WILD-WOODS SERIES—No. 1.
* * * * *
THROUGH FOREST AND FIRE
EDWARD S. ELLIS,
AUTHOR OF "YOUNG PIONEER SERIES," "LOG CABIN SERIES," "DEERFOOT SERIES," "WYOMING SERIES," ETC., ETC.
PHILADELPHIA: PORTER & COATES.
PORTER & COATES.
II.—SCHOOL DAYS, 14
III.—A MATHEMATICAL DISCUSSION, 21
V.—THE PARTY OF SEARCH, 37
VI.—GROPING IN DARKNESS, 47
VII.—AN ALARMING DISCOVERY, 55
VIII.—STARTLING FOOTPRINTS, 63
IX.—THE LITTLE WANDERER, 69
X.—IN GREAT DANGER, 79
XI.—"GOTT SEI DANK!" 88
XII.—OMINOUS PREPARATIONS, 96
XIII.—THE BEAR HUNTERS, 103
XIV.—A RECRUIT, 113
XV.—A SURPRISE, 119
XVI.—THE DINNER IN THE WOODS, 126
XVII.—A TEST OF MARKSMANSHIP, 132
XVIII.—A QUAIL, 139
XIX.—AN UNEXPECTED LESSON, 145
XX.—BOWSER PROVES HIMSELF OF SOME USE, 152
XXI.—FACE TO FACE, 158
XXII.—THE "VACANT CHAIR," 165
XXIII.—HUNTING A BUCK, 171
XXIV.—HUNTED BY A BUCK, 176
XXV.—THE CAMP FIRE, 183
XXVI.—AN UNEXPECTED ATTACK, 190
XXVII.—WAS IT A JOKE? 196
XXVIII.—THE TRAIL OF THE BEAR, 205
XXIX.—"HELP! HELP!" 209
XXX.—A FRIEND IN NEED, 216
XXXI.—THE "DARK DAY" OF SEPTEMBER, 1881, 222
XXXII.—THE BURNING FOREST, 231
XXXIII.—THROUGH THE FIRE, 246
XXXIV.—CALLING IN VAIN, 248
XXXV.—WHAT FRIGHTENED NELLIE, 257
XXXVI.—AN UNWELCOME PASSENGER, 266
XXXVII.—A BRAVE STRUGGLE, 275
XXXVIII.—BEAR AND FORBEAR, 283
THROUGH FOREST AND FIRE;
"God Helps Them that Help Themselves."
Nicholas Ribsam was a comical fellow from his earliest babyhood, and had an original way of doing almost everything he undertook.
When he became big enough to sit on the porch of the humble little home, where he was born, and stare with his great round eyes at the world as it went by, that world, whether on horseback, in carriage, or on foot, was sure to smile at the funny-looking baby.
Nick, although born in western Pennsylvania, was as thoroughly Dutch as if he had first opened his eyes on the banks of the Zuyder Zee, in the lowlands of Holland. His parents had come from that part of the world which has produced so many fine scholars and done so much for science and literature. They talked the language of the Fatherland, although they occasionally ventured on very broken English for the instruction of the boy and girl which heaven had given them.
When Nick was a year old, he seemed as broad as he was long, and his round, red cheeks, big, honest eyes, and scanty hair, which stood out in every direction, always brought a smile to whomsoever looked at him.
"That's the Dutchest baby I ever saw!" exclaimed a young man, who, as he threw back his head and laughed, expressed the opinion of about every one that stopped to admire the youngster.
When we add that Nick was remarkably good natured, his popularity will be understood. Days and weeks passed without so much as a whimper being heard from him. If his mother forgot she was the owner of such a prize, and allowed him to remain on the porch until he was chilled through or half famished, she was pretty sure to find him smiling, when she suddenly awakened to her duties respecting the little fellow.
Several times he tipped over and rolled off the porch, bumping his head against the stones. A hoarse cry instantly made known the calamity but by the time he was snatched up (often head downward) his face was illumined again by his enormous grin, even though the big teardrops stood on his cheeks.
When he grew so as to be able to stand with the help of something which he could grasp, a board about a foot and a half high was placed across the lower part of the open door to prevent him getting outside.
The first day fat little Nick was confronted with this obstruction he fell over it, out upon the porch. How he managed to do such a wonderful thing puzzled father and mother, who half believed some person or animal must have "boosted" him over; but, as there was no other person in sight and they did not own a dog, the explanation was not satisfactory.
True, they had a big Maltese cat, but he was hardly strong enough, even if he had the disposition, to hoist a plump baby over such a gate, out of pure mischief.
But the most remarkable thing took place the next week, when Nick not only fell out of the door and over the obstruction, but a few minutes later fell in again. In fact, it looked as if from that time forward Nick Ribsam's position was inverted almost as often as it was upright.
"There's one thing I want my little boy to learn," said the father, as he took him on his knee and talked in the language of his Fatherland "and that is, 'God helps them that help themselves.' Don't ever forget it!"
"Yaw, I ish not forgots him," replied the youngster, staring in the broad face of his parent, and essaying to make use of the little English he had picked up.
The good father and mother acted on this principle from the beginning. When Nick lost his balance he was left to help himself up again; when he went bumping all the way down the front steps, halting a moment on each one, his father complacently smoked his long pipe and waited to see how the boy was going to get back, while the mother did not think it worth while to leave her household duties to look at the misfortunes of the lad.
"God helps them that help themselves."
There is a great deal in this expression, and the father of Master Nicholas Ribsam seemed to take in the whole far-reaching truth. "You must do everything you possibly can," he said, many a time; "you must use your teeth, your hands, and your feet to hang on; you must never let go; you must hammer away; you must always keep your powder dry; you must fight to the last breath, and all the time ask God to help you pull through, and He'll do it!"
This was the creed of Gustav Ribsam and his wife, and it was the creed which the children drew in with their breath, as may be said; it was such a grand faith that caused Nick to develop into a sturdy, self-reliant, brave lad, who expected to take his own part in the battle of life without asking odds from any one.
The parents of our hero and heroine proved their faith by their works. By hard, honest toil and economy, they had laid up a competence which was regularly invested each year, and of which the children were not allowed to know anything, lest it might make them lazy and unambitious.
The little house and fifty acres were paid for, and the property was more than sufficient to meet the wants of the family, even after the youngsters became large enough to go to school.
The morning on which young Nick Ribsam started for the country school, a half mile away, was one which he can never forget. He was six years old, and had picked up enough of the English language to make himself understood, though his accent was of that nature that it was sure to excite ridicule on the part of the thoughtless.
As Nick had a large head, he wore of necessity a large cap, with a long frontispiece and with a button on the top. His coat was what is called a "roundabout," scarcely reaching to his waist, but it abounded with pockets, as did the vest which it partly inclosed. His trousers were coarse, thick, and comfortable, and his large boots were never touched by blacking, Nick's father having no belief in such nonsense, but sticking to tallow all the time.
Nick carried a spelling book and slate under his arm, and, as he started off, any one looking at him would have been struck by his bright eyes, ruddy cheeks, and generally clean appearance. As he was so very good natured, he was certain to become quite an acquisition to the school.
There are no more cruel, or perhaps thoughtless people in the world than a number of school-boys, under certain conditions. The peculiar dress and the broken language of little Nick excited laughter at once, and this soon turned into ridicule.
Nick was beset continually at recess and at noon by the boys, who immediately christened him "Dutchy." He laughed and did not seem to mind it, for his philosophy was that no words applied to him could injure him, and so long as the boys kept their hands off he did not care.
Among the pupils was Herbert Watrous, a spruce young gentleman from the city, who dressed better than the others, and who threw out hints about the sparring lessons he had taken at home, and his wish that he might soon have a chance to show his playmates how easily he could vanquish an opponent, much larger than himself, by reason of his "science."
He was fully four years older than Nick, and much taller—a fact which Herbert regretted as the Pennsylvania Hollander was too insignificant for him to pick a quarrel with.
But that was no reason, as he looked at his privileges in this life, why he should not play the tyrant and bully over the honest little fellow and he proceeded at once to make life unbearable to Nicholas.
He began the cry of "Dutchy," and, finding that it did not disturb the serenity of the lad, he resorted to more active measures on the way home from school.
He began by knocking off his hat, and when Nick looked at him in a surprised way and asked why he did it, the city youth assumed a pugilistic attitude and answered, "Greens; what are you going to do about it, Dutchy?"
"Be careful of him," whispered one of the boys, who felt some sympathy for Nick in his persecutions; "he's science."
"I don't care vat he ain't," replied Nick, beginning to lose his temper; "if he don't lets me be, he'll got into trouble."
Just then Nick started to overtake a lad, who tapped him on the back and invited him to play a game of tag. As he passed close to Herbert, that boy threw out his foot and Nick went sprawling headlong, his book and slate flying from under his arm, while his cap shot a dozen-feet in another direction.
