Reading Books on PopNovel APP

The Forest Runners: A Story of the Great War Trail in Early Kentucky

The Forest Runners: A Story of the Great War Trail in Early Kentucky

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


Paul stopped in a little open space, and looked around all the circle of the forest. Everywhere it was the same--just the curving wall of red and brown, and beyond, the blue sky, flecked with tiny clouds of white. The wilderness was full of beauty, charged with...
Show All▼

  Paul stopped in a little open space, and looked around all the circle ofthe forest. Everywhere it was the same--just the curving wall of red andbrown, and beyond, the blue sky, flecked with tiny clouds of white. Thewilderness was full of beauty, charged with the glory of peace andsilence, and there was naught to indicate that man had ever come. Theleaves rippled a little in the gentle west wind, and the crisping grassbowed before it; but Paul saw no living being, save himself, in the vast,empty world.

  The boy was troubled and, despite his life in the woods, he had full rightto be. This was the great haunted forest of _Kain-tuck-ee_, where the redman made his most desperate stand, and none ever knew when or whencedanger would come. Moreover, he was lost, and the forest told him nothing;he was not like his friend, Henry Ware, born to the forest, the heir toall the primeval instincts, alive to every sight and sound, and able toread the slightest warning the wilderness might give. Paul Cotter was astudent, a lover of books, and a coming statesman. Fate, it seemed, hadchosen that he and Henry Ware should go hand in hand, but for differenttasks.

  Paul gazed once more around the circle of the glowing forest, and theshadow in his eyes deepened. Henry and the horses, loaded with powder forthe needy settlement, must be somewhere near, but whether to right or lefthe could not tell. He had gone to look for water, and when he undertook toreturn he merely went deeper and deeper into the forest. Now the boughs,as they nodded before the gentle breeze, seemed to nod to him in derision.He felt shame as well as alarm. Henry would not laugh at him, but the bornscholar would be worth, for the time, at least, far less than the borntrailer.

  Yet no observer, had there been any, would have condemned Paul as hecondemned himself. He stood there, a tall, slender boy, with a broad, highbrow, white like a girl's above the line of his cap, blue eyes, dark andfull, with the width between that indicates the mind behind, and the firm,pointed chin that belongs so often to people of intellect.

  Paul and Henry were on their way from Wareville, their home, with horseshearing powder for Marlowe, the nearest settlement, nearly a hundred milesaway. The secret of making powder from the nitre dust on the floors of thegreat caves of Kentucky had been discovered by the people of Wareville,and now they wished to share their unfailing supply with others, in orderthat the infant colony might be able to withstand Indian attacks. HenryWare, once a captive in a far Northwestern tribe, and noted for his greatstrength and skill, had been chosen, with Paul Cotter, his comrade, tocarry it. Both rejoiced in the great task, which to them meant the savingof Kentucky.

  Paul's eyes were apt at times to have a dreamy look, as if he werethinking of things far away, whether of time or place; but now they werealive to the present, and to the forest about him. He listened intently.At last he lay down and put his ear to the earth, as he had seen Henry do;but he heard nothing save a soft, sighing sound, which he knew to be onlythe note of the wilderness. He might have fired his rifle. The sharp,lashing report would go far, carried farther by its own echoes; but it wasmore likely to bring foe than friend, and he refrained.

  But he must try, if not one thing, then another. He looked up at theheavens and studied the great, red globe of the sun, now going slowlydown the western arch in circles of crimson and orange light, and then helooked hack at the earth. If he had not judged the position of the sunwrong, their little camp lay to the right, and he would choose thatcourse. He turned at once and walked swiftly among the trees.

  Paul stopped now and then to listen. He would have uttered the long forestshout, as a signal to his comrade, but even that was forbidden. Henry hadseen signs in the forest that indicated more than once to his infallibleeye the presence of roving warriors from the north, and no risk must betaken. But, as usual, it was only the note of the wilderness that came tohis ears. He stopped also once or twice, not to listen, but to look at thesplendid country, and to think what a great land it would surely be.

