No person in all the world is so quick to detect deception as a mother. It is simply wonderful the way she will sometimes read one's thoughts. I am sure you boys who have lagged on the road when sent on an errand, had a scrimmage with some other boy, or done any one of the numerous acts in which a mother persists in asking annoying questions, will agree with me.
While Omas, the Delaware warrior, stood with his face turned away from the camp fire and looking off in the gloom, as if he was trying to discover something in the darkness, Mrs. Ripley was sure she knew what the trouble was: he was trying to decide whether he should stay longer with the little party or leave them to make the rest of their way through the woods without him.
He might well say they were now so far from Wyoming that they were in little danger. They had but to keep on tramping for several days and nights, and they would reach the little town of Stroudsburg, which, you may know, is near Delaware Water Gap. There they need have no fear of the red men.
Mrs. Ripley knew all this as well as Omas himself, but she did not wish him to go back and join the hostile Iroquois, as he wanted to do. She felt it would be far better if he would stay with them, for then he would do no further harm to the white people.
When, therefore, he turned about and bade them goodbye, all doubt was gone. Ben did not reply, but his mother rose from the other blanket on which she had been sitting, walked quietly to where the Delaware was standing, and laid her hand kindly on his arm.
"Omas, I do not wish you to leave us," she said.
He looked at her, for both stood where the firelight fell upon their faces, and replied – "No danger – walk towards the rising sun – need not walk fast – Iroquois won't hurt – soon be safe."
The lady was too wise to let her real objection appear.
"A while ago we heard the noise of a gun; our people are fleeing through the woods, and the red men are following them. Alice is tired, and we have stopped to rest. When we start again tomorrow, some of the red men will be ahead of us. What shall we do without our friend Omas?"
"He have gun." he replied, indicating Ben.
"So have the red men, and there are more of them."
Now, if Mrs. Ripley was skilful in reading the thoughts of the Delaware, it may be that he, too, suspected the real cause for her objections. Be that as it may, it was plain he was not satisfied. He held the Ripley family in too high regard to offend them openly; but Omas was set in his ways.
He made no reply to the last remark, but stepped a little nearer the fire and sat down, moody and silent.
"You have said enough, mother," remarked Ben in a low voice; "it will anger him to say more. I will sit with my head against the rock; do you lie down on the blanket and let your head rest in my lap. I think it will be safe for us all."
With some hesitation the mother complied, the Delaware apparently paying no heed to them. He kept his seat on the ground, looking gloomily into the fire and in deep thought. A struggle was going on in his mind, and no one could say whether the good or evil would win.
Ben Ripley was anxious that his mother should sleep. She had undergone the severest of trials since early morning, and none had wrought harder than she. The morrow would make further demands on her strength. As for himself, he was young, sturdy, and could stand more and rally sooner than she.
When, therefore, she said something in a low tone, he placed his hand softly over her mouth and whispered – "S – h! go to sleep, baby."
He smoothed the silky hair away from the forehead so gently and so soothingly that she could not resist the effect. She meant to keep awake until Omas made his final decision; but no person can resist the approach of slumber, except by active movement.
Before long, and while Ben's hand was still gliding like down over the forehead, the faint, regular breathing showed she was asleep.
The son smiled.
"Good! The best mother that ever lived! Heavenly Father, watch over her and spare her for many years. Watch over us all."
He looked across at Omas, on the other side of the camp fire, and saw the Delaware gazing fixedly at him.
He arose as silently as a shadow and stepped nearer, peering down on the pale, handsome face with its closed eyes.
"She sleep?" asked the Indian.
"Yes," replied Ben, softly, with a nod of his head.
He looked at her a moment and then across to the other blanket, where the round, chubby cheeks of the little girls reflected the firelight. He waited a moment, and then the gentler side of his nature triumphed. He bent over the forms, kissed each in turn, straightened up, and pointing to the eastward, said to Ben – "Go dat way – you safe – goodbye."
"Goodbye," replied the lad, knowing it was useless to protest.
Like the gliding of the shadow of a cloud, the Delaware passed beyond the circle of light thrown out by the fire into the deep gloom of the wood. The moccasins pressed the dry leaves without giving back any sound, and he vanished.
"That makes a change of situation," was the conclusion of Ben Ripley; "he's gone, and I become the general of this army; there's no telling what danger may be abroad tonight, so I will keep my eyes open till sunrise, to make sure that no harm comes to these folks."
And ten minutes after this decision the lad was as sound asleep as his mother and the two little ones.
But there was One who did not slumber while all were unconscious. He ever watches over His children, and, – though there were many perils abroad that night, none of them came near our friends.
The camp fire which had been burning so brightly grew dimmer and lower until the figures could hardly be seen. They gradually became more indistinct, and finally the gloom was as deep as anywhere in the dense woods. Only a few smouldering embers were left, and they gave out no glow.
Ben was still sleeping, when something tickled his nose. He rubbed it vigorously with his forefinger and opened his eyes, confused and bewildered.
An odd, chuckling laugh at his elbow drew his gaze hither. There stood Linna, with the sprig of oak which she had been passing back and forth under the base of his nose, making it feel for all the world like a fly titillating his nostrils.
Ben made an attempt to catch the mischievous girl, but she deftly eluded him, and laughed so heartily that the others awoke and looked wonderingly to learn what it all meant.
