The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 15: The Letter

Henry was quite sure that the beaver king had given him a direct warning, and he never liked afterward to disturb or impair the belief, and, moreover, he was so alive with gratitude that it was bound to be so. Lying perfectly still in the depths of the thicket he watched the Indians, powerful warriors, who, nevertheless, showed signs of strain and travel. Doubtless they had come from the edge of the lake itself, and he believed suddenly, but with all the certainty of conviction, that they were following him. They were on the back trail, which, in some unexplained manner, they had struck merely to lose again. Chance had brought them to opposite sides of the pond, but he alone had received the warning.

They stood at the water’s edge three or four minutes, looking at the beaver houses and talking, although Henry was too far away to understand what they said. He knew they would not remain long, but what they did next was of vital moment to him. If they should chance to come his way he would have to spring up and run for it, but if they went by another he might lie still and think out his problem.

The leader gave a word of command, and, dropping into the usual single file, they marched silently into the south. Henry lay on the north side of the pool, and when the last of the warriors was out of sight, he rose and walked back to his canoe, which he must now reluctantly abandon. He could not think of continuing on the water when he had proof of the eye that many warriors were in the woods about the creek.

The canoe had served him well. It had saved him often from weariness, and sometimes from exhaustion, but dire need barred it now. He put on the painted coat, made the blankets and provisions into a pack which he fastened on his back, hid the light craft among weeds and bushes at the creek’s margin, and then struck off at a swift pace toward the west and south.

While bands would surely follow him, he did not believe the Indian hosts could be got together again for his pursuit and capture. After their great failure in the flight and pursuit northward they would melt away largely, and winter would thin the new chase yet more. His thought now was less of the danger from them than of his four brave comrades from whom he had been separated so long and whom he was anxious to rejoin. It was more than likely that they had left the oasis and had come a long distance to the north, but where they were now was another of the serious problems that confronted him from day to day. In a wilderness so vast four men were like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

But Henry trusted to luck, which in his mind was no luck at all, rather the favor of the greater powers which had watched over him in his flight and which had not withdrawn their protection on his return, as the king of the beavers had shown. All the following day he fled southward, despite the heavy pack he carried, and made great speed. Here, he judged, the winter had not been severe, since the melting of the great snow that he had encountered on his way toward the lake, and he slept the next night in the lee of a hill, his blankets and the painted coat still being sufficient for his comfort.

At noon of the next day, coming into low ground, mostly a wilderness of bushes and reeds, he heard shots and soon discovered that they came from the rifles and muskets of Indians hunting buffalo and deer, which could not easily escape them in the marshes. For fear of leaving a trail, sure to be seen in such soft ground, he lay very close in a dense thicket of bushes until night, which was fortunately very dark, came. Then he made off under cover of the darkness, and saw Indian fires both to the right and to the left of him. He passed so close to the one on his right that he heard the warriors singing the song of plenty, indicating that the day had yielded them rich store of deer and buffalo. Most of the Indians were not delicate feeders and they would probably eat until they could eat no more, then, lying in a stupor by the fire, they would sleep until morning.

He did not stop until after midnight, and slept again in the protection of a steep hill, advancing the next day through a country that seemed to swarm with warriors evidently taking advantage of the weather to refill the wigwams, which must have become bare of food. Henry, knowing that his danger had been tripled, advanced very slowly now, traveling usually by night and lying in some close covert by day. His own supplies of food fell very low, but at night, at the edge of a stream, he shot a deer that came down to drink, and carried away the best portions of the body. He took the risk because he believed that if the Indians heard the shot they would think it was fired by one of their own number, or at least would think so long enough for him to escape with his new and precious supplies.

He was correct in his calculations, as he was not able to detect any trace of immediate pursuit, and, building a low fire between two hills, he cooked and ate a tender piece of the deer meat.

