The Young Trailers

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter XII. The Primitive Man

When Henry came back to this world he was lying upon the ground, with his head against a log, and about him was a circle of brown faces, cold, hard, expressionless and apparently devoid of human feeling; pity and mercy seemed to be unknown qualities there. But the boy met them with a gaze as steady as their own, and then he glanced quickly around the circle. There was no other prisoner and he saw no ghastly trophy; then his comrades had escaped, and, deep satisfaction in his heart, he let his head fall back upon the log. They could do now as they chose with him, and whatever it might be he felt that he had no cause to fear it.

Three other warriors came in presently, and Henry judged that all the party were now gathered there. He was still lying near the river on whose banks he had been struck down, and the shifting clouds let the moonlight fall upon him. He put his hand to his head where it ached, and when he took it away, there was blood on his fingers. He inferred that a heavy blow had been dealt to him with the flat of a tomahawk, but with the stained fingers he made a scornful gesture. One of the warriors, apparently a chief, noticed the movement, and he muttered a word or two which seemed to have the note of approval. Henry rose to his feet and the chief still regarded him, noting the fearless look, and the hint of surpassing physical powers soon to come. He put his hand upon the boy's shoulder and pointed toward the north and west. Henry understood him. His life was to be spared for the present, at least, and he was to go with them into the northwest, but to what fate he knew not.

One of the warriors bathed his head, and put upon it a lotion of leaves which quickly drove away the pain. Henry suffered his ministrations with primitive stoicism, making no comment and showing no interest.

At a word from the leader they took up their silent march, skirting the river for a while until they came to a shallow place, where they forded it, and buried themselves again in the dark forest. They passed among its shades swiftly, silently and in single file, Henry near the middle of the column, his figure in the dusk blending into the brown of theirs. He had completely recovered his strength, and, save for the separation from his friends and their consequent wonder and sorrow, he would not have grieved over the mischance. Instinct told him-perhaps it was his youth, perhaps his ready adaptability that appealed to his captors-that his life was safe, and now he felt a keen curiosity to know the outcome. It seemed to him too that without any will of his own he was about to begin the vast wanderings that he had coveted.

Hour after hour the silent file trod swiftly on into the northwest, no one speaking, their footfalls making no sound on the soft earth. The moonlight deepened again, and veiled the trunks and branches in ghostly silver or gray. By and by it grew darker and then out of the blackness came the first shoot of dawn. A shaft of pale light appeared in the east, then broadened and deepened, bringing in its trail, in terrace after terrace, the red and gold of the rising sun. Then the light swept across the heavens and it was full day.

They were yet in the forest and the dawn was cold. Here and there in the open spaces and on the edges of the brown leaves appeared the white gleam of frost. The rustle of the woods before the western wind was chilly in the ear. But Henry was without sign of fatigue or cold. He walked with a step as easy and as tireless as that of the strongest warrior in the band, and at all times he held himself, as if he were one of them, not their prisoner.

About an hour after dawn the party which numbered fifteen men halted at a signal from the chief and began to eat the dried meat of the buffalo, taken from their pouches. They gave him a good supply of the food, and he found it tough but savory. Hunger would have given a sufficient sauce to anything and as he ate in a sort of luxurious content he studied his captors with the advantage of the daylight. The full sunshine disclosed no more of softness and mercy than the night had shown. The features were immobile, the eyes fixed and hard, but when the gaze of any one of them, even the chief, met the boy's it was quickly turned. There was about them something furtive, something of the lower kingdom of the animals. That inherited primitive instinct, recently flaming up with such strength in him, did not tell him that they were his full brethren. But he did not hate them, instead they interested him.

After eating they rested an hour or more in the covert of a thicket and Henry saw the beautiful day unfold. The sunshine was dazzling in its glory, the crisp wind made one's blood sparkle like a tonic, and it was good merely to live. A vast horizon inclosed only the peace of the wilderness.

The chief said some words to Henry, but the boy could understand none of them, and he shook his head. Then the chief took the rifle that had belonged to the captive, tapped it on the barrel and pointed toward the southeast. Henry nodded to indicate that he had come from that point, and then smiling swept the circle of the northwestern horizon with his hands. He meant to say that he would go with them without resistance, for the present, at least, and the chief seemed to understand, as his face relaxed into a look of comprehension and even of good nature.

