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Authors: Gary Paulsen

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BOOK: Woods Runner
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Then he remembered that their neighbor Overton was going to burn limbs and brush from trees he had felled and cleared. The direction and distance looked about right for the settlement.

The bear moved, stood and looked at him, then dropped and was gone without Samuel’s firing. Another missed kill.

The smoke was in the right direction and at the probable distance, but there was something wrong with it, the way there had been something wrong with the feel of the woods today.

He eased the hammer down on his rifle and lowered the butt to the ground. He stood leaning on it, studying the smoke the way he would read sign from a wounded animal, trying to see the “why” of it.

The gray smudge was wide, not just at the base but as it rose up, too wide for a single pile of slash. That could be explained by wind blowing the smoke around.

But it was a still, clear day.

All right, he thought, so Overton set fire to the slash and it spread into some grass and that made it wider. But the grass in the settlement area had been grazed to the ground by the livestock and what was left was still green and hard to burn.

And would not make a wide smoke.

Would not make such a dark, wide smoke that it could be seen from … how far?

Maybe eight miles?

Smoke that would show that dark and that wide from eight miles away on a clear, windless day had to be intentional.

He frowned, looking at the smoke, willing it to not be what was coming into his mind like a dark snake, a slithering horror. Some kind of attack. No. He shook his head.


There had been years of peace. Even with a war, a real war, starting back east in the towns and cities, it would not have come out here so soon; it had only been a week since they’d heard the news.

It could not come this soon.

But even as he thought this, his mind was calculating. Distance home: eight miles in thick forest. Time until dark: an hour, hour and a half. No moon: it would be hard dark.

Could he run eight miles an hour through the woods in the dark?

It would be like running blind.

An attack.

Had there been an attack on the settlement, on his home?

He started running down the side of the ridge. Not a crazy run, but working low and slipping into the game
trails, automatically looking for a turn or shift that would take him more directly home.


An attack on his home.

An attack on his mother and father?

And he had not been there to help.

Deep breaths, hard, and deep pulls of air as he increased his speed, moccasins slapping the ground, rifle held out in front of him to move limbs out of the way as he loped through the forest. The green thickness that once helped him now seemed to clutch at him, pull him back, hold him.

An attack.

And he had not been there to protect his parents.




A single rifle—something every frontier family needed, something that was an absolute necessity—might take a year or more, and a year’s wages, to get from one of the rare gunsmiths, located perhaps miles away.

This was the only weapon many of the rebels carried into battle against the British.

The firearm issued to the British army was called the Brown Bess musket. It was a smooth bore and fired a round ball of .75 caliber, approximately three-quarters of an inch in diameter, with a black-powder charge, ignited by flint, that pushed the ball at seven or eight hundred feet per second when it left the muzzle (modern rifles send the bullet out at just over three thousand feet per second).

Because a round ball fired from a smoothbore is so pitifully inaccurate—the ball bounces off the side of the bore as it progresses down the barrel—the Brown Bess was really only good out to about fifty yards. The ball would vary in flight so widely that it was common for a soldier to aim at one man
coming at him and hit another man four feet to the left or right.

With the Brown Bess, each British soldier was issued a bayonet, nearly three feet long, that twist-locked to the end of the barrel and turned the empty weapon into a kind of attacking pike.

Along with personal weapons, the British army employed artillery, small field cannon, which fired plain round balls, exploding shells and grapeshot: scores of round musket balls packed down the bore to make the cannon into something like a giant shotgun. Grapeshot was so viciously effective against columns of marching men that its destruction would not be duplicated until the use of the rapid-fire machine gun in the First World War. Whole ranks of attacking men could be torn to pieces in a single shot, the musket ball passing through man after man, ripping them apart.


amuel smelled it before he saw anything.

Not just the smoke from the fires. But the thick, heavy smell. Blood. Death.


The single word took over his brain. Part of his thinking was automatic, leading him to act with caution, move with stealth. But the front part, the thinking part, hung on one word.


He’d made good time, running hard until his lungs seemed to be on fire, then jogging until he got his breath, then back to the full-out run. There was probably another half hour of daylight before it was too dark to see. As he approached the settlement he slowed and moved off to the side. It would do no good to run head-on if the attackers were still there.

He was silent, listening keenly. Surely if anyone was still there they would make some noise. All Samuel heard was the crackling of fire, the soft night sounds of evening birds.

No human sound.

At the edge of the clearing near his home he paused, frightened, no, terrified at what he would find. He was hidden in some branches and he studied the area through the leaves to make sure it was clear before he stepped out.

The cabin was gone. Burned to the ground, side shed and all. Here and there an ember flickered and crackled and smoke rose into the evening sky but the building was no more.

In the distance he could see that the other cabins, scattered through the clearing, had been burned as well. Dreading what he might find, he forced himself to search the ashes, looking for the slightest indication of … bodies.

He could not bring himself to think about what he was really looking for: his parents. His brain would not allow it, though he knew the death smell came from someone. He could not allow himself to believe it was from them, from Mother and Father.

He found nothing in the ashes. And when he spread the search out around the cabin, moving in greater circles, he still found no trace that might have been his parents.