That night he saw a faint light on the horizon, and believing that it came from an Indian camp, he decided to stalk it. Placing all his supplies inside the blankets and the painted robe, he fastened the whole pack to the high bough of a tree in such a manner that no roving wild animal could get them, and then advanced toward the light, which grew larger as he approached. It also became evident very soon that it was a camp, as he had inferred, but a much larger one than his original supposition. It had been pitched in a valley for the sake of shelter from cold winds, and on the western side was a dense thicket, through which Henry advanced.

The Indians were keeping no watch, as they had nothing to guard against, and he was able to come so near that he could see into the whole bowl, where fully two hundred warriors sat about a great fire, eating all kinds of game and enjoying to the full the warmth and food of savage life. Henry, although they were his natural foes, felt a certain sympathy with them. He understood their feelings. They had gone long in their villages, half starved, while the great snow and the great cold lasted, but now they were in the midst of plenty that they had obtained by their skill and tenacity in hunting. So they rejoiced as they supplied the wants of the primeval man.

The scene was wild and savage to the last degree. Most of the warriors, in the heat of the fires, had thrown off their blankets, and they were bare to the waist, their brown bodies heavily painted and gleaming in the firelight. Every man roasted or broiled for himself huge pieces of buffalo, deer or wild turkey over the coals, and then sat down on the ground, Turkish fashion, and ate.

At intervals a warrior would spring to his feet and, waving aloft a great buffalo bone, would dance back and forth, chanting meanwhile some fierce song of war or the chase. Others would join him, and a dozen, perhaps twenty, would be leaping and contorting their bodies and singing as if they had been seized by a madness. The remainder went on with the feast, which seemed to have no ending.

The wind rose a little and blew, chill, through the forest. The dry boughs rustled against one another, and the flames wavered, but roared the louder as the drafts of air fanned them to greater strength. The warriors, heated by the heaps of coals and the vast quantities of food they were devouring, felt the cold not at all. Instead, the remaining few who wore their blankets threw them off, and there was a solid array of naked brown bodies, glistening with paint and heat. Innumerable sparks rose from the fires and floated high overhead, to die there against the clear, cold skies. When a group of singers and dancers ceased, another took its place, and the fierce, weird chant never stopped, the wintry forest continually giving back its echoes.

The wilderness spectacle had a remarkable fascination for Henry, who understood it so well, and, knowing that there was little danger from men who were spending their time in what to them was a festival, he crept closer, but was still well hidden in the dense thicket. Then his pulses gave a great leap, as four figures which had been on the other side of the fire came distinctly into his view. They were Red Eagle, head chief of the Shawnees; Yellow Panther, head chief of the Miamis; and the renegades, Braxton Wyatt and Moses Blackstaffe, who had pursued him so long and with such tenacity. They were talking earnestly, and he crept to the very edge of the thicket, where scarcely three feet divided him from the open.

He knew that only a chance would bring the four near enough for him to understand their words, but after a half hour’s waiting the chance came. Blackstaffe, who took precedence over Wyatt because of his superior years and experience, was doing most of the talking, and the subject, chance or coincidence bringing it about, was Henry himself.

“The warriors discovered a white trail, the trail of one,” said the renegade, “but we don’t know it was Ware’s. He may have perished in the great freeze, and if so we are well rid of a dangerous foe, an eye that has always watched over our movements, and a bold spirit that always takes the alarm to the settlements below. I give him full credit for all his skill and courage, but I’d rather his bones were lying in the forest, picked clean by the wolves.”

Henry felt a little thrill of satisfaction. “Picked clean by the wolves?” Why, the wolves themselves had saved him once!

“I don’t think he’s dead,” said Braxton Wyatt. “I don’t know why, but I believe I understand him better than any of you do. I tell you he’s even stronger and more resourceful than you suppose! Look how often he has escaped us, when we were sure we held him fast! He’d find a way to live in the big freeze, or anywhere. I’ve an idea that he’s back up there by the lake somewhere, and that the trail the warriors found was that of another of the five, perhaps the traces of the fellow Shif’less Sol.”