  He walked steadily on for miles, but the region about him remainedunfamiliar. No smoke from the little camp-fire rose among the trees, andno welcome sight of Henry or the horses came to his eyes. For all he knew,he might be going farther from the camp at every step. Putting asidecaution, he made a trumpet of his two hands, and uttered the long,quavering cry that serves as a signal in the forest. It came back in asomber echo from the darkening wilderness, and Paul saw, with a littleshiver, that the sun was now going down behind the trees. The breeze rose,and the leaves rustled together with a soft hiss, like a warning. Chillcame into the air. The sensitive mind of the boy, so much alive toabstract impressions, felt the omens of coming danger, and he stoppedagain, not knowing what to do. He called himself afraid, but he was not.It was the greater tribute to his courage that he remained resolute whereanother might well have been in despair.

  The sun went down behind the black forest like a cannon shot into the sea,and darkness swept over the wilderness. Paul uttered the long cry againand again, but, as before, no answer came back; once he fired his rifle,and the sharp note seemed to run for miles, but still no answer.

  Then he decided to take counsel of prudence, and sleep where he was. If hewalked on, he might go farther and farther away from the camp, but if hestopped now, while he might not find Henry, Henry would certainly findhim. Any wilderness trail was an open road to his comrade.

  He hunted a soft place under one of the trees, and, despising the dew,stretched himself between two giant roots, his rifle by his side. He wastired and hungry, and he lay for a while staring at the blankundergrowth, but by and by all his troubles and doubts floated away. Thenote of the wind was soothing, and the huge roots sheltered him. Hiseyelids drooped, a singular feeling of peace and ease crept over him, andhe was asleep.

  It was yet the intense darkness of early night, and the outline of hisfigure was lost between the giant roots, but after a while a silver moonbrought a gray tint to the skies, and the black bank over the forest beganto thin and lighten. Then two figures, hideous in paint, crept from theundergrowth, and stared at the sleeping boy with pitiless eyes.

  Paul slept on, and mercifully knew nothing of his danger; yet it wouldhave been hard to find in the world two pairs of eyes that contained moresavagery than those now gazing upon him. Their owners crept nearer,looking with fierce joy through the darkness at the sleeping boy who wasso certainly their prey. Their code contained nothing that taught them tospare a foe, and this youth. In the van of the white invasion, was theworst of foes.

  The boy still slept, and his slumber was deep, sweet, and dreamless. Nowarning came to him while the savage eyes, bright with cruel fire, creptcloser and closer, and the merciful darkness, coming again, tried to closedown and hide the approaching tragedy of the forest.

  Paul returned with a jerk from his peaceful heaven. Hands and feet wereseized suddenly and pinned to the earth so tightly that he could not move,and he gazed up at two hideous, painted faces, very near to his own, andfull of menace. The boy's heart turned for a moment to water. He saw atonce, through his vivid and powerful imagination, all the terrors of hisposition, and in the same instant he leaped forward also to the future,and to the agony it had in store for him. But in a moment his courage cameback, the strong will once more took command of the body and the spirit,and he looked up with stoical eyes at his captors. He knew that resistancenow would be in vain, and, relaxing his muscles, he saved his strength.

  The warriors laughed a little, a soundless laugh that was full of menace,and bound him securely with strips of buckskin cut from his own garments.Then they stood up, and Paul, too, rose to a sitting position, gazingintently at his captors. They were powerful men, apparently warriors ofmiddle age, and Paul knew enough of costume and paint to tell that theywere of the Shawnee nation, bitterly hostile to him and his kind.

  His terrors came back upon him in full sweep. He loved life, and, scholarthough he was, he loved his life in the young wilderness of Kentucky,where he was at the beginnings of things. Every detail of what they woulddo to him, every incident of the torture was already photographed upon hissensitive mind, but again the brave lad called up all his courage, andagain he triumphed, keeping his body still and his face withoutexpression. He merely looked up at them, as if placidly waiting theirwill.

  The two warriors talked together a little, and then, seeming to changetheir minds, they unbound the boy's feet. One touched him on the shoulder,and, pointing to the north, started in that direction. Paul understood,and, rising to his feet, followed. The second warrior came close behind,and Paul was as securely a prisoner as if he were in the midst of a bandof a hundred. Once or twice he looked around at the silent woods andthought of running, but it would have been the wildest folly. His handstied, he could have been quickly overtaken, or, if not that, a bullet. Hesternly put down the temptation, and plodded steadily on between thewarriors, the broad, brown back of the one in front of him always leadingthe way.