The other boys broke into laughter, while several of the girls cried out that it was a shame.
Nick picked himself up, and putting on his cap, turned about to ask Herbert what he meant by such cruelty, when he was confronted by the bully, who had thrown himself into his fancy pugilistic posture, and with one eye shut and his tongue thrust out, said:
"What are you going to do about it, Dutchy?"
"I'll show you vot I do!"
Nicholas Ribsam proceeded to show Master Herbert Watrous what he meant to do about it.
Paying no heed to the formidable attitude of the city youth, Nick rushed straight upon him, and embracing him about the waist so as to pinion his arms, he threw him flat upon the ground with great emphasis. Then, while Herbert lay on his face, vainly struggling to rise, Nick sat down heavily on his back. Although he could have used his fists with great effect, Nick declined to do so; but, rising some six or eight inches, he sat down on him again, and then repeated the performance very fast, bounding up and down as a man is sometimes seen to do when a horse is trotting; descending each time on the back of Herbert with such vigor that the breath was almost forced from his body.
"Let me up!" shouted the victim, in a jerky, spasmodic manner, as the words were helped out; "that ain't the right way to fight: that isn't fair."
"It suits me better as nefer vas," replied the grinning Nick, banging himself down on the back of the struggling Herbert, until the latter began to cry and ask the boys to pull Nick off.
No one interfered, however, and when the conqueror thought he had flattened out the city youth to that extent that he would never acquire any plumpness again, he rose from his seat and allowed Herbert to climb upon his feet.
Never was a boy more completely cowed than was this vaunting youth, on whom all the others had looked with such admiration and awe. He meekly picked up his hat, brushed off the dirt, and looking reproachfully at Nick said:
"Do you know you broke two of my ribs?"
"I dinks I brokes dem all: dat's what I meant to do; I will try him agin."
"No, you won't!" exclaimed Herbert, darting off in a run too rapid for the short legs of Nick to equal.
Nick Ribsam had conquered a peace, and from that time forth he suffered no persecution at school. Master Herbert soon after went back to his city home, wondering how it was that a small, dumpy lad, four years younger than he, was able to vanquish him so completely when all the science was on the side of the elder youth.
Young as was Nick Ribsam, there was not a boy in the school who dared attempt to play the bully over him. The display he had given of his prowess won the respect of all.
Besides this he proved to be an unusually bright scholar. He dropped his faulty accent with astonishing rapidity, and gained knowledge with great facility. His teacher liked him, as did all the boys and girls, and when he was occasionally absent he was missed more than half a dozen other lads would have been.
The next year Nick brought his sister Nellie to school. He came down the road, holding her fat little hand in his, while her bright eyes peered out from under her plain but odd-looking hat in a timid way, which showed at the same time how great her confidence was in her big brother.
Nellie looked as much like Nick as a sister can look like a brother. There were the same ruddy cheeks, bright eyes, sturdy health, and cleanly appearance. Her gingham pantalettes came a little nearer the tops of her shoes, perhaps than was necessary, but the dress, with the waist directly under the arms, would have been considered in the height of fashion in late years.
One daring lad ventured to laugh at Nellie, and ask her whether she had on her father's or mother's shoes, but when Nick heard of it he told the boy that he would "sit down" on any one that said anything wrong to Nellie. Nothing of the kind was ever hinted to the girl again. No one wished to be "sat down" on by the Pennsylvania Hollander who banged the breath so utterly from the body of the city youth who had aroused his wrath.
The common sense, sturdy frame, sound health, and mental strength of the parents were inherited in as marked a degree by the daughter Nellie as by Nick. She showed a quickness of perception greater than that of her brother; but, as is generally the case, the boy was more profound and far-reaching in his thoughts.
After Nick had done his chores in the evening and Nellie was through helping her mother, Gustav, the father, was accustomed to light his long-handled pipe, and, as he slowly puffed it while sitting in his chair by the hearth, he looked across to his boy, who sat with his slate and pencil in hand, preparing for the morrow. Carefully watching the studious lad for a few minutes, he generally asked a series of questions:
"Nicholas, did you knowed your lessons to-day?"
"Did you know efery one dot you knowed?"
"Yes, sir,—every one," answered Nick respectfully, with a quiet smile over his father's odd questions and sentences. The old gentleman could never correct or improve his accent, while Nick, at the age of ten, spoke so accurately that his looks were all that showed he was the child of German parents.
"Did nopody gif you helps on der lessons?"
"Nobody at all."
"Dot is right; did you help anypodies?"
"Yes, sir,—three or four of the girls and some of the boys asked me to give them a lift—"
"Gif dem vat?"
"A lift—that is, I helped them."
"Dot ish all right, but don't let me hears dot nopody vos efer helping you; if I does—"
And taking his pipe from his mouth, Mr. Ribsam shook his head in a way which threatened dreadful things.
Then the old gentleman would continue smoking a while longer, and more than likely, just as Nick was in the midst of some intricate problem, he would suddenly pronounce his name. The boy would look up instantly, all attention.
"Hef you been into any fights mit nopodies to-day?"
"I have not, sir; I have not had any trouble like that for a long while."
"Dot is right—dot is right; but, Nick, if you does get into such bad tings as fightin', don't ax nopodies to help you; takes care mit yorself!"
The lad modestly answered that he did not remember when he had failed to take care of himself under such circumstances, and the father resumed his pipe and brown study.
The honest German may not have been right in every point of his creed, but in the main he was correct, his purpose being to implant in his children a sturdy self-reliance. They could not hope to get along at all times without leaning upon others, but that boy who never forgets that God has given him a mind, a body, certain faculties and infinite powers, with the intention that he should cultivate and use them to the highest point, is the one who is sure to win in the great battle of life.
Then, too, every person is liable to be overtaken by some great emergency which calls out all the capacities of his nature, and it is then that false teaching and training prove fatal, while he who has learned to develop the divine capacities within him comes off more than conqueror.
A MATHEMATICAL DISCUSSION.
The elder Ribsam took several puffs from his pipe, his eyes fixed dreamily on the fire, as though in deep meditation. His wife sat in her chair on the other side, and was busy with her knitting, while perhaps her thoughts were wandering away to that loved Fatherland which she had left so many years before, never to see again. Nellie had grown sleepy and gone to bed.
Mr. Ribsam turned his head and looked at Nick. The boy was seated close to the lamp on the table, and the scratching of his pencil on his slate and his glances at the slip of paper lying on the stand, with the problems written upon it, told plainly enough what occupied his thoughts.
"Nicholas," said the father.
"Just one minute, please," replied the lad, glancing hastily up: "I am on the last of the problems that Mr. Layton gave us for this week, and I have it almost finished."
The protest of the boy was so respectful that the father resumed his smoking and waited until Nick laid his slate on the table and wheeled his chair around.
"There, father, I am through."
"Read owed loud dot sum von you shoost don't do."
"Mr. Layton gave a dozen original problems as he called them, to our class to-day, and we have a week in which to solve them. I like that kind of work, and so I kept at it this evening until I finished them all."
"You vos sure dot you ain't right, Nicholas, eh?"
"I have proved every one of them. Oh, you asked me to read the last one! When Mr. Layton read that we all laughed because it was so simple, but when you come to study it it isn't so simple as you would think. It is this: If New York has fifty per cent. more population than Philadelphia, what per cent. has Philadelphia less than New York?"
Mr. Ribsam's shoulders went up and down, and he shook like a bowl of jelly. He seemed to be overcome by the simplicity of the problem over which his son had been racking his brains.
"Dot makes me laughs. Yaw, yaw, yaw!"
"If you will sit down and figure on it you won't laugh quite so hard," said Nick, amused by the jollity of his father, which brought a smile to his mother; "what is your answer?"
"If I hafs feefty tollar more don you hafs, how mooch less tollar don't you hafs don I hafs? Yaw, yaw, yaw!"
"That is plain enough," said Nick sturdily "but if you mean to say that the answer to the problem I gave you is fifty per cent., you are wrong."
"Oxplains how dot ain't," said Mr. Ribsam, suddenly becoming serious.
The mother was also interested, and looked smilingly toward her bright son. Like every mother, her sympathies went out to him. When Nick told his father that he was in error, the mother felt a thrill of delight; she wanted Nick to get the better of her husband, much as she loved both, and you and I can't blame her.
Nick leaned back in his chair, shoved his hands into his pockets, and looked smilingly at his father and his pipe as he said:
"Suppose, to illustrate, that Philadelphia has just one hundred people. Then, if New York has fifty per cent. more, it must have one hundred and fifty people as its population; that is correct, is it not, father?"
Mr. Ribsam took another puff or two, as if to make sure that his boy was not leading him into a trap, and then he solemnly nodded his head.
"Dot ish so,—dot am,—yaw."
"Then if Philadelphia has one hundred people for its population, New York has one hundred and fifty?"