Henry’s pulse leaped again, now with joy. The shiftless one had not been taken nor slain, and doubtless none of the others either, or they would have referred to it. But he waited to hear more, and not a dead leaf nor a twig stirred in the thicket, he was so still.

“It seems strange,” said Blackstaffe, thoughtfully, “that we have not been able to take him, when more than a thousand warriors were in the hunt, carried on without stopping, except during the big snow and the big freeze. And the warriors are the best in the west, men who can come pretty near seeing a trail through the air, men without fear. It almost seems to me that there’s been something miraculous about it.”

Then one of the chiefs spoke for the first time, and it was Yellow Panther, the Miami.

“Blackstaffe has spoken the truth,” he said. “Ware is helped by evil spirits, spirits evil to us, else he could not have slipped from our traps so often. He has powerful medicine that calls them to his aid when danger surrounds him.”

Yellow Panther spoke with all the gravity and earnestness that became a great Miami chief, and, as he finished, he looked up at the skies from which the fugitive had summoned spirits to his help. The great Shawnee chief, Red Eagle, standing by his side, nodded in emphatic confirmation. Henry felt a peculiar quiver run through his blood. Had he really received miraculous help, as the two chiefs thought? Lying there in such a place at such a time there was much to make him think as they did.

“We’ve spread a mighty net, and we’ve caught nothing,” said Braxton Wyatt, deep disappointment showing in his tone. “We’ve not only failed to get the leader of the five, but we’ve failed to take a single one of them.”

Now Henry’s heart gave a great leap. He had inferred that all of his comrades were yet safe, but here was positive proof in the words of Wyatt. Why had he ever feared? He might have known that when he drew off the Indian power they would be able to take care of themselves.

“I think,” said Blackstaffe, “that we’d better continue our march to the south, and also keep a large force in the north. If we don’t stumble upon him in a week or two our chance will be gone, at least until next spring. All the wild fowl flew south very early and the old men and women of the tribes have foretold the longest and hardest winter in two generations. Is it not so, Yellow Panther?”

“The cold will be so great that all the warriors will have to seek their wigwams,” replied the Miami chief, “and they will stay there many days and nights, hanging over the fires. The war trail will be deserted and the Ice King will rule over the forest.”

“I’ve no doubt the old men and old women are right,” said Braxton Wyatt, “and you make me shiver now when you tell me what they say. Perhaps the spirits will turn over to our side and give all the five into our hands.”

They moved on out of hearing, but Henry now knew enough. His comrades were untaken and he understood their plan of campaign. If he and the four could evade it a little longer, a mighty winter would shut in, and that would be the end. He was glad he had come to spy upon the host. He had been rewarded more richly than he had hoped. Now he crept silently away, but for a long time, whenever he looked back, he still saw the luminous glow of the great fires on the dusky horizon.

He was so sure that no warriors would come, or, if they did come, that his trained faculties would give him warning in time, that he slept in a thicket within two miles of the camp. He was up before dawn and on the southern trail, knowing that the Indian host would soon be on the same course, though going more slowly. His trail lay to the east of that which had led him north, but the country was of the same general character. Everywhere, save for the little prairies, it was wooded densely, and the countless streams, whether creeks or brooks, were swollen by the winter thaw.

The desire to rejoin his comrades was very strong upon Henry, and he began to look for proofs that they had been in that region. He knew their confidence in him, their absolute faith that he would elude the pursuit and return in time. Therefore they would be waiting for him, and wherever they had passed they would leave signs in the hope that he might see them. So, as he fled, he watched not only for his enemies, but for the trail of his friends.

