The Young Trailers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter VII. The Giant Bones

About this time many people in Wareville, particularly the women and children began to complain of physical ills, notably lassitude and a lack of appetite; their food, which consisted largely of the game swarming all around the forest, had lost its savor. There was no mystery about it; Tom Ross, Mr. Ware and others promptly named the cause; they needed salt, which to the settlers of Kentucky was almost as precious as gold; it was obtained in two ways, either by bringing it hundreds of miles over the mountains from Virginia in wagons or on pack horses, or by boiling it out at the salt springs in the Indian-haunted woods.

They had neither the time nor the men for the long journey to Virginia, and they prepared at once for obtaining it at the springs. They had already used a small salt spring but the supply was inadequate, and they decided to go a considerable distance northward to the famous Big Bone Lick. Nothing had been heard in a long time of Indian war parties south of the Ohio, and they believed they would incur no danger. Moreover they could bring back salt to last more than a year.

When they first heard of the proposed journey, Paul Cotter pulled Henry to one side. They were just outside the palisade, and it was a beautiful day, in early spring. Already kindly nature was smoothing over the cruel scars made by the axes in the forest, and the village within the palisade began to have the comfortable look of home.

"Do you know what the Big Bone Lick is, Henry?" asked Paul eagerly.

"No," replied Henry, wondering at his chum's excitement.

"Why it's the most wonderful place in all the world!" said Paul, jumping up and down in his wish to tell quickly. "There was a hunter here last winter who spoke to me about it. I didn't believe him then, it sounded so wonderful, but Mr. Pennypacker says it's all true. There's a great salt spring, boiling out of the ground in the middle of a kind of marsh, and all around it, for a long distance, are piled hundreds of large bones, the bones of gigantic animals, bigger than any that walk the earth to-day."

"See here, Paul," said Henry scornfully, "you can't stuff my ears with mush like that. I guess you were reading one of the master's old romances, and then had a dream. Wake up, Paul!"

"It's true every word of it!"

"Then if there were such big animals, why don't we see 'em sometimes running through the forest?"

"Why, they've all been dead millions of years and their bones have been preserved there in the marsh. They lived in another geologic era-that's what Mr. Pennypacker calls it-and animals as tall as trees strolled up and down over the land and were the lords of creation."

Henry puckered his lips and emitted a long whistle of incredulity.

"Paul," he said, reprovingly, "you do certainly have the gift of speech."

But Paul was not offended at his chum's disbelief.

"I'm going to prove to you, Henry, that is true," he said. " Mr. Pennypacker says it's so, he never tells a falsehood and he's a scholar, too. But you and I have got to go with the salt-makers, Henry, and we'll see it all. I guess if you look on it with your own eyes you'll believe it."

"Of course," said Henry, "and of course I'll go if I can."

A trip through the forest and new country to the great salt spring was temptation enough in itself, without the addition of the fields of big bones, and that night in both the Ware and Cotter homes, eloquent boys gave cogent reasons why they should go with the band.

"Father," said Henry, "there isn't much to do here just now, and they'll want me up at Big Bone Lick, helping to boil the salt and a lot of things."

Mr. Ware smiled. Henry, like most boys, seldom showed much zeal for manual labor. But Henry went on undaunted.

"We won't run any risk. No Indians are in Kentucky now and, father, I want to go awful bad."

Mr. Ware smiled again at the closing avowal, which was so frank. Just at that moment in another home another boy was saying almost exactly the same things, and another father ventured the same answer that Mr. Ware did, in practically the same words such as these:

"Well, my son, as it is to be a good strong company of careful and experienced men who will not let you get into any mischief, you can go along, but he sure that you make yourself useful."

The party was to number a dozen, all skilled foresters, and they were to lead twenty horses, all carrying huge pack saddles for the utensils and the invaluable salt. Mr. Silas Pennypacker who was a man of his own will announced that he was going, too. He puffed out his ruddy cheeks and said emphatically:

"I've heard from hunters of that place; it's one of the great curiosities of the country and for the sake of learning I'm bound to see it. Think of all the gigantic skeletons of the mastodon, the mammoth and other monsters lying there on the ground for ages!"

Henry and Paul were glad that Mr. Pennypacker was to be with them, as in the woods he was a delightful comrade, able always to make instruction entertaining, and the superiority of his mind appealed unconsciously to both of these boys who-each in his way-were also of superior cast.

