The Eyes of the Woods - Cover

The Eyes of the Woods

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 5: The Protecting River

The Ohio was the great stream of the borderers. It was the artery that led into the vast, rich new lands of the west, upon its waters many of them came, and upon its current and along its banks were fought thrilling battles between white men and red. Many a race for life was made upon its bosom, but none was ever carried on with more courage and energy than the one now occurring.

They kept well to the middle of the stream, which was still of great width, a full mile across, where they would be safe from shots from either shore, until the river narrowed, and although they sent the canoe along very fast, they did not use their full strength, keeping a reserve for the greater emergency which was sure to come.

Meanwhile they worked like a machine. The arms of five rose together and five paddles made a single plash. In the returning moonlight the water took on a silver color, and it fell away in masses of shimmering bubbles from the paddle blades. Before them the river spread its vast width, at once a channel of escape and of danger. The forest yet rose on either bank, a solid mass of green, in which nothing stirred, and from which no sound came.

The silence, save for the swish of the paddles, was brooding and full of menace. Paul, so sensitive to circumstance, felt as if it were a sullen sky, out of which would suddenly come a blazing flash of lightning. But to Henry the greatest anxiety was the narrowing of the river which must come before long. The Ohio was not a mile wide everywhere, and when that straightening of the stream occurred they would be within rifle shot of the warriors on one bank or the other. And while the Indians were not good marksmen, it was true that where there were many bullets not all missed.

A quarter of an hour passed, and they heard the war-whoop behind them, and then a few moments later the faint, rhythmic swish of paddles. The moonlight had been deepening fast, and Henry saw two of the great canoes appear, although they were yet a full half mile away. But they came on at a mighty pace, and it was evident that unless bullets stopped them they would overtake the fugitives. Henry put aside his paddle, leaving the work for the present to the others, and studied the long canoes. He and his comrades might strain as they would, but in an hour the big boats filled with muscular warriors would be alongside. They must devise some other method to elude the pursuit. A shout from Paul caused him to turn.

A peninsula from the south projected into the river, making its width at this point much less than half a mile, and upon the spit, which was bare, stood several Indian warriors, rifle in hand and waiting.

“Turn the canoe in toward the northern shore,” said Henry. “We must chance a shot from that quarter, dealing with the seen danger, and letting the unseen go. Sol, you and Tom take your rifles, and I’ll take mine too. Paul, you and Jim do the paddling and we’ll see whether those warriors on the sand stop us, or are just taking a heavy risk themselves.”

The canoe sheered off violently toward the northern bank, but did not cease to move swiftly, as Paul and Jim alone were able to send it along at a great rate. Henry, with his rifle lying in the hollow of his arm, watched a large warrior standing on the edge of the water.

“I’ll take the big fellow with the waving scalp lock,” he said.

“The short, broad one by the side o’ him is mine,” said Shif’less Sol. “Which is yours, Tom?”

“One with red blanket looped over his shoulder,” replied the taciturn rover.

“Be sure of your aim,” said Henry. “We’re running a gauntlet, but it’s likely to be as much of a gauntlet for those warriors as it is for us.”

Perhaps the Indians on the spit did not know that the canoe contained the best marksmen in the West, as they crowded closer to the water’s edge, uttered a yell or two of triumph and raised their own weapons. The three rifles in the canoe flashed together and the big warrior, the short, broad one, and the one with the red blanket looped over his shoulder, fell on the sand. One of them got up again and fled with his unhurt comrades into the forest, but the others lay quite still, with their feet in the water. As the marksmen reloaded rapidly, Henry cried to the paddlers:

“Now, boys, back toward the middle of the river and put all your might in it!”

Paul and Long Jim swung the canoe into the main current, which had increased greatly in strength here, owing to the narrowing of the stream, and their paddles flashed fast. Two of the Indians who had fled into the woods reappeared and fired at them, but their bullets fell wide, and Henry, who had now rammed in the second charge, wounded one of them, whereupon they fled to cover as quickly as they did the first time.

Shif’less Sol and Tom Ross had also reloaded, but put their rifles in the bottom of the boat and resumed their paddles. The danger on the land spit had been passed, but the great canoes behind them were hanging on tenaciously and were gaining, not rapidly, but with certainty. Henry swept them again with a measuring eye, and he saw no reason to change his calculations.

