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- The Lost Trail - 3/42 -
slowly circled around and back and forth. At the same time the palm of his right hand gently moved over the leaves, touching them as lightly as the falling snowflakes, and with as wonderful delicacy as that of the blind reader, when his fingers are groping over the raised letters of the Book of Life.
The young Kentuckian from his place of concealment smiled to himself.
"There are some things which even a Shawanoe, cannot do, and that's one of them."
Such was the fact; for, with that care which the trained pioneer never permits himself to forget or disregard, the lad had adopted every artifice at his command to add to the difficulty of identifying his footsteps.
The warrior straightened up with an impatient "Ugh!" which brought another smile to the face of the watcher, for it proved beyond question the failure of his foes.
The Shawanoe, however, had established one fact--the overrunning of the trail. The one for whom they were searching had left the path at some point behind them. Scant chance was there of learning the precise spot.
"Follow me if you can," was the exultant thought of Jack, who carefully lowered the hammer of his rifle. "I'm glad that as the painter was determined on picking a quarrel with me he did not do it earlier in the day--helloa!"
While speaking to himself, he became aware that the warriors were invisible. They may have believed they were acting as oscillating targets for some hidden enemy, who was likely to press the trigger at any moment; and, unable even to approximate as they were his biding-place, they withdrew in their characteristic fashion.
Jack thrust his head still further from behind the tree, and finally stepped forth that he might obtain the best view he could. But the red men had vanished like the shadows of swiftly-moving clouds. Nothing more was to be feared from that source.
But with the lifting of the peril from his own shoulders, there returned his distressing anxiety for his absent companion. No doubt could exist that when he put his horse to his hurried flight, he had done so to escape the Indians. Whether he had succeeded remained to be learned, but Jack felt that every probability was against it.
He might well debate as to his own duty in the premises. His one desire was to learn what had become of Otto, the German lad, with whom he left the Settlements a couple of days before. Neither had ever visited this section, but they were following the instructions of those who had, and the young Kentuckian knew the precise point in their journey that had been reached.
Standing as motionless as the trees beside him and amid the darkening shadows, Jack Carleton listened with the intentness of an Indian scout stealing into a hostile camp.
The soft murmur which seems to reach us when a sea-shell is held to the ear filled the air. It was the voice of the night--the sighing of the scarcely moving wind among the multitudinous branches, the restless movements of myriads of trees--the soft embrace of millions of leaves, which, like the great ocean itself, even when the air is pulseless, is never at rest.
Jack Carleton had spent too many days and nights in the woods to be greatly impressed with the solemnity and grandeur of his surroundings. That which would have awed his soul, if noted for the first time, had lost the power to do so from its familiarity; but while in the attitude of listening, he became conscious of another sound which did not belong to the vast forest, the throbbing air, nor the gathering darkness.
ON THE BANK OF THE MISSISSIPPI
That which reached the ears of Jack Carleton, while he stood in the woods, silent and listening, was a peculiar swashing noise, which continued a few seconds, followed by the same space of silence--the intervals being as regular as the ticking of a huge pendulum. Accompanying the sound was another, a soft, almost inaudible flow, such as one hears when standing on the bank of a vast stream of water.
He knew that both were caused by the sweep of the mighty Mississippi which was near at hand. The reason for the first he could not understand, but that of the latter was apparent. He had never looked upon the Father of Waters, but many a time he had rested along the Ohio and been lulled to sleep by its musical flow, even while the camp-fires of the hostile red men twinkled on the other shore.
Manifestly nothing could be done by remaining where he was, and, in the same guarded manner in which he left the trail a half hour before, he began picking his way back. Probably he ran greater personal risk in following the beaten path, yet he was controlled by a true hunter's instinct in every movement made.
When he reached the trail, he observed that not only had the night descended, but the full moon was shining from an almost unclouded sky. The trees, crowned with exuberant vegetation, cast deep shadows, like those of the electric light, and only here and there did the arrowy moonbeams strike the ground, redolent with the odors of fresh earth and moldering leaves.
"Some of the warriors may be returning or groping along the trail," was the thought of the youth, who glided silently forward, his senses on the alert. His misgivings, however, were much less than when watching the two Shawanoes, for with the dense gloom of the forest inclosing him on every hand, he felt that the shelter was not only secure but was of instant avail.
Less than a furlong was passed, when he caught the shimmering of water. A few steps further and he stood for the first time on the bank of the Mississippi.
The youth felt those emotions which must come to every one when he emerges from a vast forest at night and pauses beside one of the grandest streams of the globe. At that day its real source was unknown, but Jack, who was unusually well informed for one of his years, was aware that it rose somewhere among the snowy mountains and unexplored regions far to the northward, and that, after its winding course of hundreds of leagues, during which it received the volume of many rivers, enormous in themselves, it debouched into the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The reflection of the turbid current showed that it was flowing swiftly. The dark line of the forest on the other shore appeared like a solid wall of blackness, while to the north and south the view ended in the same impenetrable gloom.
Impressed and awed by the scene, the lad saw something which at first startled him by its resemblance to a man, standing in the river, with his feet braced against the bottom and his head and shoulders above the surface. The current seemed to rush against his bared breast, from which it was cast back and aside, as though flung off by a granite rock. Then the head bowed forward, as if the strong man sought to bathe his brain in the cooling waters, that he might be refreshed against the next shock.
A minute's scrutiny was enough to show Jack that the object was a tree, which, rolling into the river at some point, perhaps hundreds of miles above, had grown weary of its journey, and, plunging its feet into the muddy bed of the stream, had, refused to go further. The fierce current would lift the head several feet with a splash, but could hold it thus only a part of a minute, when it would dip for a brief while, to rise again and repeat the action.
The tree was what is known to-day on the Mississippi as a "sawyer," and which is so dreaded by the steamers and other craft navigating the river. Many a boat striking at full speed against them, have had their hulls pierced as if by a hundred-pound shell, and have gone to the bottom like stone.
It was the sound made by the "sawyer" which had puzzled Jack Carleton before he caught sight of the great river. He could not wonder that he had failed to guess the cause of the intermittent swash which reached him through the woods.
"And we must cross that stream," murmured Jack, with half a shudder, as he looked out upon the prodigious volume rushing southward like myriads of wild horses; "it seems to me no one can swim to the other shore, nor can a raft or boat be pushed thither."
The plucky boy would not have felt so distrustful and timid had the sun been shining overhead.
"Ish dot you, Jack?"
Young Carleton turned his head as if a war hoop had sounded in his ear. He fairly bounded feet when he recognized his old friend at his elbow. The good-natured German lad was grinning with delight, as he extended his chubby hand and asked:
"How you vos?"
"Why, Otto!" gasped Jack, slapping his palm against that of his friend and crushing it as if in a vise. "I am so glad to see you."
"So I vos," was the grinning response; "I'm always glad to shake hands mit myself"
"But," said the other, looking furtively over each shoulder in turn, "let's move away the trail, where we cannot be seen or heard."
The suggestion was a wise one, and acted upon without delay. The friends entered the wood, which continued quite open, and tramped steadily forward with the intention of finding place where they could start a fire and converse without danger of discovery by enemies.
The hearts of both were too full for hold their peace while stealing forward among the trees.
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