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   Chapter 10 IN THE WILDERNESS

A Little Girl in Old St. Louis By Amanda M. Douglas Characters: 23851

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


The way was tolerably clear for a long distance, though shielded from the view of the Indians by the intervening trees. When the strip of woods failed them for shelter it was growing dusk, and, with the rise of the wind, they could hardly have been distinguished from the waving shrubbery. Valbonais paused and glanced back now and then, but no pursuers were in sight.

"Take it a little more moderately," Valbonais said. "We must not lose sight of the river, or we may go astray. Though we have made a gain by cutting off this point that juts into the stream. Ah, if we only had any kind of a boat!"

"They might see us on the river."

"Hardly at night, and not very clear at that. We must make for that dark line ahead of us, a bit of woods where we can camp for the night."

It was quite dark when they reached it, and with some difficulty he made a light. It was largely scrubby pines and the soil was sandy, dry in spite of the tremendous rain, though evidently there had not been as much here. Valbonais found a dead, dry branch of pine, which he lighted, and began to explore. A short distance in was a pile of stones heaped up four or five feet, evidently some burial spot. He glanced at its capabilities, then began tumbling out the smaller ones that seemed to be largely at one side.

"What are you going to do?" asked Wawataysee.

"Make a sort of cave. Oh, you will see," laughingly.

"But let me help," she cried eagerly.

"No, no! Or, if you wish, will you take my knife and cut some pine boughs, the bushiest ones?"

He had stuck his dry branch in the sand and piled a few others around it. Renée stood by the fire, much interested.

Valbonais tore out the stones until he had a hollow place like a great chair. This he partly filled with the ends of the boughs Wawataysee had gathered.

"This will make a bed for you and the child. You will have to sleep sitting up; but you ought to be able to sleep anywhere."

"Oh, look! look!" cried Renée, clapping her hands. "A golden baby moon down there in the sky! Is it not beautiful?"

The sky was of deepest azure, the stars mostly to the northwest. One was almost at the point of the crescent, as if lighting each other on the way.

"To-morrow or the next night it will be in her arms," said the young fellow.

"A baby star in a cradle," exclaimed Renée. "Oh, is it not wonderful? What is that?" and she suddenly shrank toward her companions.

"Only the cry of some night bird. These clumps of woods are not thick enough to harbor wild animals, thank the saints! Now, ma'm'selle, you sit here and try it."

He had spread a blanket over the pine boughs. She sank gracefully into the seat and leaned back her head with a certain air of luxuriance.

"Oh, it is splendid!" in a grateful tone.

Renée ran to try.

Valbonais stirred out the coals, took a piece of dried fish from his bag and some corn cakes and toasted both. They were hungry enough to eat without any demur-in truth, enjoyed it in the perfect freedom from fear.

"Now," he said, "you must settle yourself for the night. I do not think we shall be molested. The small band will be busy with their chief and repairing damages. Then I found some of them were very superstitious about a woman being in the party."

"But I was held only for the money I would bring Black Feather. Otherwise I would have been looked upon as a useless burden. They dropped off poor Mère Lunde on the way, and yet she could have done them good service. Come, Renée."

"I am not a bit sleepy," returned Renée. "It seems almost like being at home with no fierce Indians about; only if Uncle Gaspard were here, and M'sieu Marchand," she was about to add, but checked herself.

"We must be up betimes to-morrow and on our way," Valbonais said. "It will not do to loiter."

"What will you do meanwhile?" inquired Wawataysee.

"Sit here and tend the fire," he said. "I shall only keep enough to see about in case I have to defend myself from any midnight prowler."

He folded the blankets around the two, who certainly looked comfortable in their rocky bed. He pushed his way through the thicket and ran down a short distance, where he had command of the river. Nothing was going either way. How sweet and tranquil it all was, after the terrors of last night! He could have stayed there hours watching the stars come out brighter and brighter, and the soft wind weaving strange melodies, whispering of hope.