Their march was resumed presently and as before it was straight into the northwest. They passed out of the forest crossed the Ohio in hidden canoes and entered a region of small but beautiful prairies, cut by shallow streams, which they waded with undiminished speed. Henry began to suspect that the band came from some very distant country, and was hastening so much in order not to be caught on the hunting grounds of rival tribes. The northwesterly direction that they were following confirmed him in this belief.

All that day passed on the march but shortly after the night came on and they had eaten a little more of the jerked meat, they lay down in a thicket, and Henry, unmindful of his captivity, fell in a few minutes into a sleep that was deep, sweet and dreamless.

He did not know then that before he was asleep long the chief took a robe of tanned deerskin and threw it over him, shielding his body from the chill autumn night. In the morning shortly before he awoke the chief took away the robe.

That day they came to a mighty river and Henry knew that the yellow stream was that of the Mississippi. The Indians dragged from the sheltering undergrowth two canoes, in which the whole party paddled up stream until nightfall, when they bid the canoes again in the foliage on the western shore, and then encamped on the crest. They seemed to feel that they were out of danger now as they built a fine fire and the captive basked in its warmth.

Henry had not made the slightest effort to escape, nor had he indicated any wish to do so, finding his reward in the increased freedom which the warriors gave to him. He had never been bound and now he could walk as he chose in a limited area about the camp. But he did not avail himself of the privilege, for the present, preferring to sit by the fire, where he saw pictures of Wareville and those whom he loved. Then he bad a swift twinge of conscience. When they heard they would grieve deep and long for him and one, his mother, would never forget. He should have sought more eagerly to escape, and he glanced quickly about him, but there was no chance. However careless the warriors might seem there was always one between him and the forest. He resigned himself with a sigh but had he thought how quickly the pain passed his conscience would have hurt him again. Now he felt much comfort where he sat; the night was really cold, bitingly cold, and it was a glorious fire. As he sat before it and basked in its radiance he felt the glorious physical joy that must have thrilled some far-away primeval ancestor, as he hugged the coals in his cave after coming in from the winter storm.

Henry had the best place by the fire and a warrior who was sitting where his back was exposed to the wind moved over and shoved him away. Henry without a word smote him in the face with such force that the man fell flat and Henry thrust him aside, resuming his original position. The warrior rose to his feet and rubbed his bruised face, looking doubtfully at the boy who sat in such stolid silence, staring into the coals and paying no further attention to his opponent. The Indian never uses his fists, and his hand strayed to the handle of his tomahawk; then, as it strayed away again he sat down on the far side of the fire, and he too began to stare stolidly into the red coals. The chief, Black Cloud, bestowed on both a look of approval, but uttered no comment.

Presently Black Cloud gave some orders to his men and they lay down to sleep, but the chief took the deerskin robe and handed it to Henry. His manner was that of one making a gift, and a gesture confirmed the impression. Henry took the robe which he would need and thanked the chief in words whose meaning the donor might gather from the tone. Then he lay down and slept as before a dreamless sleep all through the night.

Their journey lasted many days and every hour of it was full of interest to Henry, appealing alike to his curiosity and its gratification. He was launched upon the great wandering and he found in it both the glamour and the reality that he wished, the reality in the rivers and the forests and the prairies that he saw, and the glamour in the hope of other and greater rivers and forests and prairies to come.

Indian summer was at hand. All the woods were dyed in vivid colors, reds and yellows and browns, and glowed with dazzling hues in the intense sunlight. Often the haze of Indian summer hung afar and softened every outline. Henry's feeling that he was one of the band grew stronger, and they, too, began to regard him as their own. His freedom was extended more and more and with astonishing quickness he soon picked up enough words of their dialect to make himself intelligible. They took him with them, when they turned aside for hunting expeditions, and he was permitted now and then to use his own rifle. Only six men in the band had guns, and two of these guns were rifles the other four being muskets. Henry soon showed that he was the best marksman among them and respect for him grew. The Indian whom he knocked down was slightly gored by a stag when only Henry was near, but Henry slew the stag, bound up the man's wound and stayed by him until the others came. The warrior, Gray Fox, speedily became one of his best friends.

Henry's enjoyment became more intense; all the trammels of civilization were now thrown aside, he never thought of the morrow because the day with its interests was sufficient, and from his new friends he learned fresh lore of the forest with marvelous rapidity; they taught him how to trail, to take advantage of every shred of cover and to make signals by imitating the cry of bird or beast. Once they were caught in a hailstorm, when it turned bitterly cold, but he endured it as well as the best of them, and made not a single complaint. They came at last to their village, a great distance west of the Mississippi, a hundred lodges perhaps, pitched in a warm and sheltered valley and the boy, under the fostering care of Black Cloud, was formally adopted into the tribe, taking up at once the thread of his new life, and finding in it the same keen interest that had marked all the stages of the great journey.

