Read CHAPTER II - THE NIGHTR OF TERROR of The Ranger / The Fugitives of the Border, free online book, by Edward S. Ellis, on ReadCentral.com.

Few words were interchanged during the evening.  George and Rosalind had enough to occupy their minds, and Zeb, finding them taciturn, relapsed into a sullen silence.

At an early hour each retired.  Rosalind now felt more than George that unaccountable presentiment which sometimes comes over one in cases of danger.  During the last few hours it had increased until it nearly resolved itself into a certainty.

The view from the front of the house was clear and unobstructed to the river, a quarter of a mile distant.  Along this lay the cultivated clearing, while the forest, stretching miles away, approached to within a few yards of the rear of the house.

Rosalind’s room overlooked this wilderness.  Instead of retiring, she seated herself by the window to gaze out upon it.  There was a faint moon, and the tree-tops for a considerable distance could be seen swaying in the gentle night-wind.  The silence was so profound that it seemed to make itself felt and, in that vast solitude, few indeed could remain without being impressed with the solemn grandeur of nature around.

Hour after hour wore away; still Rosalind remained at the window.  As there was no inclination to sleep, she determined to remain in her position until morning.  She knew that it must be far beyond midnight, and at the thought there sprung up a faint hope within her breast.  But she was startled by the dismal hoot of an owl.  She sprang up, with a beating heart, listening intently and painfully; but no other sound was heard.  Trying to smile at her trepidation, she again seated herself and listened; in a moment that cry was repeated, now in an opposite direction from which the first note was heard.

Rosalind wondered that the simple circumstance should so affect her; but try as much as she might, she could not shake it off.  Again, for a few minutes, she remained trembling with an undefinable fear, when there came another hoot, followed instantly by another, in an opposite direction.  She began now to entertain a fearful suspicion.

Her first impulse was to awaken her brother, but, after a moment’s thought, she concluded to wait a short time.  A few more sounds were heard, when they entirely ceased.  During this time, Rosalind, although suffering an intense fear, had been gazing vacantly toward the point or clearing nearest the house.  As her eyes rested upon the spot, she caught the shadowy outlines of a dark body moving stealthily and noiselessly along upon the ground.

Without waiting a moment, she darted to George’s room.  He had not slept, and in an instant was by her side.

“Call Zeb,” she exclaimed.  “We are surrounded by Indians.”

Leland disappeared, and in a moment came back with the negro.

“Gorra mighty!” said the latter, in a hurried, husky whisper, “where am de cussed niggers?  Heigh, Miss Rosa?”

“Keep quiet,” she replied, “or you will be heard.”

“Dat’s just what I wants to be, and I calkilates I’ll be felt too, if dar are any of ’em ’bout.”

“Stay here a moment,” said George, “while I look out.  Rosalind, what did you see?”

“A body approaching the house from the woods.  Be careful and do not expose yourself, George.”

He made no answer and entered her room, followed by herself and the negro, who remained at a safe distance, while he cautiously approached the window.  He had no more than reached it, when Zeb asked: 

“See noffin’?”

This question was repeated perhaps a dozen times without an answer, when the patience of Zeb becoming exhausted, he shuffled to the window and pressed his head forward, exclaiming: 

“Gorra mighty, whar am dey?”

“Hist! there is one now ­yes, two of them!”

“Whar ­whar?”

“Keep your mouth shut,” interrupted the young man, his vexation causing him to speak louder than he intended.

“Heigh! dat’s him!  Look out!”

And before young Leland suspected his intentions or could prevent it, Zeb had taken aim and fired.  This was so sudden and unexpected that, for a moment, nothing was heard but the dull echo, rolling off over the forest and up the river.  Then arose a piercing, agonized yell, that told how effectual was the shot of the negro.  Rosalind’s face blanched with terror as she heard the fearful chorus of enraged voices, and thought of the fearful scene that must follow.

“Are the doors secured?” she asked, laying her hand upon George’s shoulder.

“Yes, I barricaded them all,” he answered.  “If they do not fire the building, we may be able to keep them off until morning.  I don’t know but what Zeb’s shot was the best, after all ­God save us!”

This last exclamation was caused by a bullet whizzing past, within an inch of his face.  For a while Leland was uncertain of the proper course to pursue.  Should he expose his person at the window, he was almost certain to be struck; yet this or some other one equally exposed, was the only place where he could exchange shots, and the savages must be kept in check.

Zeb had reloaded his gun, and peering around the edge of the window, caught a glimpse of an Indian.  As reckless of danger as usual, he raised his rifle and discharged it.  He was a good marksman, and the shot was as effective as the other.

“Gorra mighty!” he exclaimed, “I can dodge dar lead.  Didn’t I pick dat darkey off awful nice?  Just wait till I load ag’n.”  Chuckling over his achievements, he proceeded to prime his rifle.  George Leland withdrew to the window of another room, from which he succeeded in slaying a savage, and by being careful and cautious, he was able to make his few shots tell with effect.

When Zeb shot the first savage, the red-skins sprung to their feet and commenced yelling and leaping, feeling that those within were already at their mercy; but the succeeding shots convinced them of their mistake, and retreating to cover, they were more careful in exposing themselves.  Several stole around to the front of the house, but George had anticipated them, and there being no means of concealing their appearance, they were easily kept at a distance.  Rosalind followed and assisted him as far as lay in her power, while Zeb was left alone in his delight and glory.