Both girls were asleep when he returned. He sat down outside the enclosure and leaned his shoulders against it. His gun was by his side, his knife in his belt. He should have had a hatchet, too; that useful article no one scarcely travelled without, but in the excitement he had not thought of everything. Once he replenished the fire; then the fuel gave out and he fell asleep.

Nothing molested them. The singing of some birds in the thicket roused him. He hurried to the river; all was tranquil, silent, with no enemy in sight. Then he glanced down the long and arid space, where even grass grew sparsely in the sandy soil that held no moisture. They must start early so as to escape the mid-day heat.

Wawataysee had risen and smoothed her ruffled plumes.

"It is so beautiful!" she said, with heartfelt pleasure. "And, oh, to be free from horrid fears! I slept so tranquilly. Did you have any rest?"

"I forgot everything," and he laughed with a glad sound. "I was not a very good watcher, perhaps, but I think any unusual noise would have startled me."

"You are so good! What would we have done without you?" raising her beautiful, grateful eyes.

He flushed warmly. "We cannot have much variety for breakfast," with a gleam of amusement. "We may fare better to-night."

He lighted the small fire again, collecting the charred embers.

"Is it far to the river-and safe?"

"Not much of a run," he answered. "The shore is shallow. I had a reviving bath."

"Come, Renée," and she held out her hand to the child.

Meanwhile, Valbonais replaced the stones, wondering what hands had brought them there in the first instance, and whether white or Indian lay at rest beneath them. The girls were racing over the sand, bright, fresh and glowing, and they partook of their simple breakfast and started on their journey. The sun was not shining brightly, yet there was no indication of rain. It was as if Nature was indulging in a tranquil mood. Now and then a flock of birds went sailing over their heads, and a squirrel out of place ran nimbly across the sand.

"You have no idea how far it is to St. Louis?" their companion inquired.

"Oh, hundreds of miles!" cried Renée.

"Hardly that," said Wawataysee. "There have been so many delays. When I came from the straits it was with the fleet, and I hardly took note;" flushing as she recalled the delightful journey with her husband. "Yet it seems to me we cannot have gone so very far up."

"Is there any particular point that you can remember? There was the Indian settlement where we met, little thinking then that we should be mates on a return journey. Whether it would be safe to trust them--"

"There was another halt, up a little stream. A settlement of Peoria Indians, who are kindly and who have adopted many habits from the whites, are more intelligent than most other tribes. That is down farther still. It was our first stopping place. They were very generous with provisions."

"That will be one of our troubles. Still there will be small game to shoot and fish to catch."

Although there was considerable travel down the Illinois and some quite well-appointed stations, they were far between. The fur and trading fleets, if the lines of flat boats and canoes could be called that, carried abundant provisions. Roving bands of Indians and parties of adventurous hunters crossing the interior were the only travellers, and they often stopped at the forts.

They went farther out by the river. And suddenly there was a serious surprise. Around a wooded bend came a canoe filled with Indians. Then another and one of stores, and one figure was suspiciously studying the shore. They had hidden among the trees, but were peering out cautiously.

"Oh!" Wawataysee whispered, "it is Elk Horn and his party! See, he is standing up, looking this way! O Mother of God, come to the assistance of thy children!" and, sinking on her knees, she clasped her hands in supplication.

It was Elk Horn. He had sobered up and began to realize that he might have made a better bargain with his prisoners. He had secured some more arms and ammunition, and hoped now to overtake Black Feather. His glance around was not indicative of the slightest certainty. He could not have dreamed that the fugitives in the woods were the very ones he meant to quarrel and perhaps fight about when he met Black Feather.

Wawataysee scarcely breathed until the last canoe was but a dusky line on the river.

"We certainly are safe," Valbonais said. "Of course, they could not suppose we had escaped."

"I was so afraid they were in search of a landing place. Oh, if they had stopped!" in terror.

"Then we would have plunged farther in the woods, climbed trees even. I do not mean to be taken a prisoner again; and surely, it will go hard with me if you are, or hard with the abductor!" with a gleam of resolution.

"I am glad they have gone up the river," declared Wawataysee. "Now there is no fear of meeting them."

