The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 14: The Watchful Squirrel

Henry saw about what he expected to see, two long canoes, containing a dozen or more warriors each, with the Shawnee chief, Red Eagle, and Braxton Wyatt in the first and Yellow Panther, the Miami chief, and Blackstaffe in the second. Chiefs and renegades and warriors alike swept the shore with questing eyes, but they did not see the one for whom they had looked so long lying so near, and yet hidden so well among the reeds.

He watched them without apprehension. He had full confidence in the veil about him, and he expected them to pass on in the relentless hunt. They, too, looked worn, and he fancied that the eyes of chiefs and renegades expressed disappointment and deep anger. Nobody in the long canoes spoke, and, silent save for the plashing of the paddles they went on and out of sight.

Henry might have taken to the woods now, but he was too wary. He wished to remain on the element that left no trail, and he felt also that he had walked and run long enough. He intended to travel now chiefly with the strength of his arms, and the longer he stayed in the canoe the better he liked it. Its store of provisions was fine, and it was easier to carry them in it than on his back. So he waited with the patience that every true forest runner has, and saw the morning merge into the afternoon.

It was almost evening when the long canoes came back, passing his covert. They had found the quest vain, and concluding, doubtless, that they had gone too far, were returning to look elsewhere. But the paddlers were weary, and the chiefs and renegades, too, drooped somewhat. They did not show their usual alertness of eye as they came back against the stream, and Henry judged that the pursuit would lapse in energy, while they went ashore in search of warmth and food.

A half hour after they were out of sight he came from the weeds, and, with great sweeps of the paddle, sent the canoe shooting down the river. He was so fresh and strong now that he felt as if he could go on forever, and all through the night his powerful arms drove him toward his unknown goal. He noticed that the river was broadening and the banks were low, sometimes sandy, and he fancied that he was approaching its outlet in one of the Great Lakes. And the chase had led so far! Nor was it yet finished! The chiefs and the renegades, not finding him farther back, would reorganize the pursuit and follow again.

Day came bright and warm, much warmer than it had been farther south, and Henry paddled until evening although he found the heat oppressive. Paddling a full day and part of a night was a great task for anybody and he grew weary again. When the night came, seeing no reeds and bushes in which he could hide the canoe, he resolved to sleep on land. So he lifted it from the river and carried it a short distance inland, where he put it down in a thicket, choosing a resting place for himself not far away.

He spread one of the blankets as usual on dead leaves, and put the other and the painted coat over himself. Then, knowing that he would be warm and snug for the night, he relaxed and looked idly at the dusky woods, feeling perfectly safe as the warriors must be far to the south.

The only living being he saw was a gray squirrel on the trunk of a tree about twenty feet away. But he was a friend of the squirrel, and he regarded it with friendly eyes, noting the sharpness of its claws, the bushiness of its tail, and the alertness of its keen little nose. It was an uncommon squirrel, endowed with great curiosity, and perception, a leader in its tribe, and it was intensely interested in the large, still body lying on the leaves below.

The squirrel came farther down the tree, and stared intently at Henry, uncertain whether he was a friend or a foe. Yet he had all the aspect of a friend. There was no hostile movement, and the bold and inquiring fellow ventured another foot closer. Then he scuttled in alarm ten feet back up the trunk, as the figure raised a hand, and threw something small that fell at the foot of the tree.

But as the human being did not move again, the courage and curiosity of this uncommonly bold and inquiring squirrel returned, and, gradually creeping down the tree, he inspected the small object that had fallen there. It smelled good, and when he nibbled at it it tasted good. Then he ate it all, went back up the bark a little distance and waited gratefully for more of the same. Presently it came, and he ate that bit, too, and after a while a third. Then the human figure threw him no more such fine food, but went to sleep.

The squirrel knew he was asleep, because he left the tree, walked cautiously over the ground, and stood with his ears cocked up, scarcely a yard from the vast, still figure that breathed so deeply and with such regularity. He had seen gigantic beings before. From the safety of his boughs he had looked upon those mountains, the buffaloes, and he had often seen the stag in the forest. Mere size did not terrify him, and now he did not feel in the least afraid. On the contrary, this was his friend who had fed him, and he regarded him with benevolence.

The squirrel went back up the tree, his claws pattering lightly on the bark. He had a fine knot hole high up the trunk, and his family were sound asleep in it, surrounded by a great store of nuts. There was a warm place for him, the head of the family, but he could not stay in it. After a while he was compelled to go out again, and look at the unconscious human figure.

Emboldened by his first experience which had been so free from ill result, he descended upon the ground a second time and went toward Henry. But in an instant he turned back again. His keen little ears had heard something moving in the forest and it was not any small animal like himself, but a large body, several of them in fact. He ran up the tree, and then far out on a bough where he could see.

Five Indian warriors walking in single file were approaching. They were part of an outlying band, not perhaps looking for Henry, but, if they continued on their course, they would be sure to see him. The squirrel regarded them for a moment with little red eyes, and then ran back to the trunk of the tree.

Henry, meanwhile, slept soundly. There was nothing to disturb him. The wind did not blow and so the dry branches of the forest did not rustle. The footsteps of the approaching Indians made no noise, yet in a few more moments he ceased to sleep so well. A sound penetrated at last to his ear and he sat up. It was the chattering of the gray squirrel, and the rattling of his claws on the dry bark of the tree, his bushy tail curving far over his back, and his whole body seeming to be shaken by violent convulsions. Henry stared at him, thinking at first that he was threatened by some carnivorous prowler of the air, but, as he looked away, he caught a glimpse through the bushes of a moving brown figure and then of another and more.

