"What do you mean?'" angrily asked the other.
"You must leave the little gal alone."
"Oh, thank you! thank you!" exclaimed Mrs. Ripley. "I might have known you would see that right is done."
Zitner had a few sharp words with his friend, but the latter was immovable. He would not listen to his proposition, and that ended the matter.
"Well," finally said Zitner, rising to his feet, "I intended to see you folks safe to the Delaware; but I won't have anything to do with you now. Come, Horace."
He strode off without another word or looking to the right or left. Burwink waited a minute, and then, with a quizzical look at Mrs. Ripley and her son asked—
"Do you think you can stand it?"
"We shall have to," replied Ben.
"Well, goodbye, and good luck to you;" and he followed his friend among the trees.
"That was a luckier ending than I expected," remarked Ben, letting down the hammer of his rifle.
"If Mr. Burwink had sided with him, there would have been no help for it," said his mother.
"Such people are always cowards. I wasn't afraid of him."
Now that they had departed, Linna came over to her champion—though she could not have fully understood all that had passed—and placed her hand confidingly on his shoulder.
"Linna, I have two sisters," he said tenderly; "yonder is one, and her name is Alice: can you tell me the name of the other?"
"Yes—she name be Linna."
"You are right. Now, if you will kiss me, I won't tickle you any more for making my nose itch this morning."
The lips were put up to his, and with deep affection on the part of both, the salute was exchanged.
"If any more white people show themselves, and they ask you your father's name, let mother and me answer for you."
"Me do what you say," was the obedient response.
It need not be said that our friends were greatly relieved by the departure of Zitner. While as I have already said, they ought to have been glad of the company of him and Burwink, they would have been ill at ease so long as the surly fellow was with them. He surely held no good will toward the little girl, and would have found some chance to show it.
"But are we really rid of him?" asked Ben of his mother. The two sat close to each other on the tree, and the children were playing a few steps away.
"I am quite sure we are."
"He may steal back tonight, if we camp near."
"Why should he? He does not want to harm Linna, but to use her as a means of safety against her own people."
"That was what he said, but I don't believe him. It seems to me we ought to change our course, to be certain of not meeting him again."
"As you think best."
"We have had a good rest. Come, girls, we must be off." Taking the lead as before, Ben strode down the incline, bearing more to the left than he had been doing.
All smiled at Linna, for she noticed the change on the instant.
"You go wrong," she said; "dat not right way."
"Which is the right way, Miss Smartness?"
She pointed it out.
"You are right, but that is the course of that bad man, who doesn't like you. We will go around, so as not to see him again."
She was satisfied, and gave her attention to Alice, who thought it odd that she and Ben should have so many disputes.
Over the varying surface, turning aside now and then to pass some obstacle in the shape of rocks or ravines—now up hill and down, among the dense trees, where the briars and bushes scratched their hands and faces, across small rippling streams and natural clearings—they pushed on until the sun was far beyond meridian and the halt and rest were grateful.
"I don't think we need give any more thought to Zitner," said Ben; "and I am sure we are all glad. He could not find us now, if he tried."
"If they kept to their course, we must be several miles apart."
"I have been working my way back, so that, after all, I do not think we have lost much ground. I hope Miss Linna is satisfied."
"She would make complaint if she was not."
They had stopped near another of the small running streams, for it was harder to do without water than food.
"I'm hungry, mother."
"So we all are," she added, producing half a loaf, which was the last of their food.
"To leave any portion of this will only aggravate all your appetites, so we will finish it."
The bread was divided among the four, and when eating ceased not a crumb was left.
"It isn't a good time of the year for hunting, mother, but if I can get sight of any game, I'll bring it down, whether it is a deer, bear, wild turkey, quail, or anything that will serve for a meal."
"It isn't a time to be particular—in watching for danger look also for game."
"That's what I have been doing for the last few hours."
With the passage of time and the increase of the distance between them and Wyoming the hopes of the little party naturally rose. They were now a good many miles from their old home, and as yet had not seen a single red man. That numbers were abroad there could be no doubt, although it is a fact that a great many people did not start eastward until several days after the battle.
But it was a long, long way to the Delaware, with the travelling such as they had to face. I have spoken of the forest as being trackless and a wrong impression may have been given. An old trail led from the Susquehanna to the Delaware, and was followed by many of the fugitives; but great risk was run by those who did so, for most of the pursuers used the same path. As a consequence, some were overtaken and slain.
Those who avoided the beaten route of necessity suffered greater hardships; but none was equal to that of meeting their enemies. Omas took care to steer wide of this trail when leading the party into the wild section to the east of the river, and he showed them that he wished them to do the same. Ben was too wise to forget his wishes.
The location of the sun in the sky, the appearance of the bark and moss, and the tops of certain trees, enabled the young woodman to keep a pretty true course. He remarked, with a laugh, that if there was any likelihood of going wrong, Linna would correct him.
The afternoon was well past before they came upon any more water, and, with the warm weather and their long tramp, all suffered from thirst. They were not traversing a desert country, however, and soon found what they wanted in abundance.
"But," said Ben, "I am worried about food, mother. It is nearly night, and we haven't a mouthful. I suppose if there was plenty, I wouldn't feel half as bad, but it seems to me I was never so hungry in all my life."
"That is natural; but, if necessary, we can go all night without food."
"If necessary, of course we can, but I dread it. Alice and Linna will suffer, though I'm not so sure about Linna. I would give almost anything for a wild turkey."
The dusky child looked up from where she was sitting on the ground, playing with Alice.
"Want turkey—eh?" she asked.
"Yes; have you any to sell?"
"Me get you one."
Mother and son stared in amazement. They could not believe she was in earnest. She saw it and, with a grin, added—"Omas showed Linna how get turkey."