"Yaw, and Pheelatelphy has feefty per cent. less—yaw, yaw, yaw!"
"Hold on, father,—not so fast. I'm teacher just now, and you mustn't run ahead of me. If you will notice in this problem the per cent. in the first part is based on Philadelphia's population, while in the second part it is based on the population of New York, and since the population of the two cities is different, the per cent. cannot be the same."
"How dot is?" asked Mr. Ribsam, showing eager interest in the reasoning of the boy.
"We have agreed, to begin with, that the population of Philadelphia is one hundred and of New York one hundred and fifty. Now, how many people will have to be subtracted from New York's population to make it the same as Philadelphia?"
"Feefty,—vot I says."
"And fifty is what part of one hundred and fifty,—that is, what part of the population of New York?"
"It vos one thirds."
"And one third of anything is thirty-three and one third per cent. of it, which is the correct answer to the problem."
Mr. Ribsam held his pipe suspended in one hand while he stared with open mouth into the smiling face of his son, as though he did not quite grasp his reasoning.
"Vot you don't laughs at?" he said, turning sharply toward his wife, who had resumed her knitting and was dropping many a stitch because of the mirth, which shook her as vigorously as it stirred her husband a few minutes before.
"I laughs ven some folks dinks dey ain't shmarter don dey vosn't all te vile, don't it?"
And stopping her knitting she threw back her head and laughed unrestrainedly. Her husband hastily shoved the stem of his pipe between his lips, sunk lower down in the chair, and smoked so hard that his head soon became almost invisible in the vapor.
By-and-by he roused himself and asked Nick to begin with the first problem and reason out the result he obtained with each one in turn.
Nick did so, and on the last but one his parent tripped him. A few pointed questions showed the boy that he was wrong. Then the hearty "Yaw, yaw, yaw!" of the father rang out, and looking at the solemn visage of his wife, he asked:
"Vy you don't laughs now, eh? Yaw, yaw, yaw!"
The wife meekly answered that she did not see anything to cause mirth, though Nick proved that he did.
Not only that, but the son became satisfied from the quickness with which his father detected his error, and the keen reasoning he gave, that he purposely went wrong on the first problem read to him with the object of testing the youngster.
Finally, he asked him whether such was not the case. Many persons in the place of Mr. Ribsam would have been tempted to fib, because almost every one will admit any charge sooner than that of ignorance; but the Dutchman considered lying one of the meanest vices of which a man can be guilty. Like all of his countrymen, he had received a good school education at home, besides which his mind possessed a natural mathematical bent. He said he caught the answer to the question the minute it was asked him, and, although Mr. Layton may not have seen it before, Mr. Ribsam had met and conquered similar ones when he was a boy.
While he persistently refused to show Nick how to solve some of the intricate problems brought home, yet when the son, after hours of labor, was still all abroad, his father would ask him a question or two so skillfully framed that the bright boy was quick to detect their bearing on the subject over which he was puzzling his brain. The parent's query was like the lantern's flash which shows the ladder for which a man is groping.
The task of the evening being finished, Mr. Ribsam tested his boy with a number of problems that were new to him. Most of them were in the nature of puzzles, with a "catch" hidden somewhere. Nick could not give the right answer in every instance, but he did so in a majority of cases; so often, indeed, that his father did a rare thing,—he complimented his skill and ability.
It was two miles from the home of Mr. Ribsam to the little stone school-house where his children were receiving their education. A short distance from the dwelling a branch road turned off to the left, which, being followed nine miles or so, mostly through woods, brought one to the little country town of Dunbarton.
Between the home of Gustav Ribsam and the school-house were only two dwellings. The first, on the left, belonged to Mr. Marston, whose land adjoined that of the Hollander, while the second was beyond the fork of the roads and was owned by Mr. Kilgore, who lived a long distance back from the highway.
Nick Ribsam, as he grew in years and strength, became more valuable to his father, who found it necessary, now and then, to keep him home from school. This, however, did not happen frequently, for the parents were anxious that their children should receive a good school education, and Nick's readiness enabled him to recover, very quickly, the ground thus lost.
There was not so much need of Nellie, and, when at the age of six she began her attendance, she rarely missed a day. If it was stormy she was bundled up warmly, and, occasionally, she was taken in the carriage when the weather was too severe for walking.
The summer was gone when Nick helped harness the roan mare to the carriage, and, driving down to the forks, let Nellie out, and kept on toward Dunbarton, while the little girl continued ahead in the direction of the school-house.
"I've got to stay there so long," said Nick, in bidding his sister good-by, "that I won't be here much before four o'clock, so I will look out for you and you can look out for me and I'll take you home."
Nellie said she would not forget, and walked cheerfully up the road, singing a school song to herself.
The little girl, when early enough, stopped at the house of Mr. Marston, whose girl Lizzie attended school. This morning, however, when Nick called from the road, he was told that Lizzie had been gone some time, so he drove on without her.
The dwelling of Mr. Kilgore stood so far back that Nellie never could spare the time to walk up the long lane and back again, but she contented herself with peering up the tree-lined avenue in quest of Sallie and Bobby Kilgore.
However, they were also invisible, and so it was that Nellie made the rest of the journey alone.
The distance being so considerable, Nellie and Nick always carried their dinners with them, so that, after their departure in the morning, the parents did not expect to see them again until between four and five in the afternoon.
The roan mare was young and spirited, but not vicious, and the boy had no trouble in controlling her.
When half way through the stretch of woods they crossed a bridge, whose planks rattled so loudly under the wheels and hoofs that the animal showed a disposition to rear and plunge over the narrow railing at the side.
But the boy used his whip so vigorously that he quickly tamed the beast, which was not slow to understand that her master was holding the reins.
When Nick was on such journeys as these, he generally carried his father's watch, so as to "make his connections" better. The timepiece was of great size and thickness, having been made somewhere in England a good many years before. It ticked so loudly that it sounded like a cricket, and would have betrayed any person in an ordinary sized room, when there was no unusual noise. Nick's own handsome watch was too valuable for him to carry.
The former was so heavy that it seemed to Nick, when walking with it, that he went in a one-sided fashion. However, the lad was quite proud of it, and perhaps took it out oftener than was necessary, especially when he saw the eyes of others upon him.
Nick was kept in Dunbarton so long by the many errands he had to perform, that he was fully an hour late in starting. The mare was spirited enough to make up this time, if urged, but there was no need of doing so, and the boy knew his father would prefer him not to push the animal when no urgency existed.
Thus it came about that when Nick re-entered the main highway that afternoon, and looked in the direction of the school-house, he saw nothing of Nellie, nor indeed of any one coming from the school.
"She has gone home long ago," was his conclusion, as he allowed the mare to drop into a brisk trot, which speedily took him to his house.
When Nick had put away the horse and rendered up his account of the errands done, he was surprised to learn that Nellie had not yet appeared.
"I cannot understand what keeps her," said the father, in his native tongue; "she was never so late before."
It was plain from the mother's face and manner that she also was anxious, for she frequently went to the gate, and, shading her eyes, looked long and anxiously down the road, hoping that the figure of the little girl would come to view, with some explanation of the cause for her delay.
But the sun was low in the west, and its slanting rays brought to light the figure of no child hurrying homeward. The single object that was mistaken for the loved one proved to be a man on horseback, who turned off at the forks and vanished.
"Nick, go look for your sister," said his mother, as she came back from one of these visits to the gate; "something has happened."
The boy was glad of the order, for he was on the point of asking permission to hunt for Nellie.
"I'll stay till I find out something," said Nick, as he donned his hat and took a general look over himself to see that he was in shape, "so don't worry about me."
"But you ought not to be gone so long," said the father, whose anxious face showed that he was debating whether he should not join his boy in the search, "for it won't take long to find out where Nellie is."
"I think she has been taken sick and has stopped with some of the neighbors," ventured the mother, "but it is strange they do not send me word."
And it was the very fact that such word was not sent that prevented the husband and son from believing in the theory of the distressed mother.
But Nick did not let the grass grow under his feet. His worriment was as great as that of his parents, and as soon as he was in the road he broke into a trot, which he kept up until beyond sight, both father and mother standing at the gate and watching him until he faded from view in the gathering twilight.
The point where he disappeared was beyond the house of Mr. Marston, so it was safe to conclude he had learned nothing of his sister there, where he was seen to halt.
There is nothing more wearisome than waiting in such suspense as came to the hearts of the father and mother, while they sat watching and listening for the sound of the childish footsteps and voices whose music would have been the sweetest on earth to them.
The supper on the table remained untasted, and the only sounds heard were the solemn ticking of the old clock, the soft rustling of the kettle on the stove, and now and then a long drawn sigh from father or mother, as one strove to utter a comforting word to the other.
All at once the gate was opened and shut hastily. Then a hurried step sounded along the short walk and upon the porch.
