The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 2: The Great Joke

Mid-morning and Henry awoke, yawning a little and stretching himself mightily. Then he looked questioningly at Shif’less Sol who sat in a position of great luxury with his doubled blanket between his back and a tree trunk, and his rifle across his knees. The look of satisfaction that had come there in the morning like a noon glow still overspread his tanned and benevolent countenance.

“Well, Sol?”

“Well, Henry?”

“What has happened while we slept?”

“Nothin’, ‘cept that Braxton Wyatt an’ twenty Shawnee warriors passed, takin’ no more notice o’ us than ef we wuz leaves o’ the forest.”

“Advancing on our old house?”

“Yes, they’ve set the siege by now.”

“And we’re not there. I’ll wake the others. They must share in the joke.”

Paul, Long Jim and Silent Tom wiped the last wisp of sleep from their eyes, and, when they heard the tale of a night and a morning, they too laughed to themselves with keen enjoyment.

“What will we do, Henry?” Paul asked.

“First, we’ll eat breakfast, though it’s late. Then we’ll besiege the besiegers. While they’re drawing the net which doesn’t enclose us we might as well do ‘em all the harm we can. We’re going to be dangerous fugitives.”

The five laughed in unison.

“We’ll make Braxton Wyatt and the Shawnees think the forest is full of enemies,” said Paul.

Meanwhile they took their ease, and ate breakfast of wild turkey, buffalo steak and a little corn bread that they hoarded jealously. The sun continued its slow climb toward the zenith and Paul, looking up through the canes, thought he had never seen a finer day. Then he remembered something.

“I suggest that we don’t move today,” he said. “They won’t approach the hollow until night anyway, and it wouldn’t hurt for us to lie here in the shelter of the brake and rest until dark.”

Henry looked at him in surprise.

“Your idea is sudden and I don’t understand it,” he said.

“So it is, Henry, but it never occurred to me until a moment ago that this was Sunday. We haven’t observed Sunday in a long time, and now is our chance. We can’t wholly forget our training.”

He spoke almost with apology, but the leader did not upbraid him. Instead, he looked at the others and found agreement in their eyes.

“Paul talks in a cur’ous manner an’ has cur’ous notions sometimes,” said Shif’less Sol, “but I don’t say they ain’t good. It’s a long time since we’ve paid any ‘tention to Sunday, but the idee sticks in my mind. Mebbe it would be a good way fur us to start our big fight ag’inst the tribes an’ the renegades.”

“When Cromwell and his Ironsides advanced against the Royalists,” said Paul, “they knelt down and prayed first on the very field of battle. Then they advanced with their pikes in a solid line, and nothing was ever able to stand before them.”

“Then we’ll keep Sunday,” said Henry decisively.

Paul, feeling a thrill of satisfaction, lay back on his blanket. The idea that they should observe Sunday, that it would be a good omen and beginning, had taken hold of him with singular power. His character was devout and a life in the wilderness among its mighty manifestations deepened its quality. Like the Indian he wanted the spirits of earth and air on his side.

The five had acquired the power of silence and to rest intensely when nothing was to be done. Their food finished, they lay back against their doubled blankets in a calm and peace that was deep and enduring. It was not necessary to go to the edge of the canebrake, as in the brilliant light of the day they might be noticed there, and, where they lay, they could see anyone who came long before he arrived.

Paul, as he breathed, absorbed belief and confidence in their success. Surely so bright a sky bending over them was a good omen! and the tall canes themselves, as they bent before the wind, whispered to him that all would be well. Henry in his own way was no less imaginative than his young comrade. He let his eyelids droop, not to sleep, but to listen. Then as no one of the five stirred, he too heard the voice of the wind, but it sang to him a song far more clear than any Paul heard. It told of triumphs achieved and others yet to come, and, as the great youth lifted his lazy lids and looked around at the others, he felt that they were equal to any task.

The afternoon, keeping all its promise of brilliant beauty, waxed and waned. The great sun dipped behind the forest. The twilight came, at first a silver veil, then a robe of dusk, and after it a night luminous with a clear moon and myriads of stars wrapped the earth, touching every leaf and blade of grass with a white glow.

Still the five did not stir. For a long time they had seemed a part of the forest itself, and the wild animals and birds, rejoicing in the dry and beautiful night after the stormy one that had passed, took them to be such, growing uncommonly brave. The restless black bear came back, looked at them, and then sniffing disdainfully went away to hunt for roots. The great wings of the eagle almost brushed the cane that hung over Henry’s head, but the little red eyes were satisfied that what they saw was not living, and the dark body flashed on in search of its prey.

“Three hours more at least, Paul,” said Henry at last, “until Sunday is over.”

“And I suggest that we wait the full three hours before we make any movement. I know it looks foolish in me to say it, but the feeling is very strong on me that it will be a good thing to do.”