"I'll pay you for that!" exclaimed the lad, as his mother raised her head from his lap. Bounding to his feet, he darted after Linna, but she was so nimble, and dodged back and forth and from right to left so fast, that it took much effort to run her down.
Like all little girls, she was very "ticklish," and when he dallied with his fingers about her plump neck, she dropped to the ground and kicked and rolled over to get away from him. He let her up, and said with pretended gravity that he never allowed any trifling with him without punishing the person therefore.
Linna did not seem to notice the absence of her father, and asked no questions. Ben told his mother how he went off after she fell asleep, and the good woman saddened, for she was sure she understood it all.
The first thing done, after a few minutes' talk, was to kneel in prayer, Mrs. Ripley leading in a petition to Heaven that all might be preserved from harm and reach the distant settlement safely. She did not forget the absent Omas, or the hundreds of hapless people whom they had left behind, who were still in great danger.
It was Mrs. Ripley's custom always to offer prayer in the little household at the beginning of each day. Linna, who had gained a dim idea of what the touching act meant, bent on her knees beside Alice; and who shall say the petition which went up from her heart was not heard and remembered by Him who notices the fall of every sparrow.
And now came the serious business of the day. Many long miles of trackless forest lay before them and the delay caused all to feel the need of hurry.
Mrs. Ripley gave to each a moderate portion of the food brought with them, carefully preserving what was left, for they were sure to need that and much more before reaching the end of their journey. The day promised to be sultry like the preceding one, and each sadly missed the water with which to quench their thirst and splash upon their faces and hands.
"We shall come across some before long," said Ben hopefully when he and his mother had divided the luggage between them and set out toward the rising sun; "we are a great deal better off than the poor folks of Wyoming."
The mother pinched the clothing of Linna, and found it dried of the moisture gained by her swim in the Susquehanna.
It is a curious practice among not only the Indians, but with many white people, not to change wet stockings or garments for dry ones. I knew a fisherman's boy whose father once punished him for removing his saturated stockings and shoes for others.
"Always let 'em dry on you, and you won't catch cold," was his doctrine. "Keep moving if you can, but don't change 'em."
I don't believe in the practice; but be that as it may, the little Delaware girl showed no ill effects from sleeping in the clothing that had been wet. As for her father, he would have been insulted at the mention of such a thing to him.
Ben's belief about finding water proved true. They had gone hardly a half mile from camp when they came upon a sparkling brook, cold and clear, and abundant enough to serve all. Having no vessels with them, they lay down and quaffed their fill. Then they bathed their faces and hands in the delicious fluid, and were much refreshed.
The expectation was that they would travel a good many miles before night again overtook them. The way, while rough and broken in many places, was not hard, and all, even to the smaller children, were used to being on their feet. There was little fear indeed that Linna would not do her part as well as the older ones. Young as she was in years, she had been trained to hardship from the time she could walk. Not only that, but, like all her race, she had learned to bear suffering in silence and without sign of pain.
She would have to become very tired before her companions would know it.
By and by the ground was found to be rising, and in the course of an hour they gained an elevation which, having few trees, gave them an extended view of the surrounding country.
Looking back in the direction of Wyoming, the sky was seen to be soiled by the heavy smoke not only from the burned Fort Wintermoot, but from other buildings that had been fired by the Tories and Indians. The sight was a sorrowful one, and caused the mother and son some uneasiness. They seemed nearer to the scene of the conflict than they had supposed, and – since the people had been continually swimming the river, and taking flight in the woods for the same point that was the destination of the Ripleys – it was quite certain that some of the pursuers were not far off.
"We must make as little noise as we can," said Ben, when the party were about to start forward again: "for there can be no telling how close we are to Indians that are looking for us.'
"I think it better for you to walk a little way in front," suggested the mother, "so as to warn us in time."
"The plan is a good one. I will keep in sight of you, and the minute I see anything amiss, will make a sign, so you can stop at once."
This course was adopted. Ben carried one of the blankets flung over his left arm as if it were an extra garment, and steadied the heavy rifle on his shoulder with the other. As you remember, he was tall for his years, strong, and with rugged health.
Had the weather been cooler he could have Kept up this method of traveling for hours without fatigue; but the heat made it trying. True, at that season of the year the foliage was dense on the trees and shut out the sun's rays, except in the open spaces and natural clearings which they now and then crossed; but the vegetation also stopped whatever breeze was stirring, and obliged the members of the party to halt many times to rest and cool themselves.
Mrs. Ripley had but few extra things to carry, and showed less fatigue than anyone, excepting the Delaware child. The latter and Alice walked most of the time side by side, and generally with clasped hands. There was no use of their trying to keep their tongues still, but they were wise enough to speak in whispers and such soft undertones that no one else could tell what they said, and therefore nothing was to be feared on that account from any enemies in the neighborhood.
"Why not he make sign?" was the startling question of Linna, pointing at Ben, before the party had gone far after their brief rest.
"What do you mean?" asked the puzzled Mrs. Ripley; "he isn't to make any sign to us till he sees or hears something wrong."
"People off dere!" replied Linna, pointing ahead and to the right of their course. "Me hear dem speak."
It was true. The keen ears of the child had discovered a peril that no one else suspected. She alone had caught the sound of voices that escaped all other ears.