"There they are! there they are!" exclaimed the mother, starting to her feet, as did the father.
Almost on the same instant the door was thrown open, and, panting and excited, Nick Ribsam entered.
But he was alone, and the expression of his face showed that he had brought bad news.
THE PARTY OF SEARCH.
When Nick Ribsam set out to find his missing sister Nellie, he made the search as thorough as possible.
The first house at which he stopped was that of Mr. Marston, which, it will be remembered, was only a short distance away from his own home. There, to his disappointment, he learned that their little girl had not been at school that day, and consequently they could tell him nothing.
Without waiting longer than to give a few words of explanation he resumed his trot, and soon after turned into the lane leading to the home of Mr. Kilgore. He found that both Bobby and Sallie had been to school, but they had nothing to tell. When we are more than usually anxious to learn something, it seems that every one whom we meet is stupid beyond endurance. If we are in a strange place and apply for information, the ignorance of nearly every person is exasperating.
Bobby and Sallie remembered seeing Nellie in school during the forenoon and afternoon, but, while the boy insisted that she came along the road with them after dismissal, Sallie was just as positive that the missing girl was not with them.
The party of school children which usually went over the highway was so small in number that it is hard to understand how such a mistake could be made, but the difference between Bobby and Sallie was irreconcilable.
"I know she didn't come home with us," said Sallie, stamping her foot to give emphasis to the words.
"And I know she did," declared Bobby, equally emphatically, "for me and her played tag."
"Why don't you say she and I played tag?" asked Nick, impatient with both the children.
"'Cause it was me and her," insisted Bobby.
"What a dunce-head!" exclaimed his sister; "that was last night when you played tag, and you tumbled over into the ditch and bellered like the big baby you are."
"I remember that he did that last night," said Nick, hoping to help the two to settle the dispute.
"I know I done that last night, but this afternoon I done it too. I fall into the ditch every night and beller; I do it on purpose to fool them that are chasing me."
Nick found he could gain nothing; but he believed the sister was right and the brother wrong, as afterward proved to be the case.
There were no more houses between his own home and the school building, and Nick resumed his dog trot, never halting until he came in front of a little whitewashed cottage just beyond the stone school-house.
The latter stood at the cross roads, and the cottage to the left was where the teacher, Mr. Layton, an old bachelor, lived with his two maiden sisters.
Mr. Layton, although strict to severity in the school-room, was a kind-hearted man and was fond of the Ribsam children, for they were bright, cheerful, and obedient, and never gave him any trouble, as did some of his other pupils. He listened to Nick's story, and his sympathy was aroused at once.
"I am very sorry," said he, "that your good father and mother, not to mention yourself, should be so sorely troubled; but I hope this is not serious. Nellie came to me about three o'clock and asked whether I would let her go home."
"Was she sick?" asked the distressed brother.
"Not at all; but she said you had gone to Dunbarton in your carriage and she wanted to meet you coming back. She knew her lessons perfectly, and Nellie is such a good girl that I felt that I could not refuse so simple a request. So I told her she could go. I saw her start homeward with her lunch-basket in one hand and her two school-books in the other. She stepped off so briskly and was in such cheerful spirits that I stood at the window and watched her until she passed around the bend in the road."
Nick felt his heart sink within him, for the words of the teacher had let in a great deal of alarming truth upon him.
Nellie had reached the forks two hours ahead of him, and then, not wishing to sit down and wait, she had started up the road in the direction of Dunbarton to meet him. She must have entered the eight mile stretch of woods from the south about the same time Nick himself drove into it on his return from Dunbarton.
The two should have met near Shark Creek, but neither had seen the other. Nick, as a matter of course, had kept to the road, but what had become of Nellie?
This was the question the lad put to himself, and which caused him to feel so faint that he sank down in a chair unable to speak for a minute or two. Then, when he tried to do so, he had to stop, and was kept busy swallowing the lump that would rise in his throat, until finally the tears suddenly appeared, and, putting his hands to his eyes, he gave way to his grief.
"There, there," said Mr. Layton soothingly, "don't cry, Nick, for it will do no good. Nellie has strayed off in the woods to gather flowers or perhaps wild grapes and has missed her way."
"She—is—lost—poor—Nellie!" said the lad as best he could between his sobs; "we'll never see her again."
"Oh, it isn't as bad as that! I suppose she has grown weary, and, sitting down to rest, has fallen asleep."
If the good teacher meant this to soothe the lad, it had the contrary effect, for the picture of his little sister wandering alone in the woods was one of the most dreadful that could be imagined, and it took all the manhood of his nature to keep from breaking down again.
While the interview was under way, Mr. Layton was busy changing his slippers for his boots, his wrapper for his coat, and his hat was donned just as he spoke the last words.
His sympathy did not expend itself in talk, but the instant he saw what the trouble was he was eager to do all he could to help his suffering friends. He even reproached himself for having given Nellie permission to meet her brother, though no matter what harm may have befallen her, no one could blame her instructor therefor.
"We must hunt for her," said Mr. Layton, when he was ready to go out; "I will tell my sisters they need not be alarmed over my absence, and I guess I will take the lantern with me."
Nick passed out to the front gate, where he waited a minute for the teacher, until he should speak with his friends and get the lantern ready. When he came forth, the boy felt much like the patient who sees the surgeon take out his instruments and try their edge to make sure they are in condition before using upon him.
The sight of the lantern in the hand of Mr. Layton gave such emphasis to the danger that it caused another quick throb of Nick's heart, but he forced it down as the two started back over the road, toward the school-house.
"There is no need of lighting the lantern until we get to the woods," said the teacher, "for we don't need it, and I hope we won't need it after we reach the forest. Poor Nellie! she will feel dreadfully frightened, when she wakes up in the dark forest."
He regretted the words, for the two or three sobs that escaped the brother, before he could master himself, showed that his heart was swelled nigh to bursting.
The night was mild and pleasant, although a little too chilly for any one to sleep out of doors. The moon was gibbous, and only a few white, feathery clouds now and then drifted across its face. Where there was no shadow, one could see for a hundred yards or so with considerable distinctness—that is, enough to recognize the figure of a man in motion.
Opposite the lane leading to the house of Mr. Kilgore, the teacher stopped.
"I will go in and get him to join us," said Mr. Layton; "and you had better hurry home for your father. On your way back, stop for Mr. Marston; that will give us a pretty large party. If when you reach the forks you do not find us there, don't wait, but hurry on toward Dunbarton; you will meet us before you reach the bridge over Shark Creek."
Nick did as told, and, still on a rapid trot, reached home panting and excited, with the story which the reader has just learned.
Mr. Ribsam threw down his pipe, donned his hat and coat, and started out the door. With his hand on the latch, he paused, and, looking back, commanded his voice so as to say:
"Katrina, you and Nick needn't wait up for me."
"Oh, father," pleaded the lad, moving toward him: "would you make me stay at home when Nellie is lost?"
"No, no—I did not think," answered the parent, in a confused way; "I feel so bad I do not know what I do and say. Katrina, don't feel too bad; we will come back as soon as we can."
Again the half distracted father placed his hand on the latch, and he had drawn the door partly open, when his wife, pale and trembling, called out in a voice of touching pathos:
"Gustav, my heart would break should I try to stay here, when no one but God knows where my darling Nellie is; but, wherever she may be, no sorrow or pain or suffering can come to her that her mother will not share, and may our Heavenly Father let her mother take it all upon her own shoulders!"
"Come on, Katrina; come on and bring the lantern with you."
GROPING IN DARKNESS.
When the parents and brother of Nellie Ribsam reached the forks a few minutes later, they saw nothing of the three parties whom they expected to meet there.
"They have gone on to the woods to look for Nellie," said the father.
"They cannot be far off," suggested Nick, turning to the left.
All were too anxious to lose a minute, and they started after their friends on a rapid walk, Nick taking the lead, and now and then dropping into a loping trot, which he would have increased had he been alone.
A chill seemed to settle over all as they reached the deep shadow of the woods, which was one of the largest tracts of forest in that section of the country.
The road which bisected them was fully eight miles in length, as has already been stated, while the forest was much greater in extent in the other direction.
Being of such large area, there were necessarily many portions which rarely if ever were visited by hunters. Years before an occasional deer had been shot, and a few of the old settlers told of the thrilling bear hunts they had enjoyed when they were not so very much younger than now.
Those who were capable of judging were certain that if the gloomy depths were explored these dreaded animals would be met; but if such were the fact, the beasts were so few in number that no one gave them a thought.
It was now four miles to Shark Creek, and, by common consent, it was agreed that the missing Nellie must be found, if found at all, before reaching the stream.
As this creek was deep enough to drown any person who could not swim, not to mention the large pond into which it emptied, every one of the searchers felt a vague, awful dread that poor Nellie had fallen into the water.
No one spoke of it, but the thought was there all the same.