“Be careful,” said Leland; “don’t come too near.  Just have the powder and wadding ready and hand it to me when I need it.”

“I will,” she replied, in a calm, unexcited voice, as she reached him his rod.

“Just see what Zeb is at, while I watch my chance.”

She disappeared, and in a moment returned.

“He seems frantic with delight, and is yet unharmed.”

“God preserve him,” said George, “for his assistance is needed.”

“Be careful,” said Rosalind, as George approached the window.

“I shall ­whew! that’s a close rub!” he muttered, as a bullet pierced his cap.  “There, you’re past harm,” he added, as he discharged his gun.

Thus the contest was kept up for over an hour.  But few shots were interchanged on either side, each party becoming more careful in their action.  Young Leland remained at his window, and kept a close watch upon his field; but no human being was seen.  Zeb laughed, ducked his head, and made numerous threats toward his enemies, but seemed to attract no notice from them.

Now and then Rosalind spoke a word to her brother, but the suspense which the silence of their enemies had put them in, sealed their lips, and, for a long while, the silence was unbroken by either.  They were startled at length by the report of Zeb’s rifle, and the next minute he appeared among them, exclaiming: 

“Gorra mighty!  I shot out my ramrod.  I seen a good chance, and blazed away ’fore I thought to take it out.  It went through six of ’em, and stuck into a tree and hung ’em fast.  Heigh! it’s fun to see ’em.”

“Here, take mine, and for God’s sake, cease your jesting!” said Leland, handing his rod to him.

“Wish I could string some more up,” added Zeb, as he rammed home his charge.  “Yer oughter seen it, Miss Rosa.  It went right frough de fust feller’s eye, and den frough de oder one’s foot, den frough de oder’s gizzard, and half way frough de tree.  Gorra, how dey wriggled!  Looked just like a lot of mackerel hung up to dry.  Heigh!”

At this point Leland discharged his gun, and said, without changing his position: 

“They are trying to approach the house.  Go, Zeb, and attend to your side.  Be very sharp!”

“Yes, I’s dar, stringing ’em up,” he rejoined, as he turned away.

“Hark!” exclaimed Rosalind, when he had gone.  “What noise is that?”

Leland listened awhile, and his heart died within him as he answered: 

“Merciful Heaven! the house is on fire!  All hope is now gone!”

“Shall we give ourselves up?” hurriedly asked Rosalind.

“No; come with me.”

“Hurry up, massa, dey’s gwine to roast us.  De grease begins to siss in my face a’ready,” said Zeb, as he joined them.

The fugitives retreated to the lower story, and Leland led the way to a door which opened upon the kitchen, at the end of the house.  His hope was that from this they might have a chance of escaping to the wood, but a short distance off, ere they were discovered.

Cautiously opening the door, he saw with anxious, hopeful joy, that no Indians were visible.

“Now, Rosalind,” he whispered, “be quick.  Make for the nearest trees, and if you succeed in reaching them, pass to the river-bank and wait for me.  Move softly and rapidly.”

Rosalind stepped quickly out.  The yells of the infuriated savages deafened her; but, although fearfully near, she saw none, and started rapidly forward.  Leland watched each step with an agony of fear and anxiety which cannot be described.  The trees were within twenty yards, and half the distance was passed, when Leland knew that her flight was discovered.  A number of savages darted forward, but a shot from him stopped the course of the foremost.  Taking advantage of the confusion which this had occasioned, Rosalind sprung away and succeeded in reaching the cover; but here, upon the very threshold of escape, she was reached and captured.

“Gorra mighty!” shouted Zeb, as he saw her seized and borne away.  “Ef I don’t cowhide ebery nigger of ’em for dat trick.”

And clenching his hands he stalked boldly forward and demanded: 

“Whar’s dat lady?  Ef you doesn’t want to git into trouble, I calkilate you’d better bring her back in double-quick time.”

Several savages sprung toward him, and Zeb prepared himself for the struggle.  His huge fist felled the first and the second; but ere he could do further damage he found himself thrown down and bound.

“Well, dar, if dat ain’t de meanest trick yet, servin’ a decent prisoner dis way.  I’ll cowhide ebery one ob you.  Oh, dear, I wish I had de whip!” he muttered, writhing and rolling in helpless rage upon the ground.

Leland had seen this occurrence and taken advantage of it.  It had served to divert the action of the savages, and the attention of all being occupied with their two prisoners, he managed with considerable difficulty to reach the wood without being discovered.

Here, at a safe distance, he watched the progress of things.  The building was now one mass of flame, which lit up the sky with a lurid, unearthly glare.  The border of the forest was visible and the trunks and limbs of the trees appeared as if scorched and reddened by the consuming heat.  The savages resembled demons dancing and yelling around the ruin which they had caused.  It was with difficulty that Leland restrained himself from firing upon them.  With a sad heart he saw the house which had sheltered him from infancy fall inward with a crash.  The splinters and ashes of fire were hurled in the air and fell at his feet, and the thick volume of smoke reached him.

Yet he thought more of the captives which were in the hands of their merciless enemies.  Their safety demanded his attention.  Thoughtfully and despondingly he turned upon his heel and disappeared in the shadows of the great forest.