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The Young Trailers: A Story of Early Kentucky

The Young Trailers: A Story of Early Kentucky

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


It was a white caravan that looked down from the crest of the mountains upon the green wilderness, called by the Indians, _Kain-tuck-ee_. The wagons, a score or so in number, were covered with arched canvas, bleached by the rai...
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  It was a white caravan that looked down from the crest of the mountainsupon the green wilderness, called by the Indians, _Kain-tuck-ee_. Thewagons, a score or so in number, were covered with arched canvas,bleached by the rains, and, as they stood there, side by side, theylooked like a snowdrift against the emerald expanse of forest andfoliage.

  The travelers saw the land of hope, outspread before them, a wide sweepof rolling country, covered with trees and canebrake, cut by streams ofclear water, flowing here and there, and shining in the distance, amidthe green, like threads of silver wire. All gazed, keen with interestand curiosity, because this unknown land was to be their home, but nonewas more eager than Henry Ware, a strong boy of fifteen who stood infront of the wagons beside the guide, Tom Ross, a tall, lean man thecolor of well-tanned leather, who would never let his rifle go out ofhis hand, and who had Henry's heartfelt admiration, because he knew somuch about the woods and wild animals, and told such strange andabsorbing tales of the great wilderness that now lay before them.

  But any close observer who noted Henry Ware would always have looked athim a second time. He was tall and muscled beyond his years, and when hewalked his figure showed a certain litheness and power like that of theforest bred. His gaze was rapid, penetrating and inclusive, but neverfurtive. He seemed to fit into the picture of the wilderness, as if hehad taken a space reserved there for him, and had put himself incomplete harmony with all its details.

  The long journey from their old home in Maryland had been a source ofunending variety and delight to Henry. There had been no painfulpartings. His mother and his brother and young sister were in the fourthwagon from the right, and his father stood beside it. Farther on in thesame company were his uncles and aunts, and many of the old neighbors.All had come together. It was really the removal of a village from anold land to a new one, and with the familiar faces of kindred andfriends around them, they were not lonely in strange regions, thoughmountains frowned and dark forests lowered.

  It was to Henry a return rather than a removal. He almost fancied thatin some far-off age he had seen all these things before. The forests andthe mountains beckoned in friendly fashion; they had no terrors, foreven their secrets lay open before him. He seemed to breathe a newer andkeener air than that of the old land left behind, and his mind expandedwith the thought of fresh pleasures to come. The veteran guide, Ross,alone observed how the boy learned, through intuition, ways of thewilderness that others achieved only by hard experience.

  They had met fair weather, an important item in such a journey, andthere had been no illness, beyond trifling ailments quickly cured. Asthey traveled slowly and at their ease, it took them a long time to passthrough the settled regions. This part of the journey did not interestHenry so much. He was eager for the forests and the great wildernesswhere his fancy had already gone before. He wanted to see deer and bearsand buffaloes, trees bigger than any that grew in Maryland, andmountains and mighty rivers. But they left the settlements behind atlast, and came to the unbroken forest. Here he found his hopesfulfilled. They were on the first slopes of the mountains that divideVirginia from Kentucky, and the bold, wild nature of the country pleasedhim. He had never seen mountains before, and he felt the dignity andgrandeur of the peaks.

  Sometimes he went on ahead with Tom Ross, the guide, his chosen friend,and then he considered himself, in very truth, a man, or soon to becomeone, because he was now exploring the unknown, leading the way for acaravan--and there could be no more important duty. At such moments helistened to the talk of the guide who taught the lesson that in thewilderness it was always important to see and to listen, a thing howeverthat Henry already knew instinctively. He learned the usual sounds ofthe woods, and if there was any new noise he would see what made it. Hestudied, too, the habits of the beasts and birds. As for fishing, hefound that easy. He could cut a rod with his clasp knife, tie a stringto the end of it and a bent pin to the end of a string, and with thisrude tackle he could soon catch in the mountain creeks as many fish ashe wanted.