Shortly after entering the wood, Nick called attention to two star-like points of light twinkling ahead of them.
"They are the lanterns of Mr. Layton and Kilgore," said Nick, who immediately added, "we forgot to stop and get Mr. Marston."
"That is too bad, but it isn't worth while to go back now," replied his father, hardly slackening his gait.
As the lantern which Mrs. Ribsam had handed to her husband was lighted before leaving home, the men in advance detected it immediately after they were seen themselves, and the halloo of the teacher was answered by Nick.
"Have you found anything of Nellie?" asked the mother, in broken English, as soon as the parties came together.
"It could scarcely be expected," answered the instructor, in a kindly voice; "we have just got here, and have only looked along the road. I have little doubt that she is soundly sleeping somewhere not far off."
While all stood still, the father lifted up his voice, and in clear, penetrating tones called the name of his missing child:
The ticking of the big watch in the pocket of Nick was plainly heard as the little company awaited the answering call of the child.
But it came not, and three times more was the name of the missing girl repeated by the father, who broke down completely the last time.
Nick now joined his thumb and finger against the end of his tongue, and emitted a blast like that of a steam whistle. It resounded among the trees, and then followed the same oppressive stillness as before.
It was useless to remain where they were any longer, and, without a word, the five moved on. The three lamps were swung above their heads, and they peered into the gloomy depths on the right and left.
Nick, as might have been expected, kept the advance, and his father allowed him to carry the lantern. As the other lights were behind the lad, the latter saw his huge shadow continually dancing in front and taking all manner of grotesque shapes, while, if the others had looked to the rear, they would have seen the same spectacle, as it affected their own figures.
"Wait!" suddenly called out the father, who was now obliged to use his broken English, "mebbe my Nellie she does hears me."
Thereupon he called to her as before, Nick ending the appeal with an ear-splitting whistle, which must have been heard several miles on such a still night.
Not the slightest result followed, and with heavy hearts the little company moved on again.
"I think," said Mr. Layton, "that she has turned aside, where, possibly, some faint path has caught her eye, and it may be that we may discover the spot."
"Let's look here!"
It was the mother who spoke this time, and, as they turned toward her, she was seen bending over the ground at the side of the highway, where something had arrested her attention.
Instantly all the lanterns were clustered about the spot, and it was seen that the eyes of affection had detected just such a place as that named by the teacher. Persons who walked along the road were accustomed to turn aside into the woods, and the five now did the same, moving slowly, with the lanterns held close to the earth, and then swung aloft, while all eyes were peering into the portions penetrated by the yellow rays.
The path was followed some fifty yards, when, to the disappointment of all, it came back to the road: it was one of those whimsical footways often met in the country, the person who started it having left the highway without any real reason for doing so.
Again the name of the missing Nellie was repeated, and again the woods sent back nothing but the echo.
It was the quick-eared Nick who spoke, just as the hum of conversation began, and all listened.
As they did so the rattle of wheels was heard coming from the direction of Dunbarton. The peculiar noise enabled the friends to recognize it as made by a heavy, lumbering farmer's wagon. The team was proceeding on a walk.
A few minutes later some one shouted:
"Halloo, there! what's the matter?"
The voice was recognized as that of Mr. Marston, whom they intended to ask to join them.
Instantly a hope was aroused that he might be able to tell them something of Nellie. Mr. Layton called back, saying they were friends, and asking whether the farmer had seen anything of Nellie Ribsam.
At this Mr. Marston whipped up his horses, which were showing some fear of the twinkling lanterns, and halted when opposite to the party of searchers.
"My gracious! is she lost?" asked the good man, forgetting the anguish of his friends in his own curiosity.
"Yes, she started up this road this afternoon toward Dunbarton to meet her brother, who was returning, but, somehow or other, missed him, and we are all anxious about her."
"My gracious alive! I should think you would be: it would drive my wife and me crazy if our Lizzie should be lost in the woods."
"I suppose, from the way you talk," continued the teacher, "that you have seen nothing of her?"
"No, I wish I had, for I tell you these woods are a bad place for a little girl to get lost in. Last March, when we had an inch of snow on the ground, I seen tracks that I knowed was made by a bear, and a mighty big one, too, and—"
But just then a half-smothered moan from the mother warned the thoughtless neighbor that he was giving anything but comfort to the afflicted parents.
"I beg pardon," he hastened to say, in an awkward attempt to apologize; "come to think, I am sure that it wasn't a bear, but some big dog; you know a large dog makes tracks which can be mistook very easy for those of a bear. I'll hurry on home and put up my team and git the lantern and come back and help you."
And Mr. Marston, who meant well, whipped up his horses, and his wagon rattled down the road as he hastened homeward.
AN ALARMING DISCOVERY.
By this time the searching party began to realize the difficulties in the path of their success.
If, as was believed, or rather hoped, Nellie had fallen asleep in the woods, they were liable to pass within a dozen feet of where she lay without discovering the fact. Should they call to her, or should Nick emit his resounding signal whistle, she might be awakened, provided only such a brief space separated them, but the chances were scarcely one in a thousand that they would be so fortunate.
This view, at the worst, was a favorable one, and behind it rose the phantoms that caused all to shudder with a dread which they dared not utter.
Only a short distance farther they came upon another path which diverged from the side of the road, returning a little ways beyond. There, an unusually careful search was made, and Nick almost split his cheeks in his efforts to send his penetrating whistle throughout the surrounding country. The three men also called out the name of Nellie in their loudest tones, but nothing except the hollow echoes came back to them.
Nick examined the face of his father's watch by the light of the lantern he carried, and saw that it lacked but a few minutes of nine. They had been searching for the lost child, as this proved, for nearly two hours.
"It seems to me," said Mr. Layton, as the party came to a halt, "that we are not likely to accomplish anything by hunting in this aimless fashion."
"What better can we do?" asked Mr. Kilgore.
"Thus far we have been forced to confine ourselves to the road, excepting when we diverge a few feet: this renders our work about the same as if done by a single person. What I propose, therefore, is that we separate."
"How will that help us?"
"It may not, but we shall cover three or four times the amount of space (I judge Mrs. Ribsam would prefer to remain with her husband and son on account of the single lantern), and it follows that some one of us must pass closer to the spot where Nellie is lying."
This seemed a sensible suggestion, and the two men turned to the afflicted father to learn what he thought of it.
He shook his head.
"Not yet,—not yet; we goes a leetle furder."
Nothing was added by way of explanation, and yet even little Nick knew why he had protested: he wished that all might keep together until they reached the creek. If nothing was learned of his child there, then he would follow the plan of the teacher.
But something seemed to whisper to the parent that the place where they would gain tidings of little Nellie was near that dark, flowing water, which, like such streams, seemed to be always reaching out for some one to strangle in its depths.
"Perhaps Mr. Ribsam is right," said the teacher, after a silence which was oppressive even though brief; "we will keep each other's company, for it is lonely work tramping through the woods, where there is no beaten path to follow."
Thereupon the strange procession resumed its march toward the distant town of Dunbarton, pausing at short intervals to call and signal to the missing one.
It was a vast relief to all that the weather continued so mild and pleasant. In the earlier part of the day there were some signs of an approaching storm, but the signs had vanished and the night was one of the most pleasant seen in September.
Had the rain begun to fall, or had the temperature lowered, the mother would have been distracted, for nothing could have lessened the pangs caused by her knowledge that her darling one was suffering. The true mother lives for her children, and their joys and sorrows are hers.
Whenever the wind rustled among the branches around them she shuddered and instinctively drew her own shawl closer about her shoulder; she would have given a year's toil could she have wrapped the thick woolen garment about the tiny form of her loved one, who never seemed so dear to her as then.
"Gustav," she whispered, twitching his elbow, "I want to speak one word to you."
"Speak out; they cannot understand us," he answered, alluding to the fact that they were using their own language.
"Yes, but I don't want Nick to know what I say."
The husband thereupon fell back beside her, and in a tremulous voice she said:
"Do you remember when Nellie was three years old?"
"Of course I remember further back than that: why do you ask?"
"When she had the fever and was getting well?"
"Yes, I cannot forget it; poor girl, her cheeks were so hot I could almost light a match by them; but, thank God, she got over it."
"You remember, Gustav, how cross she was and how hard it was to please her?"
"But that was because she was sick; when she was well, then she laughed all the time, just like Nick when he don't feel bad."