He was compelled to swim a large river, and the cold was so great that he risked everything and built a fire, before which he warmed and dried himself, staying there nearly two hours. A half hour before he left, he saw distant smoke on his right and then smoke equally distant on his left. Each smoke was ascending in spiral rings, and he knew that they were talking together. He knew also that their engrossing topic was his own smoke rising directly between. A fantastic mood seized him, and he decided to take a part in the conversation. Passing one of his blankets back and forth over his own fire, he, too, sent up a series of rings, sometimes at regular intervals, and again with long breaks between.

It was a weird and drunken chain of signals and he knew that it would set the Indians on the right and the Indians on the left to wondering. They would try their best to read his signals, which he could not read himself; they would strive to put in them meaning, where there was no meaning at all; and he worked with the blanket and the smoke with as much zest and zeal as he had shown at any time in his flight for life.

No such complicated signals had ever before been sent up in the wilderness, and he enjoyed the perplexity of the warriors to the utmost as he saw them talking to one another and also trying frantically to talk to him. The more they said, the more he said and the more complicated was the way in which he said it, until the smoke on his right and the smoke on his left began to sweep around in gusts of indignation and disappointment.

His fantastic humor deepened. He sincerely hoped that Blackstaffe was at the foot of one smoke and that Braxton Wyatt was at the foot of the other, and the more they were puzzled and vexed the better it suited his temper. He sent up the most extraordinary spirals of smoke. Sometimes they rose straight up in the heavens, now they started off to the right, and then they started off to the left. Although they meant nothing, one could imagine that they meant anything or everything. They were a frantic call for help or an insistent message that the trail of the fugitive had been discovered, or merely a wild statement that the night was not going to be cold, nor the next day either, or an exchange of compliments, or whatever those who saw the things chose to imagine.

After hoping for a while so intensely that Braxton Wyatt and Blackstaffe were on either side of him, Henry felt sure it was true, so ready is eager hope to turn its belief into a fact, and he rejoiced anew at their vexation, laughing silently and long. Then he abruptly kicked the coals apart, smothered the smoke, and taking up his pack fled again, much amused and much heartened, for further efforts. He could not remember when he had spent a more enjoyable half hour.

He maintained his flight until far after midnight, when, coming into stony ground, he found excellent shelter under a great ledge, one projecting so widely that when he awoke in the morning and found it raining, he was quite dry. It poured heavily until the afternoon, and he did not stir from his covert, but, wrapped in the painted coat and blankets, and taking occasional strips of the deer meat, he enjoyed the period of rest.

It rained so hard that he could not see more than fifty yards away, and in the ravine before his ledge the water ran in a cold stream. The forest looked desolate and mournful, and he would have been desolate and mournful himself if it had not been for the single fact that he was able to keep dry. That made all the difference in the world, and the contrast between his own warm and sheltered lair and the chill and dripping woods and thickets merely heightened his sense of comfort.

When the rain stopped it was followed by an extremely cold night that froze everything tight. Every tree, bush and the earth itself was covered with glittering ice, a vast and intricate network, a wilderness in white and silver. It was alike beautiful and majestic, and it made its full appeal to Henry, but at the same time he knew that his difficulties had been increased. He would have to walk over ice, and, as he passed through the thickets, fragments of ice brushed from the twigs would fall about him. For a while, at least, the Ice Age had returned. It was sure, too, to make game very scarce, as all the animals would stay in their coverts as long as they could at such a time, and he must replenish his supplies of food soon. But that was a difficulty to which he gave only a passing thought. Others pressed upon him with more immediate force.

His moccasins had become worn from long use and they slipped on the ice as if it were glass. He met this difficulty by cutting pieces from one of the blankets and tying them tightly over his feet with thin strips from his buckskin garments. He was then able to walk without slipping, and he made good progress again through the forest, the exertion of travel keeping him warm. Meanwhile he watched everywhere for a sign, a sign from the four, keeping an especial eye for the trees, for it was upon them that the forest runners wrote their letters to one another. In his soul he craved such a letter and he did not really know how intensely he craved it. The bonds of friendship that united the five were the ties of countless hardships and dangers shared, and not one of them would have hesitated an instant to risk his life for any one of the others.

