The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XV. Work and Play

Henry and Ross were gone to the mainland, and Paul, Shif'less Sol, and Jim Hart were left on the island. Shif'less Sol stood at the edge of the hollow, hands on hips, admiring the hut.

"Paul," he said, "I think that thar house is jest about the finest I ever built."

"You built!" exclaimed Jim Hart indignantly. "Mighty little you had to do with it, Sol Hyde, but eat in it an' sleep in it, which two things you are willin' enough to do any time! It's me an' Paul who have reared that gran' structure."

"It appeals to my instincts as an eddicated man," went on Sol, calmly disregarding Jim. "We've got up the house without sp'ilin' the surroundin's. It jest blends with rock an' bush, an' we've helped natur' without tryin' to improve it."

"I believe you've got the truth of it, Sol," said Paul. "I'm getting fond of this place. How long do you think we'll stay here, Sol?"

Shif'less Sol cocked up his weather eye, and a look of surpassing wisdom came over his face.

"When the ground hog come out o' his hole in the fall an' saw his shadder, he went right back ag'in," he replied, "an' that means a hard winter. Besides, we're pretty far north, an' all the hunters say they have lot o' snow hereabouts. We're goin' to have cold an' snow right along. That's the opinion o' me, Solomon Hyde. Jim Hart may say somethin' else, but he ain't worth listenin' to."

"I said this mornin' that it wuz goin' to be a hard winter," growled Jim Hart. "You heard me sayin' so, an' that's the reason you're sayin' so now."

"Oh, Jim, Jim! Whatever will become o' you?" exclaimed Shif'less Sol sadly. "An' I've always tried to teach you that the truth wuz the right thing."

Paul laughed.

"Sol," he asked, "did you ever see a game of chess?"

"Chess? What's that? Is it a mark you shoot at?"

"No; you play it on a board with little figures made of wood, if you haven't got anything else. My father has a set of chessmen, and he plays often with Mr. Pennypacker, our school teacher. He's played with me, too, and I can show you how to make the things and to play."

A look of interest came into Sol's eyes.

"We've got lots o' time," he said. "S'pose you do it, Paul. I know I kin learn. I ain't so sure o' Jim Hart thar."

Jim was also interested, so much so that he forgot to reply to Shif'less Sol.

"How'll you do it?" he asked.

Paul's reply was to begin at once. He cut a big square piece of white fanned deerskin, and upon this he marked the little squares with coal-black. Then the three of them went to work with their sharp hunting knives, carving out the wooden figures. The results were crude, but they had enough shape for identification, and then Paul began to teach the game itself.

Sol and Jim were really men of strong intellect, and they had plenty of patience. Paul was surprised at their progress. They were soon thinking for themselves, and when Paul himself did not want to play, the two would fight it out over the deerskin.

"It's a slow game, but good," said Shif'less Sol. "It 'pears to me that a man to be at the head o' 'em all in this would hev to do nothin' else all his life."

"That is so," said Paul.

"Jim, thar ain't no earthly chance for you," said Shif'less Sol.

"I guess I've got you this time, anyhow," said Jim, with a deep chuckle of satisfaction. "Jest look at that thar board, Sol Hyde. Ef you ain't druv into a corner so you can't move this way nor that, then you can hev the huntin' shirt right off my back."

Shif'less Sol examined the deerskin square attentively.

"Blamed ef it ain't so," he said in a tone of deep disgust. "It wuz an accident, nuthin' but an accident, or else I've been talkin' too much."

"That's what you're always doin', Sol Hyde--talkin' too much."

"Then we'll jest try it over ag'in, an' I'll show you what it is to play ag'inst a real smart man."

They were deep in a fresh game a few moments later, and Paul went outside. He was glad to see them so interested, because he knew that otherwise the curse of dullness might fall upon them.