"But—but," and there was an unmistakable tremor in the voice, "one day when she was cross she asked for a drink of water; Nick was sitting in the room and jumped up and brought it to her, but she was so out of humor she shook her head and would not take it from him; she was determined I should hand it to her. I thought she was unreasonable and I told Nick to set it on the bureau, and I let Nellie know she shouldn't have it unless she took it from him; I meant that I wouldn't hand it to her and thereby humor her impatience. She cried, but she was too stubborn to give in, and I refused to hand her the water. Nick felt so bad he left the room, and I was sorry; but Nellie was getting well, and I was resolved to be firm with her. She was very thirsty, for her fever was a terrible one. I was tired and dropped into a doze. By-and-by I heard Nellie's bare feet pattering on the floor, and softly opening my eyes, without stirring I saw her walk hastily to the bureau, catch hold of the tumbler and she drank every drop of water in it. She was so weak and dizzy that she staggered back and threw herself on the bed like one almost dead. The next day she was worse, and we thought we were going to lose her. You saw how hard I cried, but most of my tears were caused by the remembrance of my cruelty to her the night before."
"But, Katrina, you did right," said the father, who heard the affecting incident for the first time. "It won't do to humor children so much: it will spoil them."
"That may be, but I cannot help thinking of that all the time; it would have done no harm to humor Nellie that time, for she was a good girl."
"You speak truth, but—"
The poor father, who tried so bravely to keep up, broke down and was unable to speak. The story touched him as much as it did the mother.
"Never mind, Katrina—"
At that moment Nick called out:
"Here's the bridge!"
The structure loomed through the gloom as it was dimly lighted by the lanterns, and all walked rapidly forward until they stood upon the rough planking.
Suddenly the mother uttered a cry, and stooping down snatched up something from the ground close to the planks.
The startled friends looked affrightedly toward her, and saw that she held the lunch basket of her little daughter in her hand.
On the very edge of the bridge over Shark Creek, the mother of Nellie Ribsam picked up the lunch basket which her daughter had taken to school that morning. It lay on its side, with the snowy napkin partly out, and within it was a piece of brown bread which the parent had spread with golden butter, and which was partly eaten.
No wonder the afflicted woman uttered a half-suppressed scream when she picked up what seemed a memento of her dead child.
While the lanterns were held in a circle around the basket, which the father took from his wife, Mr. Ribsam lifted the piece of bread in his hand. There were the prints made by the strong white teeth of little Nellie, and there was not a dry eye when all gazed upon the food, which the father softly returned to the basket and reverently covered with the napkin.
No one ventured to speak, but the thoughts of all were the same.
Stepping to the railing at the side of the bridge Mr. Layton held his lantern over, Nick and Mr. Kilgore immediately doing the same. The rays extended right and left and far enough downward to reach the stream, which could be seen, dark and quiet, flowing beneath and away through the woods to the big pond, a quarter of a mile below.
In the oppressive stillness the soft rustling of the water was heard as it eddied about a small root which grew out from the shore, and a tiny fish, which may have been attracted by the yellow rays, leaped a few inches above the surface and fell back with a splash which startled those who were peering over the railing of the structure.
The trees grew close to the water's edge, and as the trunks were dimly revealed they looked as if they were keeping watch over the deep creek that flowed between.
The five were now searching for that which they did not wish to find; they dreaded, with an unspeakable dread, the sight of the white face turned upward, with the abundant hair floating about the dimpled shoulders.
Thank heaven, that sight was spared them; nothing of the kind was seen, and a sigh escaped from each.
"We are all tortured by the thought that Nellie has fallen into the creek and been drowned," said the teacher; "but I cannot see any grounds for such fear."
The yearning looks of the parents and brother caused the teacher to explain more fully.
"No child, unless a very stupid one, would stumble from this bridge, and there could have been no circumstances which in my judgment would have brought such a mishap to Nellie."
This sounded reasonable enough, but:
"De basket,—vot of dot?" asked the father.
"She has dropped that from some cause; but that of itself is a favorable sign, for had she fallen accidentally into the water she would have taken it with her."
This sounded as if true, but it did not remove the fears of any one. Even he who uttered the words could not bring himself fully to believe in their truth, for none knew better than he that the evil one himself seems to conspire with guns and pistols that appear to be unloaded, and with water which is thought to be harmless.
All wanted to place faith in the declaration, and no protest was uttered. As nothing was to be seen or learned where they stood, they crossed the bridge and descended the wooded slope until they reached the edge of the stream, which wound its way through the woods to the big pond.
Every heart was throbbing painfully and no one spoke: there was no need of it, for no comfort could be gained therefrom.
Mr. Layton and Kilgore moved carefully up the creek, while Nick and his parents walked toward the pond, which lay to the left.
The two wished to be apart from the others that they might consult without danger of being overheard by those whose hearts were suffering so much anguish.
"It's very strange," said Mr. Kilgore, "that the basket should be found on the bridge: what do you make of it, Mr. Layton?"
The teacher shook his head.
"It is strange, indeed; had there been no water in the creek you could have set it down as certain that the child had not fallen from it, but, as she could not have done so without drowning, I am inclined to think—"
The instructor hesitated, as if afraid to pronounce the dreadful words.
"You think she is drowned?" said his friend, supplying the answer with his own question.
Mr. Layton nodded his head by way of reply, and, holding the lanterns in front, they began groping their way along the margin of the creek.
By raising the lights above their heads the rays reached the opposite bank, lighting up the water between. This was unusually clear, and they could see the bottom some distance from shore.
Both felt that if the body was floating anywhere they could not fail to see it, though the probabilities were that it was already far below them, and would be first discovered by the parents and brother.
"Halloa!" suddenly exclaimed Mr. Layton, lowering his lantern close to the ground, "I don't like that."
By way of explanation, he pointed to the damp soil where no vegetation grew: it was directly in front and close to the water, being that portion which was frequently swept by the creek when above its present level.
Parallel to the stream, for a distance of several rods or so, were a number of imprints in the yielding earth, which the first glance showed were made by some large animal.
"It must have been a dog," ventured the teacher, who had little practical knowledge of the animals of the wood.
Mr. Kilgore shook his head.
"It was a bear; there can be no mistake about it. Mr. Marston was right; it was the track of a similar animal which he saw last March."
"You are not mistaken, Mr. Kilgore?"
The farmer answered impatiently:
"I have hunted bears too often to be mistaken; I can tell their trail among a hundred others, and the one which went along here a little while ago was one of the largest of his kind."
THE LITTLE WANDERER.
Although Nellie Ribsam was only eight years old at the time she was lost in the big woods, yet the results of the training received from her sensible father and mother showed themselves in a marked degree on that memorable occasion.
She had been taught, as was her brother, that under heaven she must rely upon herself to get forward in the world. Nick was rarely if ever allowed to extend her a helping hand in her lessons, and she was given to understand that whatever was possible for her to do must be done without the aid of any one.
As for sitting down and crying when in trouble, without making any effort to help herself, she knew better than to try that when either her father or mother were likely to find it out.
Her intention, when she left school that afternoon before the session closed, was to keep on in the direction of Dunbarton until she met Nick returning.
She turned off at the forks, and did not lessen her gait until she reached the woods. Her rapid walking caused her to feel quite warm, and the cool shade of the woods was refreshing.
She began wandering aimlessly forward, swinging her hat in her hand, singing snatches of school songs, and feeling just as happy as a little girl can feel who is in bounding health, high spirits, and without an accusing conscience.
It was not the time of year for flowers, and Nellie knew better than to look for any. They had drooped and died long ago; but some of the leaves were turning on the trees, and they gave a peculiar beauty to the autumnal forest.
At intervals she caught sight of the cleanly, symmetrical maple, with some of its leaves turning a fiery red and looking like flecks of flame through the intervening vegetation. At the least rustling of the wind some of the leaves came fluttering downward as lightly as flakes of snow; the little brown squirrel scampered up the shaggy trunks and out upon the limbs, where, perching on his hind legs, he peeped mischievously down at the girl, as if inviting her to play hide-and-seek with him; now and then a rabbit, fat and awkward from his gluttony on the richness around him, jumped softly a few steps, then munched rapidly with his jaws, flapped his long silken ears, looked slyly around with his big, pretty eyes, and, as the girl made a rush toward him, he was off like a shot.
The woods were fragrant with ripening grapes and decaying vegetation, and were putting on a garb whose flaming splendor surpassed the hues of spring.
Indeed, everything conspired to win a boy or girl away from study or work, and to cause the wish on the part of both that they might be a bird or squirrel, with no thought of the responsibilities of life.
Nellie Ribsam forgot for the time everything else except her own enjoyment; but by-and-by the woods took on such tempting looks that she turned off from the highway she had been following, with the intention of taking a stroll, which she meant should not lead her out of sight of the road.
The first view which stopped her was that of a large vine of wild grapes.
Some of them were green, some turning, while others were a dark purple, showing they were fully ripe: the last, as a matter of course, were at the top.
These wild grapes were small and tart, inferior to those which grew in the yard of Nellie at home; but they seemed to be trying to hide in the woods, and they were hard to get, therefore they were more to be desired than the choicest Catawba, Isabella, or Concord.