  It seemed to him that they sought the densest part of the undergrowth,where the night shadows lay thickest, and he was wise enough to know thatthey did it to hide their trail from possible pursuit. Then he thought ofHenry, his comrade, the prince of trailers! He might come! He would come!Paul's blood leaped at the thought, and his head lifted with hope.

  Clouds swept up, the moon died, and in the darkness Paul had little ideaof direction. He only knew that they were still traveling fast amid thethick bushes, and that when he made too much noise in passing one or otherof the brown savages would prod him with the muzzle of a gun as a hint tobe more careful. His face became bruised and his feet weary, but at lastthey stopped in an opening among the trees, by the side of a little brookthat trickled over shining pebbles.

  The warriors wasted little time. They rebound Paul's feet in such tightfashion that he could scarcely move, and then, lying down near him, wentto sleep so quickly that it seemed to Paul they accomplished the feat bysome sort of a mechanical arrangement. Tired as he was, he could not closehis own eyes yet, and he longed for his comrade. Would he come?

  Paul's sensitive nerves were again keenly alive to every phase of hiscruel situation. The warriors, lying almost at his feet, were monsters,not men, and this wilderness, which in its finer aspects he loved, wasbristling in the darkness with terrors known and unknown. Yet his cloggedand weary brain slept at last, and when he awoke again it was day--abeautiful day of white and gold light, with the autumnal tints of theforest all about him, and the leaves rustling in a gentle wind.

  But his heart sank to the uttermost depths when he looked at the warriors.By day they seemed more brutal and pitiless than at night. From theirlong, narrow eyes shone no ray of mercy, and the ghastly paint on theirhigh cheek bones deepened their look of ferocity. It was not theappearance of the warriors alone, it was more the deed for which they werepreparing that appalled Paul. They were raking dead leaves and fallenbrushwood of last year around a small but stout sapling, and they went onwith their task in a methodical way.

  Paul knew well, too well. Hideous tales of such doings had come now andthen to his ears, but he had never dreamed that he, Paul Cotter, in hisown person would be such a victim. Even now it seemed incredible in theface of this beautiful young world that stretched away from him, so quietand so peaceful. He, who already in his boyhood was planning great thingsfor this splendid land, to die such a death!

  The warriors did not cease until their task was finished. It was but abrief one after all, for Paul had made no mistake in his guess. There wasnot time, perhaps, to take a prisoner beyond the Ohio, and they could notforego a savage pleasure. They dragged the hoy to the sapling, stood himerect against the slim trunk, and hound him fast with green withes. Thenthey piled the dead leaves and brushwood high about him above his knees,and, this done, stood a little way off and looked at their work.

  The warriors spoke together for the first time since Paul had awakened,and their black eyes lighted up with a hideous glow of anticipation. Paulsaw it, and an icy chill ran through all his veins. Had not the greenwithes held him, he would have fallen to the ground. Once more his activemind, foreseeing all that would come, had dissolved his strength for themoment; but, as always, his will brought his courage back, and he shut hiseyes to put away the hateful sight of the gloating savages.

  He had never asked in any way for mercy, he had never uttered a word ofprotest, and he resolved that he would not cry out if he could help it.They should not rejoice too much at his sufferings; he would die as theywere taught to die, and he would show to them that the mind of a white boycould supply the place of a red man's physical fortitude. But Henry mightcome! Would he come? Oh, would he come? Resigned to death, Paul yet hopedfor life.

  He opened his eyes, and the warriors were still standing there, looking athim; but in a moment one approached, and, bending down, began to strikeflint and steel amid the dry leaves at the boy's feet. Again, despitehimself, the shivering chill ran through Paul's veins. Would Henry come?If he came at all, he must now come quickly, as only a few minutes wereleft.

  The leaves were obstinate; sparks flew from the flint and steel, but therewas no blaze. Paul looked down at the head of the warrior who workedpatiently at his task. The second warrior stood on one side, watching, andwhen Paul glanced at him he saw the savage move ever so little, but as ifdriven by a sudden impulse, and then raise his head in the attitude of onewho listened intently. Heat replaced the ice in Paul's veins. Hadsomething moved in the forest? Was it Henry? Would he come?

