CHAPTER I THE EYE OF THE FLEET
The fleet of boats and canoes bearing supplies for the far east turned from the Mississippi into the wide mouth of the Ohio, and it seemed, for a time, that they had come into a larger river instead of a tributary. The splendid stream, called by the Indians "The Beautiful River," flowed silently, a huge flood between high banks, and there was not one among the voyagers who did not feel instinctively the depths beneath him.
A single impulse caused every paddle and oar to lie at rest a few moments, and, while they swung gently with the slow current just beyond the point where one merged into the other, they looked at the two mighty rivers, the Mississippi, coming from the vast unknown depths of the northwest, rising no man knew where, and the Ohio, trailing its easy length a thousand miles through thick forests haunted by the most warlike tribes of North America. The smaller river—small only by comparison—bore the greater dangers, and they knew it.
It was the fleet of Adam Colfax, and the five who had gone to New Orleans and who had come back, triumphing over so many dangers in the coming and the going, were still with him. Henry Ware, Paul Cotter, and Shif'less Sol Hyde sat in the foremost boat, and the one just behind them contained Silent Tom Ross and Long Jim Hart. After the great battle on the Lower Mississippi in which they defeated the Indians and desperadoes under Alvarez, the voyage had remained peaceful as they pulled up to the Ohio.
"It's our own river again, Henry," said Paul. Both felt a sort of proprietary interest in the Ohio.
"It's so, and I'm glad to look on it again," replied Henry, "but the Shawnees, the Miamis, the Wyandots, and others will never let us by without a fight."
He spoke with gravity. But a boy in years, the many stern scenes through which he had passed and his natural instinct for the wilderness made him see far. He was thinking of the thousand miles, every one with its dangers, that they must travel before they could unload their supplies at Pittsburgh for the struggling colonists.
No concern of the future troubled the soul of Long Jim Hart. He was once more in the region that he loved. He looked at one river and then at the other, and his eyes glowed.
"Ain't it fine, Henry?" he said. "These two pow'ful big streams! Back uv them the firm, solid country that you kin tread on without the fear uv breakin' through, an' then the cool steadyin' airs that are blowin' on our faces!"
"Yes, it is fine, Jim!" said Henry with emphasis.
He, too, ceased to think, for the moment, of the future, and paid more attention to the meeting of the rivers. The Ohio, at that point, although the tributary, was wider than the Mississippi, and for some distance up its stream was deeper. Its banks, sloping and high, were clothed in dense forest and underbrush to the water's edge. Nothing broke this expanse of dark green. It was lone and desolate, save for the wild fowl that circled over it before they darted toward the water. The note of everything was size, silence, and majesty.
"We begin the second stage of our great journey," said Adam Colfax to Henry.
Then the leader raised his hand as a signal, hundreds of oars and paddles struck the water, the fleet leaped into life again, and boats and canoes, driven by strong arms, swung forward against the slow current of the Ohio. Some rower in a leading boat struck up a wild song of love and war, mostly war, and others joined, the chorus swelling to twenty, fifty, then a hundred voices. It was a haunting air, and forest and water gave back the volume of sound in far, weird echoes.
But fleet and song merely heightened the effect of the wilderness. Nobody saw them. Nobody heard them. Desolation was always before them, and, as they passed, closed in again behind them. But the men themselves felt neither lonely nor afraid. Used to victory over hardship and danger, their spirits rose high as they began the ascent of the second river, the last half of their journey.
Adam Colfax, stern New England man that he was, felt the glow, and Paul, the imaginative boy, felt it, too.
"I don't see how such an expedition as this can fail to get through to Pittsburgh," he said.
"I'd like to go on jest ez we're goin' all the time," said Shif'less Sol with lazy content. "I could curl up under a rail and lay thar fur a thousand miles. Jest think what a rest that would be, Paul!"
Henry Ware said nothing. The Mississippi had now dropped out of sight, and before them stretched only the river that hugged the Dark and Bloody Ground in its curves. He knew too much to trust to solitude and silence. He never ceased to search the forests and thickets on either shore with his trained eyes. He looked for little things, a bough or a bush that might bend slightly against the gentle wind that was blowing, or the faintest glimpse of a feather on a far hill, but he saw nothing that was not in perfect accord with nature. The boughs and the bushes bent as they should bend. If his eye found a feather it was on the back of the scarlet tanager or the blue jay. Before him flowed the river, a sheet of molten gold in the sun, current meeting boat. All was as it should be.