“Not foolish at all, Paul. I look at it just as you do, and since we’ve begun the observance we ought to carry it through to the finish. You agree with me, don’t you, boys?”

“I shorely do,” said the shiftless one.

“Ef Paul thinks it’s right it’s right,” said Long Jim.

“Can’t hurt anythin’; it may help,” said Silent Tom.

They resumed their silence and waiting, and meanwhile they listened attentively for any sound that might come from those who were stalking their old home. But the deep stillness continued, save for the light song of the wind that sang continually among the leaves. Henry, in his heart, was truly glad of Paul’s idea, and that they had concluded to observe it. A spiritual atmosphere clothed them all. They had come of religious parents, and the borderer, moreover, always personified the great forces of nature, before which he was reverential. The five now were like the Romans and the Greeks, who were anxious to propitiate the gods ere going into action.

Henry gazed at the moon, a silver globe in the heavens, and he distinctly saw the man upon its surface, who returned his looks with benevolence, while the countless stars about it quivered and glittered and shed a propitious light. Then he gazed at his comrades, resting against the trunks of the trees, and unreal in the silver mist. They were yet so still that the wild animals might well take them to be lifeless, and the power to sit there so long without stirring a muscle was one acquired only by warriors and scouts.

A faint whining cry came out of the silver dark, a sound that had traveled a great distance on waves of air, and every one of the five understood it, on the instant. It was one of the most ominous sounds of the forest, a sound full of ferocity and menace, the howl of the wolf, but they knew it came from human lips, that, in truth, it was a signal ordered by the leader of the besieging band. Presently the reply, a similar cry, came from another point of the compass, traveling like the first on waves of air, until it died away in a savage undernote.

“They’ve probably set their lines all the way around our hollow, and they’re sure now they’ll hold us fast,” said Henry, with grim irony.

“That’s ‘bout it, I take it,” said Shif’less Sol, “an’ it ‘pears to me that this is the time for us to laugh, purvidin’ it won’t be in any way breakin’ uv our agreement to keep the day till its very last minute.”

He looked questioningly at Paul.

“To laugh is not against our compact,” replied the lad, “since it has such good cause. When a net is cast for us, and those who cast it are so confident we’re in it, we’ve a right to laugh as long as we’re outside it.”

“Then,” said Shif’less Sol with conviction, “ez thar’s so much to laugh at, an’ we’ve all agreed to laugh, we’ll laugh.”

The five accordingly laughed, but the laughs were soundless. Their eyes twinkled, their lips twitched, but the canebrake, save for the ceaseless rustle of the singing wind, was as silent as ever. No one five feet away would have known that anybody was laughing.

“Thar, I feel better,” said Shif’less Sol, when his face quit moving, “but though they’re a long distance off I kin see with my mind’s eyes Braxton Wyatt an’ his band stalkin’ us in our home in the rock, an’ claspin’ us in a grip that can’t be shook off.”

“Shettin’ down on us,” said Silent Tom.

The shiftless one bent upon him a reproving look.

“Thar you are, Tom!” he said, “talkin’ ‘us to death ag’in. Can’t you ever give your tongue no rest?”

Silent Tom blushed once more under his tan, but said nothing, abashed by his comrade’s stern rebuke.

“Yes, I kin see Braxton Wyatt an’ his band stalkin’ us,” resumed Shif’less Sol, having the floor, or rather the earth, again to himself. “Braxton’s heart is full o’ unholy glee. He is sayin’ to hisself that we can’t git away from him this time, that he’s stretched ‘bout us a ring, through which we’ll never break. He’s laughin’ to hisself jest az we laugh to ourselves, though with less cause. He’s sayin’ that he an’ his warriors will set down at a safe distance from our rifles an’ wait patiently till we starve to death or give up an’ trust ourselves to his tender mercy. He’s braggin’ to hisself ‘bout his patience, how he kin set thar fur a month, ef it’s needed, an’ I kin read his mind. He’s thinkin’ that even ef we give up it won’t make no diff’unce. Our scalps will hang up to dry jest the same, an’ he will take most joy in lookin’ at yours, Henry, your ha’r is so fine an’ so thick an’ so yellow, an’ he hez such a pizen hate o’ you.”

“Your fancy is surely alive tonight, Sol,” said Henry, “and I believe the thought of Braxton Wyatt’s disappointment later on is what has stirred it up so much.”

“I ‘low you’re right, Henry, but I’m thinkin’ ‘bout the grief o’ that villain, Blackstaffe, too. Oh, he’ll be a terrible sorrowful man when the net’s closed, an’ he finds thar’s nothin’ in it. It will be the great big disappointment o’ his life an’ I ‘low it will be some time afore Moses Blackstaffe kin recover from the blow.”

The silent laugh again overspread the countenance of the shiftless one and lingered there. It was one of the happiest moments that he had ever known. There was no malice in his nature, but he knew the renegades were hunting for his life with a vindictiveness and cruelty surpassing that of the Indians themselves, and he would not have been true to human nature had he not obeyed the temptation to rejoice.

