The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 10: The Bear Guide

The fire was just beyond the thicket of reeds, and Henry addressed himself to the task of penetrating them without noise, a difficult thing to do, but which he accomplished in about five minutes, stopping just short of the outer edge, where he was still hidden well.

He was then able to see a small opening in which about a dozen warriors lay around a low fire, with two who were sentinels sitting up but nodding. He saw by their paint that they were Miamis, and thus he was confirmed in his belief that Yellow Panther had come with a large force from his tribe.

He knew that the sentinels had been set largely as a matter of form, since the Indians in the bowl itself would not anticipate any attack from a lone fugitive. The true watch would be kept on the outermost rim. So reasoning he waited, hoping that the two sentinels who were nodding so suggestively would fall asleep. Even as he looked their nods began to increase in violence. Their heads would fall over on their shoulders, hang there for a few moments and then their owners would bring them back with a jerk.

Indians, like white people, have to sleep, and Henry knew that the two warriors must have been up long, else they would not have to fight so hard to keep awake. That they would yield before long he did not now doubt, and he began to watch with an amused interest to see which would give in first. One was an old warrior, the other a youth of about twenty. Henry believed the lad would lead the way, and he was justified in his opinion, as the younger warrior, after bringing his head back into position two or three times with violent jerks, finally let it hang, while his chest rose with the long and deep breathing of one who slumbers. The older man looked at him with heavy-laden eyes and then followed him to the pleasant land of oblivion.

Henry now examined the camp with questioning eyes. In such a land of plentiful game they would be sure to have abundant supplies, and he saw there a haunch of deer well cooked, buffalo meat, two or three wild turkeys and wild ducks. His eyes rested longest on the haunch of the deer, and, making up his mind that it should be his, he began to creep again through the undergrowth to the sheltered point that lay nearest it, a task in which he exercised to the utmost his supreme gifts as a stalker, since these were the most critical moments of all.

The haunch lay not more than eight feet from the reeds, and he believed he could reach it without awakening any of the warriors. Once the older sentinel opened his eyes and looked around sleepily, and Henry instantly stopped dead, but it was merely a momentary return from slumberland, to which the man went back in a second or two, and then the stalker resumed his slow creeping.

At the point he sought, he slipped noiselessly into the open, seized the haunch and slid back in the same way, stopping in the shelter of the reeds to see if he had been noticed. But all the warriors still slept, and, thankful once more to the greater powers who had favored him, he made his way back to his shelter, provisioned now for several days. Then he ate a hearty supper, gathering more of the berries as a sauce, and drinking from the little stream.

He was well aware that the Indians, when they missed the haunch, would know that he lay somewhere in the bowl; but, with starvation as the alternative, he was compelled to take the risk. Before dawn, it rained again, removing all apprehensions that he may have felt about his trail, and he took a nap of two or three hours, relying upon his heightened senses to give him an alarm, if they drew near, even while he slept.

The next dawn came, cold and raw, with the rain ceasing after a while, but followed by a heavy fog that filled the whole bowl. Henry, sharp as his eyes were, could not see twenty feet in front of him, and, just like the bear that had once occupied it, he lay very close in his lair. The confinement was growing irksome to one of his youth and strength, as he felt his muscles stiffening, but it was necessary, because he heard the signals of the Indians to one another through the fog, sometimes not more than two or three hundred yards away. Their proximity, he knew, was due to chance, as there was nothing to disclose to them where he lay. They were merely following the plan of threshing out all the hay in the haystack in order to find the needle, and he knew that they would complete it even to the last wisp.

Another day and night passed in the lair, and the inactivity, confinement and suspense became frightful. He began to feel that he must move, even if he plunged directly into the Indian ranks, and the warriors permitted no doubt that they were near, since the calls of birds and animals were frequent. Two or three times he heard shots, and he knew it was the warriors killing game. He resented it, as all the animals in this little valley had proved themselves his friends, and he felt an actual grief for those that had been slain.

It was the truth that in these days of hiding and waiting Henry was reverting to some ancient type, not one necessarily ruder or more ferocious, but a primitive golden age in its way, in which man and beast were more nearly friends. There was proof in the fact that birds hopped about within a foot or two of him and showed no alarm, and that a rabbit boldly rested among the leaves not a yard away.

