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.