But Henry continued to watch. He, more than any other, was the eye of the fleet, will and use helping the gift of nature, and, as he knew, they had come to depend upon him. He was doing the work expected of him as well as the work that he loved, and he meant that he should not fail.
The song, mellow, haunting, and full of echoes, went on, now rising in volume, then falling to a softer note, and then swelling again. They finished the last verse and bar, and began a new one, tuned to the stroke of oar and paddle, and the fleet went forward swiftly, smoothly, apparently in a world that contained only peace.
Jim Hart turned his face to the cooling airs that began to blow a little stronger. Paul was rapt far away among the rosy clouds of the future. Shif'less Sol, who held neither oar nor paddle, closed his eyes and leaned luxuriously against a mast, but Henry sat immovable, watching, always watching.
The hours, one by one, dropped behind them. The sun swung toward the zenith and stood poised in the center of the skies, a vast globe of reddish gold in a circling sea of blue. The light from the high heavens was so brilliant that Henry could see small objects on either shore, although they were in the center of a stream, a mile wide. He saw nothing that did not belong there, but still he watched.
"Noon!" called Adam Colfax. "And we'll land and eat!"
Rowers and paddlers must have food and plenty of it, and there was a joyous shout as the leader turned the prow of his boat toward a cove in the northern shore.
"See anything that looks hostile in there, Henry?" asked Adam Colfax.
He spoke rather lightly. Despite his cautious nature and long experience, he had begun to believe that the danger was small. His was a powerful party. The Northern Indians would hear of the great defeat sustained by their Southern brethren, and would avoid a foe whom they could not conquer. He looked for an easy and quiet journey up the Ohio.
"I don't see anything but the ground and the trees," replied Henry, smiling, but continuing, nevertheless, to search the forest with those wonderfully keen eyes of his.
"Perhaps we can find game, too," added Adam Colfax. "We need fresh supplies, and a country deserted like this should be swarming with deer and buffalo."
"Perhaps," said Henry.
When their boat touched the bank, Henry and Shif'less Sol sprang ashore, and slid silently into the forest. There they made a wide curve about the cove that had served as a landing, but found no signs of life except the tracks of game. After a while they sat down on a log and listened, but heard nothing save the usual sounds of the forest.
"What do you think of it, Sol?" asked Henry.
"O' course, Henry," replied the shiftless one judiciously, "we've got to expect trouble sometime or other, but I ain't lookin' fur it yet awhile. We can't have no dealin's with it till it comes."
Henry shook his head. He believed that the instinct of Shif'less Sol, usually so alert, was now sleeping. They were sitting in the very thickest of the forest, and he looked up at the roof of green leaves, here so dense that only slim triangles of blue sky showed between. The leaves stirred a little. There was a flash of flame against the green, but it was only a scarlet tanager that shot past, then a flash of blue, but it was only a blue jay. Around them, clustering close to the trees, was the dense undergrowth, and they could not see twenty yards away.
The faint, idle breeze died of languor. The bushes stood up straight. The leaves hung motionless. The forest, which was always to Henry a live thing, seemed no longer to breathe. A leaf could have been heard had it fallen. Then out of that deadly stillness came a sudden note, a strange, wild song that Henry alone heard. He looked up, but he saw no bird, no singer of the woods. Yet the leaves were rippling. The wind had risen again, and it was playing upon the leaves in a mystic, solemn way, calling words that he knew or seemed to know. He glanced at Shif'less Sol, but his comrade heard only the wind, raising his head a little higher that its cool breath might fan his face.
To Henry, always attuned to the wilderness and its spirit, this sudden voice out of the ominous silence was full of meaning. He started at the first trill. It was not a vain and idle song. A strange shiver ran down his spine, and the hair on his head felt alive.
The great youth raised his head. The shiver was still in his spine. All his nerves and muscles were tense and drawn. The wind still sang on the leaves, but it was a warning note to Henry, and he understood. He sat rigid and alert, in the attitude of one who is ready to spring, and his eyes, as he looked up as if to seek the invisible hand among the green leaves, were full of fire and meaning.
