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."