The air was raw and chill, and, although the snow and ice were gone, the lake and the hills beyond looked singularly cold. But Paul was neither uncomfortable nor unhappy. He was clothed warmly, and he had food in abundance and variety. Trusty comrades, too, surrounded him. Life at present seemed very pleasant.

He strolled up the island toward the trees that contained the Indian bodies, and after a while returned toward the home in the hollow. A warm, mellow light gleamed from its rude window, and Paul's heart throbbed with something of the feeling that one has only toward "home."

He opened the door and entered, just in time to hear Shif'less Sol's cry of triumph:

"Thar, Jim Hart, ef that don't settle you, I'd like to know what will! Now, who's doin' too much talkin'?"

"I can't see jest how it happened," said Jim Hart ruefully.

"No, an' you never will. Them things are too deep fur you. It's only eddicated men, like me an' Paul, that kin see to the bottom o' 'em."

"You're even, as it's game and game," said Paul, "so let's rest now. Henry and Tom ought to be coming pretty soon."

"An' they'll be ez hungry ez a hull pack uv wolves," said Jim Hart, "so I guess I'd better be cookin'. Here, Sol, give me them strips uv deer meat an' buffalo."

"I shorely will," said Shif'less Sol. "Thar is one thing, ef it is only one, that you kin do well, Jim Hart, an' it's cook."

The two, in the most friendly fashion, went about preparing the supper. They had many kinds of game to choose from, and once Ross had brought a bag of ground corn, perhaps taken by stealth from an Indian village, and now and then Jim made from it a kind of bread. He was to bake some to-night, in honor of the returning two, and soon the place was filled with pleasant odors.

Twilight was deepening, the supper was almost ready, and Paul went forth to see if Henry and Tom were yet in sight. Presently he saw them coming--two black figures against the setting sun, with the body of a deer that they had killed and dressed. He hastened to meet them and give them a helping hand, and together they approached the house.

First they swung the body of the deer from a bough, and then they opened the door. Deep silence reigned within. No friendly voice greeted them. The heads of Jim Hart and Shif'less Sol almost touched over a square of deerskin, at which both were looking intently. With the supper ready, and nothing else to do, they had got out the chessmen, and were playing the rubber. So absorbed were they that they neither heard nor saw.

"Now what under the sun is this?" exclaimed Tom Ross.

"It's a game I taught 'em while you and Henry were gone," explained Paul. "It's called chess."

Shif'less Sol and Jim sprang up, but Sol quickly recovered his presence of mind.

"I jest about had him cornered, an' your comin' saved him," he said.

"Cornered!" said Jim Hart. "He ain't even seed the day when he kin beat me!"

The chessmen were put aside for the time, and five hungry beings ate as only borderers could eat. Then Tom Ross demanded a look at the game. After the look he asked for instruction.

"I saw a set uv them fellers once when I wuz at Fort Pitt," he said, "but I never thought the time would come when I'd play with 'em. Push up the fire thar a little, will you, Jim, so I kin see better."

Paul and Henry looked at each other and smiled. Soon Tom himself, the senior of the party, was absorbed in the new game, and it was a happy thought of Paul's to introduce it, even with the rude figures which were the best that they could make.

Paul brought up again the next morning the subject of their weather prospects, and Tom and Henry agreed with the others in predicting a great deal of snow and cold.

"All signs show it," said Henry. "The rabbits are burrowing deeper than usual under the bushes, and I notice that the birds have built their nests uncommonly thick. I don't understand how they know what's coming, but they do."

"Instinct," said Paul.

"We know that a hound kin follow by smell the track of a man who has passed hours before," said Shif'less Sol, "when no man in the world kin smell anything at all o' that track. So it ain't any more strange that birds an' beasts kin feel in their bones what's comin' when we can't."

"Ef you'll imitate them squirrels an' rabbits an' birds an' things," said Jim Hart, "an' lay up lots uv things good to eat fur the winter, it'll give me pleasure to cook it ez it's needed."

