Read CHAPTER XII - ESCAPE of The Ranger / The Fugitives of the Border, free online book, by Edward S. Ellis, on ReadCentral.com.

The hunter in the course of the day had gained a full knowledge of the intentions of the Indians in regard to their captives.  Leland was to suffer death at the stake at an early period, while the negro was to be reserved until some indefinite time in the future, to be tortured.

The hunter had completely succeeded in disarming his enemies of every suspicion.  He had employed himself, as we have seen, in throwing his tomahawk at Leland; and learning through a casual remark that he was to be put to the torture, he expressed his opinion strongly in favor of it, urging them at the same time to do it as soon as possible.  He made himself perfectly at home, and was so free among them, that a stranger would have considered him one of the leading characters.

So perfectly had Kent dissembled, that at night, unexpectedly to himself, he was chosen as one to watch Leland.  The negro was firmly fastened to a tree and left to himself, while George was to sleep between two savages.

At supper-time Kent brought him a good-sized piece of well-cooked meat, and gave him to understand that he was to eat it at all events.  Leland took it without daring to meet his benefactor’s eye, and ate all that was possible.  The negro received his meal from the same hand without the remotest suspicion that a friend was so near him, and even went so far as to insult him as much as was in his power, for not bringing him a larger quantity of food.  To carry out still further the appearance of things, Kent tore a small tuft from the negro’s head, as if to revenge himself.

“Blast you,” he shouted, “if I doesn’t flog you till you can’t stand.  Just hold out your paw a minute.”

Zeb used his utmost powers of persuasion to induce Kent to reach his hand toward him, hoping to revenge himself as he had upon a former occasion; but the hunter was too shrewd for him, and with a threatening gesture, left him to himself, and joined his companions.

“Gorra!” said Zeb to Leland, “if I doesn’t believe dat dat’s de nigger I sawed up in de barn toder day.”

“You mean cut up?”

“All de same; leastways ef ’tis him, he’s cotched his pay afore he come sneakin’ about here.”

Now that Leland knew assistance was at hand, he experienced a desire to converse with the negro, and thus help to pass away time, which had grown intolerably monotonous.  Turning to the old slave, he resumed: 

“He is a savage-looking individual.”

This was said in order to quell any suspicion or doubt that might have entered his head.

“Dat he is; but he’d better keep away from me, if he doesn’t want his picter sp’iled,” returned the negro.

“What were you abusing him for, a few minutes ago, when he brought your food?”

“Well, you see, he’s afraid I’s agwine to hurt him, and begun to beg off.  It makes me so mad to see any feller afraid dat I let out on him, and he took himself off in a mighty big hurry.”

“Have you lost much of your wool?”

“Two or free hands full; dat’s all.  ’Bout all growed in ag’in; but I ca’culate dat de next dat gits his hand in my head’ll get it in a steel-trap.  If I gits my grinder on ’im he’ll see,” said Zeb, with a meaning shake of his head.

“I guess that they will not trouble you further for the present,” added Leland, with that air of assurance which one feels for the safety of another when his own case is free from danger.

“Don’t know ’bout dat, but I’d like to have ’em try.”

“Well, your wish is about to be gratified,” said Leland, as he noticed a savage approaching him.

“Gorra, don’t come here!” said Zeb, staring at him.  The savage did not heed his warning, however, but continued to advance, and made a motion as if to strike him.  The black man closed his eyes, bent his head toward him and drew his face in all manner of furious contortions.  The savage, however, left him without provoking him further.

Leland was allowed to remain in his position until the savages stretched themselves out to rest.  They remained up later than usual, smoking and recounting their deeds and boasting of the exploits they intended to accomplish.  Kent narrated some marvelous stories, which greatly excited their wonder and admiration of him.

The time thus occupied seemed interminable to Leland, who was in a fever of excitement and anxiety; but at last Kent stretched himself beside him, while the other watch did the same upon the opposite side.

Still it would probably be hours before anything could be done, and Leland was compelled to suffer the most intense and anxious impatience for a long time.  His thoughts prevented him from feeling the least desire to sleep, and he could only worry and writhe in his helpless position.