It was characteristic of Henry’s patience and thoroughness that, though he found nothing, he kept on looking. He wanted a letter, and he wanted it so long and with so much concentration that he began to believe he would find it. It was only a short letter that he wished, merely a word from his friends saying they had passed that way. A straight, tall figure, with eager, questing eyes, he went on through the silver forest. When the light wind blew, fragments of the ice that sheathed every bough and twig fell about him and rattled like silver coins as they struck the ice below, but mostly the air was quiet, and the glow from a mighty setting sun began to shoot such deep tints through the silver that it was luminous with red gold. Thinking little now of its beauty and majesty, the hunter pressed on, not the hunter of men nor even a hunter of game, but a hunter for a word.

The mighty sun sank farther. Most of the gold in its rays was gone, and it burned with an intense red fire, lighting up the icy forest with the glow of an old, old world. Henry still looked. The dark would come soon, when he must abandon the search for the word and seek shelter instead. But his hope was still high that he would find it before night closed down.

When the red glow was at its deepest he saw in the very core and heart of it that for which he was looking. Eye-high on the stalwart trunk of an oak were four parallel slashes from the keen blade of a tomahawk. They could not have been put there by chance. A powerful hand had wielded the weapon and the four cuts were precisely horizontal and close together. He had found his word. It was as plain as day. The four had passed there and they had left for him a letter telling him all about it. This was only the first paragraph in the letter, and he would find others farther on, but he devoted a little time to the examination of the first.

He studied minutely the cuts and the cloven edges of the bark, and he decided that they were at least two weeks old. So the letter had been posted some time since, and doubtless its writers had gone on to another region. But if they posted one letter they would post others, and he felt now that communication had been established. True, the chain connecting them was long, but it could be shortened inch by inch.

He made a series of widening circles about the tree, looking for the second paragraph of the letter, and he found it about a hundred yards to the eastward, exactly like the first, four parallel slashes of a tomahawk, eye-high, deep into the trunk of a stalwart oak. He found a third paragraph precisely like the first and the second, a hundred yards farther on, and then no more. But three were enough. They indicated clearly the course of the four which was into the northeast. In the morning he would change his own direction to conform with theirs.

The letter gave him a great surge of the heart, but the night came down quickly, dark and cold, the bitter wind blew again, and the ice fell about him in a rain of chill crystals. He knew that the temperature was falling fast, and that it would be his hardest night so far. He must have a fire, risk or no risk, and it was a full three hours before he was able to coax one from dead wood that he dragged from sheltered recesses. Then it felt so good that he built a second, intending to sleep between them. His supply of food was low, but knowing how needful it was to preserve his strength and the full fresh flow of his blood, he ate of it heartily, and, then when the ground, wet between the fires from the melted ice, had been dried by the heat, he made his bed and slept well, although he awoke once in the night and finding the cold intense put fresh wood on the fires.

The next morning was one of the coldest he had felt, and he was reluctant to leave the beds of coals, but his comrades had given him a sign, and he would not dream of ignoring it. He threw ice upon the fires, and with a sigh felt their heat disappear. Then he followed the trail to the northeast, hunting at intervals for a renewal of the sign lest he go wrong. Three times he found it, always the four cuts, eye-high, always in the trunk of a stalwart oak, and always they led in the direction in which he was going. The cuts were very deep, and he was quite sure that they had been made by Shif’less Sol, who added to remarkable strength wonderful cunning and mastery in the use of a tomahawk.

About noon, he came to a vast, shallow, flooded area, a third of a mile or more across, but extending farther to north and south than he could see either way. Doubtless the four had crossed there before the heavy rains made the flood, and as he was unwilling to take the long circuit to north or south he decided to make the passage on the ice which was thick and strong.