They departed on a fine morning-the spring was early and held steady-and all Wareville saw them go. It was a brilliant little cavalcade; the horses, their heads up to scent the breeze from the fragrant wilderness, and the men, as eager to start, everyone with a long slender-barreled Kentucky rifle on his shoulder, the fringed and brilliantly colored deerskin hunting shirt falling almost to his knees, and, below that deerskin leggings and deerskin moccasins adorned with many-tinted beads. It was a vivid picture of the young West, so young, and yet so strong and so full of life, the little seed from which so mighty a tree was soon to grow.

All of them stopped again, as if by an involuntary impulse, at the edge of the forest, and waved their hands in another, and, this time, in a last goodby to the watchers at the fort. Then they plunged into the mighty wilderness, which swept away and away for unknown thousands of miles.

They talked for a while of the journey, of the things that they might see by the way, and of those that they had left behind, but before long conversation ceased. The spell of the dark and illimitable woods, in whose shade they marched, fell upon them, and there was no noise, but the sound of breathing and the tread of men and horses. They dropped, too, from the necessities of the path through the undergrowth, into Indian file, one behind the other.

Henry was near the rear of the line, the stalwart schoolmaster just in front of him, and his comrade Paul, just behind. He was full of thankfulness that he had been allowed to go on this journey. It all appealed to him, the tale that Paul told of the giant bones and the great salt spring, the dark woods full of mystery and delightful danger, and his own place among the trusted band, who were sent on such an errand. His heart swelled with pride and pleasure and he walked with a light springy step and with endurance equal to that of any of the men before him. He looked over his shoulder at Paul, whose face also was touched with enthusiasm.

"Aren't you glad to be along?" he asked in a whisper.

"Glad as I can be," replied Paul in the same whisper.

Up shot the sun showering golden beams of light upon the forest. The air grew warmer, but the little band did not cease its rapid pace northward until noon. Then at a word from Ross all halted at a beautiful glade, across which ran a little brook of cold water. The horses were tethered at the edge of the forest, but were allowed to graze on the young grass which was already beginning to appear, while the men lighted a small fire of last year's fallen brushwood, at the center of the glade on the bank of the brook.

"We won't build it high," said Ross, who was captain as well as guide, "an' then nobody in the forest can see it. There may not be an Indian south of the Ohio, but the fellow that's never caught is the fellow that never sticks his head in the trap."

"Sound philosophy! Sound philosophy! Your logic is irrefutable, Mr. Ross," said the school master.

Ross grinned. He did not know what "irrefutable" meant, but he did know that Mr. Pennypacker intended to compliment him. Paul and Henry assisted with the fire. In fact they did most of the work, each wishing to make good his assertion that he would prove of use on the journey. It was a brief task to gather the wood and then Ross and Shif'less Sol lighted the fire, which they permitted merely to smolder. But it gave out ample heat and in a few minutes they cooked over it their venison and corn bread and coffee which they served in tin cups. Henry and Paul ate with the ferocious appetite that the march and the clean air of the wilderness had bred in them, and nobody restricted them, because the forest was full of game, and such skillful hunters and riflemen could never lack for a food supply.

Mr. Pennypacker leaned with an air of satisfaction against the upthrust bough of a fallen oak.

"It's a wonderful world that we have here," he said, "and just to think that we're among the first white men to find out what it contains."

"All ready?" said Tom Ross, "then forward we go, we mustn't waste time by the way. They need that salt at Wareville."

Once more they resumed the march in Indian file and amid the silence of the woods. About the middle of the afternoon Ross invited Mr. Pennypacker and the two boys to ride three of the pack horses. Henry at first declined, not willing to be considered soft and pampered, but as the schoolmaster promptly accepted and Paul who was obviously tired did the same, he changed his mind, not because he needed rest, but lest Paul should feel badly over his inferiority in strength.

Thus they marched steadily northward, Ross leading the way, and Shif'less Sol who was lazy at the settlement, but never in the woods where he was inferior in knowledge and skill to Ross only, covering the rear. Each of these accomplished borderers watched every movement of the forest about him, and listened for every sound; he knew with the eye of second sight what was natural and if anything not belonging to the usual order of things should appear, he would detect it in a moment. But they saw and heard nothing that was not according to nature: only the wind among the boughs, or the stamp of an elk's hoof as it fled, startled at the scent of man. The hostile tribes from north and south, fearful of the presence of each other, seemed to have deserted the great wilderness of Kentucky.

