Read CHAPTER VI - A HUNTER’S WOOING. of The Riflemen of the Miami , free online book, by Edward S. Ellis, on ReadCentral.com.

And we knew
That this rare sternness had its softness too,
That woman’s charm and grace upon his being wrought;
That underneath the armor of his breast
Were springs of tenderness, all quick to flow
In sympathy with childhood’s joy or woe;
That children climbed his knees, and made his arms their rest.

LONDON CHARIVARI.

It was with a heart beating with more than one excessive emotion, that Lewis Dernor, the Rifleman, plunged into the forest with Edith Sudbury.  None knew better than he the perils that threatened them in those dim labyrinths, and none was better prepared to encounter them.  Were they twice as many, he would rather have braved them than allowed Edith and Sego to meet before he had declared his love to her.

In taking this step, the Rifleman had more than one twinge of conscience, for he could but consider it of questionable propriety in acting his part.  Beyond a doubt, Sego and Edith were accepted lovers, who had been separated for months, and it seemed cruel, to say the least, thus to take advantage of their separation.  The more he reflected upon it, the more guilty did he feel, until he formed the resolution to acquaint his fair charge with the presence of her lover with the settlers, and then leave her own heart to decide the matter.

The instant this resolve was formed, the honest-hearted hunter felt better.  What though the judgment should be against him, he had done his duty, and this very fact gave him a pleasure which nothing else could destroy.  His great, all-absorbing love for Edith had led him to use the artifice mentioned, in order to defer the interview between her and Sego; but, great as was this master-passion, it could lead him no further in deception than it had already done.  More than once he half determined to turn and make his way back to the settlement, and was only prevented by a dread of the speculation and remarks that such a proceeding would occasion upon their part.

It must not be supposed that Lewis doubted his ability to reach the settlement in safety, with Edith.  Had he known what danger he was doomed to encounter, he would have retraced his steps instantly, although he had commenced them with such a strong determination to keep her and Sego separate for a time.

For an hour or so the journey progressed in silence upon the part of the hunter and his charge.  While, as might be expected, his passion often led his gaze from the path he was pursuing, still it made him doubly alive to the responsibilities resting upon him, and increased his vigilance and watchfulness to a degree that would have appeared absurd to an ordinary observer.  Most of the time, he kept a step or two in advance of Edith, trailing his rifle in his left hand, while his form was half bent, and his head projected forward, giving him the attitude of constant and intense attention.  His eyes were flitting constantly from tree-top to ground, from side to side, ahead and behind him, kindling with admiration and fire as they rested upon the form of his companion.  The latter was enveloped in a large shawl, a portion of which covered her head, while her arms gathered the rest around her person.  Her face was inclined, so that she was not sensible of the many ardent glances to which she was subjected.  She stepped lightly forward, her beautifully moccasined feet hardly disturbing the leaves, among which they twinkled like some forest-flower.

Lewis had proposed to himself, when starting, to take the nearest route to the settlement; but his apprehension for the safety of Edith led him to change his intention after going a few miles.  The Indians which he had assisted so signally to repulse, he believed would hover around the settlers so long as there remained an opportunity to pick off any of them.  They would not fail, too, to scour the woods in search of smaller parties, and knowing the destination of the emigrants, would select the very ground over which they too were journeying.  The Rifleman took the best course to avoid them.  Retracing his steps some distance, he turned off toward the creek, he having concluded to ascend this for several miles, and then take a circuitous route to the settlement, convinced that, in this case, the longest way was the surest.

“Why this change of direction?” asked Edith, looking up in alarm, as he turned and commenced retracing his steps.

“I think it best,” he replied, with a smile.

“Have you discovered danger?  Are we pursued?”

“Not that I know of.  But I have been thinking for some time that if there are any Injins in this wood, this is the very ground they will select to cut us off, because they know that it is the one which we would naturally take, in making such a journey as this.”

I have full faith in you.

And the gallant Rifleman felt he would die before any act of his should cause her to lose this faith in him.  As she turned her trusting blue eyes up to his, their heavenly light seemed to fill his whole being, and he scarcely was conscious of what he did when he reached out his hand, and said: 

“Edith, let me take your hand.”

“Why, what need is there of that?” she coyly asked, with a roguish look, as she half complied and half hesitated.

“I shall feel safer-that is, I shall feel more certain of your safety if I lead you.”

“Oh! well, you may lead me then,” and she slid her almost fairy hand into his hard, horny palm, with a charming simplicity, which made the hunter’s heart leap with a painful pleasure.  That little, white member, as the Rifleman grasped it, was like the poles of a battery.  It sent a shock through every part of his system, and gave his arm precisely the same tremor that takes place when a person is charged through this limb with electricity.  If Edith had only returned the pressure, Lewis Dernor most assuredly would never have been able to stand it, and, therefore, it was fortunate that she did not.

It was this pressure, and the looks accompanying it, that made Edith Sudbury conscious that the hunter loved her.  She would have been an exception to her sex had she not suspected this before.  The thousand and one acts, and little, airy nothings, had given her a suspicion of the truth long since, but she had never felt certain of it.

