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- The Lost Trail - 1/42 -
Produced by Sean Pobuda
THE LOST TRAIL
By Edward S. Ellis
AN ENEMY IN A TREE
One afternoon in early spring, Jack Carleton, a sturdy youth of seventeen years, was following a clearly-marked trail, leading through the western part of Kentucky toward the Mississippi river. For many a mile he followed the evenly spaced tracks made by a horse on a walk, the double impressions being a trifle more than three feet apart.
"Helloa!" exclaimed, Jack, when he looked at the earth again and observed that the tracks had taken a new form, with nearly eight feet between them. "Otto has forced the colt to a trot. He must be in a hurry, or he thinks I am fond of traveling."
Thus far the lusty young Kentuckian felt no misgiving, but within fifty yards the trail underwent the startling change--the footprints being separated by more than three yards now.
"My gracious," muttered the boy, coming to a full stop, "something is wrong: Otto would not have put the horse on a dead run if he hadn't been scared."
Jack Carleton proved his training by the keenness and quickness with which he surveyed his surroundings. The woods were on every hand, but they were open and free from undergrowth, so that he gained an extensive view.
As he advanced with vigorous steps along the winding path, his eyes sometimes rested on the pendulous branches of the majestic elm, a small purple flower here and there still clinging to the limbs and resisting the budding leaves striving to force it aside; the massive oak and its twisted, iron limbs; the pinnated leaves of the hickory, whose solid trunk, when gashed by the axe, was of snowy whiteness; the pale green spikes and tiny flowers of the chestnut; the sycamore, whose spreading limbs found themselves crowded even in the most open spaces, with an occasional wild cherry or tulip, and now and then a pine, whose resinous breath brooded like a perennial balm over the vast solitude.
Jack Carleton was arrayed in the coarse, serviceable garb of the border: heavy calf-skin shoes, thick trousers, leggings and coat, the latter short and clasped at the waist by a girdle, also of woolen and similar to that of the modern ulster. The cap was of the same material and, like the other garments, had been fashioned and put together by the deft hands of the mother in Kentucky. Powder-horn and bullet-pouch were suspended by strings passing over alternate sides of the neck and a fine flint-lock rifle, the inseparable companion of the Western youth, rested on the right shoulder, the hand grasping it near the stock.
Jack's hasty survey failed to reveal any cause for fear, and he resumed his pursuit, as it may be termed. The quick glances he cast on the ground in front showed, in every instance, that the horse he was following was fleeing at the same headlong pace. His rider had spurred him to a dead run, at which gait he had shot underneath the limbs of the trees at great risk to himself as well as to his rider.
The trail was broad, for loaded horses had passed in both directions, and wild animals availed themselves of it more than once in making their pilgrimages to the Mississippi, or in migrating from one part of the country to the other.
But there were no footprints that had been made within the past few days, with the single exception noted--that of the horse which had abruptly broken into a full run.
The balmy afternoon was drawing to a close, and Jack began to believe the chances were against overtaking his friend and companion, young Otto Relstaub.
"If he has kept this up very long, he must be far beyond my reach, unless he has turned about and taken the back trail."
Glancing at the sky as seen through the branches overhead, the youth observed that it was clear, the deep blue flecked here and there by patches of snowy clouds, resting motionless in the crystalline air.
Comparatively young as was Jack, he had been thoroughly trained in woodcraft. When beyond sight of the cabins of the straggling settlement, where he made his home, he was as watchful and alert as Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton himself. His penetrating gray eyes not only scanned the sinuous path, stretching in front, but darted from side to side, and were frequently turned behind him. He knew that if danger threatened it was as likely to come from one point as another.
He could not avoid one conclusion: the peril which had impelled the young German's horse to such a burst of speed must have been in the form dreaded above all others--that of the wild Indians who at that day roamed through the vast wilderness of the West and hovered along the frontier, eager to use the torch, the rifle, or the tomahawk, whenever and wherever the way opened.
The probability that such was the cause of the horseman's haste threw the young Kentuckian at once on his mettle. Inasmuch as he was putting forth every effort to rejoin his companion, there was good reason for fearing a collision with the red men. He had been in several desperate affrays with them, and, like a sensible person, he spared no exertion to escape all such encounters.
"If they will let me alone I will not disturb them," was the principle which not only he, but many of the bravest frontiersmen followed daring the eventful early days of the West.
The youth now dropped into the loping trot of the American Indian--a gait which, as in the case of the dusky warrior himself, he was able to maintain hour after hour, without fatigue. The sharp glances thrown in every direction were not long in making a discovery, though not of the nature anticipated.
A short distance in front a white oak, whose trunk was fully two feet in diameter, grew beside the trail which he was following. Its shaggy limbs twisted their way across the path and among the branches on the other side. The exuberant leaves offered such inviting concealment to man and animal that the youth subjected them to the keenest scrutiny.
His trot dropped to a slow walk, and he instinctively glanced at the lock of his gun to make sure it was ready for any emergency.
Something was moving among the branches of the forest monarch, but Jack knew it was not an Indian. No warrior would climb into a tree to wait for his prey, when, he could secure better concealment on the ground, where he would not be compelled to yield the use of his legs, which play such an important part in the maneuverings of the red man.
The lad caught several glimpses of the strange animal, and, when within a few rods, identified it.
"It's a painter," he said to himself, with a faint smile, resuming his slow advance and giving a sigh of relief; "I don't know whether it is worth while to give him a shot or not."
The name "painter," so common among American hunters, is a corruption of "panther," which is itself an incorrect application, the genuine panther being found only in Africa and India. In South America the corresponding animal is the jaguar, and in North America the cougar or catamount, and sometimes the American lion.
Jack Carlton did not hold the brute in special fear, though he knew that when wounded or impelled by hunger he was a dangerous foe. During an unusually cold day, only a few months before, one of them had made an open attack on him, inflicting some severe scratches and tearing most of his clothes to shreds.
It would have been one of the easiest things in the world for the young Kentuckian to settle the whole question by leaving the trail and making a detour that would take him safely by the treacherous beast, which, as a rule, is afraid to assault a person. The lad was certain that at that season of the year it would not leave the tree to attack him.
But if he took such a course, it would be a confession of timidity on his part against which, his nature and training rebelled.
"No," Said he, after brief hesitation, "I won't leave the path for all the painters this side of the Mississippi. It may not be wise for me to fire my gun just now and I won't do it, if he behaves himself, but I don't mean to put up with any nonsense."
He brought his weapon in front, raised the hammer and closely watched the animal above, while the quadruped was equally intent in observing him. It was a curious sight--the two scrutinizing each other with such defiant distrust.
The cougar was crouching on a broad limb, just far enough from the trunk of the oak to be directly over the trail. He was extended full length, and, as partly seen through the leaves, offered the best target possible for the marksman below.
But Jack preferred not to fire his gun, for the reason that the report was likely to be heard by more dangerous enemies. His purpose was to refrain from doing so, unless forced to shoot in self defense, and his pride would not permit him to deviate a hair's-breadth from the path in order to escape the necessity of shooting.
He walked with the deliberate, noiseless tread of an Indian, looking steadily upward at the eyes which assumed a curious, phosphorescent
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