"What can she be driving at?" asked the puzzled Ben. "She surely would not say what she does without reason. Linna, teach Ben how to get a wild turkey; we want one for supper, for if we don't have it, we shall all have to go without food."
"Me hungry," she ventured; "so be Alice—so be you."
"You are right. Come, sister, show me how to catch a turkey."
She gravely rose from the ground. Her face appeared serious, but those who looked at her closely detected a sparkle of the black eyes, for all the world as if she meditated some prank upon her confiding friends. Ben was suspicious. She added—
"Go wid me—me show you." Then he was sure she was up to something.
He rose from where he was sitting, and, rifle in hand, walked a little way in the wood. She looked round once or twice, and continued advancing a few minutes after they were out of sight of Alice and her mother.
She held the hand of the youth, who acted as if he was a bad boy being led to punishment. He started to ask a question, but she checked him by raising her forefinger and a "S—h!" and he did not presume again.
Finally she stopped among a number of trees where several trunks were two or three feet in diameter. Stepping behind one, she motioned him to do the same with another a few yards off. Surveying him a moment, as if to make sure he was doing right, she suddenly emitted a sound from between her lips, which caused Ben Ripley to utter the exclamation under his breath—"Well, by gracious! If that doesn't beat everything!"
"Why don't shoot?" she abruptly asked.
The call made by Linna was the exact imitation of a wild turkey when lost in the woods. Perhaps you may know that the body of every one of those birds contains a bone which a hunter can so use as to make the same signal; but it is hard to produce the sound without such help, though it has been done.
Linna had succeeded to perfection.
"Who would have thought it possible for one so young as she to learn the trick?" Ben asked himself. "I have tried it many a time without the bone, but never could do it."
He looked at her admiringly, and was certain she was the smartest girl he had ever seen.
"If there are any turkeys within hearing, that is bound to fetch them, but I have seen no signs of them."
Linna continued the signalling at intervals for fifteen minutes or more, peeping meanwhile from behind the tree and around her in every direction. Ben did the same, and saw nothing.
"Why don't shoot?" she abruptly asked.
He noted the direction of her gaze, and there, not fifty feet away, was a big hen turkey, walking slowly over the leaves, with head aloft and glancing here and there for the lost one.
The target was a good one, and taking careful aim, Ben toppled it fluttering to the ground at the first fire.
"Dat all want?" queried Linna.
"Yes; that will do for tonight, Linna."
"Den go back—play wid Alice."
And off she ran to rejoin her companion, while the delighted lad picked up his prize and brought it to camp.
Turning that and his knife over to his mother, he made a fire ready to pass the night, full of thankfulness that all had gone so well. Ben agreed to stand watch until near midnight, and then allow his mother to help him at the necessary duty.
While the simple preparations were going on, Linna knelt on the bare ground with her ear pressed to the earth. Almost instantly she raised her head and whispered:
"Somebody comin' dis way—guess be Injins!"
CHAPTER NINE: IN A CIRCLE
This was alarming news. Ben Ripley imitated the action of Linna. Kneeling down, he pressed his ear to the earth.
Yes; he heard faint footfalls. Persons were moving about not far away.
"She is right," he said in a low tone; "likely they are Indians, though we cannot be certain."
"It won't do to wait till they come to us," remarked his mother.
"Shall I put out the fire?" asked Ben, disconcerted by the suddenness of the danger.
"No; we can't spare the time. Let us leave. Come, children."
She took the hand of each girl and walked quickly off, while Ben caught up the blankets and followed. They had no particular point in view, but wished to reach a safe place without delay.
The gloom of the gathering night helped them, and when they paused they were confident they had not been seen by anyone.
Without any thought on their part, they made their way to a mass of rocks and boulders, more extensive than any seen through the day. It was a hundred yards from their starting point.
They sat down for a whispered consultation.
"They must have heard the report of my rifle," said Ben.
"That was a considerable while ago, and they may have been a good way off at the time."
"Then, being so much nearer, it was the report which brought them. What would become of us but for Linna?" added Ben placing his arm affectionately around her. "It was she that got us our supper, and now she warns us of danger."
"They may be Zitner and Burwink."
"Not likely, but if they come to our fire we shall soon find out. Look!"
To their astonishment, the little fire which they had left only a few minutes before burned up brightly, showing that a lot of fuel had been thrown on it.
Too many trees and too much undergrowth obtruded for them to detect anything more than the great increase in brightness.
"The darkness will prevent their following our footprints," whispered the mother.
"I will go a little nearer and find out what it means: it may be, after all, that they are friends."
"Be careful, my son."
It was not a hard task Ben Ripley gave himself. He had not far to go, and he proceeded with so much caution that no risk was involved. Only half the distance was passed when he gained a full view of the camp fire and its surroundings.
The sight was disquieting. Three Indian warriors were there. One had been gathering dry sticks which he flung on the blaze; another was helping himself to what was left of the cooked turkey; while the third, bent low, moved slowly around the lit up portion of the ground with his eyes fixed on it.
It was plain he was scrutinizing the footprints made by the party that had left just in time to escape them. It was a fortunate discovery made by Linna!
With the aid of the bright glare, it could not take him long to identify the little party as fugitives fleeing eastward, though it may be questioned whether they learned that it consisted of one large boy, an adult woman, and two small children.
They were in the battle yesterday. They have left others to look after those in Wyoming, while they are hunting the poor creatures that have taken to the woods.
The Iroquois who had been studying the ground straightened himself up and said something to the others. One of them then flung more fuel on the flames, and he who was ravenously eating suspended his operations, but quickly resumed again, as if he liked his occupation better than anything else to which he could turn his attention.
Then the first stooped down and caught up a burning brand. Several quick circles over his head fanned it into a vigorous blaze. Holding it aloft, with his shoulders bent forward, he moved slowly towards Ben Ripley.
He was tracing the footprints by the aid of the torch!