This knowledge, which must ever be pleasant and flattering to the maiden, caused no unpleasant feelings on her part.  If she did not love him, she certainly respected and admired his noble qualities, and the difference between the emotions named and love itself is certainly too faint for recognition.  Under almost any circumstances they will grow into the passion, and all be lost in blending.  Respect is the scout and guide that leads love to the soul.

The tell-tale blush stole on Edith’s face, as a realizing sense of her situation came upon her, and, for a long time, she dared not look up, much less speak.  Suddenly the Rifleman made a spring in the air, and drew a deep breath, as though seized with a mortal pain.

“What’s the matter?” asked Edith, in a tremor of apprehension.

“Oh! it nearly killed me!” replied the hunter, in a faint voice.

“What?  Do tell me.  Are you hurt?  What caused it?”

“Why, Edith, didn’t you squeeze my hand?”

“If I did, it was certainly unintentional.”

“Never mind.  I thought it was on purpose.”

The merry, musical laugh of the maiden rung out through the forest-arches, and the Rifleman, for the time, lost all thoughts of Indians and danger; but this delightful forgetfulness could not last long.  As the faint rumble of thunder was heard in the distance, he started, as though awakened from a dream, and looked furtively around him, half expecting to see his dread foes start from behind the trees, and rush upon him.

“Are you frightened?” asked Edith.

“Only for you,” he replied, with a natural gallantry.

“And why are you alarmed on my account?  What has occurred that makes you walk faster, and look so constantly about you?”

“Edith,” said the hunter, in a low voice of passionate tenderness, “you have lived on the frontier long enough to be familiar with its dangers.  When I first saw you, it was in an awful situation for a gal like yourself, but you bore it like a man.  I ’spose, therefore, that there’s no use in keeping any thing back from you.”

“Of course not.  What good could that possibly do?”

“Well, then, it’s my opinion that some one is following us.”

“What makes you think so?” asked Edith, in genuine alarm; for there is something startling in the sudden knowledge that a foe is pursuing us, when there is no shelter at hand which can secure us against him.

“I can not give you the reason that makes me positive a foe is behind us; but I am so certain of it, that we must hurry forward and take measures to hide our trail.”

“Why not rejoin our friends?”

“I do not think it can be done, as there are plenty Injin between us, and we could not avoid them.”

“Do what you think best, for surely none can know better than you.”

“Come on, then.”

They ascended the creek until the darkening sky, booming thunder, and constant flashing of lightning warned them that the storm was at hand.  The hunter then stooped, and, lifting his companion in his arms with the same ease that he would have picked up an infant, stepped into the stream, and waded nearly across, going several hundred yards further up before stepping upon the land.  By this time, the swaying of the trees, and the pattering of several large drops of water, told them that they had but a few minutes to spare.  The hunter was perfectly acquainted with this section, and made all haste toward a spot which, more than once, had served him as a shelter in such storms as this.  It consisted of a number of fallen trees, evidently torn up by some tornado, whose branches were so interlocked and matted that a slight effort of the hand of man had turned into a comfortable security as one need wish who was storm-stayed in the forest.

As this was reached, the storm burst upon them in all its grand fury, but their refuge answered every purpose, and not a thread of Edith’s clothes was wetted.  Darkness came on prematurely, and, as the reader already knows, the storm continued nearly through the entire night.  Fully, and almost morbidly alive to the danger that ever menaced them, Lewis kept his station at the mouth or entrance of their shelter until daylight, not willing that for a moment a free entrance to any foe should be offered.

When morning dawned, it was clear and beautiful, and the two set out immediately upon their journey.  As they had partaken of no food for a considerable time, the Rifleman was on the alert to procure some.  The forests of Kentucky and Ohio, at that day, literally swarmed with game, and, in less than a half-hour from starting, he had brought down a wild turkey, which was dressed and cooked with admirable skill, and which afforded them a nourishing and substantial meal.

Lewis was fearful that the late storm would cause such a rise in the creek that he would be unable to cross if he waited any longer, and he, therefore, attempted it at once.  He found it muddy and rapidly rising, but he carried Edith over without difficulty, and then resumed his journey, taking such a direction that he could only reach the settlement by a wide detour from directness.

“At any rate,” said Dernor, “if any one attempted to follow us yesterday, he is thrown off the track, and has got to commence again.”

“Should they accidentally come across our trail, it would be easy enough for them to follow it, would it not?”

“Yes, any one could do that, but you see we’re so far up the stream that there is little likelihood of that.”

“I do hope the Indians will not trouble us more,” said Edith, in a low, earnest voice.

“And so do I,” said the Rifleman, in a lower and more earnest voice, and venturing at the same time to press the hand that he held within his own.

There certainly was something in the situation of these two calculated to inspire mutual trust.  Edith felt that, under the merciful Being who was ever watching her, there was no stronger or more faithful arm upon which she could rely than the one beside her-that there was no heart truer, and no devotion more trustworthy.  Under these circumstances, her words were quite unembarrassed and familiar.

