The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XIV. In Winter Quarters

The three walked slowly on for a long time, curving about gradually to the region in which Paul and Jim Hart remained hidden. They did not say much, but Shif'less Sol was slowly swelling with an admiration which was bound to find a vent some time or other.

"Henry," he burst out at last, "this whole scheme o' yours has been worked in the most beautiful way, an' that last trick with Braxton Wyatt wuz the finest I ever saw."

"There were three of us," said Henry briefly and modestly.

"It's a great thing to use your brain," said the shiftless one sagely. "I'm thinkin' o' doin' it hereafter myself."

Tom Ross laughed deeply and said:

"I'd make a beginning before it wuz too late, ef I wuz you, Sol."

"How long do you think it will take the Shawnees an' the Miamis to straighten out that tangle about the great war trail?" asked the shiftless one of Henry.

"Not before snow flies," replied the youth; "and then there will be so much mutual anger and disgust that they will not be able to get together for months. But we must stop up here, Sol, and watch, and egg on the misunderstanding. Don't you think so, Tom?"

"Of course!" replied Ross briefly, but with emphasis. "We've got to hang on the Injun flanks."

Late in the afternoon they reached familiar ground, or at least it was so to the sharp eyes of these three, although they had seen it but once. Here they had left Paul and Jim Hart, and they knew that they must be somewhere near. Henry gave forth the whip-poor-will cry--the long, wailing note, inexpressibly plaintive and echoing far through the autumn woods. It was repeated once and twice, and presently came the answering note.

The three walked with confidence toward the point from which the answer had come, and soon they saw Paul and Jim Hart advancing joyously to meet them.

Paul listened with amazement to the story of their wonderful adventure, told in a few brief phrases. Not many words were needed for him. His vivid imagination at once pictured it all--the deadly play of words in the Council House, the ambushing of Braxton Wyatt, and the triumphant result.

"That was diplomacy, statesmanship, Henry," he said.

"We're going to stay up here a while longer, Paul," said Henry. "We think our presence is needed in these parts."

"I'm willing," said Paul, wishing to have assurances, "but what about the powder for Marlowe, and what will our people at Wareville think has become of us?"

"As long as we can keep back these tribes, Marlowe will not need the powder, and some of the buffalo hunters have taken word to Wareville that we have come into the North."

"I purpose," said Shif'less Sol, "that so long ez we're goin' to stay in these parts that we go back to the haunted islan' in the lake. It's in the heart o' the Injun country, but it's the safest spot within five hundred miles o' us."

"I think with Sol," said Henry. "We can prepare there for winter quarters. In fact, we've got a hut already."

"An' I won't have nothin' to do," said the shiftless one, "but lay aroun' an' hev Jim Hart cook fur me."

"You'll hev to be runnin' through the frozen woods all the time fur game fur me to cook, that's what you'll hev to do, Sol Hyde," retorted Jim Hart.

The idea of going into winter quarters on the island appealed to Paul. He had grown attached to the little hollow in which he and Jim Hart had built the hut, and he thought they could be very snug and warm. So he favored Sol's proposition with ardor, and about twilight they brought the hidden canoe again from the bushes, paddling boldly across the lake for the island. The place did not now have an uncanny look to Paul. Instead, it bore certain aspects of home, and he forgot all about the mummies in the trees, which were their protection from invasion.

"It's good to get back again," he said.

They landed on the island, hid the canoe, and went straight to the hollow, finding everything there absolutely undisturbed.

"We'll sleep to-night," said Henry, "and in the morning we'll plan."

Paul noticed, when he rose early the next day, that the whole earth was silver with frost, and he felt they were particularly fortunate in having found some sort of shelter. The others shared his satisfaction, and they worked all day, enlarging the hut, and strengthening it against the wind and cold with more bark and brush. At night Henry and Ross took the canoe, went to the mainland, and came back with a deer. The next day Jim Hart and Shif'less Sol were busy drying the venison, and Paul spent his time fishing with considerable success.

Several days passed thus, and they accumulated more meat and more skins. The latter were particularly valuable for warmth. Paul draped them about their hut, arranging them with an artistic eye, while Jim Hart and Shif'less Sol, with a similar satisfaction, watched their larder grow.

"This is the finest winter camp in all the wilderness," said Shif'less Sol.

"You couldn't beat it," said Jim Hart.

These were happy days to Paul. Knowing now that a message had been sent hack to Wareville, he was released from worry over the possible anxiety of his people on his account, and he was living a life brimful of interest. Everyone fell almost unconsciously into his place. Henry Ware, Ross, and Shif'less Sol scouted and hunted far and wide, and Paul and Jim Hart were fishermen, house builders, and, as Paul called it, "decorators."

The hut in the hollow began to have a cozy look. Henry and Ross brought in three buffalo skins, which Jim promptly tanned, and which Paul then used as wall coverings. Wolfskins, deerskins, and one beautiful panther hide were spread upon the floor. This floor was made mainly of boughs, broken up fine, and dead leaves, but it did not admit water, and the furs and skins were warm. In one corner of the place grew up a store of dried venison and buffalo meat, over which Jim Hart watched jealously.

