The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 4: The Captured Canoe

As the five advanced they read the trail with unfailing eye. Henry saw more than once the traces of footsteps with the toes turned out, that is those of Braxton Wyatt, and he noticed that they were wavering, not leading in a straight line like those of the Indians.

“Braxton must have had a nice crack of some kind or other on the head,” he said, “and he still feels the effects of it, as now and then he reels.”

“‘Twould hev been a good thing,” said Shif’less Sol, “ef the crack, whatever it may hev been, hed been a lot harder, hard enough to finish him. I ain’t bloodthirsty, but it would help a lot if Braxton Wyatt wuz laid away. Paul, you’re eddicated, an’ you hev done a heap o’ thinkin’, enough, I guess, to last a feller like Long Jim fur a half dozen o’ lives, now what makes a man turn renegade an’ fight with strangers an’ savages ag’inst his own people?”

“I think,” replied Paul, “that it’s disappointment, and fancied grievances. Some people want to be first, and when they can’t win the place they’re apt to say the world is against ‘em, in a conspiracy, so to speak, to defraud ‘em of what they consider their rights. Then their whole system gets poisoned through and through, and they’re no longer reasoning human beings. I look upon Braxton Wyatt as in a way a madman, one poisoned permanently.”

“I hev noticed them things, too,” said Shif’less Sol. “Thar are diff’unt kinds o’ naturs, the good an’ the bad, an’ the bad can’t bear for other people to lead ‘em. Then they jest natchelly hate an’ hate. All through the day they hate, an’ ef they ain’t got nothin’ to do, even ef the weather is fine ‘nuff to make an old man laugh, they jest spend that time hatin’. An’ ef they happen to wake up at night, do they lay thar an’ think what a fine world it is an’ what nice people thar are in it? No, sir, they jest spend all the time between naps hatin’, an’ they fall asleep ag’in, with a hate on thar lips an in’ thar hearts.”

“You’re talkin’ re’l po’try an’ truth at the same time, Sol,” said Long Jim. “It’s cur’ous how people hate them that kin do things better than theirselves. Now, I’ve noticed when I’m cookin’ buffler steaks an’ deer meat an’ wild turkey an’ nice, juicy fish, an’ cookin’ mebbe better than anybody else in all Ameriky kin, how you, Shif’less Sol Hyde, turn plum’ green with envy an’ begin makin’ disrespeckful remarks ‘bout me, Jim Hart, who hez too lofty an’ noble a natur ever to try to pull you down, poor an’ ornery scrub that you be.”

Shif’less Sol drew himself up with haughty dignity.

“Jim Hart,” he said, “I’m wrapped ‘bout with the mantle o’ my own merit so well from head to foot that them invig’ous remarks o’ yours bounce right off me like hail off solid granite. To tell you the truth, Jim Hart, I feel like a big stone mountain, three miles high, with you throwin’ harmless leetle pebbles at me.”

“And yet,” said Paul, “while you two are always pretending to quarrel, each would be eager to risk death for the other if need be.”

“It’s only my sense o’ duty, an’ o’ what you call proportion,” said Shif’less Sol. “Long Jim, ez you know, is six feet an’ a half tall. Ef the Injuns wuz to take him an’ burn him at the stake he’d burn a heap longer than the av’rage man. What a torch Jim would make! Knowin’ that an’ always b’arin’ it in mind, I’m jest boun’ to save Jim from sech a fate. It ain’t Jim speshully that I’m thinkin’ on, but I’d hate to know that a man six an’ a half feet long wuz burnin’ ‘long his whole len’th.”

“Another band has joined Wyatt,” said Henry. “See, here comes the trail!”

The new force had arrived from the east, and it contained apparently twenty warriors, raising Braxton Wyatt’s little army to about sixty men.

“But they still run,” said Shif’less Sol. “The new ones hev ketched all the terror an’ superstition that the old ones feel, an’ the whole crowd is off fur the Ohio. Look how the trail widens!”

“And Braxton Wyatt is beginning to feel better,” said Henry. “His own particular trail does not waver so much now. Ah, they’ve stopped here for a council. Braxton probably stood on that old fallen log and addressed them, because the traces of his footsteps lead directly to it. Yes, the bark here is rubbed a little, where he stood. They gathered in a half circle before him, as their footprints show very plainly, and they listened to him respectfully. He, being white, was recovering from the superstitious terror, but the Shawnees were still under its spell. After hearing him they continued their flight. Here goes their trail, all in a bunch, straight toward the north!”

“An’ thar won’t be no stop ‘til they strike the Ohio,” said Shif’less Sol with conviction.