Henry noted the beauty of the country as they passed along; the gently rolling hills, the rich dark soil and the beautiful clear streams. Once they came to a river, too deep to wade, but all of them, except the schoolmaster, promptly took off their clothing and swam it.

"My age and my calling forbid my doing as the rest of you do," said the schoolmaster, "and I think I shall stick to my horse."

He rode the biggest of the pack horses, and when the strong animal began to swim, Mr. Pennypacker thrust out his legs until they were almost parallel with the animal's neck, and reached the opposite bank, untouched by a drop of water. No one begrudged him his dry and unlabored passage; in fact they thought it right, because a schoolmaster was mightily respected in the early settlements of Kentucky and they would have regarded it as unbecoming to his dignity to have stripped, and swum the river as they did.

Henry and Paul in their secret hearts did not envy the schoolmaster. They thought he had too great a weight of dignity to maintain and they enjoyed cleaving the clear current with their bare bodies. What? Be deprived of the wilderness pleasures? Not they! The two boys did not remount, after the passage of the river, but, fresh and full of life, walked on with the others at a pace so swift that the miles dropped rapidly behind them. They were passing, too, through a country rarely trodden even by the red men; Henry knew it by the great quantities of game they saw; the deer seemed to look from every thicket, now and then a magnificent elk went crashing by, once a bear lumbered away, and twice small groups of buffalo were stampeded in the glades and rushed off, snorting through the undergrowth.

"They say that far to the westward on plains that seem to have no end those animals are to be seen in millions," said Mr. Pennypacker.

"It's so, I've heard it from the Indians," confirmed Ross the guide.

They stopped a little while before sundown, and as the game was so plentiful all around them, Ross said he would shoot a deer in order to save their dried meat and other provisions.

"You come with me, while the others are making the camp," he said to Henry.

The boy flushed with pride and gratification, and, taking his rifle, plunged at once into the forest with the guide. But he said nothing, knowing that silence would recommend him to Ross far more than words, and took care to bring down his moccasined feet without sound. Nor did he let the undergrowth rustle, as he slipped through it, and Ross regarded him with silent approval. "A born woodsman," he said to himself.

A mile from the camp they stopped at the crest of a little hill, thickly clad with forest and undergrowth, and looked down into the glade beyond. Here they saw several deer grazing, and as the wind blew from them toward the hunters they had taken no alarm.

"Pick the fat buck there on the right," whispered Ross to Henry. Henry said not a word. He had learned the taciturnity of the woods, and leveling his rifle, took sure aim. There was no buck fever about him now, and, when his rifle cracked, the deer bounded into the air and dropped down dead. Ross, all business, began to cut up and clean the game, and with Henry'S aid, he did it so skillfully and rapidly that they returned to the camp, loaded with the juicy deer meat, by the time the fire and everything else was ready for them.

Henry and Paul ate with eager appetites and when supper was over they wrapped themselves in their blankets and lay down before the fire under the trees. Paul went to sleep at once, but Henry did not close his eyes so soon. Far in the west he saw a last red bar of light cast by the sunken sun and the deep ruddy glow over the fringe of the forest. Then it suddenly passed, as if whisked away by a magic hand, and all the wilderness was in darkness. But it was only for a little while. Out came the moon and the stars flashed one by one into a sky of silky blue. A south wind lifting up itself sang a small sweet song among the branches, and Henry uttered a low sigh of content, because he lived in the wilderness, and because he was there in the depths of the forest on an important errand. Then he fell sound asleep, and did not awaken until Ross and the others were cooking breakfast.

A day or two later they reached the wonderful Big Bone Lick, and they approached it with the greatest caution, because they were afraid lest an errand similar to theirs might have drawn hostile red men to the great salt spring. But as they curved about the desired goal they saw no Indian sign, and then they went through the marsh to the spring itself.

Henry opened his eyes in amazement. All that the schoolmaster and Paul had told was true, and more. Acres and acres of the marsh lands were fairly littered with bones, and from the mud beneath other and far greater bones had been pulled up and left lying on the ground. Henry stood some of these bones on end, and they were much taller than he. Others he could not lift.