But as the search loop widened, he began to come across bodies—his neighbors, shot down and hacked where they’d fallen. They did not look like they had been people. What he found seemed more like trash, paper and cloth
blown across the ground. But they were people, friends and families he had known. A frantic need took him, the thought that the next body might be the one he dreaded most to find, and he ran from one to another trying to identify them in the failing light. Most had been mutilated so badly it was hard to tell who they had once been.

Overton lay by his cabin, his shirtsleeves still not down on his wrists, chest and stomach filled with arrows, his scalp gone so his face drooped without the top-skin to hold it up.

Samuel ran from body to body in the gathering twilight until at last there were no more bodies to find. No matter how fast he ran, how wide he ran, he did not find his parents. Along with six or seven others, they had not been killed, or at least not been killed here. They had been taken away. They had not been killed. He clung to that thought—they had not been killed.

He stood, his breathing ragged, sobbing softly. Twice he had thrown up, and the smell and taste mixed with the tears of frustration and grief for his friends, and rage for what had been done to them. He knew that if he lived to be a hundred, he would never lose the taste, the smell or the images of what he had seen: the madness of what men could do to other men in savage rage.

Dark caught him now. He had circled through the settlement and was back at his own cabin, or where it had been. There was nothing left that would furnish light; all of the candles had melted. But he trapped some of the embers
that were still glowing and made a campfire off from the cabin a bit. In its light he found the woodpile, which, oddly, had not been burned, and at the side of the pile there was a stack of pine-pitch knots and roots that his mother had used to start fires. The pitch concentrated in the knots burned with a smoky hot flame that lasted for an hour or more and would work as a torch. Near the garden plot he found the oak shovel they had used to turn the earth for gardening. The attackers had overlooked it or left it as useless, because anything of value had been taken or destroyed.

There were nine bodies to be buried before the coyotes, wolves and bear came. He knew that he would be moving come daylight, tracking, looking for sign, so the burying had to be done tonight.

Carrying spare pine knots and the shovel, he went from body to body. He dug a shallow grave next to each one, knowing that it might not be enough to protect them, that scavengers might dig them up, but so pressed for time that he had no choice. He covered each as best he could. Three were children and did not take as long, and though it was hard to tell exactly who they were in the dark and with the condition of the bodies, he remembered the children laughing and playing in front of the Olafsens’ cabin, two boys and a little girl with a crude doll. He found the doll in the grass and wept as he buried it with the smallest body. He cried over each corpse, thinking of them living, thinking of them meeting in the cabin and
living and talking and laughing and … just
. And now all gone. Gone. He could not stop crying, thinking of his parents, wondering, worrying.

It took five hours to bury everyone. It was still dark when he finished and looked around him. Then he realized that he should have said something over the bodies.

He did not know the right words—something about ashes and dust—but he took another torch and went back to each grave and bowed his head and said:

“Please, Lord, take them with you. Please.”

It was all he could think to say and he hoped it was enough.

He went back to the campfire by his own cabin site and sat looking into the flames.


Praying for safety for his parents.

And the others who had not been killed.

Praying for all who survived but praying most for his parents and, squatting there by the fire, also praying for daylight to come so he could begin looking for them.

And in half an hour, a little more, his eyes closed and sleep came and took him down, down, until he was lying on his side by the fire, sleeping deeply with all the bad dreams that he’d known would come; sleeping with twitches and jerks and whimpers at first, and then just sleeping.


The Americans

The American army consisted of three parts: the Continental (or regular) Army, the volunteer militia (including the elite Minutemen) and the Rangers, or small groups that were trained in guerrilla tactics.

The Continentals bore the brunt of the fighting and they were equipped much like the British, with smoothbore Brown Bess muskets and sometimes bayonets. Many of them also carried tomahawks, or small hand axes, which could be very effective once past the first line, the line of bayonets.

The militia volunteers were usually used to supplement the Continentals, but were quite often not as dependable or steady as they could have been had they been trained better, and they often evaporated after receiving the first volley and before the bayonets came. Most of them were also issued smoothbore muskets and some had bayonets for them, but others had rifles, which were very effective at long range but could not mount bayonets.

Special Ranger groups, such as Morgan’s
Rifles, had an effect far past their numbers because of the rifles they carried. A rifle, by definition, has a series of spiral grooves down the inside of the barrel—with the low pressure of black powder, the rifling then was with a slow twist, grooved with a turn of about one rotation for thirty-five or forty inches. A patched ball was gripped tightly in the bore and the grooved rifling, and the long bore (up to forty inches) enabled a larger powder charge, which allowed the ball to achieve a much higher velocity, more than twice that of the smoothbores. And the high rate of rotation, or spin, stabilized the ball flight, resulting in greater accuracy.


amuel was just thirteen, but he lived on a frontier where even when things were normal, someone his age was thirteen going on thirty. Childhood ended when it was possible to help with chores; for a healthy boy or girl, it ended at eight or nine, possibly ten.

Because of his parents’ nature—their lack of physical skills, their joy in gentleness, their love of books and music, their almost childlike wonder in
all they could about the whole wide world, but not necessarily the world right around them—Samuel had become the provider for his family.

BOOK: Woods Runner
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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