The climate here was colder than that from which he had come, and winter, with fierce winds from the Great Plains was soon upon them. But the camp which was to remain there until spring was well chosen and the steep hills about them fended off the worst of the blast. Yet the snow came soon in great, whirling flakes and fell all one night. The next morning the boy saw the world in white and he found it singularly beautiful. The snow he did not mind as clothing of dressed skins had been given to him and he had a warm buffalo robe for a blanket. Now, young as he was, he became one of the best hunters for the village and with the others he roamed far over the snowy hills in search of game. Many were the prizes that fell to his steady aim and eye, chief among them the deer, the bear and the buffalo.

His fame in the village grew fast, and it would be hiding the fact to deny that he enjoyed it. The wild rough life with its limitless range over time and space appealed to every instinct in him, and his new fame as a tireless and skillful hunter was very sweet to him. He thought of his people and Wareville, it is true, but he consoled himself again with the belief that they were well and he would return to them when the chance came, and then he plunged all the deeper and with all the more zest into his new life which had so many fascinations. At Wareville there were certain bounds which he must respect, certain weights which he must carry, but here he was free from both.

Meanwhile his body thrived at a prodigious rate. One could almost see him grow. There was not a warrior in the village who was as strong as he, and already he surpassed them all in endurance; none was so fleet of foot nor so tireless. His face and hair darkened in the wind and sun, his last vestige of civilized garb had disappeared long ago, and he was clothed wholly in deerskin. His features grew stronger and keener and the eyes were incessantly watchful, roving hither and thither, covering every point within range. It would have taken more than a casual glance now to discover that he was white.

The winter deepened. The snow was continuous, fierce blasts blew in from the distant western plains and even searched out their sheltered valley. The old men and the women shivered in the lodges, but sparkling young blood and tireless action kept the boy warm and flourishing through it all. Game grew scarce about them and the hunters went far westward in search of the buffalo. Henry was with the party that traveled farthest toward the setting sun, and it was long before they returned. Winter was at its height and when they came out of the forest into the waving open stretches which are the Great Plains all things were hidden by the snow.

Henry from the summit of a little hill saw before him an expanse as mighty as the sea, and like it in many of its aspects. They told him that it rolled away to the westward, no man knew how far, as none of them had ever come to the end of it. In summer it was covered with life. Here grew thick grass and wild flowers and the buffalo passed in millions.

It inspired in Henry a certain awe and yet by its very vagueness and immensity it attracted just as he had wished to explore the secrets of the forest he would like now to tread the Great Plains and find what they held.

They turned toward the southwest in search of buffalo and were caught in a great storm of wind and hail. The cold was bitter and the wind cut to the bone. They were saved from freezing to death only by digging a rude shelter through the snow into the side of a hill, and there they crouched for two days with so little food left in their knapsacks, that without game, they would perish, in a week, of hunger, if the cold did not get the first chance. The most experienced hunters went forth, but returned with nothing, thankful for so little a mercy as the ability to get back to their half-shelter.

Henry at last took his rifle and ventured out alone-the others were too listless to stop him-and before the noon hour he found a buffalo bull, some outcast from the herd which had gone southward, struggling in the snow. The bull was old and lean, and it took two bullets to bring him down, but his death meant their life and Henry hurried to the camp with the joyful news. It was clearly recognized that he had saved them, but no one said anything and Henry was glad of their silence.

When the storm ceased they renewed their journey toward the south with a plentiful supply of food and not long afterwards the snow began to melt. Under the influence of a warm wind out of the southwest it disappeared with marvelous quickness; one day the earth was all white, and the next it was all brown. The warm wind continued to blow, and then faint touches of green began to appear in the dead grass; there were delicate odors, the breath of the great warm south, and they knew that spring was not far away.

In a week they ran into the buffalo herd, a mighty black mass of moving millions. The earth rumbled hollowly under the tread of a myriad feet, and the plain was black with bodies to the horizon and beyond.

They killed as many of the buffalo as they wished and after the fashion of the more northerly Indians reduced the meat to pemmican. Then, each man bearing as much as he could conveniently carry, they began their swift journey homeward, not knowing whether they would arrive in time for the needs of the village.