“I agree with you,” said Henry.

“And so do all of us,” said Paul.

“And of course we follow on,” said Henry, “right to the water’s edge!”

“We do,” said the others all together.

“The Ohio isn’t very far now,” said Henry.

“Ten or fifteen miles, p’raps,” said Shif’less Sol.

“And it’s likely that we’ll find a big force gathered there.”

“Looks that way to me, Henry. Mebbe the band o’ Blackstaffe will be waitin’ to join that o’ Wyatt. Then, feelin’ mighty strong, they’ll come back after us.”

“‘Less we fill ‘em full o’ fear whar they stan’. Mebbe they’ll stop at the river a day or two, an’ then we kin git to work. Water which hides will help us.”

They passed on through the forest, noting that the trail was growing wide and leisurely. At one point the Indians had stopped some time, and had eaten heavily of game brought in by the hunters. The bones of buffalo, deer and wild turkey were scattered all about.

“They’re feeling better,” said Henry. “I don’t think now they’ll cross the Ohio, but we must do so and attack from the other side. They’re not looking for any enemy in the north, and we may be able to terrify ‘em again.”

It was not long before they came to the great yellow stream of the Ohio, and in an open space, not far from the shore, they saw the fires of the Indian encampment.

“I think we’ll have work to do here,” said Henry, “and we’ll keep well into the deep woods until long after dark.”

They did not light any fire, but lying close in the thicket, ate their supper of cold food. Three or four hours after sunset Henry, telling the others to await his return, crept near the Indian camp. As he had surmised, two formidable forces had joined, and nearly two hundred warriors sat around the fires. The new army, composed partly of Miamis and partly of Shawnees, with a small sprinkling of Wyandots, was led by Blackstaffe, who was now with Wyatt, the two talking together earnestly and looking now and then toward the south.

Henry had no doubt that the five were the subject of their conversation. Wyatt must have recovered by this time all his faculties and was telling Blackstaffe that their enemies were only mortal and could be taken, if the steel ring about them was recast promptly. Henry had no doubt that an attempt to forge it anew would speedily be made by the increased force, but his heart leaped at the thought that his comrades and he would be able to break it again.

As he crept a little nearer he saw to his surprise a fire blazing on the opposite shore, and he was able to discover the forms of warriors between him and the blaze. With the Indians bestride the stream the task of the five was complicated somewhat, but Henry was of the kind that meet fresh obstacles with fresh energy.

He returned to his comrades and reported what he had seen, but all agreed with him that they should cross the river, despite the encampment on the far shore, and make the attack from the north.

“We’ll do like that old Roman, Hannybul,” said Long Jim, “hit the enemy at his weakest part, an’ jest when he ain’t expectin’ us.”

“Hannibal was not a Roman, Jim,” said Paul.

“Well, then, he was a Rooshian or a Prooshian.”

“Nor was he either of those.”

“Well, it don’t make no diff’unce, nohow. He wuz a furriner, that’s shore, an’ he’s dead, both uv which things is ag’inst him. It looks strange to me, Paul, that a furriner with the outlandish ways that furriners always hev should hev been sech a good gen’ral.”

“He was probably the best the world has produced, Jim. He was able with small forces to defeat larger ones, and we must imitate his example.”

“And to do that,” said Henry, “we shall cross the Ohio tonight. I think we’d better drop down a mile or two, beyond their fires and their sentinels, and then make for the northern shore.”

“The river must be ‘bout a mile wide here,” objected Shif’less Sol. “That’s a big swim with all our weepuns, an’ ef some o’ the warriors in canoes should ketch us in the water then we’d be goners, shore.”

“You’re right, there, Sol,” said Henry. “It would be foolish in us to attempt to swim the river, when the warriors are looking for us, as they probably are by now, since Blackstaffe and Wyatt have got them back to realities.”

“Then ef we don’t swim how do you expect us to git across, Henry? Ez fur me, I can’t wade across a river a mile wide an’ twenty feet deep.”

“That’s true, Sol. Even Long Jim isn’t long enough for that. I’m planning for us to cross in state, untouched by water and entirely comfortable; in fact, in a large, strong canoe.”

“Nice good plan, Henry, ‘cept in one thing; we ain’t got no canoe.”

“I intend to borrow one from the Indians. You and I will slip along up the bank and take it from under their noses. You’re a marvel at such deeds, Sol.”

“It’s ‘cause he’s stealin’ somethin’ from somebody,” said Long Jim.

“Shut up, Jim,” said Henry. “It’s lawful to steal from an enemy to save your own life, and these Indians mean to hunt us down if they have to employ three thousand warriors and three months to do it. Suppose we go now.”