  Henry liked the nights in the mountains; in which he did not differ fromhis fellow-travelers. Then the work of the day was done; the wagons weredrawn up in a half circle, the horses and the oxen were resting orgrazing under the trees, and, as they needed fires for warmth as well ascooking, they built them high and long, giving room for all in front ofthe red coals if they wished. The forest was full of fallen brushwood,as dry as tinder, and Henry helped gather it. It pleased him to see theflames rise far up, and to hear them crackle as they ate into the heartof the boughs. He liked to see their long red shadows fall across theleaves and grass, peopling the dark forest with fierce wild animals; hewould feel all the cosier within the scarlet rim of the firelight. Thenthe men would tell stories, particularly Ross, the guide, who hadwandered much and far in Kentucky. He said that it was a beautiful land.He spoke of the noble forests of beech and oak and hickory and maple,the dense canebrake, the many rivers, and the great Ohio that receivedthem all--the Beautiful River, the Indians called it--and the game, withwhich forests and open alike swarmed, the deer, the elk, the bear, thepanther and the buffalo. Now and then, when the smaller children wereasleep in the wagons and the larger ones were nodding before the fires,the men would sink their voices and speak of a subject which made themall look very grave indeed. It sounded like Indians, and the men morethan once glanced at their rifles and powderhorns.

  But the boy, when he heard them, did not feel afraid. He knew thatsavages of the most dangerous kind often came into the forests ofKentucky, whither they were going, but he thrilled rather than shiveredat the thought. Already he seemed to have the knowledge that he would bea match for them at any game they wished to play.

  Henry usually slept very soundly, as became a boy who was on his feetnearly all day, and who did his share of the work; but two or threetimes he awoke far in the night, and, raising himself up in the wagon,peeped out between the canvas cover and the wooden body. He saw a veryblack night in which the trees looked as thin and ghostly as shadows,and smoldering fires, beside which two men rifle on shoulder, alwayswatched. Often he had a wish to watch with them, but he said nothing,knowing that the others would hold him too young for the task.

  But to-day he felt only joy and curiosity. They were now on the crest ofthe last mountain ridge and before them lay the great valley ofKentucky; their future home. The long journey was over. The men took offtheir hats and caps and raised a cheer, the women joined throughsympathy and the children shouted, too, because their fathers andmothers did so, Henry's voice rising with the loudest.

  A slip of a girl beside Henry raised an applauding treble and he smiledprotectingly at her. It was Lucy Upton, two years younger than himself,slim and tall, dark-blue eyes looking from under broad brows, anddark-brown curls, lying thick and close upon a shapely head.

  "Are you not afraid?" she asked.

  "Afraid of what?" replied Henry Ware, disdainfully.

  "Of the forests over there in Kentucky. They say that the savages oftencome to kill."

  "We are too strong. I do not fear them."

  He spoke without any vainglory, but in the utmost confidence. Sheglanced covertly at him. He seemed to her strong and full of resource.But she would not show her admiration.

  They passed from the mountain slope into a country which now sank awayin low, rolling hills like the waves of the sea and in which everythinggrew very beautiful. Henry had never seen such trees in the East. Thebeech, the elm, the hickory and the maple reached gigantic proportions,and wherever the shade was not too dense the grass rose heavy and rank.Now and then they passed thickets of canebrake, and once, at the side ofa stream, they came to a salt "lick." It was here that a fountainspouted from the base of a hill, and, running only a few feet, emptiedinto a creek. But its waters were densely impregnated with salt, and allaround its banks the soft soil was trodden with hundreds of footsteps.

  "The wild beasts made these," said the guide to Henry. "They come hereat night: elk, deer, buffalo, wolves, and all the others, big andlittle, to get the salt. They drink the water and they lick up the salttoo from the ground."

  A fierce desire laid hold of the boy at these words. He had a smallrifle of his own, which however he was not permitted to carry often. Buthe wanted to take it and lie beside the pool at night when the game camedown to drink. The dark would have no terrors for him, nor would he needcompanionship. He knew what to do, he could stay in the bush noiselessand motionless for hours, and he would choose only the finest of thedeer and the bear. He could see himself drawing the bead, as a greatbuck came down in the shadows to the fountain and he thrilled withpleasure at the thought. Each new step into the wilderness seemed tobring him nearer home.

  Their stay beside the salt spring was short, but the next night theybuilt the fire higher than ever because just after dark they heard thehowling of wolves, and a strange, long scream, like the shriek of awoman, which the men said was the cry of a panther. There was no danger,but the cries sounded lonesome and terrifying, and it took a big fire tobring back gayety.

  Henry had not yet gone to bed, but was sitting in his favorite placebeside the guide, who was calmly smoking a pipe, and he felt theimmensity of the wilderness. He understood why the people in thiscaravan clung so closely to each other. They were simply a big family,far away from anybody else, and the woods, which curved around them forso many hundreds of miles, held them together.