"I've noticed something besides the forethought of the animals," added Henry. "The moss on the north side of the trees seems to me to be thicker than usual. I suppose that nature, too, is getting ready for a long, hard winter."

"When nature and the animals concur," said Paul, "it is not left to man to doubt; so we'd better be providing the things Jim promises to cook so well."

They had learned the border habit of acting promptly, and Henry Ross and Sol were to depart the very next morning for the mainland on a hunt for deer, while Long Jim was to keep house. Paul otherwise would have been anxious to go with the hunters, but he had an idea of his own, and when Henry suggested that he accompany them, he replied that he expected to make a contribution of a different kind.

All these plans were made in the evening, and then every member of the five, wrapping himself in his buffalo robe, fell asleep. The fire in Jim Hart's furnace had been permitted to die down to a bed of coals, and the glow from them barely disclosed the five figures lying, dark and silent, on the floor. They slept, clean in conscience and without fear.

Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Ross were off at dawn, and Paul, using a rude wooden needle that he had shaped with his own pocketknife, and the tendon of a deer as thread, made a large bag of buckskin. Then he threw it triumphantly over his shoulder.

"Now what under the sun, Paul, are you goin' to do with that?" asked Jim Hart.

"I'm going to add variety to our winter store. Just you wait, Jim Hart, and see."

Bearing the bag, he left the house and took his way to the north end of the island. He had not been above learning more than one thing from the squirrels, and he had recalled a grove of great hickory trees growing almost to the water's edge. Now the ground was thickly covered with the nuts which had fallen when the severe frosts and the snow and ice came. There were several varieties, including large ones two inches long, and the fine little ones known to boys throughout the Mississippi Valley as the scaly bark. Paul procured two stones, and, cracking several of them, found them delicious to the taste. Already in his Kentucky home he had become familiar with them all. The hogs of the settlers, running through the forest and fattening upon these nuts and acorns, known collectively as "mast," acquired a delicious flavor. Boys and grown people loved the nuts, too.

The nuts lay about in great quantities, and the thick, barky coverings, known to the boys as "hulls," almost fell off at a touch. Soon the ground was littered with these hulls, while the big buckskin bag was filled with the clean nuts. Then, lifting it to his shoulder, Paul marched off proudly to the house.

"Now, why didn't I think uv that?" said Jim Hart, as Paul threw down the bag before him and disclosed its contents. "An' all them hick'ry nuts jest layin' thar on the ground an' waitin' fur me."

"It's because you had so much else to do, Jim," said Paul; "and as I'm idle a good deal of the time, the thought occurred to me."

"You shorely do have the gift uv sayin' nice things, an' makin' a feller feel good, Paul," said Jim admiringly.

Paul laughed. Jim's words pleased him.

"I told nothing but the truth," he said. "Now, Jim, I'm going back for more, and I'd like to do this job all by myself. I think I can gather at least six bagfuls, and we'll heap them here by the wall."

"An' mighty good seas'nin' they'll be to deer an' buffalo an' b'ar meat," said Jim Hart. "It wuz a good thought uv yours, Paul."

Paul worked the whole morning, and when he had gathered all the nuts in the house he estimated the quantity at several bushels. Although he sought to conceal his pride, he cast more than one triumphant look at the great heap by the wall.

He and Jim went forth together in the afternoon with rude spades, made of wood and hardened at the edges in the fire, to dig for Indian turnip.

"It ain't much of a veg'table," said Jim, "but we might find it useful to give a new taste to our meat, or it might be uv some help doctorin', in case any uv us fell sick."

They found two or three of the roots, and the remainder of the afternoon they devoted to strengthening their house. They did this with huge slabs of bark lying everywhere on the ground, fallen in former seasons. Some they put on the roof, thatching in between with dry grass and leaves, and others they fastened on the sides.

"It ain't purty," said Jim, "but it turns rain an' snow, an' that's what we're after."