"Gracious! he will be among us in a minute," was the terrifying thought of the lad, who turned and ran back to his friends, in such haste that he was in danger of betraying his movements.
"Leave—quick!" he said; "they are after us!"
"No, they are not," replied his mother, who nevertheless stood ready to do as he said.
Ben looked back. The warrior with a torch, after walking a rod or so from the fire, had stopped, and was now in plain sight, with the flaming brand held above his head, while he peered out in the gloom in the direction of the fugitives, as if expecting to discern them.
Could he have known how near they were, he and his companions would have rushed down upon them; but they must have thought they had fled much further. It was impossible to trail them by torchlight as fast as they could travel, and the Indians did not waste time in the effort. The one with the torch went back to his companions.
The incident warned our friends of a new form of danger, which until then had not been counted among the probabilities.
The Indians, as you know, can trace a person through the woods with wonderful skill, seeing signs where the untrained eye observes nothing. If these three chose to wait where they were until daylight, there was nothing to prevent their taking up the trail and tracing the fugitives wherever they went.
"It won't do to stay here," said Ben, "for they will be right upon us at daylight."
"Providing they wait where they are."
"Why should they not do so? They are looking for us."
Mrs. Ripley dared not answer the question as her heart prompted. At the same time, she could think of no means of throwing them off their track.
"It might have been better had we stayed with Zitner and Burwink—no, it would not have been," she corrected herself, "for they were unfriendly to Linna. But we must go."
The only hope that presented itself was that they might travel so far during the darkness that the Indians would not keep up the pursuit when the trail was revealed to them.
The moon did not rise until very late, and there being no path, while all were in total ignorance of the neighborhood, it will be understood that they had set to work to do a very hard, if not impossible thing.
Ben as usual took the lead, and, before he had gone twenty steps, was caught under the chin by a protruding limb that almost lifted him off his feet. Then he went headlong into a hollow and bruised himself against some stones. Still, he did not give up, and by and by the ground became more level and his mishaps less frequent.
Alice and Linna, like little heroines, never murmured. All persevered until it was agreed that they were at least two miles from the camp fire.
In making this hard journey, every one of the party met with several narrow escapes, and it was agreed that it was best to go no further until daylight.
"As soon as we can see, we'll be off again, and ought to be able to travel as fast as they will do. Where they must watch all the time for our footprints, they cannot go off a walk."
"We may as well wait."
Throughout their haste, the blankets had been preserved. Indeed, the one over Ben's arm had served to break his fall more than once. These were placed on the ground, and the children lay down beside each other, quickly sinking to sleep; but the others, though pretty well worn, were too anxious to rest yet awhile.
"I have no idea where we are," said the son; "but one place is as good as another at such a time, and the weather is so warm that blankets are not needed. Now, mother, I wish you would lie down beside the children and rest. You need it badly, I know."
"And so do you, my son."
"Not for some time yet."
"But, if you intend to watch until daylight, you will be worn out by morning. Besides, you cannot stay awake unless you move about. I will agree to lie down if you will promise to call me when you think it is midnight, and let me take a turn."
"I will agree to call you when I feel the need of you, and I will pace the ground like a sentinel on duty."
The mother was forced to accept this proposition and, after some more cautious conversation, she did as her boy wished, and he was left alone.
Ben did not forget his slip of the night before. It was necessary that one of the company should maintain watch while the others slept, and only these two could do it. He meant to guard the others through the short summer night, trusting to a chance of getting what slumber he needed on the morrow when the others were awake.
"I would like to catch myself waking her," he mused, after he had groped around until he found a space a couple of rods in length over which he could pace back and forth.
Then, with his rifle resting on his shoulder, he began his patient beat, surrounded by impenetrable gloom, and with the lives of three loved ones in his keeping.
By and by a lighting of the sky showed the moon had risen. This, however, was of little or no help, since the abundance of leaves prevented its rays piercing between and lighting up the ground beneath.
It would be hard to imagine a more gloomy occupation than that of Ben Ripley while engaged with this duty. The solemn murmur of the vast woods around him, the world of darkness in which he slowly paced to and fro, the memory of the sad scenes he had seen in the lovely Wyoming Valley, the certainty that a good many miles must yet be traversed before they could sit down in safety, the consciousness that several of the cruel red men were near them, and the belief that they would start in pursuit as soon as it was light—all this oppressed him with crushing weight, and made him feel at times as if there was no escape for him and his loved ones.
"There is only one way of hiding our trail," he mused. "If we could come upon some river or large stream of water, where there was a boat, or we could make a raft, we should be safe. A big rainstorm would do as well, for it would wash out all signs of our footprints."
He paused in his walk and peeped up at a speck of sky shown through a rift among the limbs.
"There is hardly a cloud; it looks as if it wouldn't rain for a week, and I don't know of any river between here and the Delaware."
His senses were never more alert. He avoided the fatal mistake of sitting down for a few minutes, or so much as leaning against a tree to rest. He stopped, however, now and then and listened intently.
"I wonder whether I am mistaken, or whether I did hear something moving over the leaves out there?"
The fact that the almost inaudible rustling was noticed only when he himself was in motion inclined him to suspect it was a delusion, accounted for by his tense nerves. But after a time he became certain of a fact hardly less startling in its nature.
When walking back and forth with his face away from the spot where his friends lay something gleamed a short distance off among the trees. Its location showed it was on the ground, and, as nearly as he could judge, less than a hundred feet off.
His first supposition was that it was a fungus growth known in the country as "foxfire," which gives out a phosphorescent glow in the darkness; but after watching and studying it for a long time, he was convinced it was something else.
"I'm going to find out," he decided; "it won't take me long, and I ought to know all about it, for it may concern us."
Stealing forward, he was not a little astonished to find it a real fire, sunken to a glowing ember, left by someone.
"It must be as Zitner said—the woods are full of Indians, and some of them have camped there."
