The Forest Runners

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XVII. Footprints in the Snow

The singular existence of the five in the little hollow in the haunted island endured much longer. The great cold had come early, and it held the earth fast in its grasp. The ice grew thicker on the lake beneath the snow, and winds that would freeze one to the marrow swept over its surface. Fortunately, there was plenty of fallen wood on the island, and they never allowed the fire in Hart's furnace to go out. They never built it up high, but a bed of coals was always smoldering there, sending out grateful light and heat.

Henry and Ross scouted at intervals, but only as a matter of habit rather than necessary precaution. They knew that the danger of an attack at such a time had decreased to the vanishing point. Now Paul became for a while the central figure of what he called their little colony. His mental resources were in great demand, and for the sake of his comrades he drew willingly upon his stores of learning. In the evening, when they were all sitting before the coals, and could just see one another's faces in the faint light, Paul would tell what he had read about other times and other lands. He knew the outlines of ancient history, and the victories of Hannibal, Alexander, and Caesar suffered nothing at his hands, though Alexander, as before, was condemned by Shif'less Sol and Ross. Paul, moreover, had both the dramatic and poetic sense, and he made these far-away heroes, of whom Jim Hart had never heard before, actually live in the little cabin.

"It 'pears to me," said Shif'less Sol reflectively, "that that feller Hannibal wuz jest about the finest fighter o' them all. Ef, ez you say, Paul, he had to hire all kinds o' strangers an' barbarians, too, like the red Injuns out thar in the woods, an' lead sech a mixed lot up ag'in the Romans, who were no slouches in a fracas, an' whip 'em over an' over ag'in, on thar own groun', too, then I call him about the smartest o' all them old fellers. But he shore had the luck ag'in' him, an' I admire the man who kin stan' up an' fight the odds."

"He has my sympathy," said Paul.

"What did them old-time fellers eat?" asked Jim Hart.

"Mostly vegetables and grain," replied Paul.

"No wonder they're dead," said Jim Hart solemnly. "I can't fight an' I can't march good on anything but buffalo steak an' venison an' things uv that kind. I has to have meat."

Then Jim rose gravely, and looked at what he called his kitchen.

"'Nough to last three or four weeks," he said. "We'll shorely get fat an' lazy layin' roun' here an' doin' nothin' but eatin' an' sleepin' an' listenin' to Paul's tales."

"You ought to appreciate your chance, Jim Hart," said Shif'less Sol. "Ef me an' Paul wuz to work on you about a hundred years, maybe we might make you into a sort o' imitation o' a eddicated man. But I reckon we'd have to work all the time."

"You an eddicated man!" said Jim Hart indignantly. "Why, readin' a book is harder work to you than choppin' wood, an' they say you won't chop wood 'less two big, strong men stand by you an' make you."

"Never min'," said Shif'less Sol complacently; "I know I ain't had much chances to become eddicated, but I hev the natur' o' an eddicated man. My mind jest glows at the idea uv learnin', an' I respecks eddication with a deep an' lastin' respeck."

Then both stopped to hear Paul begin the story of Troy for the second time, but when he came to the death of Hector he would have to stop to let Shif'less Sol utter what he called a "few cuss words." Hector, like Hannibal, had the sympathy of everyone, and Sol spoke for them all when he said: "'Twa'n't fair o' that air goddess Minerver hoppin' in an' helpin' A-Killus when Hector might hev a-slew him in a fair battle. Women ain't got no business mixin' in a fight. Whenever they do they allus help the wrong feller. I've no doubt that ef me an' Jim Hart was a-hittin' an' a-wrastlin', an' hevin' the terriblest fight you ever heard on, ef any woman wuz to come along she'd pull me off the ornery, long-legged, knock-kneed, ugly Jim Hart--an' me a handsome man, too."

"I wonder all the ice on the lake don't melt when it sees your face, Sol Hyde," retorted Jim Hart scornfully.

"I don't think much uv them old Greeks an' Trojans," said Tom Ross, who seldom delivered himself at length. "'Pears to me they had pow'ful cur'us ways uv fightin'. Think uv a feller, when he feels like takin' a scalp, comin' out before the hull army an' beatin' a big brass shield till it rattled like a tin pan, an' then, when he got 'em all to lookin' an' listenin', hollerin' at the top uv his voice, 'I'm A-Killus, Defyer uv the Lightnin', Slayer uv the Trojans, the terriblest fighter the world ever seed! I pick up a ship in my right ban', an' throw it, with all the sailors in it, over a hill! When I look at the sun, it goes out, skeered to death! I've made more widders an' orphans than any other ten thousan' men that ever lived.' 'Pears to me them wuz the pow'fullest boasters that ever wuz born. Why, what they said wuz mostly lies. 'Twas bound to be so, an' their ways uv fightin' wuz plumb foolishness. Why, ef A-Killus wuz to come along nowadays, beatin' his brass shield in the face an' hollerin' out his big words, some Shawnee layin' behind a rock would send a bullet through his head, jest ez easy ez knockin' over a rabbit, an' thet would be the end uv Mr. A-Killus, an' a good thing fur all, too."