Henry felt a deep concern for these new friends of his who were left behind in the valley. He shared the anxiety of the others who feared lest they would be too late and that fact reconciled him to the retreat from the Great Plains, whose mysteries he longed to unravel.

As they went swiftly eastward the spring unfolded so fast that it seemed to Henry to come with one great jump. They were now in the forests and everywhere the trees were laden with fresh buds, in all the open spaces the young grass was springing up, and the brooks, as if rejoicing in their new freedom from the ice-bound winter, ran in sparkling little streams between green banks.

The physical world was full of beauty to him, more so than ever because his power of feeling it had grown. During the winter and by the triumphant endurance of so many hardships his form had expanded and the tide of sparkling blood had risen higher. Although a captive he was regarded in a sense as the leader of the hunting party; it was obvious, in the deference that the others, though much older, showed to him and he knew that only his resource, courage and endurance had saved them all from death. A song of triumph was singing in his veins.

They found the village at the edge of starvation despite the approach of spring; two or three of the older people had died already of weakness, and their supplies arrived just in time to relieve the crisis. There were willing tongues to tell of his exploits, and Henry soon perceived that he was a hero to them all and he enjoyed it, because it was natural to him to be a leader, and he loved to breathe the air of approbation. Yet as they valued him more they grew more jealous of him, and they watched him incessantly, lest he should take it into his head to flee to the people who were once his own. Henry saw the difficulty and again it soothed his conscience by showing to him that he could not do what he yet had a lingering feeling that he ought to do.

Good luck seemed to come in a shower to the village with the return of the hunting party. Spring leaped suddenly into full bloom, and the woods began to swarm with game. It was the most plentiful season that the oldest man could recall, there was no hunter so lazy and so dull that he could not find the buffalo and the deer.

Then the band, with the spirit of irresponsible wandering upon it, took down its lodges and traveled slowly into the north farther and farther from the little settlement away down in Kentucky. There was peace among the tribes and they could go as they chose. They came at last to the shores of a mighty lake, Superior, and here when Henry looked out upon an expanse of water, as limitless to the eyes as the sea, he felt the same thrill of awe that had passed through his veins when the Great Plains lay outspread before him. As it was now midsummer and the forests crackled in the heat, they lingered long by the deep cool waters of the lake. Here white traders, Frenchmen speaking a tongue unknown to Henry, came to them with rifles, ammunition and bright-colored blankets to trade for furs. More than one of them saw and admired the tall powerful young warrior with the singularly watchful eyes but not one of them knew that under his paint and tan he was whiter than themselves; instead they took him to be the wildest of the wild.

Henry's heart had throbbed a little at the first sight of them, but it was only for a moment, then it beat as steadily as ever; white like himself they might be, but they were of an alien race; their speech was not his speech, their ways not his ways and he turned from them. He was glad when they were gone.

Toward the end of summer they went south again and wandered idly through pleasant places. It was still a full season with wild fruits hanging from the trees and game everywhere. There had been no sickness in the little tribe and they basked in physical content. It was now a careless easy life with the stimulus of wandering and hunting and all the old primeval instincts in Henry, made stronger by habit, were gratified. He fell easily into the ways of his friends; when there was nothing to do he could sit for hours looking at the forests and the streams and the sunshine, letting his soul steep in the glory of it all. To his other qualities he now added that of illimitable patience. He could wait for what he wished as the Eskimo sits for days at the air hole until the seal appears.

In their devious wanderings they kept a general course toward the valley in which they had passed the first winter, intending to renew their camp there during the cold weather, but autumn, as they intended, was at hand before they reached it. They were yet a long distance north and west of their valley when they were threatened by a danger with which they had not reckoned. A local tribe claimed that the band was infringing upon their hunting grounds and began war with a treacherous attack upon a hunting party.

The war was not long but the few hundreds who took part in it shared all the passions and fierce emotions of two great nations in conflict. Henry was in the thick of it, first alike in attack and defense, superior to the Indians themselves in wiles and cunning. Several of the hostile tribe fell at his hand, although he could not take a scalp, the remnants of his early training forbidding it. But once or twice he was ashamed of the weakness. The hostile party was triumphantly beaten off with great loss to itself and Henry and his friends pursued their journey leisurely and triumphantly. Now besides being a great hunter he was a great warrior too.


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