Chance made the shiftless one glance at his comrade, and he was startled.
"What is it, Henry?" he asked.
"I was hearing something."
"I hear nothin' but the wind."
"I hear that—and much more."
Shif'less Sol glanced again at his comrade, but Henry's face said nothing, and the shiftless one was not a man to ask many questions. He was silent, and Henry listened attentively to the melodious breath of the wind, so gay, so light to one whose spirit was attuned only to the obvious, but so full of warning to him. He looked up, but he could see nothing. Nevertheless, the penetrating note came forth, never ceasing, drumming incessantly upon the boy's brain.
"I think we'd better go back to the camp, Sol," he said presently.
"So do I," said Shif'less Sol, "an' report that thar's nothin' to be found."
Henry made no reply as they plunged into the green thicket, treading soundlessly on soft moccasins and moving with such skill that leaves and boughs failed to rustle as they passed. But the note of the wind among the leaves pursued the boy. He heard it long after the glade in which they had sat was lost to sight, fainter and fainter, but full of warning, and then only an echo, but a warning still.
The feelings color what the eyes see. Shif'less Sol beheld only a splendid green forest that contained nothing but game for their hunting, deer, bear, buffalo, wild turkey, and other things good, but Henry saw over all the green an ominous, reddish tint. Game might be in those woods—no doubt it was swarming there—but he felt another presence, far more deadly than bear or panther.
The boy saw a small object on the ground, almost hidden in the grass, and, without slackening his speed, he stooped and picked it up so silently and deftly that Shif'less Sol, who was a little in advance, neither saw nor heard him.
It was the feather of an eagle, one that might have dropped from the wing of some soaring bird, but the quick eye of the boy saw that the quill had been cut with a knife, as the feather of a goose used to be sharpened for a pen.
He suppressed the sharp exclamation that rose to his lips, and thrust the feather into the bosom of his buckskin hunting shirt. The last echo of the warning note came to him and then died away in the forest.
They were at the camp fifteen minutes later, and the eyes of Shif'less Sol beamed at the joyous sight. In all their long journey they had found no more pleasant anchorage, a sheltered cove of the Ohio, and firm ground, clear of undergrowth, sloping gently to the water's edge. The boats were tied in a great curve about the beach, and nearly all the men were ashore, glad to feel once more the freedom of the land. Some still sung the wild songs they had picked up in the West Indies or on the Spanish Main, others were feeding fires that crackled merrily and that flung great bands of red flame against the glowing yellow curtain of the sunlight. Pleasant odors arose from pots and kettles. The air of frolic was pervasive. The whole company was like so many boys with leave to play.
Henry left Shif'less Sol and approached Adam Colfax, who was sitting alone on the exposed root of a big tree.
"You found nothing, of course?" said Adam Colfax, who shared the easy feelings of his men.
"I found this," replied the boy, drawing the eagle feather from his breast.
"What is that? Merely the feather of some wild bird."
"The feather of an eagle."
"I fancy that many an eagle drops a feather now and then in this wilderness."
"This feather was dropped last from the head of an Indian warrior."
"How do you know it?"
"See, the quill has been trimmed off a little with a knife. It was part of a decoration."
"It may have fallen many weeks ago."
"It could not be so. The plumage everywhere is smooth and even. It has been lying on the ground only a little while. Otherwise it would be bedraggled by the rain or be roughened by the wind blowing it about among the bushes."
"Then the feather indicates the presence of hostile Indians?" said Adam Colfax thoughtfully. "I know by your manner that you think so."
"I am sure of it," said Henry with great emphasis.
"You're right, no doubt. You always are. But look how strong our force is, men tried in toil and battle, and they are many! What have we to fear?"
He looked over his light-hearted host, and his blue eyes, usually so cold, kindled with warmth. One might search the world over, and not find a hardier band. Truly, what had he to fear?
Henry saw that the leader was not convinced, and he was not one to waste words. After all, what did he have to offer but a stray feather, carried by the wind?
"Dismiss your fears, my boy," said Adam Colfax cheerfully. "Think about something else. I want to send out a hunting party this afternoon. Will you lead it?"
"Of course," said Henry loyally. "I'll be ready whenever the others are."
"In a half hour or so," said Adam Colfax with satisfaction. "I knew you wouldn't fail."
