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Authors: Gary Paulsen

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His lips had no sooner touched the water than he heard men’s voices. It was a native tongue and they were loud, and laughing. There were two of them. Had they come upon Samuel, they surely would have taken or killed him.

Samuel kept his head near the ground. Through small holes in the brush he could see them from the waist down. They wore leather leggings and high moccasins and each carried a musket in one hand—he could see the butts hanging down at their sides—and either a coupstick or a killing lance in the other. Both of the men had fresh scalps hanging on the shafts they carried.

For the first time in his life Samuel wanted to kill a man.

The overwhelming rage that he had begun to feel while following his mother’s small footprints as she’d been savagely jerked along the trail was like a hot knife in his brain.

If there had only been one, he would have done it. But he carried no tomahawk. All he had was a skinning knife, and his rifle fired only one shot. After that, the one he didn’t shoot would turn on him before he could reload. With only a knife to defend himself, he’d have almost no chance.

So he waited until they were out of sight; then, staying low and moving slowly, he went back to the trail.

Why had the men come back? Whatever the reason, two men alone would not backtrack too far into potentially hostile country. If there were any kind of force after them, they would want to keep moving.

So, Samuel thought—maybe I’m getting close.

He picked up the pace to a jog, but stayed well to the side of the trail on the edge of the thicker undergrowth in case he ran into any others. And again, this move saved his life.

Clearings left by old beaver ponds were scattered through the forest. Some were small, an acre or two; others were thirty or forty acres.

A large clearing popped up in front of Samuel now. It was late afternoon, almost evening, and the sun slanted from the west behind him into the clearing.

It was another stroke of luck. The clearing had been turned into a large encampment, filled with Indians, some British soldiers in red uniforms and, nearly a quarter of a mile away, freight wagons hooked up to horses.

Samuel slid into the underbrush. He crawled farther back where he couldn’t be seen. Unfortunately he couldn’t see, either, and he squatted in the thick foliage and tried to remember what he’d seen.

Three wagons ready to go out. Ten or fifteen soldiers, including three officers on horses, and ten or fifteen Indians.

He shook his head. No. Not so many soldiers. Seven or eight. And fewer Indians. Eight or nine.

One large fire in the center of the clearing, one smaller one closer to the wagons. A group of people huddled there.

The captives.

There hadn’t been time to see them clearly and they were too far away for him to see if his mother and father were in the group.

In a rope pen near the wagons were one or two horses, three or four oxen, maybe a milk cow; there was also a spit set up over the larger fire with some kind of big animal cooking.

Which meant they were going to be here for some time, perhaps the night.

He settled slowly back on his haunches, careful not to move the brush around him.

He had caught up to them.

There was a chance his mother and father were with that group of captives. He still had no plan to rescue them. Everything he’d done was just to catch up, see if they were still alive. Could they be here? He hadn’t come across their bodies on the trail, and there
were
captives by the fire. For the moment, that was enough.

The plan would come later.

It would be dark soon; there was still no moon. Now he was astonished that it had only been forty or so hours since he’d returned from the hunt. His whole life, everything in it and around it, was different now, torn and gutted and forever changed from all that it had been, and it would never be the same.

It would be dark soon.

And in the dark, he thought, with no moon, in the near pitch-dark of starlight, there might be possibilities.

He had no plan.

But it would be dark soon.

And just then, as he settled back to wait and think on some way to get to the captives without being discovered—the whole world blew up.

Warfare

The British procedure when fighting was to march at the foe in a close line, with two or three ranks of men. The front rank would fire at fifty or sixty yards, then drop back and reload while the second rank stepped forward and fired, dropping back and reloading while the back rank came forward and fired.

This “rolling volley” had the effect of creating a kind of mass firepower. The weapons were very simple, but it was almost impossible to stand against the line when the men grew close, quit firing altogether and charged, screaming. It took a special kind of courage to stand ready when a line of howling men ran at you with bayonets aimed at your stomach. Many times, American soldiers turned and ran rather than face what the British army called the Wall of British Steel.