"I take another view," said Paul. "It does look well. It blends with the wilderness, and so it has a beauty of its own."

The three hunters were not to return that night, and Paul and Jim kept house. Jim slept lightly, and just before the dawn he rolled over in his buffalo robe and pushed Paul's shoulder.

Paul awoke instantly, and sat up.

"What is it, Jim?" he asked anxiously. It was his natural thought that some danger threatened, and it was so dark in the cabin that he could not see Jim's face.

"Do you hear that hoo-hooing sound?" asked Jim Hart.

Paul listened and heard faintly a low, mellow note.

"What is it, Jim?" he asked.

"The call of the wild turkey."

"What, Indians again?"

"No, it's the real bird, talkin'. An old gobbler is tellin' his hens that day is comin'. It's a plumb waste on his part, because they know it theirselves, but he must jest let 'em know what a smart bird he is. An' it's that pride uv his that will be his ruin. Git up, Paul; we must have him an' one uv his hens to eat."

"Where do you think they are?" asked Paul.

"In the hick'ry grove. I guess they lighted thar fur the night, when flyin' 'cross the lake."

The two hurried on their clothes, took their rifles, and stole out. A faint tinge of light was just showing under the horizon in the east, but the air was not yet gray. It was very cold at that early hour, and Paul shivered, but he soon forgot it in the ardor of the chase.

"Slip along softer nor a cat, Paul," said Jim. "We don't want to give old Mr. Gobbler any warnin' that his time hez come. Thar, hear him? The tarnal fool! He's jest bound to show us where he is."

The mellow call arose again, very clear and distinct in the silent air, and as they approached the edge of the hickory grove, Jim pointed upward.

"See him thar on the limb," he said, "the big feller with the feathers all shinin' an' glistenin'? That's the gobbler, an' the littler ones with the gray feathers are the hens. I'm goin' to take the gobbler. He may be old, but he's so fat he's bound to be tender; an' s'pose, Paul, you take that hen next to him. When I say 'Now,' fire."

The two raised their guns, took careful aim, and Jim said "Now." They fired together, aiming at the necks or heads. The big gobbler fell like a stone from the bough and lay still. The hen fell, too, but she fluttered about on the ground. The rest flew away on whirring wings. Paul ran forward and finished his bird with a stick, but Jim lifted the great gobbler and looked at him with admiring eyes.

"Did you ever see a finer turkey?" he said. "He must weigh all uv forty pounds, an' he's as fat as he can be with the good food uv the wilderness. An' he's a beauty, too! Jest look at them glossy blue-black feathers. No wonder so many hens wuz in love with him. I could be pop'lar with the women folks, too, ef I wuz ez handsome ez Mr. Gobbler here."

They picked and cleaned the turkeys, and then hung the dressed bodies from the boughs of a tree near the hut, where they would be frozen, and thus keep.

The hunters returned that afternoon with two deer, and were delighted with Jim and Paul's zeal and success.

"Ef things go on this swimmin' way," said Shif'less Sol, "we'd be able to feed an army this winter, ef it wuz needed."

It was very cold that evening, and they built the fire higher than usual. Great mellow rays of heat fell over all the five, and lighted up the whole interior of the cabin with its rich store of skins and nuts and dressed meats, and other spoil of the wilderness. The five, though no one of them ever for a moment forgot their great mission of saving Kentucky, had a feeling of content. Affairs were going well.

"Paul," said Shif'less Sol, "you've read books. Tell us about some o' them old fellers that lived a long time ago. I like to hear about the big ones."

"Well," said Paul, "there was Alexander. Did you ever hear of him, Sol?"

Shif'less Sol shook his head and sighed.

"I can't truly call myself an eddicated man," he replied, "though I have the instincks o' one. But I ain't had the proper chance. No, Paul, me an' Alexander is strangers."

"Then I'll make you acquainted," said Paul. He settled himself more comfortably before the fire, and the others did likewise.