"If we could find some traders coming down--"

"And trust them?" There was a troubled light in her eye. "Oh, now that I know there are two people in the world, perhaps three, hungering for revenge on me, I am sore afraid at times. I shall never see a Huron without reading a menace in his eye."

Valbonais glanced at her inquiringly.

"You have heard part of the story. Let me join the tangled threads, and you will the better understand my misgivings."

"Let us go on now. Every hour is precious. And it will delight me to listen to anything that has concerned thee," bowing low to her.

So she told of her home and her affiliations with the French, being related on her mother's side, and how she had always liked them the more, while her brother was proud of his Indian blood and his chieftain father. It was not until she had met and loved Fran?ois Marchand and plighted her troth to him that she was informed of her brother's intentions toward her, and she prayed to him for the liberty of choosing her own husband-admitted, indeed, that she had chosen him and could be the wife of no one else. Then he had sent a messenger to say that her escort was on the way with orders to bring him to her at once, and that preparations were being made for a grand marriage. The trading fleet was ready. She had only to step on board. At the first mission station they had stopped for the priest to marry them.

"So, you see, I could never, never be the wife of any other man. And this chief has two wives. He told my brother that I should be first: but Indian women do not always accept their dismissal so easily."

There was a proud, steadfast light in her eyes, the bloom of courage and constancy on her soft cheek. How beautiful she was!

"And M. Marchand--" in a low tone, half inquiry.

"Whether he is dead or alive I do not know. But I am his in death as well as life," with a firmness that bespoke the utmost devotion.

No, she would never let another wrest from her the holy bond she had given him with her sweet maidenhood love.

Night was coming on apace again. There was no cairn of stones to be transformed into a sleeping chamber. Renée was very tired and a little pettish.

"Is there nothing for supper but these dried, hard cakes and the fish?" she asked discontentedly.

"And not even that for breakfast," Valbonais said lightly. "I must get up early and shoot some game. There is no corn matured yet, so if we came to growing fields th

e juicy ears would not be there. But I think I can find something," hopefully.

This night they had to have a forest bed, but he found a place soft with a kind of dried turf, and spread out one blanket for pallet and left one to cover them with. Then he kindled a fire at some distance, for he had heard the cry of an animal. Farther off, then nearer, a stealthy creeping along. He reached for his gun and glanced cautiously around. Presently he caught the glare of two sparks of flame coming nearer, crouching down, and he fired.

"Oh, what is it?" Wawataysee sprang up in affright.

"Some animal. I think he is dead, however." He lighted a torch and went nearer, touched the creature with his foot. The shot had hit him squarely, shattering his head.

"Only a poor fox. Nothing for our breakfast;" yet he gave a cheerful laugh.

"Oh, I am glad it was nothing worse."

"Do not dream of trouble. The good God will watch over us."

She pressed his hand. She was glad to be near a lightsome, courageous human being.

Presently she stole back to her bed. Nothing else came to startle them. When she woke again the sun was shining. Valbonais had kindled a fire, shot and dressed some birds and was broiling them before the coals.

"Was it a dream," she asked, "or did you really shoot in the night?"

"Yes; and I have taken a part of the fox's coat. It may be useful for moccasin soles before we are through."

"Poor thing!" she said pityingly.

The breakfast was delightful, after the two days of dried fish. Then Renée found a patch of wild strawberries that the birds had not discovered. They were dead ripe and luscious. Now they went on with cheerful hearts, keeping the river in sight, but meeting nothing more alarming than a herd of roaming deer. It was useless to fire at them; birds would be more to the purpose. Toward night they struck a rude cabin, made by hunters, as it did not look like Indian workmanship. There had been a fire, but since that time it had rained. Inside was a table and a bed of dried hemlock branches.

"I think we had better stay," Valbonais announced. "It is a hunter's cabin, evidently, and no one has been here for some time. There is a little stream of excellent water. We will trust luck, at all events."

They had some supper and were glad of shelter, for it came on to rain, but no such terrific storm as that which had worked such havoc with Black Feather and his party. The soft patter on the leaves was delightful music, though for awhile the rustle of the wind seemed almost like the advance of human beings.