  The men talked more than usual that night, but they did not tellstories; instead they asked many questions of the guide about thecountry two days' journey farther on, which, Ross said, was so good, andit was agreed among them that they should settle there near the banks ofa little river.

  "It's the best land I ever saw," said Ross, "an' as there's lots ofcanebrake it won't be bad to clear up for farmin'. I trapped beaver inthem parts two years ago, an' I know."

  This seemed to decide the men, and the women, too, for they had theirshare in the council. The long journey was soon to end, and all lookedpleased, especially the women. The great question settled, the menlighted their pipes and smoked a while, in silence, before the blazingfires. Henry watched them and wished that he too was a man and couldtake part in these evening talks. He was excited by the knowledge thattheir journey was to end so soon, and he longed to see the valley inwhich they were to build their homes. He climbed into the wagon at lastbut he could not sleep. His beloved rifle, too, was lying near him, andonce he reached out his hand and touched it.

  The men, by and by, went to the wagons or, wrapping themselves inblankets, slept before the flames. Only two remained awake and on guard.They sat on logs near the outskirts of the camp and held their rifles intheir hands.

  Henry dropped the canvas edge and sought sleep, but it would not come.Too many thoughts were in his mind. He was trying to imagine thebeautiful valley, described by Ross, in which they were to build theirhouses. He lifted the canvas again after a while and saw that the fireshad sunk lower than ever. The two men were still sitting on the logs andleaning lazily against upthrust boughs. The wilderness around them wasvery black, and twenty yards away, even the outlines of the trees werelost in the darkness.

  Henry's sister who was sleeping at the other end of the wagon awoke andcried for water. Mr. Ware raised himself sleepily, but Henry at oncesprang up and offered to get it. "All right," Mr. Ware said.

  Henry quickly slipped on his trousers and taking the tin cup in his handclimbed out of the wagon. He was in his bare feet, but like otherpioneer boys he scorned shoes in warm weather, and stubble and pebblesdid not trouble him.

  The camp was in a glade and the spring was just at the edge of thewoods--they stopped at night only by the side of running water, whichwas easy to find in this region. Near the spring some of the horses andtwo of the oxen were tethered to stout saplings. As Henry approached, ahorse neighed, and he noticed that all of them were pulling on theirropes. The two careless guards were either asleep or so near it thatthey took no notice of what was passing, and Henry, unwilling to calltheir attention for fear he might seem too forward, walked among theanimals, but was still unable to find the cause of the trouble. He kneweveryone by name and nature, and they knew him, for they had beencomrades on a long journey, and he patted their backs and rubbed theirnoses and tried to soothe them. They became a little quieter, but hecould not remain any longer with them because his sister was waiting atthe wagon for the water. So he went to the spring and, stooping down,filled his cup.

  When Henry rose to his full height, his eyes happened to be turnedtoward the forest, and there, about seven or eight feet from the ground,and not far from him he saw two coals of fire. He was so startled thatthe cup trembled in his hand, and drops of water fell splashing backinto the spring. But he stared steadily at the red points, which he nownoticed were moving slightly from side to side, and presently he sawbehind them the dim outlines of a long and large body. He knew that thismust be a panther. The habits of all the wild animals, belonging to thisregion, had been described to him so minutely by Ross that he was surehe could not be mistaken. Either it was a very hungry or a very ignorantpanther to hover so boldly around a camp full of men and guns.

  The panther was crouched on a bough of a tree, as if ready to spring,and Henry was the nearest living object. It must be he at whom the greattawny body would be launched. But as a minute passed and the panther didnot move, save to sway gently, his courage rose, especially when heremembered a saying of Ross that it was the natural impulse of all wildanimals to run from man. So he began to back away, and he heard behindhim the horses trampling about in alarm. The lazy guards still dozed andall was quiet at the wagons. Now Henry recalled some knowledge that hehad learned from Ross and he made a resolve. He would show, at a time,when it was needed, what he really could do. He dropped his cup, rushedto the fire, and picked up a long brand, blazing at one end.

  Swinging his torch around his head until it made a perfect circle offlame he ran directly toward the panther, uttering a loud shout as heran. The animal gave forth his woman's cry, this time a shriek ofterror, and leaping from the bough sped with cat-like swiftness into theforest.