“Suppose we are overtaken?” she asked, looking up in his face.

You will never be captured while I have strength to defend you,” was the fervent reply.

“You are too kind and noble.”

This time Edith impulsively pressed his hand, and, to his dying day, Lewis Dernor affirmed that this was one of the happiest moments of his life.  Deeply learned as he was in wood-lore, he was a perfect novice in the subtle mysteries of the tender passion, and the cause of his ecstasy on this occasion was the sudden certainty that his love was returned.  Had he been less a novice in such matters, he would have reflected that this slight evidence of regard most probably was but a mere momentary emotion which any man in his situation might have inspired.  But, “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise;” and the happy hunter was all unconscious of this disagreeable possibility.

He felt an unutterable desire to say something-something grand and terrible-which would give Edith a faint idea of the strength of the passion burning in his breast.  Inability to say this something kept him silent for a long period.  Several times, indeed, he was on the point of speaking, but the words that came to him were too commonplace and weak to express his tumultuous thoughts.  Just as he was on the point of deciding upon something, it came to him with startling suddenness that he was too careless with his charge.  For the last hour he had hardly been conscious that he was traveling in the woods, much less that in these same woods lurked the deadly Indian, whose thoughts were constantly bent upon murder and outrage.

“Edith,” said he, “I would do any thing if it would only place us where we could talk without fear of being disturbed.  But it can’t be done here.  There’s Injins in these woods, and I’d never forgive myself if I should forget it agin, and I’ve already done so several times.  Just stop a minute.”

He took her hand, and the two bent forward in the attitude of intense listening; and listening thus, they heard faintly in the distance the report of a rifle.  It was several miles away, and evidently fired by some wandering Indian or hunter.  Its only effect upon our friends was that peculiar one of making them more fully sensible that there were other beings in the woods besides themselves.

“It means nothing,” said Dernor.  “Let’s go on, but more careful than before.”

“Do you think there is any one following us?” asked Edith, for this constant renewal of her apprehension made her nervous and unnaturally suspicious.

“I have no reason to think so, and I haven’t any suspicion that there is.  So I guess there’s no need of being scared.”

“I can not help feeling frightened,” said Edith, clinging closer to him.  “I do wish we were at the settlement.  How much longer will it take us to reach it?”

“To-morrow, at the very furthest, I hope we shall be there, and perhaps to-night, if we keep up a brisk walk.”

“I see no reason why we should not hurry.”

“Nor I, either,” laughed Dernor.  “So come on.”

He struck up a brisk walk as he spoke, and continued it for some twenty minutes, when a small creek was reached, the one where O’Hara and Allmat lost the trail.  Before wading it, the Rifleman paused on its banks as if in deep thought.  This was so marked that Edith questioned him.

“I’m thinking whether it wouldn’t be best to put this brook to the same use that I did last summer.  A half-dozen Miamis got rather closer to me than was pleasant, when I jumped in here and threw them off the scent.”

“How?”

“I will show you.”

He picked her up as he spoke, and stepped carefully into the water.  The center of the stream was sufficiently deep to hide his trail, even had the bottom been less favorable than it was.  But this was hard, gravelly and pebbly, and he walked close to the edge without fear of betraying himself.

Having gone a considerable distance, he approached the bank, and made a leap which carried him several feet upon it.  He alighted upon the face of a large, firmly-fixed stone, where, poising himself for a moment, he sprung to another; and then, making a fourth leap, came down upon the ground.  By this artifice he avoided leaving any visible trail until so far from the creek that almost any pursuer would fail to discover it.  This explains why his two pursuers did fail in pursuing him.

“We’re safe again for a while,” said the Rifleman.  “Any one who comes upon our track must do it between us and the creek.”

“I feel greatly relieved,” said Edith.

“And much more comfortable, I suppose?”

“Why, of course,” she replied, half laughing, as she turned her gleaming, radiant face up to his.

The Rifleman hardly knew what he did.  A mist seemed to come before his eyes, and he felt as though floating in space, as, acting under an electrifying impulse, he stooped and kissed the warm lips of his fair companion.  This transport of bliss was changed to the most utter misery when she answered, with every appearance of anger: 

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself to take advantage of my helplessness.”

“Are you offended?” he asked, his very voice showing his wretchedness of feeling.

Edith looked up with flashing eyes, crimsoned face, and silent voice, as if she would annihilate him by her very look.  Gradually a change, like the sunlight breaking through the storm-clouds, overspread her features.  The light of her eyes grew softer, and the expression of her face more merciful, until, as the hunter had paused and scarcely breathed for her reply, she said, with one of her most enchanting smiles: 

“I am not offended.  You may kiss me again if you wish to do so.”

“If I wish to,” said the Rifleman, drawing her to him.  “If I wish to -”

Here his words became unintelligible.  He continued kissing her until she checked him.

Sh!”

The crackling of some bushes a few yards away showed that they were no longer alone.  The whole aspect of the Rifleman changed.  The lover became the ranger instantly.  Cocking his rifle, he placed himself in front of Edith so as to confront this unexpected danger.