Henry Ware never struck camp with more smoothness and celerity. One hand swept up his blankets and the painted robe, another grasped his rifle, and, as silent as a night bird itself, he vanished into the deeper thicket where the canoe lay. There, crouched beside it, he watched while the warriors passed. They would certainly have seen his body had it been lying where it had been, but they were not near enough to notice his traces, and they had no cause to suspect his presence. So, the silent file passed on, and disappeared in the deep woods.

Henry stood up, and once more he felt a great access of wonder and gratitude. The superior powers were surely protecting him, and were even watching over him while he slept. He walked back a little and looked at the tree, on which the gray squirrel had chattered and rattled his claws. He thought he caught a glimpse of a bushy tail among the boughs, but he was not sure. In any event, he bore in mind that while great animals had served him, the little ones, too, had given help as good. Then he bore the canoe back to the river, put in it all his precious possessions, and continued his flight by water.

There was a chance that warriors might see him from the banks, since he had proof of their presence in the woods, but relying upon his skill and the favors of fortune, he was willing to take the risk. He had an idea, too, that he would soon come to the lake, and he meant to hide among the dense thickets and forests, sure to line its low shores.

His surmise was right, as some time before noon the river widened abruptly, and a half hour later he came out on the border of a vast lake, stretching blue to the horizon and beyond. A strong wind blowing over the great expanse of water came sharp and cold, but to Henry, naturally so strong and warmed by his exertions, it furnished only exhilaration. He felt that now the great flight and chase had come to an end. He could not cross this mighty inland sea in his light canoe, and doubtless the chiefs and the renegades, unable to follow his trail by water, where he left no trail at all, would give up at last, and hope for more success another time.

So believing, and confident in his belief, he looked around for a temporary home, and marked a low island lying out about five miles from the shore. The five had found good refuge on an island once before, and he alone might do it again, and lie hidden there, until all danger from the great hunt had passed.

He acted with his usual boldness and decision, and paddled with a strong arm toward the island which seemed to be about a mile each way and was a mass of dense forest. His canoe rocked on the waves, which were running high before the wind, but he came without mishap to the island, and, pushing his canoe through thickets of reeds and willows, landed.

Leaving the canoe well hidden, he examined the island and was well pleased with it, as it seemed to be suited admirably to his purpose. The forest was unbroken and very dense. Probably human beings never came there, as the game seemed very tame. Two or three deer looked at him with mild, inquiring eyes before they moved slowly away, and he saw where wild turkey roosted in numbers at night.

In the center of the island was a small dip, where only bushes grew, and he decided that he would make his camp there, as the great height of the trees surrounding it would hide the smoke that might arise from his subdued campfire. But he did no work that day, as he wished to be sure that his passage to the island had not been observed by any wandering warriors on the mainland. There was no sign of pursuit, and he knew now that fortune had favored him again.

He slept the night through in the canoe, and the next morning he set to work with his hatchet to make a bush shelter for himself, a task that took two days and which he finished just in time, as a fierce wind with hail swept over the island and the lake. He had removed all his supplies from the canoe to the hut, and, wrapped in the painted robe, he watched hail and wind beat upon the surface of the lake, until it drove in high waves like the sea. There was no danger of warriors trying the passage to the island in such weather, and his look was that of a spectator not that of a sentinel. The great nervous strain of the long flight, and its many and deadly perils, had passed, and he found a pleasure in watching the turmoil of the elements.

The old feeling that he belonged for the time to a far, far distant past returned. He was alone on his island, as many a remote ancestor of his must have been alone in the forest in his day, and yet he felt not the least trace of loneliness or fear. Everything was wild, primeval and grand to the last degree. The huge lake, curving up from the horizon, had turned from blue to lead, save where the swift waves were crested with white. The hail beat on the trees and bushes like myriads of bullets, and the wind came with a high, shrill scream. The mainland was lost in the mist and clouds, and he was not only alone on his island, but alone in his world, and separated from his foes by tumbling and impassable waters.

Henry’s mind was in tune with the storm. He looked upon it as a celebration of his triumph, the end of the flight and the chase, a flight that had been successful for him, a chase that had been unsuccessful for the chiefs and the renegades, and the blood merely flowed more swiftly in his veins, as the hail beat upon him. He did not care how long wind and hail lasted; the longer the better for him, and, flinging out his hands, he waved a salute to the storm god.

He remained for hours looking upon the great spectacle, that pleased him so much, and then kept dry by the huge painted coat, he went back to the brush hut. But night only and the necessity to sleep could have sent him there. He did not yet light a fire, contenting himself with the cold food from the canoe, nor did he do so the next day, as the storm was still raging. When it ceased on the third day all the trees and bushes were coated with ice, and he was a dweller in the midst of a silver forest. Then, with much difficulty he lighted a small fire before the hut, warmed over some venison and a little of the precious bread. He would not have to kill any game for a week or ten days and he was glad that it was so, since he was still averse to slaying any member of the kingdom of the animals that had befriended him so much.

The peace of the elements lasted only a few hours. Then they were in a more terrible turmoil than ever. The wind whistled and shrieked, and the snow came down, driven here and there in whirling gusts, while the lake roared and thundered beneath the drive of the hurricane. Although there were lulls at times, yet as a whole the storm lasted a whole week, and it was remembered long by the Indians living in those northern regions as the week of the great storm, unexampled in its length and ferocity.

But Henry found nothing in it to frighten him. Rather, the greater powers were still watching over him, and it was sent for his protection. His own bold and wild spirit remained in tune with it at all times. The brush hut was warm and snug and it held fast against wind, hail and snow. Now and then he lighted the fire anew to warm over his food or merely to see the bright blaze.

At the end of the week he shot a deer among a herd that had found shelter in extremely deep woods at the north end of the island, and never did he do a deed more reluctantly. But it gave an abundance of fresh food, which he now needed badly, and he added to his stores two wild turkeys.

The source of this story is Finestories

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