  The standing warrior uttered a low sound, and he who knelt with the flintand steel raised his head. Something had moved in the forest! It might beHenry. For Paul, the emotions of a life were concentrated in a singlemoment. Fear and hope tripped over each other, and the wilderness grewdim to his sight. A myriad of little black specks danced before his eyes,and the blood was beating a quick march in his ears.

  The two savages were motionless, as if carved of brown marble, and overall the wilderness hung silence. Then out of the silence came a sharpreport, and the warrior who stood erect, rifle in hand, fell to the earth,stricken by instant death. Henry had come! His faithful comrade had notfailed him! Paul shouted aloud in his tremendous relief and joy, forgetfulof the second warrior.

  The kneeling savage sprang to his feet, but he had made a fatal mistake.To light the fire for the torture, he had left his rifle leaning againstthe trunk of a tree twenty feet away, and before he could regain it aterrible figure bounded from the bushes, the figure of a great youth, cladin buckskin, his face transformed with anger and his eyes alight. Beforethe savage could reach his weapon he went down, slain by a single blow ofa clubbed rifle, and the next moment Henry was cutting Paul loose with afew swift slashes of his keen hunting knife.

  "I knew you would come! I knew it!" exclaimed Paul joyously and wildly, ashe stood forth free. "Nobody in the world but you could have done it,Henry!"

  "I don't know about that, Paul," said Henry, "but I'd have had you backsooner if it hadn't been for the dark. I followed you all night the bestway I could, but I couldn't come up to you until day, and they began workthen."

  He glanced significantly at the leaves and brushwood, and then, handingPaul's rifle to him, looked at those belonging to the savages.

  "We'll take 'em," he said. "It's likely we'll need 'em, and their powderand bullets will be more than welcome, too."

  Paul was rubbing his wrists and ankles, where the blood flowed painfullyas the circulation was restored, but to him the whole affair was ended.His life had been saved at the last moment, and the world was morebrilliant and beautiful than ever. His imagination went quickly to theother extreme. There was no more danger.

  But Henry Ware did not lose his eager, wary look. It did not take him morethan a minute to transfer the ammunition of the warriors to the pouchesand powder-horns of Paul and himself. Then he searched the forest withkeen, suspicious glances.

  "Come, Paul," he said, "we must run. The woods are full of the savages.I've found out that there's a great war party between us and Marlowe, andI've hid the powder in a cave. I turned the horses loose, hoping thatwe'll get 'em some time later; but just now you and I have to saveourselves."

  Paul came back to earth. Danger still threatened! But he was free for thetime, and he was with his comrade!

  "You lead the way, Henry," he said. "I'll follow, and do whatever yousay."

  Henry Ware made no reply, but bent his ear again, in the attitude of onewho listens. Paul watched his face attentively, seeking to read hisknowledge there.

  "The big war band is not far away," said Henry, "and it's likely thatthey've heard my shot. It would carry far on such a still, clear morningas this. I didn't want them to hear it."

  "But I'm glad you did shoot," said Paul. "It was a mighty welcome sound tome."

  "Yes," said Henry, with grim humor, "it was the right thing at the righttime. Hark to that!" A single note, very faint and very far, rose and wasquickly gone, like the dying echo of music. Only the trained ranger of thewilderness would have noticed it at all, but Henry Ware knew.

  "Yes, they've heard," he said, "and they're telling it to each other. Theyare also telling it to us. They're between us and Marlowe, and they arebetween us and Wareville, so we must run to the north, and run as fast aswe can."

  He led the way with swift, light footsteps through the forest, and Paulfollowed close behind, each boy carrying on his shoulder two rifles and athis waist a double stock of bullets and powder.

  Paul scarcely felt any fear now for the future. The revulsion from thestake and torture was so great that it did not seem to him that he couldbe taken again. Moreover, they had seized him the first time when he wasasleep. They had taken an unfair advantage.

  The sun rose higher, gilding the brown forest with fine filmy gold, like aveil, and the boys ran silently on among the trees and the undergrowth.Behind them, and spread out like a fan, came many warriors, fierce fortheir lives. Amid such scenes was the Great West won.