“They’ll come within rifle shot in just about an hour,” he repeated. “We’d pick off some of them with our bullets, but they’d keep on coming anyhow, and that would be the end of us.”

Such a solemn statement would have daunted any but those who had escaped many great dangers. Imminent and deadly as was the peril, it did not occur to any of the five that they would not evade it, the problem now being one of method rather than result.

“What are we going to do, Henry?” asked Paul.

“I don’t know yet,” replied the leader, “but we’ll keep going until something develops.”

“Thar’s your development!” exclaimed the shiftless one, as a rifle was fired from the northern shore, and a bullet plashed in the water just ahead of them. Then came a second shot from the same source which struck the inoffensive river behind them. They were now being attacked from both banks while the great canoes followed tenaciously.

“We don’t have to bother about one thing,” said Paul grimly. “We know which way to go, and it’s the only way that’s open to us.”

But the threat offered by the northern shore did not seem to be so menacing. The river began to widen again and rapidly, and the scattered shots fired later on came from a great distance, falling short. Those discharged from the southern bank also missed the mark as widely. Henry no longer paid any attention to them, but was examining the forest and the curves of the river with a minute scrutiny. His look, which had been very grave, brightened suddenly, and a reassuring flash appeared in his eye.

“What is it, Henry?” asked Shif’less Sol, who had noticed the change.

“We’ve been along here before,” replied the great youth. “I know the shores now, and it’s mighty lucky for us that we are just where we are.”

The shiftless one looked at the northern, then at the southern forest, and shook his head.

“I don’t ‘pear to recall it,” he said. “The woods, at this distance away, look like any other woods at night, black an’ mighty nigh solid.”

“It’s not so much the forest, because, like you, I couldn’t tell it from any other, as it is the curve of the river. I thought I saw something familiar in it a little while ago, and now I know by the sound that I’m right.”

“Sound! What sound?”

“Turn your ears down the river and listen as hard as you can. After a while you’ll hear a faint humming.”

“So I do, Henry, but I wouldn’t hev noticed it ef you hadn’t told me about it, an’ even ef I do hear it I don’t know what it means.”

“It’s made by the rush of a great volume of water, Sol. It’s the Falls of the Ohio, that not many white men have yet seen, a gradual sort of fall, one that boats can go over without trouble most of the time, but which, owing to the state of the river, are just now at their highest.”

“An’ you mean fur them falls to come in between us an’ the big canoes? You’re reckonin’ on water to save us?”

“That’s what I have in mind, Sol. The falls are dangerous at this stage of the river, no doubt about it, but we’re not canoemen for nothing, and with our lives at stake we’ll not think twice before shooting ‘em. What say you, boys?”

“The falls fur me!” replied the shiftless one, quickly.

“Nothin’ could keep me from takin’ the tumble. I jest love them falls,” said Long Jim.

“It’s that or nothing,” said Paul.

“On!” said Silent Tom.

“Then ease a little with your paddles,” said Henry. “The Indians know, of course, that the falls are just ahead, and I notice they are not now pushing us so hard. It follows, then, that the falls are at a dangerous height they don’t often reach, and they expect to trap us.”

“In which they will be mighty well fooled.”

“I think so. I’ll sit in the prow of the boat and do my best with my paddle to guide. I believe we can shoot the falls all right, but maybe we’ll be swamped in the rapids below. But we’re all good swimmers, and, if we do go over, every fellow must swim for the northern bank, where the Indians are fewest. Some one of us must manage to save his rifle and ammunition or we’d be lost, even if we happened to reach the land. Still, it’s possible that we can keep afloat. It’s a good canoe.”

“A good canoe!” exclaimed the shiftless one, in whom the spirit of achievement and of triumph was rising again. “It’s the finest canoe on all this great river, and didn’t I tell you boys that them that’s bold always win! Jest when our last chance ‘peared to be gone, these falls wuz put squar’ly in our track to save us! Will they wreck us? No, they won’t! We’ll shoot ‘em like a bird on the wing!”

He looked back at their pursuers, and gave utterance suddenly to a long, piercing shout of defiance. The Indians in the canoes replied with war whoops that Henry could read easily. They expressed faith in speedy triumph, and joy over the destruction of the five. He saw, moreover, that they were using only half strength now, preferring to take their ease while the game struggled vainly in the net. But as well as many of these warriors knew the five they did not know them to the full.

