The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XVI. Noel

The snow fell three days and nights without ceasing, and they rejoiced greatly over their foresight in preparing so well for it, because it was a big snow, a very big snow. "It ain't jest snowin'," said Shif'less Sol; "the bottom o' the sky hez dropped out, an' all the snow's tumblin' down."

The great flakes never ceased for a moment to fall. The sun did not get a single chance to shine, and as fast as one cloud was emptied, another, huge and black, was drawn in its place across the sky. The island ceased to be an island, because the snow heaped up on the frozen surface of the lake, and it was impossible to tell where land ended and water began. The boughs of the trees bent and cracked beneath their load, and some fell to the ground. At times the sound of snapping boughs was like stray rifle shots.

Paul watched the snow deepen before their door. First an inch, then two, then four, then six, and on and on. The roof began to strain and creak ominously beneath the great weight. All rushed forth at once into the storm, and with poles and their rude shovels they thrust the great mass of accumulated snow from the roof. This task they repeated at intervals throughout the three days, but they had little else to do, except cook, eat, and sleep. They had recourse again to the chessmen and Paul's stories, and they reverted often to their friends and relatives at Wareville.

"At any rate," said Henry, "Kentucky is safe so long as this great snow lasts. What holds us holds the Shawnees and the Miamis, too; they can't go south through it."

"That's so," said Paul, with intense satisfaction, as he ran over all the chances of success or failure in their great task.

At the end of the third day the snow ceased. It lay three feet deep on the level, and deeper in the hollows and gullies. Then all the clouds floated away, the sun came out, and the whole world was a dazzling globe of white, so intense that it hurt Paul's eyes.

"We've got to guard against snow-blindness," said Shif'less Sol, "an' I'm thinkin' o' a plan that'll keep us from sufferin'."

He procured small pieces of wood, and fitted them together so there would be only a narrow slit between. These were placed over the eyes like spectacles, and fastened with deerskin string, tied behind the head. The range of vision was then very narrow, but all the glare from the snow was shut out. Shif'less Sol unconsciously had imitated a device employed by the Esquimaux of the far north to protect their eyesight. Sets were made for all, and they used them a few days until their eyes grew accustomed to the glare.

All had a great sense of coziness and warmth. The snow pushed from the roof had gone to reinforce that on the ground, and it now lay heaped up beside the house to a depth of five or six feet, adding to the snugness and security of their walls. They had gathered an ample supply of firewood, and a deep bed of coals always threw out a mellow and satisfying glow.

They did not spend their time in idleness. The narrow confines of their house would soon grow irksome to five able-bodied boys and men, and every one of them knew it. They went forth with rude wooden shovels, and began to clear paths in the snow--one to a point among the trees where the fallen brushwood lay thickest, another to the edge of the lake, where they broke holes in the ice and caught pickerel, and two or three more to various points around their little domain. This task gave them healthy occupation for two or three days, and on the fourth day, while Henry, Ross, and Jim Hart were fishing, Paul and Shif'less Sol sat together in the house.

"This snow is goin' to last a long time, Paul," said Sol, "an' we've got to stay here till at least most o' it's gone. The warriors won't be movin', nor will we. While we're idlin', I wish we had three or four o' them books that your father an' Mr. Pennypacker brought over the mountains with 'em."

"So do I," said Paul, with a sigh. He was thinking of an interminable romance, translated from the French of a certain Mademoiselle de Scudery, which his teacher, Mr. Pennypacker, had among his possessions, and which he had once secretly shown to Paul, who was his favorite pupil. But he added, resignedly: "You'd never find a book in all this region up here, Sol. We'd better make up our minds to some monotonous days."

Shif'less Sol had been leaning lazily against a heap of firewood, and suddenly he sat up with a look of interest in his eyes. His acute ear had detected a sound on the hill above them--a faint crunching in the snow.

"It's one o' the boys, I s'pose," he said. "Now, I wonder what he wants to be tramping around in the deep snow up thar fur."

"Yes, I hear him," said Paul, "and he's lumbering about queerly."

"He's comin' down toward the house," said Shif'less Sol. "Now, what in thunder is that?"

There was the sound of an angry "snuff!" a sudden, wild threshing in the snow, and the next instant a tremendous weight struck the roof of their house. A rending of bark and thatch followed, and a massive black form shot down into the center of the room and lay there a moment, stunned. Paul, too, was dizzy. He had been struck a glancing blow on the shoulder by the big black body in its fall, and hurled into a heap of furs. Shif'less Sol had been sent spinning in another direction.

