At this moment Ben Ripley was about a hundred feet in advance of the party and ascending a ridge in the woods, which were so open that he was in plain sight of the others.
Mrs. Ripley, on hearing the alarming words of the little Delaware girl, came to a stop. It seemed strange that Linna should have caught the sounds noticed by no one else, and that, too, while she was whispering to her companion, Alice; but even at that tender age the inherited sharpness of hearing had been trained to a wonderfully fine degree.
Mrs. Ripley was too prudent to argue with her. It was not wise to take any chances. Above all, it was important that Ben should know the truth, for he was still walking away from them with no knowledge of their discovery.
"S – h!" The sibilant noise made by the mother's lips crossed the space and the listening lad halted and looked round. She did not speak, but beckoned him to come back. He obeyed at once.
"Linna says she heard voices a minute ago, over yonder," whispered Mrs. Ripley, as her son joined them.
"So me did," added Linna, in answer to the inquiring look of the lad.
"You have sharp ears, little one; but are you sure?"
"Me am," was the confident reply.
"Where were they?"
She again pointed out the direction.
"That must be looked into: wait till I come back, and – "
"S – h!" interrupted the mother.
All caught an indistinct murmur, which proved Linna was right.
"Me tell you – eh?" she said in a proud undertone, her black eyes sparkling with triumph.
"You are right: wait till I learn whether they are friends or enemies. I will not be gone long."
Leaving the anxious group clustered together, Ben faced in the direction of the sounds, which had stopped, and were so faint when heard that he could not tell whether they belonged to friends or foes.
As nearly as he could find out, the parties were just beyond the crest of the ridge, and, but for the warning of Linna, he would have run into the danger before knowing it.
With the utmost care he went up the slope. He leaned forward and stepped more slowly, avoiding, so far as he could, making any noise on the leaves or against the bushes and limbs which he had to push aside to allow him to advance.
At the instant of reaching the highest point he heard the voices again, so close that he knew they were made by white people, who were in a clump of dense undergrowth. A faint wreath of smoke filtering through the branches overhead showed they had started a small fire, beside which they were probably sitting or reclining on the ground.
Now that he was certain they belonged to his own race, he had less fear. Still, they might prove unpleasant neighbors when they came to know one of the party was a daughter of Omas. Turning toward his friends, who were watching him, Ben made a sign for them to stay where they were while he went forward.
He moved with the same care as before, but an unexpected accident spoiled everything. His foot caught in a wire-like vine, and he almost fell on his hands and knees. Aware that he had betrayed himself, he threw aside further caution, hurried down the slope, and called out in a guarded undertone –
"Helloa there, friends!"
"Who are you?" was the demand that instantly followed, and from the undergrowth, beside a small fire, two men suddenly rose upright, each with rifle in hand.
Ben recognized them. One was Jabez Zitner and the other Horace Burwink – both middle aged, sturdy, and strong. They were neighbors, and had taken part in the engagement the day before, but, escaping without harm, were now on their way to the settlements of the Upper Delaware.
A meeting of this kind would have been pleasing in the highest degree, for it added great strength to the party; but a misgiving came to the lad when he recognized Zitner. He was the man who, when partially intoxicated the previous afternoon, had tried to take Linna from him and was vigorously shoved aside by her friend.
"Helloa, Ben! where did you come from?" asked Zitner, who was now entirely himself.
"Glad to see you," added Burwink, and the two extended their hands. "You gave us a great scare, for the woods are full of redskins."
"You startled me, too," replied Ben. "I am travelling with my mother and sister to Stroudsburg. I suppose you are aiming for the same place?"
"Yes – if we ever get there. What become of that little sarpent you had with you yesterday?"
It was Zitner who asked the question. Ben's face flushed, for he did not like to hear Linna spoken of in that way.
"She is with us," he quietly replied.
"What are you going to do with her?"
"She is in our care, and goes wherever we go."
"You seem mighty fond of the people who played the mischief with us yesterday."
"Jabez Zitner, I fought just as hard as you, and did all I could to drive back the Iroquois and Tories, but I don't fight little children six years old."
"Who's talking about fighting 'em?" demanded Zitner angrily. "Their people didn't spare our women and children."
"They are savages, but you and I claim to be civilized."
"That's all well enough, but my motto is – fight fire with fire." Burwink was listening to this sharp interchange of words, the meaning of which he caught. Wishing to make a friend of him, for Ben foresaw trouble, he asked – "Am I not right, Mr. Burwink?"
"I should say – on general principles you are; but, after yesterday, I don't feel much love for any of the varmints. Who is this Injin gal that you are talking about?"
Ben was too wise to give the name of Linna's father, knowing he would be instantly recognized as one of the fiercest warriors that had taken part in the invasion and battle. He therefore replied –
"She is a girl named Linna; she is of the same age as our Alice, and was visiting her when we crossed the river to Forty Fort yesterday morning. We could do nothing but take her with us, and I will defend her with my life."
"You are talking big," remarked Zitner, with a scornful look at the sturdy lad. "Who is the gal's father?"