The main vine, where it started from the ground, was as thick as a man's wrist, and it twisted and wound about an oak sapling as if it were a great African constrictor seeking to strangle the young tree. Other vines branched out from the sides until not only was the particular sapling enfolded and smothered, but the greedy vine reached out and grasped others growing near it.
Nellie felt like the fox who found the grapes more tempting the longer he looked at them.
"I'm going to have some of them," she said, and straightway proceeded to help herself.
She climbed as readily as Nick himself could have done, and never stopped until she was so high that the sapling bent far over with her weight. Then she reached out her chubby hand and plucked a cluster of the wild fruit. They were about the size of buckshot, and when her sound teeth shut down on them, the juice was so sour that she shut both eyes and felt a twinge at the crown of her head as though she had taken a sniff of the spirits of ammonia.
But the grapes were none the less delicious for all that; the fact that there seemed to be something forbidden about them added a flavor that nothing else could give.
Nellie had managed to crush a handful of the vinegar-like globules, when she caught sight of another vine deeper in the woods. It was much larger and climbed fully a dozen yards from the ground, winding in and out among the limbs of a ridgy beech, which seemed to be forever struggling upward to get away from the smothering embrace of the vegetable python.
Five minutes later, Nellie was clambering upward like a monkey, never pausing until the bending tree-top warned her that if she went any higher it would yield to her weight.
Nellie disposed of one bunch and that was enough: she concluded that she was not very hungry for grapes and, without eating or even gathering more, she devoted herself to another kind of enjoyment.
Standing with one foot on a limb and the other on one near it, she grasped a branch above her and began swaying back and forth, with the vim and abandon of a child in a patent swing.
The tree bent far over as she swung outward, then straightened up and inclined the other way as her weight passed over to that side. Any one looking at the picture would have said that a general smash and giving away were certain, in which case the girl was sure to go spinning through the limbs and branches, as though driven forth by the springs within the big gun which fling the young lady outward just as the showman touches off some powder.
But a green sapling is very elastic, and, although the one climbed by Nellie bent back and forth like a bow, it did not give way. Her hair streamed from her head, and there was a thrilling feeling as the wind whistled by her ears, and she seemed to be shooting like a bird through space.
All this was well enough, and it was no more than natural that Nellie should have forgotten several important facts: she was so far from the highway that she could not see any one passing over it; the rush of the wind in her ears shut out sounds that otherwise would have been noticed, and she had gone so far and had lingered so long by the way that it was time to look for Nick on his return from Dunbarton, even though he was later than he expected to be.
It was while she was swinging in this wild fashion that her brother drove by on his way home, without either suspecting how close they were to each other.
Nellie displayed a natural, childish thoughtlessness by keeping up this sport for a half hour longer, when she came down to the ground, simply because she was tired of the amusement.
Although out of sight of the road she managed to find her way back to it without trouble. With her lunch basket in hand, she continued in the direction of Dunbarton, taking several mouthfuls of the bread which had been left over at noon.
In this aimless manner she strolled forward, stopping now and then to look at the squirrel or rabbit or the yellow-hued warbler, the noisy and swift-flying finch, the russet-coated thrush, or dark brown and mottled woodpecker, as his head rattled against the bark of the tree trunks, into which he bored in quest of worms.
The first real surprise of the girl came when she reached the bridge. This proved that she was more than four miles from home, a distance much greater than she had suspected.
"Where can Nick be?" she asked herself, never once thinking that they might have missed each other when she was swinging in the tree-top. It struck her that the day was nearly gone, for she noticed the gathering twilight diffusing itself through the forest.
"I don't think I will go any farther," she said; "Nick will be along pretty soon, and I'll wait here for him."
Standing on the bridge and looking down the road and listening for the sound of the carriage wheels were tiresome to one of Nellie's active habits, and it was not long before she broke off some of the bread, set down her lunch basket, and then dropped some crumbs into the water.
As they struck the surface, sending out little rings toward the shore, several tiny fish came up after the food. Nellie laughed outright, and, in her eagerness, was careless of how she threw the crumbs, most of which fell upon the bank.
It occurred to her that she could do better by going down to the edge of the stream, where she would not mistake her aim.
Childlike, she did not pause to think of the wrong of so doing, for she ought to have known that her parents never would have consented to such an act.
Just there, Nellie, like many another little girl, made a great mistake.
IN GREAT DANGER.
A little child is like a butterfly, thinking only of the pleasures of the moment. Nellie Ribsam came down close to the edge of the creek and threw some crumbs out upon the surface. In the clear water she could see the shadowy figures of the minnows, as they glided upward and snapped at the morsels.
She became so interested in the sport that she kept walking down the bank of the stream, flinging out the crumbs until there was none left in her hand; then she debated whether she should go back after her lunch basket or wait where she was until Nick appeared on the bridge.
"It's a bother to carry the basket with me," she said to herself; "I had to leave it on the ground when I was after grapes, so I'll wait till Nick comes, and then I'll call to him. Won't he be scared when he sees me down here!"
From where she stood, she observed the bridge above her head, and consequently Nick could look directly down upon her whenever he should reach the structure.
Nellie felt that she would like to go on down the creek to the big pond into which it emptied; but she knew better than to do that, for she would be certain to miss her big brother, and it was already beginning to grow dark around her.
"I wonder what makes Nick so long," she said to herself, as she sat down on a fallen tree; "I'm so tired that I never can walk the four miles home."
She had sat thus only a brief while, when her head began to droop; her bright eyes grew dull, then closed, and leaning against a limb which put out from the fallen tree, on which she was sitting, she sank into the sweet, dreamless sleep of childhood and health.
Had she not been disturbed she would not have wakened until the sun rose, but at the end of an hour, an involuntary movement of the head caused it to slip off the limb against which it was resting with such a shock that instantly she was as wide awake as though it was mid-day.
Ah, but when she sprang to her feet and stared about her in the gloom she was dreadfully alarmed!
She was quick-witted enough to understand where she was and how it had all come about. The gibbous moon was directly overhead, and shone down upon her with unobstructed fullness.
"Nick has gone over the bridge while I was asleep," was her instant conclusion; "and father and mother will be worried about me."
Her decision as to what she should do could not but be the one thing—that was to climb back up the bank to the bridge, cross it, and hurry homeward.
There was a little throbbing of the heart, when she reflected that she had several miles to travel, most of which was through the gloomy woods; but there was no hesitation on the part of Nellie, who, but for the sturdy teaching of her parents, would have crouched down beside the log and sobbed in terror until she sank into slumber through sheer exhaustion.
"I have been a bad girl," she said to herself, as she reflected on her thoughtlessness; "and mother will whip me, for I know she ought to; and mother always does what she ought to do."
There was no room for doubt in the mind of the child, for she understood the nature of her parents as well as any child could understand that of its guardian.
Nellie was some distance below the point where the bridge spanned the creek, but she could see the dim outlines of the structure as she started toward it. It seemed higher than usual, but that was because the circumstances were different from any in which she had ever been placed.
The little one was making her way as best she could along the stream in the direction of the bridge, when she was frightened almost out of her senses by hearing a loud, sniffing growl from some point just ahead of her.
It was a sound that would have startled the bravest man, and Nellie was transfixed for the moment. She did not turn and run, nor did she sink in a swoon to the ground, but she stood just where she had stopped, until she could find out what it meant.
She was not kept long in waiting, for in less than a minute the noise was repeated, and at the same moment she caught the outlines of a huge black bear swinging along toward her. He was coming down the bed of the creek, with his awkward, ponderous tread, and when seen by Nellie was within fifty feet of her.
When it is remembered that he was of unusual size and proceeding straight toward the child, it seems impossible that she should have done anything at all to help herself. The sight was enough to deprive her of the power of motion and speech.
But it was in such a crisis as this that little Nellie Ribsam showed that she had not forgotten the teaching of her parents: "God helps them that help themselves."
With scarcely a second's pause, she whirled on her heel and dashed down the stream with the utmost speed at her command.
The bear could not have failed to see her, though it is not to be supposed that he was looking for the little girl when he first came that way. Furthermore, had the chase lasted several minutes Nellie must have fallen a victim to the savage animal.
It required no instruction to teach her that there was but one way in which she could escape, and that was by climbing a tree. Had there been a large one near at hand she would have ascended that as quickly as possible; but, fortunately, the first one to which she fled was a sapling, no larger than those she had climbed during the afternoon, and no one could have clambered to the highest point attainable quicker than did the frightened little girl.
Had she been a veteran hunter, Nellie could not have made a better selection, for she was fully twenty feet from the ground, and as much beyond the reach of the bear as though she were in her trundle-bed at home.
But the position was a frightful one to her, and for several minutes she believed the animal would tear the tree down and destroy her.
"I have done all I can for myself," she murmured, recalling the instruction of her parents, "and now God will do the rest."
Beautiful, trusting faith of childhood! Of such, indeed, is the kingdom of heaven.