Not wishing to stumble over any of their bodies, he manoeuvred until assured that whoever kindled the fire had left, when he kicked aside the ashes.
The act caused a twist of flame to spring up and throw out a tiny glare, which illumined several feet of surrounding space.
And then the astonished youth made the discovery that this was the very spot where they had cooked their turkey hours before, and from which they had fled in hot haste before the approach of the three Iroquois.
He and his friends had travelled in a circle, and come back to their starting point.
CHAPTER TEN: NEAR THE END
Anyone who is used to the woods knows how apt he is to wander in a circle unless he keeps his wits about him. There have been many causes named for this curious fact, and the one that strikes me as the most reasonable is that we are all either right or left handed. It is rare that you meet a person who is ambidextrous,—that is, who uses both hands equally well. When, therefore, he sets out to travel through the woods without any guide, he unconsciously exerts his right or left limb, as the case may be, more than the other, and this makes his course circular.
There are three "signboards" by which a hunter can keep trace of the points of the compass when in the woods, without noticing the sun, which of itself is often a great help. Three fourths of the moss on trees grows on the north side; the heaviest boughs on spruce trees are always on the south side, and the topmost twig of every uninjured hemlock tree tips to the east.
Now, while these signs never err, you can see that it is almost impossible to turn them to account at night.
Ben Ripley had led his friends in an irregular circle, and brought them back to within a brief distance of the starting point. This was the camp fire from which they fled in such panic before the approach of the three red men.
The discovery filled him with dismay, and he darted out in the darkness for the rocks where the others were sleeping. His first intention was to rouse them and plunge into the woods again, but a few minutes served to make him cooler and more collected in mind.
The night was well spent, and a flight of that kind could not do much for them. It might be all in vain. It would be trying to the last degree. He decided not to disturb the sleepers.
By and by he persuaded himself that matters were not as bad as they first appeared. Inasmuch as the fugitives had not returned over their own trail, the Indians, in case they took it in the morning, must make the same circuit, and thus be forced to go just as far as if the flight had been in a direct line.
It was a mystery, however, what had become of the three warriors. They could not be near the camp, or they would have appeared when the lad returned to it. They had left, but who could say whither they had gone?
While Ben was debating the painful question, a growing light in the direction of the Delaware told him the night was ended and the new day dawning.
The fourth day of July, the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, had passed. He thought of it, standing alone in the dismal forest with danger on every hand, and oppressed by the great fear that those whom he loved more than his own life must perish in that gloomy wilderness.
He did not dare, however, to give way to his sad thoughts. At the first streakings of light among the trees, he roused his mother and told her the alarming truth.
"I do not understand it," she replied, alluding to the absence of the Iroquois; "it must be they are in the neighborhood."
The children were still sleeping quietly on the blanket. No food or water was at command, and they could not take the time to look for any. Indeed, the two elder ones felt no hunger or thirst.
The mother rose to her feet and looked around, her interest centring on the rock and boulders, which stretched away to the rear further than they could penetrate with the eye.
"I know they are skilful in following footprints," she remarked; "but if we walk carefully over those rocks, I think they will not be able to track us. We will try it."
The children were roused and quickly learned what was to be done, the mother adding that the prayer which she was accustomed to offer up every morning would be given when they reached a spot where it was safe to do so.
For fully a hundred yards the four were able to make their way without resting their feet on the ground. Then the boulders ended as abruptly as they began.
All now kneeled on the granite floor and asked Heaven to deliver them safely out of the dangers by which they were surrounded.
If the Indians chose to make search, after tracing the little party to the stony place, they must eventually come upon the new trail, where it began again on the ground; but unless they struck it by accident, they must use a good deal of time in hunting for it.
"Come on," called Ben in a low voice, but with a renewal of hope; "we shall get somewhere one of these days."
To their surprise, not far from the rocks they came upon a faintly marked path among the trees.
"What is the meaning of that?" Ben asked, looking inquiringly at his mother and Linna.
"Men don't do dat—wild beasts," replied the dusky child.
"She is right," added the mother; "the animals follow it to water; let us do the same."
The haunting fear of the red men made the words between the fugitives few, and all their movements guarded. They kept glancing to right and left, in front and to the rear, Linna being probably the most active. It was as if she inherited from her parents their surprising woodcraft, and was now calling it into play for the benefit of her friends.
Suddenly something flickered in the path ahead, and Ben stopped short, those behind him doing the same.
Just in advance—less than fifty yards indeed—a beautiful fawn had come to a halt. Its graceful head, with its soft brown eyes, was lifted high, and it looked wonderingly at the people, as if not knowing the meaning, and too innocent to feel fear. Ben drew up his rifle, for it was a tempting chance for a delicious breakfast. But almost instantly he lowered the weapon again.
The fawn was so trusting, so unsuspicious, that a feeling of pity came to the young hunter. The animal suggested his own little sister, for it was wandering through the unfriendly woods, with none to protect it from cruel enemies.
"Go," whispered Ben; "I haven't the heart to harm you; I will starve first."
"Remember the result of the shot yesterday," said his mother warningly. "We are in too much peril to increase it."
The lad advanced along the path, and every one of the company smiled at the fawn, when it stood motionless, staring until they were almost to it. Then the timid creature turned nimbly and trotted over the trail, its head so high that, as it turned it from side to side, it saw every thing done by the strange beings following.
Had the situation been less serious, Ben would have had some sport with the lovely creature, but he dared not give it much attention. It continued trotting a short way, and then sprang gracefully aside among the trees, leaving no scent on the leaves by which the most highly trained hound could trace it.
A little way beyond they came upon the largest stream seen since leaving the mountains east of the Susquehanna. It was a dozen feet in width, quite deep, rapid, and clear.
"Here is enough drink for us all," said Ben, and they proceeded to help themselves in the primitive fashion described elsewhere.