"Alexander lived a long, long time ago," said Paul. "He was a Greek--that is, he was a Macedonian with Greek blood in him--I suppose it comes to the same thing--and he led the Greeks and Macedonians over into Asia, and whipped the Persians every time, though the Persians were always twenty to one."

"Who writ the accounts o' them thar battles?" asked Shif'less Sol.

"Why, the Greeks, of course."

"I thought so. Why, Jim Hart here must be a Greek, then. To hear him tell it, he's always whippin' twenty men at a time. But it ain't in natur' for one man to whip twenty."

"I never said once in my life that I whipped twenty men at a time," protested Jim Hart.

"We'll let it pass," said Paul, "and Sol may be right about the Greeks piling it up for themselves; but so they wrote it, and so we have to take it. Well, Alexander, although he wasn't much more than a boy, kept on whipping the Persians until at last their king, Darius, ran away with his wives."

Shif'less Sol whistled.

"Do you mean to tell me, Paul," he said, "that any white man ever had more than one wife! I thought only Injun chiefs had 'em?"

"Why, it was common a long time ago," replied Paul.

"What a waste!" said Shif'less Sol. "One man havin' a lot uv wives, an' Jim Hart here ain't ever been able to get a single one."

"An' you ain't, either, Sol Hyde," said Jim Hart.

"Oh, me!" replied Shif'less Sol carelessly. "I'm too young to marry."

"Let him go on about Alexander, the fightin' feller," interrupted Tom Ross.

"Alexander conquered all Asia," resumed Paul, "but it didn't agree with him. The more he conquered the more he wanted to conquer."

"Jest like a little boy eatin' turkey," said Shif'less Sol. "Can't hold enough to suit him. Stummick ain't ez big ez his appetite, an' he hez to cry about it. I don't think your Alexander wuz such a big man, after all."

"He was not, from one point of view, Sol, but he was certainly a general. After conquering all the world, he fell to drinking too much, and quarreling with his best friends. One day he got raging drunk, which made him hot all over, and he jumped into an icy river to cool off. That gave him a fever, and he died right away. He was only thirty-two."

Shif'less Sol sniffed in disgust.

"Dead at thirty-two!" he said. "Now, I call him a plumb failure. With fightin' goin' on all the time, an' fevers layin' aroun' fur you, I call it somethin' jest to live, an' I mean to stay in these parts till I'm a hundred. Why, that Alexander never had time, Paul, to think over what he'd done. I wouldn't change places with him, I think I'm a heap sight better off."

"I agrees with Sol ag'in," said Tom Ross, who had been in deep thought. "In dang'rous times it's doin' a heap jest to live, an' a man who dies off at thirty-two, all through his own foolishness, ain't much to brag about."

Henry laughed.

"Paul," he said, "you'll have to bring out better examples of greatness to satisfy Sol and Tom."

Paul laughed, too.

"I just tell things as they are," he said. "Maybe they are right."

Henry went to the door and looked out. The air was full of raw chill, and he heard the leafless boughs rustling in the winter wind. All around him was the dark wilderness, and, natural hunter and warrior though he was, he was glad to have the shelter, the fire, and his comrades. He turned back and closed the door tightly, in order to shut out any stray gust that might be of an unusually penetrating quality.

"I'm thinking that we'd better start away hunting again very early in the morning," he said. "The big snows are bound to come soon. That first little one was only a taste of what we're going to get."

They were off again at daybreak, and this time Paul went with them. The party turned to the southward, in order to avoid the chance of meeting Shawnees or Miamis, and soon had the luck to run into a small buffalo herd. They killed only what they could carry, and then returned with it toward the island. Henry continually watched the skies as they traveled, and he uttered an exclamation of relief when they landed. The heavens all the while had been leaden and somber, and there was no wind stirring.

"See," he said, "the great snow comes!"

The sullen skies opened, and big white flakes dropped down as they hurried with their fresh supplies to the cabin.

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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.