It would be, in truth, his happy valley were it not for the presence of the Indians. But they were drawing nearer. Call now answered to call, and they were only a few hundred yards away. He divined that they had threshed up most of the maze, and that a close circle was being drawn about him in the bowl. The next night, when he went out for water, he caught a glimpse of warriors stalking in the brush, and he did not believe that his lair would hide him more than a day or two longer. He must find some way to creep through the ring, but, for the present, he could think of none.

Another day passed, and he did not sleep at all in the night that followed, as the warriors were so near now that his keen ear often heard them moving, and once the sound of the men talking to one another came to him distinctly. It was obvious that he must soon make his attempt to break through the ring. Fortunately the night was foggy again, and while he was deliberating anew, concentrating all the power of his mind upon the attempt to find a plan, he heard a faint rustle in the thicket directly in front of him, and he instantly threw his rifle forward, sure that the warriors were upon him. Instead, a shambling figure poked its head through the thicket and looked curiously at him out of little red eyes.

It was the black bear that he had ousted, and Henry thought he saw sympathy as well as curiosity in the red eyes. The bear, far from upbraiding him for driving it from its home, had pity, and no fear at all. He could not see any sign of either alarm or hostility in the red eyes. The gaze expressed kinship, and his own was reciprocal.

“I hope the warriors won’t get you, but you’re running a mighty big risk,” was his thought. Then came a second thought quick upon the heels of the first. How had the bear come through the ring of the warriors? Had the Indians seen it they would certainly have shot at it, because they loved bear meat. Not only had no shot been fired, but the bear was deliberate and free from apprehension. Then like lightning came a third thought. The bear had come in some providential way to save him. It had been sent by the greater powers.

There was something almost human in the gaze of the bear and Henry could never persuade himself afterward that its look did not have understanding. It began to withdraw slowly through the thicket, and, rising up, taking his rifle, blanket and supplies, he followed. A strange feeling seized him. He was transported out of himself. He believed that the miraculous was going to happen. And it happened.

The bear led ten or fifteen feet ahead, and then turned sharply to the right, where apparently it would come up dead against the blank stone wall of the hill. But it turned to look once at Henry and disappeared in the wall. He stood in amazement, but followed nevertheless. Then he saw. There was a narrow cleft in the stone, the entrance to which was completely hidden by three or four bushes growing closely together. The wariest eye would have passed over it a hundred times without seeing it, but the bear had gone in without hesitation, and now Henry, parting the bushes, went in, too.

He found a ravine not more than three feet wide that seemed to lead completely through the hill. The foliage met above it, and it was dark there, but he saw well enough to make his way. He could also trace the dim figure of the bear shambling on ahead, and his heart made a violent leap as he realized that in very truth and fact he was being led out of the Indian ring. Chance or intent? What did it matter? Who was he to question when favors were showered upon him? It was merely for him to take the gifts the greater powers gave, and, with voiceless thanks, he followed the lead of the animal which shambled steadily ahead.

The narrow ravine, or rather crack in the stone, might have ended against a wall, or it might have led up to the crest of the hill where Indian warriors lay watching, but he knew that it would do neither. He felt with all the certainty of actual knowledge that it would go on until it came out on the far side of the circling hills, and beyond the Indian ring.

He walked a full mile, his dumb guide leading faithfully. Sometimes the ravine widened a little, but always the foliage met overhead, and he was never able to catch more than glimpses of the sky. At last the width increased steadily, and then he came out into the forest with the hills behind him. The form of the bear was disappearing among the trees, but Henry sent after him his voiceless thanks. Again he felt that he could not question whether it was chance or intent, but must accept with gratitude the great favor that had been granted to him. Behind him, as reminders, came from far across the hills the faint calls of wolf and owl, the cries of the Indians to one another, as the chiefs directed the closing in of the ring upon the fugitive who was no longer there, the fugitive who had been guided in a miraculous manner to the only way of escape.

He sat down upon a fallen tree trunk, laughing silently at the chagrin his pursuers would feel when they came upon the lair, the empty lair. Braxton Wyatt would rage, Blackstaffe would rage, and while Red Eagle and Yellow Panther might not rage openly, they would burn with internal fire. Then his laughter gave way to far more solemn feelings. Who was he to laugh at two great Indian chiefs who certainly would have taken or slain him had it not been for the intervening miracle?

Henry’s heart was filled with admiration and gratitude. He had been a friend for a day or two to the beasts of the forest and one of them had come to his rescue. The feeling of reversion to a primitive golden age was still strong within him, and doubtless the bear, too, had really felt the sense of kinship. He looked in the direction in which the shambling animal had gone, but there was no sign of him. Perhaps he had disappeared forever, because his mission was done.