"That must contain fish," observed the mother; "but we are without the means of catching them."
"Unless Linna will jump in and haul them out for us. But if we are to continue our journey, we must find some way of getting to the other side; it is too deep and wide to ford or jump."
"It must be narrower in other places."
"Oh! look mamma!"
It was Alice who first saw a terrifying sight. An immense black bear, the largest any of the party had ever seen, swung from among the trees and came to the water's edge on the other side.
He was so enormous that all started and recoiled a step, even Linna uttering an exclamation in her own tongue. Ben grasped his rifle, and held it ready to use the instant it became necessary.
But Bruin was in a gracious mood that morning. He looked at the party with stupid curiosity, then reared on his hind legs, and swung his beam-.like paws in an odd way.
"He is inviting us to come over and be hugged to death," laughed Ben.
"He will come over and eat us all up," said Alice, clinging to the dress of her mother.
"No," replied the parent, soothingly patting her head; "Ben won't let him do that. Do not be frightened."
"Climb tree," suggested Linna; "not big tree, 'cause bear climb dat too—climb little tree, den he can't climb it."
"You are right, but we will wait and see what he does. I don't want to fire my gun unless I have to, and if he will let us alone we won't hurt him. There! he is going to drink."
The huge creature bent his head down to the water and helped himself. When he had had enough, he raised his snout and again looked at the party, who were closely watching him.
This was the critical moment. If he meant to attack them, he would plunge into the water and either swim or wade across. Ben raised the hammer of his rifle and awaited his action.
Had Bruin been hungry, he would not have dallied so long; but he did not seem to see anything specially tempting in the group, and lumbered off among the trees.
"A lucky move for you." remarked Ben.
"And just as lucky for us," added the mother; "for though you might have slain him, as I have no doubt you would, the report of the gun must have brought more dangerous enemies to us."
"I would give a good deal to know what has become of them. It begins to look as if they did not consider us worth bothering with."
"I wish I could believe that, but I cannot. I think it more likely that they know where we are, and are trifling with us, as a cat does with a mouse."
"That makes me anxious to push on. We must find some place where we can cross the stream. Let's go further up the bank."
He took the course named, leading away from the great bear with which they had so narrowly escaped an encounter.
To their surprise, they had not far to go before the spot they were seeking was found. The stream narrowed between some rocks, so much that even Alice could spring across without wetting her feet.
"I am afraid Linna can't leap it," remarked Ben with a smile.
"Me show you."
And, without recoiling a step, the nimble little one made a graceful bound, which landed her several feet beyond the other margin.
"Well done!" said Ben; "I couldn't do much better myself. Now, Alice, you are not going to let her beat you?"
Alice was timid at first, but with a good start she cleared the space. She landed, however, so near the water that had not the watchful Linna caught one of the hands thrown up to save herself, she would have fallen back in the stream.
Mother and son imitated them, and all stood on the other side of the obstruction without having suffered any inconvenience.
While they were congratulating themselves, a startling reminder of their danger came in the near report of a rifle. It was from the direction in which they had seen the bear, and in the stillness of the woods all heard a snarling growl, which proved that the beast had received his death wound.
"The Indians are there!" whispered the frightened Ben; "what shall we do, mother?"
"What can we do?" she asked, helpless and at her wits' end for the moment; "there seems to be no escaping them."
"Me go talk with them," was the amazing remark of the little Delaware girl.
"You talk with them!" repeated Mrs. Ripley; "what can you do?"
"Don't know—me try."
And without waiting for permission, Linna started on a light run toward the point whence came the report of the rifle that gave Bruin his death wound. Mother and son looked in each other's face in mute wonderment for a full minute after the departure of the girl.
"She's a remarkable child," finally said the mother; "she has done us more than one good turn, and, it may be, Heaven intends to make use of her again, though I cannot see how."
"The Iroquois will recognise her as one of their own race. Perhaps one or more of them belong to her tribe: they will know her as the child of Omas, and may listen to her pleadings."
"Alas! they will give little heed to them; my heart misgives me, son: I feel that the end is at hand."
Meanwhile, let us follow Linna, the Delaware, upon her strange mission.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: ALL IN VAIN
I am at some disadvantage in giving an account of the remarkable interview between the little Delaware girl, Linna, and the three hostile warriors who had trailed the Ripleys to the stream in the wilderness across which they had just leaped in the effort to continue their flight from Wyoming to the Upper Delaware.
There were no witnesses to the interview except the parties named, but when Linna in after years had become a woman, with her very strong memory she gave a description of what passed, and it has come down through the descendants of the pioneers to the present day.
You will permit me to found my narrative upon her testimony, and to be quite liberal in the interpretation of what took place.
The fears of the fugitives were well founded. The three red men were near them for a long while before they showed themselves. It was very much as Mrs. Ripley had said. They were so sure of the prize that they trifled with them.
Linna reached the spot where the warriors were standing directly after one of the number had sent a bullet through the bear. Young as she was, she understood the peril of her friends, and set out to do all she could for them.
She knew that Omas, her father, was a great warrior. He belonged to the Delaware tribe, which years before had been soundly beaten by the Iroquois and reduced almost to slavery; but among the conquered people were many without superiors in bravery, skill, and prowess. Omas was one of the most noted examples.
The first thrill of hope came to the young child when she recognised the one that had killed the bear. He was Red Wolf, a member of her own tribe, who often had been in her father's wigwam, and was therefore well known to his child. The others were of the Seneca tribe, one of those composing the Iroquois, or Six Nations, the most powerful confederation of Indians that ever existed on the American continent.
The three looked at the little girl in amazement, as she came running between the trees. She dropped to a rapid walk, and did not stop until she was among them.
"Where do you come from?" asked Red Wolf, in the Delaware tongue.