  All the camp was awake in an instant, the men springing out of thewagons, gun in hand, ready for any trouble. When they saw only a boy,holding a blazing torch above his head, they were disposed to grumble,and the two sleepy guards, seeking an excuse for themselves, laughedoutright at the tale that Henry told. But Mr. Ware believed in the truthof his son's words, and the guide, who quickly examined the ground nearthe tree, said there could be no doubt that Henry had really seen thepanther, and had not been tricked by his imagination. The great tracksof the beast were plainly visible in the soft earth.

  "Pushed by hunger, an' thinking there was no danger, he might havesprung on one of our colts or a calf," said Ross, "an' no doubt the boywith his ready use of a torch has saved us from a loss. It was a bravething for him to do."

  But Henry took no pride in their praise. It was no part of his ambitionmerely to drive away a panther, instead he had the hunter's wish to killhim. He would be worthy of the wilderness.

  Henry despite his lack of pride found the world very beautiful the nextday. It was a fair enough scene. Nature had done her part, but hisjoyous mind gave to it deeper and more vivid colors. The wind wasblowing from the south, bringing upon its breath the odor of wildflowers, and all the forest was green with the tender green of youngspring. The cotton-tailed hares that he called rabbits ran across theirpath. Squirrels talked to one another in the tree tops, and defiantlythrew the shells of last year's nuts at the passing travelers. Once theysaw a stag bending down to drink at a brook, and when the forest kingbeheld them he raised his head, and merely stared at these strange newinvaders of the wilds. Henry admired his beautiful form and splendidantlers nor would he have fired at him had it even been within orders.The deer gazed at them a few moments, and then, turning and tossing hishead, sped away through the forest.

  All that he saw was strange and grand to Henry, and he loved thewilderness. About noon he and Ross went back to the wagons and thatnight they encamped on the crest of a range of low and grassy hills.This was the rim of the valley that they had selected on the guide'sadvice as their future home, and the little camp was full of theliveliest interest in the morrow, because it is a most eventful thing,when you are going to choose a place which you intend shall be your homeall the rest of your days. So the men and women sat late around thefires and even boys of Henry's age were allowed to stay up, too, andlisten to the plans which all the grown people were making. Theirs hadnot been a hard journey, only long and tedious--though neither toHenry--and now that its end was at hand, work must be begun. They wouldhave homes to build and a living to get from the ground.

  "Why, I could live under the trees; I wouldn't want a house," whisperedHenry to the guide, "and when I needed anything to eat, I'd kill game."

  "A hunter might do that," replied Ross, "but we're not all hunters an'only a few of us can be. Sometimes the game ain't standin' to be shot atjust when you want it, an' as for sleepin' under the trees it's all veryfine in summer, if it don't rain, but 'twould be just a least bit chillyin winter when the big snows come as they do sometimes more'n a footdeep. I'm a hunter myself, an' I've slept under trees an' in caves, an'on the sheltered side of hills, but when the weather's cold give me fortrue comfort a wooden floor an' a board roof. Then I'll bargain to sleepto the king's taste."

  But Henry was not wholly convinced. He felt in himself the power to meetand overcome rain or cold or any other kind of weather.

  Everybody in the camp, down to the tiniest child, was awake the nextmorning by the time the first bar of gray in the east betokened thecoming day. Henry was fully dressed, and saw the sun rise in amagnificent burst of red and gold over the valley that was to be theirvalley. The whole camp beheld the spectacle. They had reached the crestof the hill the evening before, too late to get a view and they werefull of the keenest curiosity.

  It was now summer, but, having been a season of plenteous rains, grassand foliage were of the most vivid and intense green. They were enteringone of the richest portions of Kentucky, and the untouched soil wasluxuriant with fertility. As a pioneer himself said: "All they had to dowas to tickle it with a hoe, and it laughed into a harvest." There wasthe proof of its strength in the grass and the trees. Never before hadthe travelers seen oaks and beeches of such girth or elms and hickoriesof such height. The grass was high and thick and the canebrake was sodense that passage through it seemed impossible. Down the center of thevalley, which was but one of many, separated from each other by low easyhills, flowed a little river, cleaving its center like a silver blade.

  It was upon this beautiful prospect that the travelers saw the sun risethat morning and all their troubles and labors rolled away. Even theface of Mr. Ware who rarely yielded to enthusiasm kindled at the sightand, lifting his hand, he made with it a circle that described thevalley.

  "There," he said. "There is our home waiting for us."

  "Hurrah!" cried Henry, flinging aloft his cap. "We've come home."

  Then the wagon train started again and descended into the valley, whichin very truth and fact was to be "home."