CHAPTER
8

T
he natives began whooping and dancing around the large campfire, firing their muskets in the air in celebration.

Samuel crept out, slowly, until he could partially see what was going on. He started to move back under cover when there was a sudden increase in the racket. And the sound was different.

The Indians had been firing in the air as they danced, which caused the explosions to go up and away. They were firing smoothbore muskets, weapons that made a muffled barking sound. But this new sound had the sharper, cracking quality of higher-velocity rifles.

Samuel crept back out to the edge and saw that the shots had come from the north side of the clearing, where another trail came in.

Six or eight shots. Great clouds of black-powder smoke
came rolling out of the forest. A pause to reload, then eight more shots.

The Indians and British soldiers were stunned. A few Indians and one soldier went down, probably dead. Several others were wounded and hobbled into the brush for cover.

But the Indians and British recovered and returned fire. Samuel was jarred by two important facts: First, whoever was attacking, this might end in the rescue of his parents. Second, he should help them.

He moved to the clearing near the trail, raised his rifle, cocked it and, without thinking of the enormity of what he was doing, aimed at the nearest British soldier. He was less than fifty yards away. The German silver of Samuel’s front sight settled on the red uniform. He set the first trigger and was moving his finger to the hair trigger when he heard a noise behind him.

He wheeled, his rifle coming around in time for him to see the two Indians who had nearly caught him earlier, running straight at him.

“Wha—” Half a word, then one Indian, the one farther away, leveled his musket and fired. Samuel felt the ball graze his cheek. Without thinking, his rifle at his hip, he touched the hair trigger and, in slow motion, felt the rifle buck, saw the small hole appear in the Indian’s chest. Then, through a cloud of smoke from his weapon, he watched the Indian fall as he saw the other Indian swing a tomahawk in a wide arc. He knew he couldn’t raise his rifle
in time to block the blow. The tomahawk was coming at his head and he tried to duck, but the white-hot pain exploded as the side of the tomahawk smashed into his forehead.

And then, nothing.

Wounds

Untreated battle injuries often led to gangrene, which causes the body to literally rot away, turning first green, then black, from infection that travels rapidly. Because antibiotics were unavailable in the eighteenth century, amputation was the usual treatment. Due to the horrific odor of gangrene, surgeons could smell the patient and make an accurate diagnosis.

If the patient was not lucky enough to benefit from amputation, maggots would be introduced into the wound in an attempt to aid healing. They would eat away the infection.

Barring the surgical removal of body parts or the use of parasites, doing absolutely nothing and letting the patient die was the only option at the time.

CHAPTER
9

S
trange dreams.

Visions of unreality.

Endless screams that started with low grunts and became more and more shrill until they cut his soul …

Dreams of his mother, dressed all in buckskins, ladling some kind of thick stew with a wooden spoon into a wooden bowl, chewing tobacco and spitting off to the side while she held the bowl out, shaking her head.

“He ain’t anywhere near right yet.” She spit her wad of tobacco juice out again. “Brains scrambled to hell and gone …”

Then a trapdoor came down, a lid, something thick and dark, and there was no light at all, just blessed darkness and sleep, sleep, sleep … and more screams.

No sense of time. Once he tried to remember his name
and fought with it for a minute or a day or a week or ten years. He couldn’t tell.

More dreams. Scattered. His mother, this time wrapped in a blanket with stringy black hair hanging down at the sides of her head while she chewed an obnoxious cud. She disgorged it, slapped it on his head and tied it on with a filthy rag, spitting more tobacco juice out and nodding. “Got to get the pizen out or she’s going to rot on him.”

It was as if his eyes never really opened, as if he saw everything through closed lids, and the images that swirled through his mind were so mixed that they became a blur.

Night, day, night, day—light and darkness seemed to flop and flow over each other. Pictures would stick for a moment and then go.