"My father, the great Omas, brought me to see my friend Alice. He left me with her people, and you must not harm them."
"Why did Omas leave you with them?"
"They are my friends."
It should be said the Senecas, who calmly listened to the conversation, understood all that was said.
"Where are you going?"
"A long way through the wood."
"Why does Omas leave you with the palefaces? You should be in your own wigwam many miles away."
"He knows I am safe with them. He led us through the woods until he could leave us; then he went back to the great river between the mountains to help the other warriors fight."
None of the three could doubt that the child was speaking the truth. They held the prowess of Omas in high respect; but they were not the ones to surrender such a prize as was already theirs.
"We will take them back to Wyoming with us," said Red Wolf; "then Omas may do as he thinks best with them."
With a shrewdness far beyond her years, Linna said—"He wants them to go to the other big river, off yonder"—pointing eastward. "Why do you wish to take them back to Wyoming?"
"If he wants them to go to the other big river, he can send them after he sees them again."
"You will make Omas angry; he will strike you down with his tomahawk," said Linna.
Although these words were the words of a child, they produced their effect. Red Wolf knew how deeply the grim warrior loved his only daughter, and he knew, too, how terrible was the wrath of the warrior. Omas had chosen to spare this family from the cruelty visited upon so many others. If Red Wolf dared to run the risk of rousing the vengeance of Omas, he must take the consequences. He shrank from doing so.
The Delaware beckoned to one of the Senecas, and they stepped aside and talked a few minutes, in tones too low for the listening Linna to hear what was said. Subsequent events, however, made clear the meaning of their conversation.
Red Wolf proposed to spare the fugitives. He wished to go away with his companions and leave them to pursue their flight without molestation, so far as they were concerned.
But the Senecas held Omas in less dread than did Red Wolf. They were unwilling to let the whites escape. The third warrior, who joined them, was as strenuous as the first. While one might have shrunk from stirring the anger of the famous Delaware, the two together did not hesitate to run counter to his wishes. They refused to be dissuaded by Red Wolf.
They remained apart from the girl for ten minutes, earnestly conversing, while she could not overhear a word.
Finally one of the three—a Seneca—turned about and walked away, as if impatient with the dispute. He took a course leading from the stream, and deeper into the woods.
Linna noticed the curious act, but, great as was her acumen for one of her years, she did not suspect its meaning. It would have been passing strange had she done so, for the movement was meant to deceive her and bring the disputation to an end.
The couple remaining walked to where Linna awaited them. The Seneca turned aside and sauntered to the carcass of the bear as if that had more interest just then for him.
"What will Omas do if my brother warriors take your friends back to the other river, but Red Wolf does not help?"
"He will strike them down with his tomahawk; my father, Omas, is a great warrior."
The black eyes flashed as the girl proudly uttered these words, and she looked defiantly in the painted face towering above her.
"But what will he do with Red Wolf?"
"He will strike down Red Wolf, because he is a coward, and did not keep all harm from his white friends."
This intimation that the Delaware could not shelter himself behind the plea of neutrality, but must be either an active friend or foe, was a little more than he could accept. While he held Omas in wholesome dread, he dared not array himself against the two Senecas, who were determined not to spare the hapless fugitives.
Red Wolf was a fair specimen of his tribe, who, as I have stated, were beaten by the Iroquois. These conquerors, indeed, carried matters with so high a hand that they once forbade the Delawares to use firearms, but made them keep to the old fashioned bow and arrow.
Red Wolf, therefore, having squared accounts, so to speak, with his present companions, was anxious to win the good will of Linna, and thereby that of her fierce parent, who was a hurricane in his wrath, and likely to brain Red Wolf before he could explain matters.
"Omas is the greatest warrior of the Delawares," he said to Linna; "Red Wolf and he are brothers. But the Senecas will not listen to the words of Red Wolf: they love not Omas as does Red Wolf."
The Delaware child now found herself in a quandary. She had made her plea, but, so far as she could see, it was in vain, since the friendship of Red Wolf alone was not enough. One of the Senecas was studying the body of the dead bear and paying no heed to her words; the other had gone off, she knew not where.
What remained for her to do?
While the little one asked herself the question, and was trying, to think what course she should follow, the absent Seneca was working out the mischievous plot he had formed, and which was fully known to his companions.
An uprooted tree lay extended on the ground, near where Mrs. Ripley and her children saw Linna run off to plead with the Indians. Since they could do nothing but wait, helpless and almost despairing, for the return of the child, they sat down on the prostrate trunk.
Ben was near the base, close to the mass of upturned roots, which spread out like an enormous fan, with its dirt and prong-like roots projecting in all directions. He was tired, depressed, and worn out. It will be remembered he had not slept a wink during the preceding night, or eaten a mouthful of food since then. Strong, sturdy, and lusty as he was, he could not help feeling the effects of all this.
He leaned his rifle against a huge, gnarled root, within arm's length of where he half reclined, with his feet extended along the trunk. He had but to reach out his hand, without moving his body, to grasp the weapon whatever moment it might be needed.
Exhausted as he was, his condition was too nervous to permit slumber. His mother had said she thought the end was at hand, and he believed the same.
She was but a few feet away, sitting more erect on the tree, with Alice leaning against her.
The eyes of all were turned toward the point where Linna had vanished, and whence she was expected every minute to come into view again.
She was not far off. Once or twice the mother and son caught the sounds of their voices, though the exuberant vegetation shut them from sight.
"It was idle for her to go," said Ben; "and I cannot see any chance of her helping us."
"They will not harm her, nor will they be denied the pleasure of doing what they choose with us."
"Some persons might believe the delay was favorable, but I cannot think that way."
Neither felt like conversation. It was an effort to say anything; but mother and son, in their unselfishness, pitied each other, and strove vainly to lift the gloomy thoughts that were oppressing both.