The five turned toward the south and west, making a deep curve away from the camp, a precaution taken wisely, as they soon had evidence, hearing shots here and there, which they were quite sure were those of red hunters seeking game, wild turkeys on the bough, or deer drinking at the small streams. They were compelled to go very slowly, in order to avoid them, but the night, luckily, was dark enough to hide their trail from all eyes, save those that might be looking especially for it.

They spoke only in whispers, but the young leader himself said scarcely anything, his mind being occupied with deep and intense thought. He knew that the venture in search of an Indian canoe would be accompanied by most imminent risks, the vigilance and skill of Shif’less Sol and himself would be tested to the last degree, but a canoe they must have, and they would dare every peril to get it.

They had gone about a mile when Henry suddenly raised his hand, and the five sank silently in the bush. A dozen warriors, treading without noise, passed within twenty feet of them and their course led toward the south. They flitted by so swiftly that it seemed almost as if shadows had passed, but Henry, who saw their faces, knew that they were not mere hunters. These men were on the warpath. Perhaps they had seen the trail of the five somewhere, and were going south to close up the broken segment of the circle there.

“They’ve probably had a hint from Blackstaffe,” said Henry. “Next to Simon Girty he’s the shrewdest and most cunning of all the renegades. He has reasoning power, and knowing that we’ll take the bolder method, he’s probably concluded that we’ve followed Wyatt’s band.”

“An’ so he hez sent that other band south to shut us in,” said Shif’less Sol.

“An’ we might hev fled south ourselves from the fust,” said Long Jim, “but I cal’late we ain’t that kind uv people.”

“No,” said Henry. “We can’t lead ‘em in this chase back on the settlements. So long as they’re trying to spread a net around us we’ll draw ‘em in the other direction. Now, boys, fall in behind me, and the first one that causes a blade of grass to rustle will have to make a present of his rifle to the others.”

Following the great curve which they were traveling it was a full five miles to the point on the river they wished to reach. The forest, they knew, was full of warriors, some hunting, perhaps, but many thrown out on the great encircling movement intended to enclose the five. Now, the trailers, with deadly peril all about them, gave a superb exhibition of skill. There was no danger of any one losing his rifle, because no blade of grass rustled, nor did any leaf give back the sound of a brushing body. They were endowed peculiarly by birth and long habit to the life they lived and the dangers they faced. Their hearts beat high, but not with fear. Their muscles were steady, and eye and ear were attuned to the utmost for any strange presence in the forest.

Henry led, Paul followed, Long Jim came next, then Silent Tom, and Shif’less Sol defended the rear. This was usually their order, the greatest trailer at the head of the line, and the next greatest at the end of it. They invariably fell into place with the quickness and precision of trained soldiers.

A panther, not as large and fierce as the one that Henry had driven in fright down the ravine, saw them, looking upon human beings for the first time. It was his first impulse to make off through the woods, but they were soundless and in flight, and curiosity began to get the better of fear. He followed swiftly, somewhat to one side, but where he could see, and the silent line went so fast that the panther himself was compelled to extend his muscles. He saw them come to a brook. The foremost leaped it, the others in turn did the same, landing exactly in his footsteps, and they went on without losing speed. Then the panther turned back, satisfied that he could not solve the problem his curiosity had raised.

Henry caught a yellow gleam through the leaves, and he knew that it was the Ohio. In two or three minutes, they were at the low shore, although the opposite bank was high. Both were wooded densely. The stream itself was here a full mile in width, a vast mass of water flowing slowly in silent majesty. They thought they saw far up the channel a faint reflection of the Indian fires, but they were not sure. Where they stood the river was as lone and desolate as it had been before man had come. The moonlight was not good, and their view of the farther shore was dim, leaving them only the certainty that it was lofty and thick with forest.

“Paul, you and Jim and Tom lie here, where this little spit of land runs out into the water,” said Henry. “There’s good cover for you to wait in, and Sol and I will come down the river in our new canoe, or we won’t.”

“At any rate come,” said Paul.

“You can trust us,” replied Henry, and he and the shiftless one started at once along the edge of the river toward the northeast, where the Indian camp lay. Henry reckoned that it was about three miles away, but it would have to be approached with great care. As they advanced they kept a watch on the farther shore also, and rounding a curve in the river they caught their first sight of its reflection.

“It’s fur up the stream,” said Shif’less Sol, “an’ I cal’late it’s ‘bout opposite the big camp. Thar must be some warriors passin’ back an’ forth from band to band, an’ that, I reckon, will give us our chance fur a canoe.”

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