When both rose to their feet the big black body also rose, growling savagely and extending long, powerful paws, armed with cruel claws. A bear, prowling in the snow, had fallen through the roof of their house, and it was furiously angry.

"Jump back, Paul, jump back!" shouted Shif'less Sol, "an' get to the door, ef you kin!"

Paul obeyed a part of his command instinctively and sprang away, just in time to escape the cruel claws. But he was compelled to press against the wall. The enraged animal was between him and the door. Shif'less Sol himself was darting here and there in an effort to keep out of the way. Both Paul's rifle and Shif'less Sol's stood in a corner far from reach.

The bear, blind with rage, fright, and astonishment, whirled around ripping into the air with his long claws. The man and the boy not able to reach the door, hopped about like jumping jacks, and the cold air poured down upon them from the huge hole in their damaged roof. The bear suddenly ran into Jim Hart's furnace and uttered a roar of pain. He stopped for a moment to lick his singed flank, and Shif'less Sol, seizing the opportunity, leaped for his rifle. He grasped it, and the next instant the cabin roared with the rifle shot. The great bear uttered a whining cry, plucked once or twice at his breast, and then stretched himself out in front of Jim Hart's furnace, quite dead. Paul stopped dancing to and fro, and uttered a gasp of relief.

"You got that rifle just in time, Sol," he said.

"We shorely did need a gun," Shif'less Sol said. "I guess nobody ever had a more sudden or unwelcome visitor than you an' me did, Paul. But I believe that thar b'ar wuz ez bad skeered ez we wuz."

"And just look at our house," said Paul ruefully. "Half the roof smashed in, our furs and our food supplies thrown in every direction, and a big bear stretched out in front of our fire."

They heard the patter of swift footsteps outside, and the three fishing at the lake, who had heard the shot, came in, running.

"It's nothin', boys," said Shif'less Sol carelessly. "A gentleman livin' in these parts, but a stranger to us, came into our house uninvited. He wouldn't go away when we axed him to, most earnest, so we've jest put him to sleep."

Ross pushed the bear with his foot.

"He's fat yet," he said, "an' he ought to be in winter quarters right now. Somethin' must have driv him out uv his hole an' have sent him wanderin' across the lake on the ice an' snow. That's what anybody gits fur not stayin' whar he belongs."

"An' ef Jim Hart had stayed whar he belongs--that is, right here in this house, cookin'--he'd have got that b'ar on his back, an' not me," said Shif'less Sol, rubbing the bruised place.

"That's once I wuz luckier than you wuz, Sol Hyde," said Jim Hart, chuckling.

"We've got a lot of fresh bear steak," said Henry Ware, "but we'll have to clean up all this mess, and rebuild our house, just as soon as we can."

They set to work at once. All, through forest life, had become skillful in such tasks, and it did not take them long to rethatch the roof. But they made it stronger than ever with cross-poles. Ingenious Sol cut up the bear hide, and made of it stout leggings for them all, which would serve in the place of boots for wading in the deep snow.

Then the camp returned to its wonted calm. But a few days later, Shif'less Sol, who had been unusually grave, called Paul aside and asked him to walk with him up the path to the hickory trees. When they arrived there, far out of hearing of the others, Shif'less Sol said:

"Do you know what day this is, Paul?"

"Why, no, Sol," replied Paul. "What does it matter?"

"It matters a heap," said Shif'less Sol, not departing one whit from his grave manner. "I know what day it is. I've kept count. See here!"

He pointed to a hickory tree. Clear and smooth was gash after gash, cut in the bark, one above another, by Sol with his stout knife.

"Every one o' them is a day," said Shif'less Sol, "an' to-day is the 24th of December. Now, what is to-morrow, Paul Cotter?"

"The 25th of December--Christmas Day."

"An' oughtn't we to hev Christmas, too, even ef we are up here in the wild woods, all by ourselves? Don't this look like Christmas?"

Paul looked around at the glittering and magnificent expanse of white wilderness. There was snow, snow everywhere. The trees were robed in it, unstained. It was a world of peace and beauty, and it did look like Christmas. They were preparing for it at Wareville at this very moment--the settlers were a religious people, and from the first they celebrated the great religious festival.