"That makes no difference; but I will say he belongs to the Delaware tribe, most of whom are friends to our people."
"There were plenty of them with the Senecas and Oneidas yesterday, and they fought like wild cats, too. But why don't you bring your folks forward?" added Zitner, looking inquiringly around.
"I will do so. Wait a few minutes."
He strode back and over the top of the ridge, until he caught sight of the frightened group.
"Come on!" he called, beckoning to them. "Mr. Zitner and Burwink are here, and want to see you."
With an expression of thankfulness, Mrs. Ripley, clasping a hand of each of the children, walked up the slope, and passed over to where the couple awaited their approach by the camp fire. She shook hands with each, and expressed her pleasure at meeting them. They did the same toward her, and then all, with the exception of the children, seated themselves on the fallen tree beside which the small fire was burning.
Mrs. Ripley had observed the little incident the preceding afternoon, when Zitner tried to stop Linna. She was ill at ease, for she noticed how sharply he looked at the child. She hoped, however, that now he was fully himself, he would be ashamed of his action, or at least make no reference to it.
No fear of her doing so. She showed her tact by leading the conversation in another direction.
"When did you leave Wyoming?"
"Burwink and I didn't get a chance to swim over until nearly midnight, and then we had a rough time of it. There were plenty of others that tried to do the same and never got to this side."
"When did you leave?" asked Burwink of the lady.
"We crossed before it was dark."
"How did you manage it? Swim?"
"No; we came over in a canoe. A Delaware Indian, the father of Linna, swam behind the boat and pushed it across. But for him, we never could have gotten away."
Mrs. Ripley, like her son, meant to keep the name of their friend from these men. There was no danger of either her or Ben telling it; but neither thought of another means they had of learning it.
At this point, Alice went to her mother and leaned against her knees, with her gaze on the faces of the men. She had been standing beside Linna, whose eyes were never once removed from the displeasing countenance of Zitner.
She must have noticed the incident referred to, for the expression on her round face was of dislike and distrust. She stood further off from the men than anyone else – silent, watchful, and suspicious.
Zitner now looked at her.
"Come here," he said coaxingly, extending his hand.
"No; me won't. Me don't like you," she replied, with an angry flirt and backward step.
"Jingo!" exclaimed the surprised Zitner; "I didn't think she could talk our lingo. Say, Miss Spitfire, what is your father's name?"
Before either Mrs. Ripley or her son could interpose, Linna answered defiantly – "He Omas – great warrior – kill good many white people – kill you!"
The reply caused consternation on the part of Mrs. Ripley and Ben, but the boy shut his lips tight. He could not but admire the bravery of the child, and he was determined to stand by her to the end.
The mother was in despair, but she relied mainly on persuasion and prayer.
With no idea of what all this meant, Alice looked in the face of each person in turn while speaking.
"She's a chip off the old block," said Burwink, with a laugh. "She doesn't seem to have much fear of you, Jabez."
"I am hopeful she will feel different when she grows older," soothingly remarked Mrs. Ripley.
"I'd like to know what you build your hope on," replied Zitner, still curiously watching the child.
"I expect to have her a good deal under my care, and I shall do all I can to instruct her aright. This morning she knelt with us in prayer. You must remember she is very young, and has heard little, if anything, of Christianity."
Zitner shook his head.
"It's born in 'em, and you can't get it out."
"But, Mr. Zitner, you will not deny that we have a good many Christian Indians. There are plenty of them at Gnadenhutten, and the Moravian missionaries have been the means of turning hundreds from darkness to light. If they can do that with full grown warriors and women, may we not hope for the best from those of tender years?"
"I don't know about that," was the dogged reply. "I never believed in this conversion business."
"What can you mean by such a remark?" asked the shocked lady.
"I mean, religion is good enough for white people, but don't work with Injins. They will pretend they're good, but are only waiting for a chance to do mischief."
"The converted Delawares have never taken part in the wars against us. You know that as well as I."
"How about Omas?"
"He makes no pretence of Christianity."
"And therefore has no claim on our indulgence."
"No one has said he has," observed Ben, coming to his mother's help; "he will never ask quarter from you or any white man."
"Where is he now? He brought you over the river, but seems to have deserted you."
"He left because he didn't think we had further need of his aid; we can get along without him."
"Now, see here," added Zitner, straightening up on the log and slapping his knee; "I'll tell you what I've made up my mind to do. I am willing to give in to Mrs. Ripley that far, that I won't harm that youngster – that is, I will leave it to her father whether I shall or shan't."
Neither mother nor son could understand the meaning of this strange remark. They waited for the man to explain.
"I'm going to take her with us as a hostage. We're not clear of the varmints yet. I believe Omas himself ain't far off, and the rest will be on our heels all the way to Stroudsburg. If they get us in a tight place, I'll let 'em know we've got the gal of Omas with us, and if they harm a hair of our heads it'll be all up with her. We'll take her clean to Stroudsburg, and then turn her loose, for we won't have any further need of her; but she must go with us."
"Jabez Zitner," said Ben Ripley – "the moment you lay your hand on that child I will shoot you!"