All of the cooking was done at night, but in the open, in a kind of rude oven that Jim Hart built of loose stones, and never did food taste better in the mouth of a hungry youth than it did in that of Paul. The air was growing much colder. Paul, who was in the habit of taking a dip in the lake every night, found the waters so chill now that he could not stay in long, although the bath was wonderfully invigorating. Whenever the wind blew the dead leaves fell in showers, and Paul knew he would soon be deeply thankful they had the hut as a retreat.

About ten days after their return Henry came back from a scout around the Miami village, and he brought news of interest.

"Braxton Wyatt is still there," he said, "and he is so mixed up that he does not know just what to do for the present. After saying one thing and then denying himself, he is in the bad graces of both parties of the Miamis. For the same reason he doesn't dare to go back for a while to the Shawnees, so he is waiting for things to straighten themselves out, which they won't do for a long time. The Miami belt bearers have not yet returned from the Shawnee village, and then belts will have to go back and forth a dozen times each before either tribe can find out what the other means."

"An' if we kin keep 'em misunderstandin' each other," said Shif'less Sol, "they can't make any attack on the white settlements until away next spring, an' by that time a lot more white people will arrive from over the mountains. We'll be at least twice ez strong then."

"That's so," said Henry; "and the greatest work we five can do is to stay here and put as many spokes as we can in the Indian alliance."

"And I am glad to be here with all of you," said Paul earnestly. It seemed to him the greatest work in the world, this holding back of the tribes until their intended victim should acquire strength to beat them off, and his eyes shone. Besides the mere physical happiness that he felt, there was a great mental exhilaration, an exaltation, even, and he looked forward to the winter of a warrior and a statesman.

Paul's body flourished apace in the cold, nipping air and the wild life. There were discomforts, it is true, but he did not think of them. He looked only at the comforts and the joys. He knew that his muscles were growing and hardening, that eye, ear, all the five senses, in truth, were growing keener, and he felt within him a courage that could dare anything.

Henry made another expedition, to discover, if he could, whether the Miamis suspected that the haunted island harbored their foes. They did not ask him what means he used, how he disguised himself anew, or whether he disguised himself at all, but he returned with the news that they had no suspicion. The island was still sacred to the spirits--a place where they dare not land. This was satisfying news to all, and they rested for a while.

Three or four days after Henry's return a strong wind stripped the last leaves from the trees. All the reds and yellows and browns were gone, and the gusts whistled fiercely among the gray branches. The surface of the lake was broken into cold waves, that chased each other until they died away at the shore.

The next day heavy rolling clouds were drawn across the sky, and all the world was somber and dark. Paul stood at the entrance to the hut, and now, indeed, he was thankful that they had that shelter, and that they had furs and skins to reinforce their clothing. As he looked, something cold and wet came out of the sky and struck him upon the face. Another came, and then another, and in a few moments the air was full of flakes whirled by the wind.

"The first snow," said Paul.

"Yes," said Henry, "and let us pray for snows--many, hard, and deep. The fiercer the winter the easier it will be to hold back the allied tribes."

It was not a heavy snow, but it gave an earnest of what might come. The bare boughs were whipped about in the gale, and creaked dismally. The ground was covered with white to the depth of about two inches, and dark, rolling waves, looking very chill, chased one another across the lake. Jim Hart and Paul had managed to build of stones, in one corner of their hut, a rude oven or furnace, with an exterior vent. They had plastered the stones together with mud, which hardened into a sort of cement, and in this furnace they kindled a little fire. They did not dare to make it large, because of the smoke, but they had enough coals to give out a warm and pleasant glow.

All of them retreated for a while to the "mansion," as Paul rather proudly called it, and Henry. Ross, and Shif'less Sol busied themselves with making new and stout moccasins of deerskin, fastened with sinews and lined with fur. Shif'less Sol was especially skillful at this work; in fact, the shiftless one was a wonderfully handy man at any sort of task, and with only his hunting knife, a wooden needle of his own manufacture, and deer sinews, he actually made Paul a fur-lined hunting shirt, which seemed to the boy's imaginative fancy about the finest garment ever worn in the wilderness. All of them also put fur flaps on their raccoon-skin caps, and Shif'less Sol even managed to fashion an imitation of gloves out of deerskin.

"I wouldn't advise you to try to use your hands much with these gloves on," he said; "leastways, not to shoot at anything till you took 'em off; but I do say that so long ez your hands are idle, they'll be pow'ful warmin' to the fingers."

"We don't have to go out very much just now," said Paul, "and if we only had two or three books here, we could pass the time very pleasantly."

"That's so," said Shif'less Sol musingly. "You an' me, Paul, wuz intended to be eddicated men. Ez fur Jim Hart here, he's that dull he'd take more pride in cookin' in a stone furnace than in writin' the finest book in the world."

"When I cook I git's somethin' that I kin see," said Jim Hart. "I never read but one book in my life, an' I didn't find it very sustainin'. I guess if you wuz starvin' to death here in the wilderness, you'd ruther hev a hot hoe cake than all the books in the world."