"Yes, Sol," he replied, "it does look like Christmas, and we ought to celebrate it, too."

"I'm glad you think ez I do," said Sol, in a tone of relief. "I wanted to hear what you thought o' it, Paul, afore I broached it to the other boys. We've got a lot to be glad about. We're all here, sound an' well, an' though we've been through a power o' dangers, we ain't sufferin' now."

"That's so," said Paul.

"Then we'll tell the boys right now."

They walked back to the cabin, and Shif'less Sol announced the date to the others, who agreed at once that Christmas should be celebrated by them there on their little island in the wilderness. All were touched in a way by the solemnity of the event, and they began to feel how strong was the tie that united them.

"We must have a big Christmas dinner," said Jim Hart, "an' I'll cook it."

"An' I'll help you," said Shif'less Sol.

"And I," added Paul.

That evening they sat around the fire, talking in the mellow glow; but their talk was not of the Indians, nor of the chase, nor of themselves, but of those behind at Wareville. Paul shut his eyes and looked dreamily into the fire. He could see the people at the settlement getting ready for the great festival, preparing little gifts, and the children crawling reluctantly into their homemade trundle, or box beds. He felt at that moment a deep kindness toward all things.

They covered up the ashes after a while, and then, in the darkness, every one in his turn laid out some little gift for the others--a clasp knife, a powderhorn, a prized deerskin, or something else that counted among his possessions. But no one was to look until the morning, and soon all fell asleep.

They were up the next day at the first sight of dawn, and compared their gifts with great rejoicings. Shif'less Sol had presented to Jim Hart a splendid clasp knife, a valuable possession in the wilderness, as a token of his great friendship and exceeding high regard, and Jim was like a child in his delight. In fact, there was something of the child, or rather of the child's simplicity, in all of them.

The Christmas dinner was a signal triumph in Jim Hart's life. Capably assisted by Paul and Shif'less Sol, he labored on it most of the day, and at last they sat down to a magnificent wilderness table of buffalo hump, venison, squirrel, rabbit, fish, wild turkey, and other kinds of game, flanked by bread baked of the Indian meal, and finished off with the nuts Paul had gathered. Forest and lake had yielded bounteously, and they ate long and happily.

"Why anybody wants to live back thar in the East in the towns is more'n I can understand," said Shif'less Sol. "You've got room to breathe here, an' the fat game is runnin' roun' in the woods, jest beggin' you to stick a knife in its back an' eat it."

Paul laughed.

"How about the danger from the Indians, Sol?" asked Paul.

"You don't expect to have a perfect world here below, do you, Paul?" replied Shif'less Sol. "Thar ain't never nothin' without a thorn in it, but our thorn is about ez little a one ez you could think of. The Injuns give us a kind o' excitin' variety, an' don't we always get away from 'em?"

No more work was done that day, and in the evening they went to sleep earlier than usual, and slept very soundly. A moon of pure silver came out, and bathed all the vast wilderness in its light. A huge, yellow panther, lean and fierce with hunger, wandered in the snow across the frozen lake, and put foot upon the island. There the pleasant odor of food came to his nostrils, and he lifted up his ears. As the pleasant odor came again his tawny eyes became more ferocious, and the lips curled back from the rows of cruel, white teeth. He drew his long, lithe body over the snow, and came to one of the paths. He might have turned back because the path was strong with the odor of a strange and perhaps powerful creature; but he was a very hungry, a very large, and a very bold panther, and he went on.

The path led straight to the cabin, and the panther trod it on noiseless pads, his eyes glowing, and hunger attacking him all the more fiercely because, mingled with the strange, new odor now came many odors that he knew, and all pleasant--odor of buffalo and deer and others--and he was very, very hungry.

He went down the path to the door of the cabin, and halted a moment there. A red gleam, a glow from the bed of coals, came through a chink beside the door, and it filled his heart with terror. He shivered, and fear drew a low growl from him.

One of the five sleepers inside stirred and sat up. He listened and heard a heavy breathing at the door. Then he arose, took a brand from the fire, stepped noiselessly to the door, and, opening it, rushed out, waving the burning brand in front of him. The panther, stricken with frightful panic, fled down the path, and then over the lake into the woods on the mainland. Henry Ware, laughing silently, returned to the cabin and lay down to sleep again beside his comrades, who had slept on, undisturbed.

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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.