It was well they were under shelter, for it rained all the next day. No one came to molest them. Valbonais caught such an excellent supply of fish that he cooked some for the following day. If there was only any ripe fruit!

"It was late in May when we left St. Louis," Wawataysee said.

"And now it is June. What day I do not know."

"Let us count back."

But their reckoning was not alike. They forgot, and then recalled incidents that had marked days, then lost count again. Renée was wretchedly tired.

"Poor little thing!" exclaimed Wawataysee. "She has been very good and courageous, but it is hard for her. And look at her poor little moccasins-out to the ground."

"Then Mr. Foxskin will serve us a useful purpose. I have nothing to fasten them on with, but can tie them with strips of his skin to-morrow. And yours?"

She flushed. Hers were in the same plight.

"But I can stand hardships better," and she smiled cheerfully.

Renée slept all the afternoon and woke much refreshed. It had stopped raining, and now they were full of plans for to-morrow. The moon came out-the baby star had travelled nearly across it.

"I am glad it is a new moon. We shall have some benefit of it the rest of our journey," their guide said.

"Oh, when shall we get home?" cried Renée impatiently. "Do you suppose there have been any more Indian assaults?"

"You have been remarkably favored at St. Louis. To the east, towns have been burned, people taken captive by scores or murdered. And up north it seems to have been a regular battlefield, with the French losers every time. Think of the English holding our splendid Quebec and Montreal!"

"I have been in Quebec, monsieur," declared Renée, with amusing dignity.

"And France, too," added Wawataysee.

Then Renée found herself quite a heroine in the eyes of Valbonais, and was delighted to recall her experiences.

They left the cabin and journeyed on; slept in the woods that night and the next. There had been several feasts of berries; they saw some green plums and green wild grapes, but neither were tempting. Now, some way, it seemed as if they had lost their reckoning. The river certainly was to the west of them.

"And we must go southward." said Wawataysee.

Their good fortune had failed them to-day. They had found nothing. They were tired and hungry. And if they were lost!--

They turned into an opening. Here ran a clear creek, at which they quenched their thirst.

"Let us follow it some distance at least. It must go to the river. It has quite a current."

It suddenly widened out and grew larger as they went on. They glanced at each other in dismay.

"If it goes to the river, how can we cross so wide a stream? Could either of us swim with the child? I think it would be better to go back and cross where it is narrower."

So they retraced their steps and found that it was fed by a rivulet on the other side, almost hidden by the grass. Valbonais paused a moment to enjoy the picture. Everywhere the most serene quiet. Songs of birds, the call of some animal, the rustle of a deer and the brown, startled eyes gazing at one. The green of the foliage with its light and varying shades, the long stretches of wild grass dotted with various-colored flowers, and here and there a silvery streak of sand like a silver ribbon.

On and on, the creek growing narrower. The man's eyes caught sight of a young fallen tree.

"I think I can bridge it over. Let me try this," and he dragged the tree to the edge, stood it up, letting it fall with some force. It just touched the opposite shore.

"Now if I could find another. Why did I not capture a hatchet in my raid on the Indians!"

"The water is clear and deep," said Wawataysee; "too deep for one to wade."

"I could cross it with the child. Still I will see if there is not another dead tree."

This time it was a larger one. It took their united strength to raise it, but it went straight across, making quite a promising bridge.

"Would you dare?" He glanced at the Indian girl with an assurance of her courage.

"Would I dare?" She laughed melodiously. Then she looked steadily at it a moment, started like an arrow from a bow and in a flash was across.

"Oh, how beautiful! Can I try?" Renée clapped her hands, and her face was brimming with delighted eagerness.

"Wait a moment." Valbonais picked up the blanket and strapped his gun to his back, convoying them over safely and depositing them on the ground. "I wonder if we dare trust the child?"

"Oh, I think so. It is such a step," Wawataysee answered.