"The mastodon, the mammoth and I know not what," said Mr. Pennypacker in a transport of delight. "Henry, you and Paul are looking upon the remains of animals, millions of years old, killed perhaps in fights with others of their kind, over these very salt springs. There may not be another such place as this in all the world."

Mr. Pennypacker for the first day or two was absolutely of no help in making the salt, because he was far too much excited about the bones and the salt springs themselves.

"I can understand," said Henry, "why the animals should come here after the salt, since they crave salt just as we do, but it seems strange to me that salt water should be running out of the ground here, hundreds of miles from the sea."

"It's the sea itself that's coming up right at our feet," replied the schoolmaster thoughtfully. "Away back yonder, a hundred million years ago perhaps, so far that we can have no real conception of the time, the sea was over all this part of the world. When it receded, or the ground upheaved, vast subterranean reservoirs of salt water were left, and now, when the rain sinks down into these full reservoirs a portion of the salt water is forced to the surface, which makes the salt springs that are scattered over this part of the country. It is a process that is going on continually. At least, that's a plausible theory, and it's as good as any other."

But most of the salt-makers did not bother themselves about causes, and they accepted the giant bones as facts, without curiosity about their origin. Nor did they neglect to put them to use. By sticking them deep in the ground they made tripods of them on which they hung their kettles for boiling the salt water, and of others they devised comfortable seats for themselves. To such modern uses did the mastodon come! But to the schoolmaster and the two boys the bones were an unending source of interest, and in the intervals of labor, which sometimes were pretty long, particularly for Mr. Pennypacker, they were ever prowling in the swamp for a bone bigger than any that they had found before.

But the salt-making progressed rapidly. The kettles were always boiling and sack after sack was filled with the precious commodity. At night wild animals, despite the known presence of strange, new creatures, would come down to the springs, so eager were they for the salt, and the men rarely molested them. Only a deer now and then was shot for food, and Henry and Paul lay awake one night, watching two big bull buffaloes, not fifty yards away, fighting for the best place at a spring.

Ross and Shif'less Sol did not do much of the work at the salt-boiling, but they were continually scouting through the forest, on a labor no less important, watching for raiding war parties who otherwise might fall unsuspected upon the toilers. Henry, as a youth of great promise, was sometimes taken with them on these silent trips through the woods, and the first time he went he felt badly on Paul's account, because his comrade was not chosen also. But when he returned he found that his sympathy was wasted. Paul and the master were deeply absorbed in the task of trying to fit together some of the gigantic bones that is, to re-create the animal to which they thought the bones belonged, and Paul was far happier than he would have been on the scout or the hunt.

The day's work was ended and all the others were sitting around the camp fire, with the dying glow of the setting sun flooding the springs, the marshes and the camp fire, but Paul and the master toiled zealously at the gigantic figure that they had upreared, supported partly with stakes, and bearing a remote resemblance to some animal that lived a few million years or so ago. The master had tied together some of the bones with withes, and he and Paul were now laboriously trying to fit a section of vertebra into shape.

Shif'less Sol who had gone with Henry sat down by the fire, stuffed a piece of juicy venison into his mouth and then looked with eyes of wonder at the two workers in the cause of natural history.

"Some people 'pear to make a heap o' trouble for theirselves," he said, "now I can't git it through my head why anybody would want to work with a lot o' dead old bones when here's a pile o' sweet deer meat just waitin' an' beggin' to be et up."

At that moment the attempt of Paul and the schoolmaster to reconstruct a prehistoric beast collapsed. The figure that they had built up with so much care and labor suddenly slipped loose somewhere, and all the bones fell down in a heap. The master stared at them in disgust and exclaimed:

"It's no use! I can't put them together away out here in the wilderness!"

Then he stalked over to the fire, and taking a deer steak, ate hungrily. The steak was very tender, and gradually a look of content and peace stole over Mr. Pennypacker's face.

"At least," he murmured," if it's hard to be a scholar here, one can have a glorious appetite, and it is most pleasant to gratify it."

As the dark settled down Ross said that in one day more they ought to have all the salt the horses could carry, and then it would be best to depart promptly and swiftly for Wareville. A half hour later all were asleep except the sentinel.

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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.