"But there were no Shawnees and no rifles on the plains of Troy, Tom," said Paul.

"What uv it?" exclaimed Ross in hot indignation. "They didn't fight fair, anyway. It's jest ez Sol sez--whut did all them women goddesses mean by interferin' an' allus sp'ilin' a good stan'-up fight? Now, ez Paul tells it, Ole Jupe, a-settin' up on his golden throne, wuz willin' to tote fair an' let the Greeks an' Trojans fight it out among theirselves, but the women critters, whut had more power than wuz good fur 'em, couldn't keep their hands off. Every one uv 'em hed a fav'rite either among the Greeks or the Trojans, an' she had to go snoopin' 'roun', makin' his enemy see double, or throwin' a cloud over him so he couldn't see at all, or pumpin' all the blood out uv his veins an' fillin' 'em full uv water in the place. Why, there ain't a Shawnee or Miami in all these woods thet would he mean enough to take sech an' advantage ez askin' to be helped out by a squaw thet knowed witchcraft. Ez fur thet Paris feller, he wouldn't a-lived a week down in Kain-tuck-ee!"

"But all this happened a long, long time ago, Tom, when ways were different," said Paul.

Henry always listened with attention to these stories, and the sight of Paul's flushed face and vivid eyes, as he talked, would please him. He understood Paul. He knew that his comrade's mind ranged over not only the wilderness in which they dwelt, but over the whole world, and far into past and future times. Hence he respected Paul with a deep respect.

Presently the cold abated a little--just enough to let the surface of the ice and snow soften a bit, and make walking easier. Then Henry and Ross crossed once more to the mainland, partly to scout and partly to hunt. They easily killed a large deer which was half-imbedded in a snowdrift, and might have taken a fine cow buffalo in the same way; but, as the deer was enough, they spared her. They dressed the body of the deer where it had fallen, and, carrying it between them, started back. With instinctive caution they kept to the thickest part of the forest, wishing to be hidden as much as possible by the tree trunks, and they plodded along in silence, carrying their burden easily, because the two were very, very strong. Near the edge of the lake, but still in dense forest, Henry paused and looked down. Tom Ross also paused and looked down, his glance following Henry's. It was never necessary for these two to say much to each other. They did not talk about things, they saw them.

"Tracks of two Indians and one white," said Henry.

"Yes," said Tom Ross. "White is Braxton Wyatt, uv course. He's still hangin' about the Miami village."

"And perhaps suspecting that we are yet in these parts."

"Uv course. An' maybe thar will be trouble."

They said no more, but each understood. Their own trail would be left in the snow, and the sight of it would confirm all the suspicions of Wyatt and the savages. Some such chance as this they had always expected, and now they prepared to deal with it. They turned back into the forest, carrying with them the body of the deer, as they were resolved not to abandon it. Both had noticed that the slight abatement of the cold was not lasting. In an hour or two it would be as chill as ever, and once more the surface of the snow would be icy.

They stayed several hours in a dense clump of trees and bushes, and then, half walking, half sliding, they resumed their journey, but now they left no trail. Each also had every sense alert, and nothing could come within sound or sight and not be perceived first by these two wonderful trailers, masters of their craft. They reached the edge of the lake in the twilight, and then they sped swiftly over the ice to their island home.

"I'm thinking," said Henry Ware, at a council a little later, "that Braxton Wyatt suspects we're here. He, of course, does not believe in the Indian superstitions, and maybe he'll persuade them to search the island."

"An' since they kin come over the ice, we can't beat 'em off ez easy ez we could ef they came in canoes in the water," said Shif'less Sol. "I see trouble ahead fur a tired man."

Paul had been saying nothing, only sitting in a corner of the hut and listening intently to the others. Now his face flushed and his eyes sparkled with light, as they would always do whenever a great idea suddenly came to him.

"If Braxton Wyatt undertakes to persuade them there are no ghosts," he said, "it is for us to persuade them that there are."

"What do you mean, Paul?" asked Henry.

"We must show the ghosts to them."

Silence for a half minute followed. Then Shif'less Sol spoke up.

"Meanin' ourselves?" he said.

"Yes," said Paul.

The others looked at his glowing face, and they were impressed.

"Just how?" said Henry.

"If the Miamis come at all, they will come in the night, and that is when ghosts should appear. I'll be a ghost and Jim Hart will be another. The rest of you can lay hidden, ready to use the rifles if they are needed."

"Well planned!" said Henry Ware. "We'll do it."

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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.