Kent, in arranging a place for himself beside him, bent his head to his ear and breathed: 

“Pretend to sleep.”

Although this was said in less than a whisper, Leland heard the words distinctly and prepared to follow the warning.  To prevent the slightest suspicion, he continued to groan and move for some minutes; but he gradually ceased, and after a while settled down into a state of rest.  Soon his heavy, regular breathing would have led any one into the belief that a heavy sleep was upon him.  Not the slightest voluntary motion was made, and Kent remarked to his brother sentinel that their captive must be unconscious of the doom that awaited him.

A cord was fastened to Leland’s wrist and then to Kent’s arm, so that the slightest movement upon the part of the former would disturb and awake the latter should he fall asleep.  The other watch, noticing this, failed to adopt the same precaution.

For a few more minutes the savage held a conversation with Kent; but in the course of a half-hour the answers of the latter began to grow brief and indistinct, and finally ceased altogether; then he began to breathe more slowly and heavily, and the savage at last believed that both guard and prisoner were sound asleep.

When lying upon the earth at night, with no one with whom a conversation can be held, and with nothing but the will to combat the approach of sleep, the person is almost sure to succumb sooner or later.  At any rate, such was the case with the savage in question, and scarce an hour had elapsed since he had ceased speaking when he was as unconscious of the state of things around as though he had never been born.

Now was the time to commence operations; the critical moment had arrived, and Kent commenced the work upon which probably more than one life depended.

First he withdrew his knife from his belt, and severed the cord that bound him to Leland.  Then as cautiously, silently and quickly, cut the thong that held his feet.  This was the first intimation Leland had that his friend was at work.

Leland’s hands, as we have said, were bound behind; consequently it was necessary that he should turn upon his side in order that Kent might reach them.  He knew this and made the movement; but his excitement and agitation were so great that he turned too far, and in recovering himself, awoke the savage.  His presence of mind and Kent’s cunning saved him.  He groaned deeply and muttered to himself, while the hunter started up as though he had just awoke, and gazed wonderingly at him.

“I wish he’d keep still,” said he, in the Indian tongue, lying down again.  This satisfied the other, who fell back and closed his eyes.

For an hour neither stirred.  At the end of that time, Kent raised his head and gazed cautiously around upon the circle of sleeping savages.  Zeb was at a short distance, resting as calmly as an infant upon its mother’s breast.  The one beside Leland had again passed off to the land of dreams; yet an Indian never sleeps soundly, and the slightest mishap upon the part of those who were awake and expecting to move, might arouse the whole body and bring certain and instant death upon them.  It would not do to awaken the sleeping sentinel again.  Life now hung upon a thread.

Kent reached beneath Leland and cut the cord.  He was now free and at liberty to move.

“Be careful!” whispered the hunter, as he assisted him to his feet.  Leland could not suppress his agitation, yet he used all the caution in his power.  But cautious as they both were, the savage nearest them awoke.  Kent had his eye upon him, and the instant he stirred, sprung like a panther toward him.  One hand clutched his mouth, his knee pressed heavily upon his breast, and whipping out his knife, he forced it to the hilt in his body.  Nothing but the dull, fleshy sound, as it sunk into the seat of life, was heard.  The bloody stream silently followed its withdrawal, there were several spasmodic struggles, and the savage straightened out in death.

Kent arose from the body and motioned to Leland to follow him.  Not another being was awake, and tremblingly he followed over their prostrate, sleeping forms.  They were just passing into the thick surrounding darkness, when the negro, through some means, awoke.

“Gorra,” he shouted, “isn’t you gwine to help dis pusson too?”

“Cuss that nigger,” muttered the hunter.  “Keep close to me and use your pegs, fur a long run’s before us.”

Both darted away together, as the wild yells told them that their escape was discovered.  Those horrid, unearthly whoops, of which no idea can be had unless they be heard, set Leland’s blood on fire.  In a moment the whole forest seemed swarming with their enemies, and the yells of many were fearfully near.  Kent could distance any of them when alone, yet the presence of Leland retarded him somewhat.  However, by taking the latter’s hand, they both passed over the ground with great swiftness, and neither had much fear of being overtaken.

