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.