mustn't let 'em catch a glimpse uv us, an' they're always pow'ful keen-eyed."

Both the man and the boy lay flat on their stomachs on the ground, and peered from the shelter of the bushes. No human eye out on the lake could have seen them there. The canoes were now abreast of the island, but were going more slowly, and both could see that the occupants were looking curiously at their little wooded domain. But they kept at a healthy distance.

"I think they're lookin' here because the place is haunted, and not because we are on it," said Jim Hart.

It seemed that he spoke the truth, as the Miamis presently swung nearer to the mainland and began to examine the shores long and critically.

"I guess they've been huntin' us all through the woods, an' think now we may be hid somewhar at the edge uv the lake," said Jim Hart.

It seemed so. The two lay there for hours, watching the little fleet of canoes as it circled the lake, keeping near the outer rim, and searching among all the hills and hollows that bordered the shores. Once, when it was on the western side, the fleet turned its head again toward the island, and again apprehension arose in the hearts of the boy and the man, but it was only for a fleeting moment. The line of canoes was quickly turned away, and bore on down the open water. Paul and Jim Hart were protected by Manitou.

The circumnavigation of the lake by the Miamis lasted throughout the remainder of the day, and when the twilight came, the canoes were lost in its shade toward the southern end of the sheet of water.

"We're safe," said Jim Hart, "but we've still got to keep close. They may hang about here fur days."

"What about Henry and Ross and Sol?" asked Paul anxiously. "On their way back they may run right into that wasp's nest."

"'Tain't likely," replied Jim Hart. "Our boys know what they're a-doin'. But I wish them Miamis would go away so's I could light a fire an' cook some fresh meat."

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