A horse, then a cow, then his mother leaning down, still in the dirty blanket, greasy black hair hanging down the sides of her head, raising the poultice and grinning, spitting more tobacco juice. “Coming clean now,” she said, “clear pus, looks clean as springwater, all the yeller gone.”

And then bouncing, incredibly rough bouncing, as if someone were jumping on a bed while he was trying to sleep. He would pass out in pain, rolling waves of pain.

Finally a picture stopped, just stopped in front of his eyes, in front of his mind. Locked in.

It was dark, or night, and he was on some kind of wooden frame lying on the ground. A fire burned nearby and when he opened his eyes wide, the light from the fire
seemed to shove a lance into the middle of his head. He grunted in pain. He closed his eyes and waited for the rolling pictures to begin again. When they didn’t, he opened his eyes, but only in a slit.

The image was the same. A bed frame of some kind, a fire, and this time, less pain from the light. As he watched, an arm came out of nowhere and put a piece of wood on the fire, then withdrew.

He tried to move his head and see where the arm went but the pain was so intense he nearly lost consciousness. He lay back and closed his eyes, opened them again when the pain receded.

“Where … who …?” The words pealed in his mind like a bell, echoing around inside his head.

A figure appeared next to the fire. Not his mother but a young man with stringy black hair and a cheek full of tobacco juice. He leaned down, his face close to Samuel’s. “You in there righteous or are you going away again?”

“I’m … I’m here. Who are you?”

“John. John Cooper, but most just call me Coop.”

“Where …?”

“Long story, that. We be about twelve miles from where you got that egg on your head. Twelve miles in distance, more’n that in time.”

“When … I don’t remember … Some Indians. I think I shot at one and then … nothing. Why did I shoot at an Indian?”

“Cain’t tell. We come on these Iroquois and some
redcoats. We’d already seen what they took and done back at Miller’s Crossing, so we snuck up proper and took them on.”

“I remember. You were shooting. You say ‘we,’ where are the others?”

“Asleep. I’m the night watch tonight, plus I’ve been doctoring you and I thought you might lose your light during the night. You been breathing like an old pump. I guess you was just sucking air hard because you didn’t die. Course it could still happen. I had a cousin got kicked in the head by a mule—they’s fractious, mules—and he lived for nigh on two months ’fore he lost his light. He never talked none except now and again a kind of moan—like somebody stepping on a duck. Then he just up and died.”

Samuel closed his eyes, felt a spinning. Then, as if a fog were lifted, it all came back.

“I was tracking Ma and Pa. They … I mean the redcoats, the Indians … hit our place while I was looking for bear. They killed most everybody but took my parents and a few others captive.”

Coop nodded. “We saw them, all around a fire. Ropes tyin’ ’em together.”

“What happened to them?”

Coop shrugged. “Wasn’t much of a fight. We fired once, reloaded, laid out another round, and they ran. Them redcoats had wagons already hooked up and they piled the captives in the wagons and lit out. We couldn’t shoot no more for fear of hitting the captives. The Indians
just drifted away, like smoke. That would have been that except one of them put a musket ball in Paul. It was in his gut—awful place, that. We knew he was going to die—ain’t nobody comes back from a belly wound—and kept waiting for it, but he made four days. He gave up his light last night. No, night before. Died screaming. It was bad. Surprised it didn’t bring you out of your stupor, the screaming. Kept everybody up all night.”

Samuel closed his eyes again, trying to put numbers together. Died one, two days ago, after making four days; if a belly wound took four days to kill and it happened the day of the fight but Paul died two days ago … “How long since they took the captives? Since the fight?”

“Five, six days. You been out six days. We like to not found you and when we did, we almost left you. Thought you was with the raiders.”

“Me? Why?”

“Well, you wasn’t with us, so we thought you was with them. But Carl did some thinking on it—Carl’s my brother and he’s the one to think on things—and said look how messed up your head was where they clubbed you and look at the bullet hole in the Indian you killed—that’s a honey of a little rifle you got—and how could you be with them and still get clubbed and shoot one of them, so we took you with us.”

BOOK: Woods Runner
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