He had been so free from danger for some time that he took little thought of it now, but when it was absent from his mind it came. When he was well out upon the ice he heard the crack of a rifle behind him and a bullet whizzed by his ear. He ran forward at great speed before he looked back, and then he saw a dozen warriors standing at the edge of the ice, but making no motion to pursue. As he was now out of range, he stopped and examined them, wondering why they did not follow him. The solution came quickly.

The band suddenly united in a tremendous war whoop and from the woods on the other side of the ice came an answering whoop. He was trapped between them, and they could afford to be deliberate. His heart sank, but as usual his courage came back in an instant, stronger than ever. Alert, resourceful, the best marksman in all the West, he did not mean to be taken or slain, and he looked about for the means of defense. As it was not a lake, upon the frozen surface of which he stood, merely a great shallow flooded area, there were clumps of bushes and little islands of earth here and there, and he ran to one not twenty feet away, a tiny place, well covered with big bushes. The Indians, seeing him take refuge, set up a yell from both shores, and Henry, settling down in his covert, waited for them to make the first move.

He knew that the warriors would be deliberate. Considering their victim secure in the trap, they would reckon time of no value, and would take no unnecessary risk. He believed they were hunting bands, not those that had trailed him directly, and that his encounter with them was chance, a piece of bad fortune, nothing more than he should expect after such a long run of good fortune.

Warriors of the different bands sent far signals to one another across the ice, and then slowly and with care each party built a large fire, around which the men sat basking in the heat, and now and then, with a cry or two, taunting the fugitive whom they considered so tight in the trap. The red gleam of the flames upon the ice, contrasting with his own situation, struck a chill into Henry. The wind had a clear sweep over the frozen lagoon, and the rustling of the icy bushes above him was like a whisper from the cold. He wrapped himself thoroughly in the painted coat and the two blankets, put the rifle in front of him, where he could snatch it up instantly, and beat his hands together at times to keep them warm, and at other times held them under the blankets.

He understood human nature, and he knew that they were rejoicing in their own comfort, while he might be freezing. They felt that way because it was their way, and he did not blame them. It was merely his business to thwart their plans, so far as they concerned himself. He recognized that it was a contest in which only superior skill could defeat superior numbers, and he summoned to his aid every faculty he possessed.

The Indians did not move for an hour, luxuriating by their fires, and occasionally taunting him with cries. Then four warriors from either shore went upon the ice at the same time, and began to advance slowly toward his island, making use of the clumps of bushes that thrust here and there through the frozen surface of the lagoon.

Henry slipped his hands from the blankets and watched both advancing parties with swift glances, right and to left. They were using shelter and advancing very slowly, but beyond a certain point both were bound to come in range. He smiled a little. Much of his forest life recently had been in the nature of an idyll, but now the wild man in him was uppermost. They came to kill and they would find a killer.

He knelt among the bushes, which were thin enough to allow him a clear view in every direction, and put his powder horn and bullet pouch on the snow in front of him. He could reload with amazing rapidity. They did not know that. Nor did they know that they were advancing upon the king of riflemen. Naturally, they would suppose him to be a wandering hunter lost in a dangerous region.

The party on the west presently began to pass from the shelter of one tuft of bushes to another, twenty yards away, and in doing so the four were wholly exposed. It was a long shot, much too long for any of the Indians, but not too long for Henry. He fired at the leading warrior, and, before he had time to see him crashing on the ice, he was reloading his rifle with all the speed of dexterous fingers. He heard a yell of rage from the Indians, and, glancing up, saw the three dragging away the body of the fallen man. But the party on the other side, knowing that his rifle had been emptied, but not knowing with what speed he could reload, came running.

His weapon flashed a second time, and with the same deadly aim. The leading warrior in the second party fell also, dead, when his body touched the ice, and his comrades gave back in fear. They had not known such terrible sharpshooting before, and the man whom they had thought so securely in the trap must have two rifles at least. Both parties, carrying their dead with them, retreated swiftly to shore, and gathered about the fires again.

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