The shiftless one waited until their last war whoop died, and then, sending forth once more his long, thrilling note of defiance, he burst again into his triumphal chant.

“Steady now with the paddles, boys,” he cried, “an’ we’ll ride the water ez ef we’d done nothin’ else all our lives! Oh, I love rivers, big rivers, speshully when they hev a strong current like this that takes your boat ‘long an’ you don’t hev to do no work! Now it reaches up a thousand hands that grab our canoe an’ sail ‘long with it! Don’t paddle any more, boys, but jest hold yourselves ready to do it, when needed! The river’s doin’ all the work, an’ it never gits tired! Look, now, how the current’s a-rushin’, an’ a-dancin’, an’ a-hummin’! Look at the white water ‘roun’ us! Look at the water behind us, an’ hear the roarin’ before us! Thar, she rocks, but never min’ that! Wait till the water comes spillin’ in! Then it will be time to use the paddles!”

He burst once more into that irrepressible yell of defiance, and then he cried exultantly:

“They slow up! They’re gittin’ afeard! We’ve made the race too fast fur ‘em! Come on, you warriors! Ain’t you ready to go whar we will? These falls are fine an’ we jest love to play with ‘em! We are goin’ to sail down ‘em, an’ then we’re goin’ to sail back up ‘em ag’in! Don’t you hear all that roarin’? It’s the tumblin’ o’ the water, an’ it’s singin’ a song to you, tellin’ you to come!”

The shiftless one’s own tremendous song had a thrilling effect upon his comrades. Their spirits leaped with it. The rushing canoe was now dancing upon the surface of the river, but somehow they were not afraid. They were at that reach of the river where a great city was destined to grow upon the southern shore, and which was to be the scene, a year or two later, of other activities of theirs, but now both banks were in solid, black forest, and no human habitation had yet appeared.

The canoe was rocking dangerously and all five began to use the paddles now and then, as the white water foamed around them. It required the utmost quickness of eye and hand to keep afloat, and the flying spray soon wet them through and through. Yet the soul of Shif’less Sol was still undaunted. He sang his song of victory, and although most of the words were lost amid the crash and roar of the waters, their triumphant note rose above every other sound, and found an echo in the hearts of the others.

Henry, looking back, saw that the long canoes had turned and were making for the southern shore. Great as was the prize they sought, they would not dare the falls, and half the battle was won.

“They don’t follow!” he shouted at the top of his voice. “And now for the miracle that will keep us afloat!”

The canoe raced down the watery slope and the spray continued to drench them, though they had taken the precaution to cover up their rifles and ammunition. But their surpassing skill had its reward. The descent soon became more gradual, the torrents of white water sank, and then they slid forward in the rapids, still going at a great rate, but no longer in danger.

“An’ we’ve left the enemy behind!” sang the shiftless one, looking back at the white masses. “He thought he had us, but he hadn’t! He turned back at the steep slope, but we came on! Thar’s nothin’ like havin’ a fall between you an’ a lot o’ pursuin’ Injun canoes, is thar, Paul?”

Paul laughed, half in amusement and half in nervous relief.

“No, Sol, there isn’t, at least not now,” he replied. “It looks as if these falls had been put here especially to save us.”

“I like to think so, too,” said the shiftless one.

The river was still very wide and they kept the canoe in its center, although they no longer dreaded Indian shots, feeling quite sure that no warriors were on either shore below the falls. So they went on three or four miles, until Paul asked what was the next plan.

“We must talk it over, all of us,” said Henry. “The canoe is of no particular use to us except as a way of escape from immediate danger.”

“But it and the falls together saved us,” said Shif’less Sol. “Oh, it’s a good boat, a fine boat, a friendly boat!”

“I hate to desert a friend.”

“It must be done. We can’t stay forever on the river in a canoe. That would merely invite destruction. The Indians can take their canoes out of the water, carry them around the falls and resume the pursuit.”

“O’ course I know you’re right, Henry. I wuz jest droppin’ a tear or two over the partin’ with our faithful canoe. We make fur the north bank, I s’pose.”

“That seems to me to be the right course, because the warriors will be thicker on the south side. We’ll keep our policy of defense against them by resuming the offense. What say you, Paul?”

“I choose the north bank.”

“And you, Jim?”

“North, uv course.”

“And you, Tom?”


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