“A half hour more and Sunday will have passed,” said Henry, who was again attentively surveying the man in the moon.

“An’ then,” said Long Jim, “we’ll take a look at what them fellers are doin’.”

“It will be a good move on our part, and if we can think of any device to make ‘em sure we’re still in the hollow it will help still more.”

“Which means,” said Paul, “that one of us must pass through their lines and fire upon them from the inside, that is, he must give concrete proof that he’s in the net.”

“Big words!” muttered Long Jim.

“I think you put it about right,” said Henry.

“Mighty dang’rous,” said Shif’less Sol.

“I expected to undertake it,” said Henry.

“You speak too quick,” said the shiftless one. “I said it wuz dang’rous ‘cause I want it fur myself. It’s got to be a cunnin’ sort o’ deed, jest the kind that will suit me.”

“By agreement I’m the leader, and I’ve chosen this duty for myself,” said Henry firmly.

“Thar are times when I don’t like you a-tall, a-tall, Henry,” said Shif’less Sol plaintively. “You’re always pickin’ out the good risky adventures fur yourse’f. Ef thar’s any fine, lively thing that will make a feller’s ha’r stan’ up straight on end an’ the chills chase one another up an’ down his back, you’re sure to grab it off, an’ say it wuz jest intended fur you. That ain’t the right way to treat the rest o’ us nohow.”

“No, it ain’t,” grumbled Silent Tom, but Shif’less Sol turned fiercely on him.

“Beginnin’ to talk us to death ag’in, are you, Tom Ross?” he exclaimed. “Runnin’ on forever with that garrylous tongue o’ yourn! You jest let me have this out with Henry!”

Again Tom Ross blushed in the darkness and under the tan. A terrible fear seized him that he had indeed grown garrulous, a man of many and empty words. It was all right for Shif’less Sol to talk on forever, because the words flowed from his lips in a liquid stream, like water coursing down a smooth channel, but it did not become Tom Ross, from whom sentences were wrenched as one would extract a tooth. Paul laughed softly but with intense enjoyment.

“When I die, seventy or eighty years from now,” he said, “and go to Heaven, I expect, when I pass through the golden gates, to hear a steady and loud but pleasant buzz. It will go on and on, without ceasing. Maybe it will be the droning of bees, but it won’t be. Maybe it will be the roar of water over a fall, but it won’t be. Maybe it will be a strong wind among the boughs, but it won’t be. Oh, no, it will be none of those things. It will be one Solomon Hyde, formerly of Kentucky, and they’ll tell me that his tongue has never stopped since he came to Heaven ten years before, and off in one corner there’ll be a silent individual, Tom Ross, who entered Heaven at the same time. And they’ll say that in all the ten years he has spoken only once and that was when he passed the gates, looked all around and said: ‘Good, but not much better than the Ohio Country.’”

Both Shif’less Sol and Silent Tom grinned, but the discussion was not pursued, as Henry announced that he was about to leave them in order to enter the Indian ring, and make Wyatt and the warriors think the rocky hollow was defended.

“The rest of you would better stay in the canebrakes or the thickets,” he said.

“We won’t go so fur away that we can’t hear any signal you may make,” said Long Jim Hart. “Give us the cry uv the wolf. Thar are lots uv wolves in these woods, Injun an’ other kinds, but we know yourn from the rest, Henry.”

“And don’t take too big risks,” said Paul.

“I won’t,” said Henry, and he quickly vanished from their sight among the bushes. Two hundred yards away, and he stopped, but he could not hear them moving. Nor had he expected that any sound would come from them to him, knowing that they would lie wholly still for a long time, awaiting his passage through the Indian lines.

The heart of the great youth swelled within him. As truly a son of the wilderness as primitive man had been thousands of years ago, before civilization had begun, when he depended upon the acuteness of his senses to protect him from monstrous wild beasts, he was as much at home now as the ordinary man felt in city streets, and he faced his great task not only without apprehension, but with a certain delight. He had the Indian’s cunning and the white man’s intellect as well, and he was eager to match wits and cunning against those of the warriors.

He would have been glad had the night turned a little darker, but the full burnished moon and showers of stars gave no promise of it, and he must rely upon his own judgment to seek the shadows, and to pass where they lay thickest. The forest, spread about him, was magnificent with oak and beech and elm of great size, but the moonlight and the starshine shone between the trunks, and moving objects would have been almost as conspicuous there as in the day. Hence he sought the brushwood, and advancing swiftly in its shelter, he approached the place that had been such a comfortable home for the five, but which they had thought it wise to abandon. A whimsical fancy, a desire to repay them for the evil they were doing, seized him. He would not only draw the warriors on, but he would annoy and tantalize them. He would make them think the evil spirits were having sport with them.

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