Henry went to the fire, by the side of which his four comrades sat eating their noonday meal, and took his place with them. He said not a word after his brief salute, and Paul presently noticed his silence and look of preoccupation.
"What is the matter, Henry?" he asked.
"I'm going with a little party this afternoon," replied Henry, "to hunt for buffalo and deer. Mr. Colfax wishes me to do it. He thinks we need fresh supplies, and I've agreed to help. I want you boys to promise, if I don't come back, that you'll go on with the fleet."
Paul sat up, rigid with astonishment. Shif'less Sol turned a lazy but curious eye on the boy.
"Now, what under the sun do you mean, Henry?" he asked. "I've heard you talk a good many times, but never like that before. Not comin' back? Is this the Henry Ware that we've knowed so long?"
Henry laughed, despite himself.
"I'm just the same," he said, "and I do feel, Sol, that I'm not coming back from this hunt. I don't mean that I'll never come back, but it will be a long time. So I want you fellows to go on with the fleet and help it all you can."
"Henry, you're plum' foolish," said taciturn Tom Ross. "Are you out uv your head?"
Henry laughed again.
"It does sound foolish," he admitted, "and I don't understand why I think I'm not coming back. I just feel it."
"I notice that them things mostly come contrariwise," said Shif'less Sol. "When I know that I'm goin' to hev hard luck it's gen'ally good. We'll look for you, Henry, at sundown."
But Paul, youthful and imaginative, was impressed, and he regarded Henry with silent sympathy.
CHAPTER II THE WYANDOT CHIEF
Henry rose quickly from the noonday refreshment and, with a nod to his comrades, entered the forest at the head of the little band of hunters. Shif'less Sol and Tom Ross would have gone, too, but Adam Colfax wanted them to keep watch about the camp, and they were too loyal to insist upon having their own way when it was opposed to that of the leader.
Five men were with Henry, fairly good hunters on the whole, but more at home in the far south than in the woods of the Ohio. One, a big fellow named Larkin, had an undue pride in his skill, and another, a Frenchman, Pierre Cazotte, was a brave fellow, but uncommonly reckless. The remaining three were not of marked individuality.
Henry examined them all with swift glances, and decided at once that Larkin and Cazotte, full of overweening confidence, would want their way, but he said nothing, merely leading the band into the mass of dense green foliage that rimmed the camp around. He looked back but once, and saw his four faithful comrades sitting by the fire, it seemed to him, in an attitude of dejection. Then he went forward swiftly, and in another minute the forest shut out camp fire and comrades.
"What's your notion, Henry?" asked Larkin. "Have you seen signs of deer or buffalo near?"
"Both," replied Henry. "There are good springs and little open places in the woods not more than a couple of miles away. We're pretty sure to find deer there."
"Why not buffalo?" exclaimed Larkin. "I've shot more deer than I could ever count, but I've never killed a buffalo. It's the first time that I've been in this part of the country."
"Nor have I," said Cazotte. "We have many people to feed, and ze buffalo ees beeg. Ze deer ees too leetle for all ze mouths back there."
"Right you are, Frenchy," exclaimed Larkin jovially. "We'll pass the deer by an' go for buffalo if we have to travel six or seven miles further. What this gang wants is buffalo, an' buffalo it will have."
"I don't think we ought to go very far from the camp," said Henry. "These woods from here to the lakes are the hunting grounds of the most warlike tribes, and bands may be near us now."
Larkin laughed again his big jovial laugh.
"You're thinkin' a lot about Indians," he said, "You're brave—everybody knows it—but a fellow can put his mind on 'em so hard that he can see 'em where they ain't."
Henry laughed, too. He knew no offense was intended, but he was confirmed in his belief that Larkin meant to have his own way. He saw, too, that Cazotte and the others were ready to back him up. But he would not yield without a protest.
"It's true, I am thinking a lot about Indians," he said earnestly, "and I think I have cause to do so. They're here in these woods now. I'm sure of it, and they know of the presence of our fleet. We ought to be very cautious."
Larkin laughed again, and his laugh contained the slightest touch of irony.
"I'll wager there ain't an Indian within fifty miles," he exclaimed, "an' if there was one he wouldn't keep us from our buffalo, would he, Pierre, old fellow?"
He slapped the Frenchman on the back, and Cazotte returned the laugh....