Had Ben Ripley seen the departure of the Seneca, he might have suspected its meaning; but, unaware of it, he never dreamed of the new form which the ever present danger thus assumed.
The Seneca, after leaving Red Wolf and the other warrior, walked directly over the path leading away from the stream until well beyond the sight of those thus left behind. He looked back, and, seeing nothing of them, turned aside and moved off, until he arrived at a point beyond the group of three resting on the fallen tree.
Thus, as will be seen, the Ripleys were between the two and Linna on the one hand, and the single Seneca on the other. He knew the precise location of the fugitives as well as if they had been in his field of vision from the first.
He now began approaching them from the rear. Their faces turned away from him, and everything favored his stealthy advance.
The huge spread of dirt and roots made by the overturning of the big tree served as a screen, though even without this help he would probably have succeeded in his effort to steal upon them unawares.
He stepped so carefully upon the dried leaves that no sound was made, and the most highly trained ear, therefore, would not have detected him.
If Ben had once risen from his reclining posture and looked around, if Mrs. Ripley had stood up and done the same, or if little Alice had indulged in her natural sportiveness, assuredly one of them would have observed that crouching warrior, gradually drawing closer, like the moving of a hand over the face of a clock; but none saw him. Nearer and nearer he came, step by step, until at last he stood just on the other side of the mass of roots, and not ten feet from the boy.
With the same noiselessness, the crouching form bent over sideways and peered around the screen. Then the dusky arm glided forward until the iron fingers clasped the barrel of the rifle leaning against the root, and the weapon was withdrawn.
He now had two guns, and Ben Ripley none.
Then the Seneca advanced, a weapon in either hand, and, presenting himself in front of the amazed group, exclaimed—"Huh! how do, bruder?—how do sister?"
Ben Ripley sprang up as if shot, and his startled mother, with a gasp of affright, turned her head.
For one moment the boy meditated leaping upon the warrior, in the desperate attempt to wrench his gun from his grasp; but the mother, reading his intention, interposed.
"Do nothing, my son: we are in the hands of Heaven."
CHAPTER TWELVE: CONCLUSION
The point, at last, had been reached where it was useless to struggle any longer. The little party of fugitives, after safely crossing the Susquehanna on the day of the battle, and penetrating more than a score of miles on their way eastward to the Delaware, were overtaken, and made captive by three Indians.
Warning Ben against any resistance, the mother bowed her head in submission, and awaited her fate. Only once, when she clasped her arm around the awed and silent Alice, laying the other affectionately upon the shoulder of her brave son, did she speak—"Murmur not at the will of Heaven."
The Seneca was surprised at the action, or, rather, want of action, on the part of the captives. Receiving no response to his salutation, he stood a moment in silence, and then emitted a tremulous whoop. It was a signal for Red Wolf and the other Seneca. They understood it, and hurried to the spot, with Linna close behind them.
It would have been expected that she would indulge in some outburst when she saw how ill everything had gone; but, with one grieved look, she went up to the sorrowing, weeping mother and buried her head between her knees.
And then she did what no one of that party had ever before seen her do—she sobbed with a breaking heart. The mother soothed her as best she could, uttering words which she heard not.
Ben Ripley when the blow came, stood erect, and folded his arms. His face was pale, but his lips were mute. Not even by look did he ask for mercy from their captors.
In the midst of the impressive tableau, Linna suddenly raised her head from the lap of the mother, her action and attitude showing she had caught some sound which she recognized.
But everyone else in the party also noted it. It was a shrill, penetrating whistle, ringing among the forest arches—a call which she had heard many a time, and she could never mistake its meaning.
Her eyes sparkled through her tears, which wet her cheeks; but she forgot everything but that signal.
"Dat Omas!—dat Omas—dat fader!" she exclaimed, springing to her feet, trembling and aglow with excitement.
There was one among the three who, had his painted complexion permitted, would have turned ashy pale. Red Wolf was afraid that when the fearful Delaware warrior thundered down on them, he would not give his brother time to explain matters before sinking his tomahawk into his brain. Manifestly, therefore, but one course was open for him, and he took it without a second's delay.
He fled for his life.
The Senecas, however, stood their ground. The signal of Omas sounded again, and Linna answered it. Her father was near at hand, and quickly came to view.
But, lo! he had a companion. It was To-wika, his faithful wife.
The reunion of the Delaware family was an extraordinary one. Had no others been present, Linna would have bounded into the arms of her mother, been pressed impulsively to her breast, and then received the same fervent welcome from her father.
But never could anything like that take place before witnesses.
When the child saw her parents she walked gravely up to them, having first done her utmost to remove the traces of tears, and took her place by their side. The mother said something in her native tongue, but it could not have been of much account, for the child gave no reply.
Omas did not speak. One quick glance was bestowed upon his child, and then he addressed himself to the work before him.
Omas was as cunning as a serpent. He would not have hesitated to assail these two Senecas, for, truth to tell, he could never feel much love for the conquerors of his people. He did not fear them; but he saw the way to win his point without such tempestuous violence.
His words, therefore, were calculated to soothe rather than irritate. He asked them to explain how it was they were in charge of his friends, and listened attentively while one of them answered his inquiry.
Then, as is natural with his race, he recounted in somewhat extravagant language his own deeds of the last few days. There is reason to believe he gave himself credit for a number of exploits against the palefaces of which he was innocent.
Then he said the only ones he loved among the palefaces were the three there present—he had entrusted his only child to them, and they had saved her from the anger of their people. He had slept under their roof, and eaten of their bread. They were his best friends; and they his brave Seneca brothers, when they knew of this, would be glad. He had set out to conduct them to the settlements, and his brothers would wish all a safe arrival there.
This speech, delivered with far more address than I am able to give it, worked as a charm. Not the slightest reference was made to the cowardly Red Wolf, though Omas knew all about him.