On, on plunged the pursued, until many a mile had been passed; still they halted not.  The voices and answering shouts of the savages could be heard upon every side, and they had yet by no means reached a place of safety.  Now some limb brushed in Leland’s face, or he stumbled over some fallen tree, and then, without a murmur, arose and pursued his way.  On, on they hurried, until the dispersing darkness told them that the day was not far distant.

“I can travel no further,” said Leland, sinking to the earth.

“Give out?” queried Kent.

“I believe I have.  This is a terrible chase; but the prospect of a recapture and death cannot goad me further, until I have rested.”

“Wal, no mistake we have tramped some; but Lord save you, this is just fun for me.”

“Do you not think that they will abandon pursuit?”

“No danger of that.  As soon as ’tis light they’ll pounce upon our trail, and foller it until it’s lost or we are cotched.”

“Which must not be.”

“Wal, p’raps if they get their claws on you you wouldn’t feel very comfortable.”

But they had passed through the most trying ordeals, and had now only to make their way as best they could.  Kent had some idea of the nature of the ground, and they progressed with greater ease and rapidity, after a short rest.

“Here we are,” said the hunter, coming to a halt.  Leland gazed ahead, and saw a broad sheet of water which he knew must be the Ohio.

“And now,” added Kent, “we’ve got to hunt up Leslie.  He can’t be far off, and I’m in hopes we’ll stumble upon him afore day.  Just squat and make yourself miserable while I take a run up and down the bank.”

Leland obeyed him, and in a moment was left alone, shivering in the chilly night-air, and feeling miserable indeed in his lonely situation.  But he was not disposed to murmur; he had escaped death ­that was enough.

In the course of an hour Kent returned with the information that he had found the boat about half a mile up, but that Leslie was not in it.  Both started, and, after stumbling over bushes loaded with water, and sinking into the miry shore, and wading in the river by turns, they came upon it, pulled high up on the bank.  It was becoming lighter every moment, and as Kent knew that as soon as possible their trail would be followed, he was unwilling to brook the slightest delay.

“As soon as one is out the scrape another gets in.  Here you have got clear, and now he must go and make a fool of himself.  If he’s got taken, that’s the meanest trick yet.”

“Perhaps he is not far off,” said Leland, stepping in the boat and searching it.  “He is not here, certainly,” he added, after looking over it.

“I’ll wait a while, and then we must look out for ourselves.  No use of losing our own hair in tryin’ to help him,” rejoined Kent.

Both took the boat, and turning it over so as to free it from water, shoved it out from the beach.

“Halloa, Leslie!  If you’re about just say so, and if you ain’t let us know,” shouted Kent, in a loud voice.

A silence of a few moments followed, when he repeated the call.  To the surprise of both it was answered.

“That you, Kent?” came a voice as if its owner had just waked.

“Wal, I rather guess so; and it’s my private opinion that you’d better tumble yourself in here in short order,” returned Kent.

A dark form arose to all appearance from the ground, and pitching awkwardly forward, exclaimed: 

“You don’t suppose a fellow would be in the boat through all that rain, do you?  Oh! is Leland there?” he asked, pausing and collecting his senses.

“No!  Poor fellow’s scalped and burned at the stake.  Had to kill nine of them to save my own hair.”

Leslie made no reply, but stepped silently into the boat.  Making his way toward the stern, he encountered the very person of whom he had been speaking.

“Hey! who is this?” he exclaimed, starting back.

“A dead red-skin that I cotched,” answered Kent.

“Leland, sure as I live!” said Leslie, joyously catching his hand.

For a few moments they heeded not the mirth of Kent at his joke, in their mutual congratulations.  Then they turned and heard him say: 

“What a couple of fools.”

They appreciated his rough kindness too well to make any reply.  The boat was out in the river, and under the long, powerful impulses that the hunter gave it, was moving rapidly downward.