He went back to her. "You will not be afraid, little one? You can run swiftly, and if you can keep a steady head--"

"Yes, yes!" Wawataysee stood with outstretched arms and smiled. Renée started with a child's audacity. The round logs, instead of the flat surface, confused her and she hesitated, lost her balance and went down with a cry. Valbonais sprang into the creek, but missed his first grasp of her. The next brought her safely up and Wawataysee took her, frightened and half strangled. Valbonais shook himself and laughed.

"I would rather the clothes had not taken a bath. And she is wet, but not injured."

"It slipped and rolled," the child began, "and then I couldn't keep on. Oh, dear! I am all dripping."

"Roll her in a blanket. I am sorry it is so near dark and we cannot tell quite which way to go."

"We must keep on toward the Illinois," said Wawataysee. "Oh, and now I think we came up a creek to the Peorias' lodge. What if this should be the stream? Then we are nearer home than I thought."

Her eyes shone like stars, her voice was freighted with joy, for her thought was an inspiration.

"I do not see how we could have gone out of the way," he returned, knitting his brows.

"The river winds. We may have shortened our journey a little by it. And if we could find the lodge! Oh, I can't help feeling that we are all right!"

She was wringing Renée's garments and rubbing her with a blanket. Valbonais pressed the water out of his, and tried to catch the inspiration.

"Now we must go on. Renée, you must keep the blanket about you," the elder said.

"But it is so warm. I am most smothered."

"It will be cooler presently," in a consoling tone.

"And I am so hungry!" she said, half crying.

They had eaten nothing since morning.

"We are all hungry. And if we can find those kindly Indians they will give us a feast."

"I hope she is right." Valbonais thought.

They walked briskly onward for a while. The moon came up and shed its silver radiance, setting the little stream with gems and showering the trees with her effulgent flood. But to-night they could not enjoy it-could hardly keep hope alive.

"I am so tired!" Renée began to cry in earnest and stopped short. The reaction had come and she shivered with a chill. Her slight frame was in a collapse.

"I will carry her," said Valbonais. "We shall get along faster."

Wawataysee took the other blanket and the gun. The summer night was growing chilly here at the edge of the creek. They waded through the other stream. Renée's head drooped on the man's shoulder. She had forgotten her troubles in sleep. But presently he had to pause with his burden.

"Let us sit here and rest awhile. And if you could sleep an hour it would refresh you so much."

Wawataysee leaned against a great tree bole that was like a column. The relaxation was grateful. What with fatigue and hunger, nature was overpowered and they all slept. When Wawataysee awoke the darkness startled her. The moon had gone down. She stretched out her hand in half terror.

"You have had a nice sleep," began Valbonais cheerfully. "I, too, caught a nap. It must be near morning. Do you feel that you can go on?"

"Oh, yes! And the child? How strong and courageous you are!"

He stood Renée down and she roused. "Oh, where are we?" she cried in affright.

"Here, dear." Wawataysee took her hand. "We are going to the Indian lodge, where we shall get some breakfast. Can you walk?"

"Why, yes. But I am tired. Will we soon be there? And, oh, I wish it was not so dark!"

Still, she went on without further complaint. Darker and darker it seemed. She gave her other hand to Valbonais. They both felt she lagged a little.

Suddenly a rosy light shot up in the east, and out of it great spires of crimson and gold that set the heavens aflame. The stars hung low in the northwest, and one by one dropped out of sight. Countless birds filled the air with melody, and every tree and shrub shook out its fragrance.

"Courage!" Wawataysee said, but her voice was tremulous with her twenty-four hours' fast. And the walk seemed interminable. Her feet were shodden with lead.

Oh, what was this? Fields of young corn, shedding its peculiar fragrance as the dew was vanishing in the drier air of morning. In the distance hooded wigwams, a palisade to the north for shelter, blue-gray curling wreaths going up from newly kindled fires. The barking of dogs and the curious, pervasive sense of human life.

It seemed as if an army of dogs rushed out. An authoritative voice checked them, and an Indian came forward to learn the cause of the alarm. Wawataysee sank down on a stone and the world seemed whirling round, while Renée, crying, fell into her lap.

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