The Senecas were won by the words of the wily Delaware. They indulged in the fiction of saying that they had no thought of how matters stood between him and these palefaces, and their hearts were glad to hear the words fall from his lips. They would not harm his friends, and hoped they would reach in safety the settlement for which they were looking.
Not only that, but they offered to go with them all the way.
This was too kind, and the offer was gratefully declined. Then the Senecas withdrew, first returning Ben's rifle to him. Whether they ever succeeded in overtaking Red Wolf cannot be known, and it is of no moment.
The peril had burst over the heads of the little party like a thundercloud; and now it had cleared, and all was sunshine again.
It was some minutes before the Ripleys could fully understand the great good fortune that had come to them. Then their hearts overflowed with thankfulness.
With her arms clasping her children Mrs. Ripley looked devoutly upward, and murmured:
"I thank Thee, Heavenly Father, for Thy great mercy to me and mine. Bless Omas and To-wika and Linna, and hold them for ever in Thy precious keeping."
The events which had taken place were strange; but Mrs. Ripley maintained, to the end of her life, that those which followed were tenfold more remarkable.
You will remember that when Omas, after conducting the little company some distance from Wyoming, showed a wish to leave them, the good woman had no doubt what his purpose was: he wanted to take part in further cruelties against the hapless settlers.
Omas had fought hard in the battle of July 3rd, 1778, and his friendship for the Ripleys drew him away before the dreadful doings were half completed. He yearned to go back and give rein to his ferocity. Mrs. Ripley tried to restrain him, but in vain.
Such were her views; but she was in error. She did not read the heart of the terrible warrior aright.
For weeks Omas had been sorely troubled in mind. He had visited the Christian brethren of his own tribe at the Moravian settlement of Gnadenhutten. He had listened to the talk of the missionaries, and heard of One who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; who, when He was smitten and spat upon, bore it meekly; and who finally died on the cross, that the red men as well as the white children might be saved.
All this was a great mystery to the Delaware. He could not grasp the simple but sublime truths which lie at the foundation of Christianity. But he longed to do so. At midnight he lay trying to sleep in the silent woods, looking up at the stars and meditating on the wonderful Being who had done all this. In the simplicity of his nature, he talked to that awful and dimly comprehended Father of all races and peoples, and asked Him to tell Omas what he should say, and do, and think.
Unknown to him, To-wika his wife had listened to the teachings of the missionaries, and she had traversed further along the path of light than he.
When, therefore, he told her of his longings, his questionings, his distress, his wretchedness, and his groping in the dark, she was able to say a great deal that helped to clear away the fogs and mists from his clouded brain.
But Omas was in the very depth of darkness, and almost despair, when the fearful episode of Wyoming came. It was in desperation he went into that conflict, as a man will sometimes do to escape, as it were, from himself.
He fought like a demon, but he could not hush the still small voice within his breast. He felt that he must have relief, or he would do that which a wild Indian never does—make away with himself.
It was on his tongue more than once, while threading his way through the wilderness with his friends, to appeal to Mrs. Ripley; but with a natural shrinking he held back, fearing that with his broken words he could not make her understand his misery.
The only recourse was to go to To-wika, his wife. He had asked her to talk further with the missionaries, and then to repeat their words to him.
So it was that when he stole from the camp fire like a thief in the night, it was not to return and take part in the scenes of violence in which he had already been so prominent an actor, but to do the very opposite.
It was a long tramp through the forest to his own wigwam, and his people were aflame with excitement because of Wyoming; but the warrior hardly paused night and day until he flung himself at the feet of To-wika and begged that he might die.
From this remarkable woman Linna had inherited more mental strength than from her iron hearted father. To-wika talked soothingly to him, and for the first time in his blind groping he caught a glimmer of light. The blessed Word which had brought comfort and happiness to her is for all people and conditions, no matter how rude, how ignorant, and how fallen.
But To-wika felt the need of human help. She had never met Mrs. Ripley, but her husband had told of his welcome beneath that roof, and of what she said to him about the Saviour and God, who was so different from the Great Spirit of the red men. She knew this woman was a Christian, and she asked her husband to lead her to her.
He set out with her to overtake the little party who, with never a thought of what was going on, were struggling through the gloomy wilderness, beset by perils on every hand.
Since they were following no beaten path, except for a little way, the most perfect woodcraft was necessary to find them. Omas knew the direction they had taken, and calculated the time needed to reach the Delaware. It was easy, too, to locate the camp where he had parted from them, after which his wonderful skill enabled him to keep the trail, along which he and his wife strode with double the speed of the fugitives.
When he discovered that three warriors were doing the same, all the old fire and wrath flamed up in his nature. The couple increased the ardor of their pursuit. And yet, but for the favoring aid of Heaven, they hardly could have come up at the crisis which brought them all together.
Under the blest instruction of Mrs. Ripley, the doubts of Omas finally vanished, never to return. The once mighty warrior, foremost in battle and ferocity and courage, became the meek, humble follower of the Saviour—triumphant in life, and doubly triumphant in death.
On the third day after the meeting in the woods, the party arrived at the little town of Stroudsburg, on the Upper Delaware, none having suffered the least harm. The skill of Omas kept them supplied with food, and his familiarity with the route did much to lessen the hardships which otherwise they would have suffered.
Omas stayed several weeks at this place with his friends, and then he and his wife and little one joined the Christian settlement of Gnadenhutten, where the couple finished their days.
After a time, when it became safe for the Ripleys to return to Wyoming Valley, they took up their residence there once more, and remained until the husband and father came back at the close of the Revolution; and the happy family were reunited, thankful that God had been so merciful to them and brought independence to their beloved country.
Omas and To-wika and Linna were welcome visitors as long as the lived. In truth, Linna survived them all. She married a chieftain among her own people, and when she at last was gathered to her final rest, she had almost reached the great age of a hundred years.