"'Tain't worth while, Paul, to talk to Jim Hart," said Shif'less Sol sadly. "He ain't got no soul above a hoe cake. I've allus told you, Paul, that you an' me wuz superior to our surroundings. Ef Jim Hart wuz locked up in a schoolhouse all his life he'd never be an eddicated man, while ez fur me, I'm one without ever gittin' a chance, jest because it's in my natur'."

Paul laughed at them both, and drew a little closer to the bed of red coals. The warmth within and the cold without appealed to all the elements of his vivid and imaginative nature. Not for worlds would he have missed being on this great adventure with these daring men.

"I'm a-thinkin'," said Ross, as he lifted the buffalo robe over their door and looked out, "that ez soon ez the wind dies the lake will freeze over."

"An' it will be harder than ever then," said Paul, "to catch fish."

"I guess we kin do about ez well through holes in the ice," said Ross.

Ross's prediction soon came true. When they awoke on the morning two days afterwards the lake curved about them in a white and glittering sheet, reflecting back a brilliant sun in a million dazzling rays.

"I'm glad all of our party are here on the island together," said Henry, "because the ice isn't thick enough to support a man's weight, and it isn't thin enough to let a canoe be pushed through it. We're clean cut off from the world for a little while."

"An' this is whar poor old Long Jim becomes the most vallyble uv us all," said Jim Hart. "It's a lucky thing that I've got a kind uv stove an' buffalo meat an' venison an' other kinds uv game. I'm jest willin' to bet that you four hulkin' fellers will want to lay aroun' an' eat all the time."

"I wouldn't be surprised, Jim, if we didn't get hungry once in a while," said Henry, with a smile.

Two more days passed, and the ice on the lake neither melted nor grew thicker, and they were as well shut in and others were as well shut out as if they had been on a lone island in the Pacific Ocean. Once they saw a thin column of smoke, only a faint blue spire very far away, which Henry said rose from an Indian camp fire.

"It's several miles from here," he said, "and it's just chance that they are there. They don't dream that we are here."

Nevertheless, they did not light the fire in their furnace again for two days. Then, when the skies grew too dark and somber for a faint smoke to show against its background, they kindled it up again, and once more enjoyed warm food.

"Ef I jest had a little coffee, an' somethin' to b'il it in, I'd be pow'ful happy," said Jim Hart. "I'd jest enjoy b'ilin' a gallon or two apiece fur you fellers an' me."

"Wa'al, ez you ain't got any coffee an' you ain't got anythin' to b'il it in, I reckon we'll hev to be jest ez happy without it," said Shif'less Sol.

The night after this conversation Paul was awakened by a patter upon their skin and thatch roof. It must have been two or three o'clock in the morning, and he had been sleeping very comfortably. He lay on furs, and the soft side of a buffalo robe was wrapped close about him. He could not remember any time in his life when he felt snugger, and he wanted to go back to sleep, but that patter upon the roof was insistent. He raised himself up a little, and he heard along with the patter the breathing of his four comrades. But it was pitch dark in the hut, and, rolling over to the doorway, he pulled aside a few inches the stout buffalo hide that covered it. Something hard and white struck him in the face and stung like shot.

It was hailing, pouring hard and driven fiercely by the wind. Moreover, it was bitterly cold, and Paul quickly shut down the buffalo flap, fastening it tightly. "We're snowed in and hailed in, too," he murmured to himself. Then he drew his buffalo robe around his body more closely than ever, and went back to sleep. The next morning it rained on top of the hail for about an hour, but after that it quickly froze again, the air turning intensely cold. Then Paul beheld the whole world sheathed in glittering ice. The sight was so dazzling that his eyes were almost blinded, but it was wonderfully beautiful, too. The frozen surface of the lake threw back the light in myriads of golden sheaves, and every tree, down to the last twig, gleamed in a silvery polished sheath.

"It 'pears to me," said Shif'less Sol lazily, "that we ain't on an islan' no longer. The Superior Powers hev built a drawbridge, on which anything can pass."

"That's so," said Paul. "The ice must be thick enough now to bear a war party."

"Ef that war party didn't slip up an' break its neck," said Shif less Sol. "All that meltin' stuff froze hard, an' it's like glass now. Jest you try it, Paul."

Paul went out in the hollow, and at his very first step his feet flew from under him and he landed on his back. Everywhere it was the same way--ice like glass, that no one could tread on and yet feel secure.

"We have our drawbridge," said Paul, "but it doesn't seem to me to be very safe walking on it."

Nevertheless, Henry and Ross slipped away two nights later, and were gone all the next day and another night. When they returned they reported that the Miami village was pretty well snowed up, and that the hunters even were not out. Braxton Wyatt was still there, and they believed he would soon be up to some sort of mischief--it was impossible for him to remain quiet and behave himself very long.

"Meanwhile what are we to do?" asked Paul.

"Just stay quiet," said Henry. "We'll wait for Braxton and his savages to act first."

But the ice did not remain long, all melting away as the fickle northwestern weather turned comparatively warm again, and the five once more began to move about freely.

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