Again came the calls of animals to one another, the cries of the owl and wolf, and then their own natural voices, in which Henry now, in fancy or in fact, detected the note of chagrin. They had found the lair at last, and they had found it empty! A long yell, fiercer than any of the others, confirmed him in the belief, and despite the solemnity of his own feelings at such a time, when he had been saved in such a manner, he was compelled to laugh silently, but with intense enjoyment.

Then he addressed himself to his new problems. Because he had escaped with his life, it did not mean that his troubles were ended. The warriors would come quickly out of the maze and Red Eagle and Yellow Panther, with the host at their command, would send innumerable scouts and trailers in every direction to find his new traces. It would be with them not only a question of removing their enemy, but a matter of pride as well, and they were sure to make a supreme effort.

It was his knowledge of the minds of the chiefs that had kept him from turning back to the oasis and his comrades. To return would be merely to draw a fresh attack upon them, and he resolved to continue his flight to the northeast. It was characteristic of him that he should not be headlong, exhausting himself, but he sat down calmly, ate a slice of the deer meat, and waited until he should hear the Indian signals again. They came presently from the segment of the circling hills nearest to him, and he knew that the pursuit had been organized anew and thoroughly. Then he rose and fled in the direction he had chosen.

He did not stop until the next night, covering a distance of about thirty miles, and although he heard nothing further then from the warriors, he knew the pursuit was still on. But he was so far ahead that he believed he could take rest with safety, and, creeping into a thicket, he made his bed once more among the leaves of last year. He slept soundly, but awakening at midnight, he scouted a bit about his retreat. Finding no evidence that the enemy was near, he slept again until dawn. Then he renewed the flight, turning a little more toward the north.

He yet had enough of the deer meat to last, with economy, three or four days, and he did not trouble himself for the present about the question of a further food supply. Instead he began to rejoice in his own flight. He was now fifty or sixty miles further north than the oasis, and as the country was higher and some time had elapsed since his departure, autumn was much more advanced. It was a season in which he was always uplifted. It struck for him no note of decay and dissolution. The crispness and freshness that came into the air always expanded his lungs and made his muscles more elastic and powerful. He had the full delight of the eye in the glorious colors that came over the mighty wilderness. He saw the leaves a glossy brown, or glowing in reds or yellows. The sumac bushes burned like fire. Everything was sharp, clear, intense and vital.

There was never another forest like that of the Mississippi Valley, a million square miles of unbroken woods, cut by a myriad of streams, varying in size from the tiniest of brooks to the great Father of Waters himself. Henry loved it and gloried in it, and he knew it well, too. It now contained various kinds of ripening berries that served as a sauce for his deer meat, and occasionally he would crack some of the early nuts that had ripened and fallen. The need for food would not be strong enough for some days yet to make him fire upon any of his new comrades, the wild animals.

But it is true that Henry still remained a creature of that primitive golden age. Never were his senses more acute. The lost faculties of man when he lived wholly in the woodland came back to him. He detected the presence of the hidden deer in the thickets, and he knew that the buffaloes were on the little prairies long before he came to them. He might have shot any number of the big beasts with ease, but he passed them by as he continued his steady flight into the north.

He had not seen any sign of his pursuers in two days, and now he stopped for them to come up, meanwhile eating plentifully in a berry patch. The berries were rich and large, and he took his time and ease, enjoying his stay there all the more because of his new comrades. Two black bears preyed upon the farther edge of the patch, and he laughed at them when their noses were covered with crimson stains. They seemed to be friendly, but he did not put the tie of friendship to too severe a test by approaching closely. Instead, he watched them from a little distance, when, after having eaten enormously, they played with each other like two boys, pushing and pulling, their reddened noses giving them the look of the comedians they were.

A stag watched the sportive bears from a little distance, standing body deep among the bushes, and regarding them with gravity. It pleased Henry to see a twinkle of amusement in the great eyes of the deer, which kept his ground unafraid, despite the presence of his usual enemy, man.

The bears, which were young, and hence festive, continued their sport, encouraged, perhaps, by a gathering and appreciative audience. A wildcat ran out on a long bough, looked at them and yowled twice. As they paid no attention to him, he concluded that it was best to be in a good humor after all, as obviously nobody meant him any harm. So he lay on the bough and watched the game. His eyes showed green and yellow in the sunlight, but it pleased Henry to think that they also held a look of laughter.

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