The huge bear, which from some cause or other had ventured from the recesses of the wood, was but a short distance behind the little wanderer when she climbed so hastily beyond his reach. He acted as though he was somewhat bewildered by the unusual scene of a small child fleeing from him, but nothing is so tempting to pursuit as the sight of some one running from us, and the brute galloped after Nellie with an evident determination to capture her, if the thing could be done.
When he found the child had eluded him for the time, he sat down on his haunches and looked upward, as though he intended to wait till she would be compelled to descend and surrender herself.
The small tree in which Nellie had taken refuge was several yards from the edge of the stream, the bank sloping so steeply that the water never reached the base, excepting during a freshet.
It was a chestnut, whose smooth bark rendered it all the more difficult to climb, but Nellie went up it as rapidly as a man ascends telegraph poles with the spikes strapped to his boots.
The bear clawed the bark a little while, as a cat is sometimes seen to do when "stretching" herself, and it was during these few minutes that the girl thought nothing could save her from falling into his clutches.
When he ceased, she peered downward through the branches, and could just see the massy animal near the base of the tree, as if asking himself what was the next best thing to do.
It will be admitted that the situation of Nellie Ribsam was one in which few children of her tender years are ever placed. Happy it is, indeed, that it is so, for what one in a thousand would have retained her self-possession?
In explanation, it may be doubted indeed whether Nellie fully comprehended her peril. Had she been older, her consternation, doubtless, would have been greater, as the emotion she showed some years later, when placed in great danger, would seem to prove.
But there was one fact of which she was firmly convinced: she had complied with her father's instructions, for, as has been shown, she put forth every possible exertion to save herself, and now she called on Heaven to assist her.
Perched in the top of the tree, with the enormous bear sitting beneath and looking hungrily upward, she prayed:
"Heavenly Father, please take care of me and don't let that big bear catch me; don't let papa and mamma feel too bad, and please make the bad bear go away and let me alone."
"GOTT SEI DANK!"
The prayer of little Nellie Ribsam—so far as it related to herself—was answered.
She secured her seat, as best she could, in the branches of the chestnut sapling, and, by arranging her dress and the yielding limbs with considerable skill, she made herself quite comfortable.
The trying situation in which she was placed, it would be thought, was enough to drive away all disposition to sleep, but at the end of less than half an hour the little head was nodding again, and, forgetful of her peril, her senses soon left her.
It will be understood that the danger of the young wanderer was rendered all the greater by this loss of consciousness, for her muscles would relax in slumber, and, unless her position was unusually secure, she was certain to fall.
But that gracious Father in whom she so implicitly trusted watched over the little one, and she remained as though seated in the broad rocking-chair at home.
When at last she moved slightly and was on the point of losing her balance, she awoke so quickly that she saved herself just in the nick of time.
She was shocked and startled, but regaining her breath she held fast with one hand while she parted the branches with the other and carefully peered down among the limbs.
"He is gone!" was her joyous exclamation; "I knew the Lord would make him go away, because I asked him to."
She was right: the bear had vanished, and all danger from that source for the time had passed.
The brute probably found enough to eat without waiting for little girls to fall into his clutches. As he had never been known to trouble any one in the neighborhood, it was reasonable to believe that he got all he wanted without venturing away from the depths of the woods, and rousing an ill-will against himself that would speedily result in his destruction.
Nellie did not feel surprised at all, for, as I have shown, she had the faith to believe that her prayer would be answered.
"Now I will go down to the ground and start for home. I guess the bear isn't far off, but the Lord will not let him hurt me."
She carefully descended the tree and stood on the ground a minute later. She found that her dress was torn and she had lost part of the ribbon from her hat. This troubled her more than anything else, for her frugal mother had told her many a time that she must take the best care of her clothing.
"I was so scared that I forgot to look out," she said to herself, after taking an inventory of the damages; "but I guess mother will excuse me for losing the ribbon, though I know she won't for coming so far into the woods without permission."
She now set out resolutely for the bridge, determined to lose no more time in reaching home. As is the rule, the brief space she had passed in sleep seemed three times as long as was actually the case, and she thought it must be near morning.
She had gone but a short distance when she stopped with another shock of affright.
"My gracious! what can that be?"
A point of light appeared between her and the bridge, flickering about like an ignis-fatuus or jack-o'-lantern. Nellie felt like taking to the tree again, but she bravely stood her ground until she could satisfy her curiosity as to its nature.
Watching it closely she observed shadowy figures flitting around the light in a curious and grotesque way. She was in greater doubt than ever, when she heard voices.
"I think I saw her tracks, but I couldn't be sure; Nellie knows too much to walk or fall into the deep water."
"I hope so, but my heart misgives me sorely. God be merciful, for if she is lost I can never recover!"
The first speaker was Nick Ribsam, and the second was the father, the mother immediately adding:
"Why the poor child came here is more than I can understand, but He doeth all things well."
"Oh, mother! Oh, father! Oh, Nick! It is I, Nellie! I am so glad to see you!"
And the little wanderer flew like the wind along the bank of the creek. The mother was the first to recognize the voice, and rushing forward she caught her child in her arms, murmuring in her own language:
"Mein Kind! Mein Kind! Gott sei Dank!" (My child! My child! God be thanked!)
"Mein lieber Nellie! Komm an mein Herz! Kannst du es sein?" (My dear Nellie! Come to my heart! Can it be you?) exclaimed the overjoyed father.
"O meine abtruennige Schwester! Wie du uns erschreckt hast! Wie es mich freut dich zu finden!" (Oh, my truant sister! What a scare you have given us! How glad I am to find you!) shouted Nick.
And the child that was lost and was found was hugged first by mother, then by father, and then by Nick, and then all strove to get hold of her at the same time, till the brother ceased, through fear that she would be torn apart.
Nellie was laughing and crying, and wondering why it was such commotion was caused by her return to her folks.
Mr. Layton and Kilgore heard the tumult, and knew what it meant. A few minutes brought them to the spot, and, though their greeting was less demonstrative, their eyes filled with tears over the exceeding joy of the reunited family.
When the excitement had subsided somewhat, the group listened to the story of Nellie. She told it in her childish, straightforward manner, and it was all the more impressive on that account.
The listeners were greatly touched; but the probability that a large bear was in the neighborhood hastened their footsteps and they lost no time in hurrying away.
When they reached the highway above, crossed the bridge, and had gone some distance on their way home, they began to feel there was nothing to be feared from the animal. Mr. Layton referred to the tracks of the beast which they had noticed when hunting for Nellie, but said he would never have mentioned it until the fate of the girl became known; for the suggestions which must have followed were too dreadful.
Nothing was seen of the animal, however, and, as the distance from the bridge was increased the party finally gave up all thought and conversation respecting it.
There was a grateful household that night, when, at a late hour, they gathered about the family altar and the head returned thanks to Him who had been so merciful to them and theirs.
The happy mother held the daughter in her arms all night, while they both slept; and when the parent awoke, now and then, through the darkness, she shuddered, pressed the little one closer to her and kissed the chubby cheek, on which her former tears had not yet dried.
But Katrina Ribsam was none the less an affectionate mother when, several days later, she called Nellie to her knee and told her how wrongly she had acted in venturing on such a dangerous tramp without asking permission from her parents.
Nellie said she knew it, and wondered why it was her mother delayed the punishment so long. She was ready, and loved and respected her mother the more for administering it.
But truth compels me to say that the chastisement was given with such a gentle hand that it was hardly worth the name, and the mother herself suffered far more than did the child, who to this day is not conscious that she received anything like physical pain.
Happily there are few little girls in this favored land who are called upon to go through such trials as fell to the lot of little Nellie Ribsam when she was but eight years old.
It created much talk in the neighborhood, and she was complimented on the bravery she had shown, while the glad father became more confirmed than ever in his favorite belief that God helps them that help themselves.
"'Spose dot she didn't try to helps herself some," he said, in talking the matter over with Mr. Marston, "don't you not sees dot she would get eat up doo, dree times by dot bear dot vos bigger as nefer vos?"
"It is a good thing for one, even though he be a child, to be able to do his utmost when overtaken by danger—there can be no question about that; but it would require a great deal of training to bring some children to that point, even when they are double the years of your little girl."
"Dot's becos dere folks don't not begins right; we starts mit Nick and Nellie when dey was so small dot dey didn't know nuffin, which is why it happens dey knows so much now."
Great as was the interest excited by the adventure of Nellie, it was not long before it was thrown in the shade by another fact which was brought to light by that same experience: that was the existence of a large bear in the woods which lay to the east and west of the road leading to Dunbarton.
This forest, as has already been intimated, covered a large tract of country, in which, a few years previous, bears, deer, and wolves had been hunted by many of those dwelling on the outskirts. Large inroads had been made on the woodland, and here and there the cabin of a settler or squatter was found by those who penetrated any distance.