Read CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT of Red Rooney The Last of the Crew , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

A CAPTURE, FLIGHT, SURPRISE, AND RESCUE.

If true love is, according to the proverb, more distinctly proved to be true by the extreme roughness of its course, then must the truth of the love of Angut and Nunaga be held as proved beyond all question, for its course was a very cataract from beginning to end.

Poor Nunaga, in the trusting simplicity of her nature, was strong in the belief that, having been found and saved by Angut, there was no further cause for anxiety.  With an easy mind, therefore, she set herself to the present duty of spearing cat fish with a prong.

It was fine healthy work, giving strength to the muscles, grace and activity to the frame, at the same time that it stimulated the appetite which the catfish were soon to appease.

“It grows late,” said Pussimek, “and will be dark before we get back to camp.”

“Never mind; who cares?” said the independent Sigokow, who was fond of “sport.”

“But the men will be angry,” suggested the mother of Ippegoo.

“Let them be angry ­bo-o-o!” returned the reckless Kabelaw.

“Nunaga,” said Nuna, looking eagerly over the side, “there goes another ­a big one; poke it.”

Nunaga poked it, but missed, and only brought up a small flat-fish, speared by accident.

Old Kannoa, who also gazed into the clear depths, was here observed to smile benignantly, and wave one of her skinny arms, while with the other she pointed downwards.

The sisters Kabelaw and Sigokow, each wielding a pronged stick, responded to the signal, and were gazing down into the sea with uplifted weapons when Pussimek uttered an exclamation of surprise and pointed to the shore, where, on a bush, a small piece of what resembled scarlet ribbon or a strip of cloth was seen waving in the wind.

“A beast!” exclaimed Pussimek, who had never before seen or heard of scarlet ribbon.

“Saw you ever a beast so very red?” said the wife of Okiok doubtfully.

“It is no beast,” remarked the mother of Ippegoo; “it is only a bit of sealskin dyed red.”

“No sealskin ever fluttered like that,” said the mother of Arbalik sternly.  “It is something new and beautiful that some one has lost.  We are lucky.  Let us go and take it.”

No one objecting to this, the oomiak was paddled towards the land.  Nunaga observed that the sisters Kabelaw and Sigokow were each eager to spring ashore before the other and snatch the prize.  Having a spice of mischievous fun in her she resolved to be beforehand, and, being active as a kitten, while the sisters were only what we may style lumberingly vigorous, she succeeded.

Before the boat quite touched the gravel, she had sprung on shore, and flew towards the coveted streamer.  The sisters did not attempt to follow.  Knowing that it would be useless, they sat still and the other women laughed.

At the success of his little device the robber-lieutenant of Grimlek chuckled quietly, as he crouched behind that bush.  When Nunaga laid her hand on the gaudy bait he sprang up, grasped her round the waist, and bore her off into the bushes.  At the same moment the rest of the band made a rush at the oomiak.  With a yell in unison, the women shoved off ­only just in time, for the leading robber dashed into the sea nearly up to the neck, and his outstretched hand was within a foot of the gunwale when he received a smart rap over the knuckles from Sigokow.  Another moment, and the oomiak was beyond his reach.

Alas for old Kannoa!  She had been seated on the gunwale of the craft, and the vigorous push that set the others free had toppled her over backwards into the sea.  As this happened in shallow water, the poor old creature had no difficulty in creeping on to the beach.  The incident would have tried the nerves of most old ladies, but Kannoa had no nerves; and in regard to being wet ­well, she was naturally tough and accustomed to rough it.

The disappointed robber observed her, of course, on wading back to land, but passed her with contemptuous indifference, as if she had been merely an over-grown crab or lobster.  But Kannoa determined not to be left to die on the shore.  She rose, squeezed the water out of her garments and followed the robber, whom she soon found in the bushes with his companions eagerly discussing their future plans.  Nunaga was seated on the ground with her face bowed on her knees.  Kannoa went and sat down beside her, patted her on the shoulder and began to comfort her.

“We must not stay here,” said the leader of the band, merely casting a look of indifference at the old creature.  “The women who have escaped will tell the men, and in a very short time we shall have them howling on our track.”

“Let us wait and fight them,” said one of the men, fiercely.

“It would be great glory for a small band to fight a big one, no doubt,” returned the leader in a sarcastic tone; “but it would be greater glory for one man to do that alone ­so you had better stay here and fight them yourself.”

A short laugh greeted this remark.

“It will be very dark to-night,” said another man.

“Yes; too dark for our foes to follow us, but not too dark for us to advance steadily, though slowly, into the mountains,” returned the leader.  “When there, we shall be safe.  Come, we will start at once.”

“But what are we to do with the old woman?” asked one.  “She cannot walk.”

“Leave her,” said another.

“No; she will bring evil on us if we leave her,” cried the fierce man.  “I am sure she is a witch.  We must carry her with us, and when we come to a convenient cliff, toss her into the sea.”

In pursuance of this plan, the fierce robber tied the old woman up in a bear-skin ­made a bundle of her, in fact ­and swung her on his back.  Fortunately, being rather deaf, Kannoa had not heard what was in store for her; and as the position she occupied on the fierce man’s broad back was not uncomfortable, all things considered, she submitted with characteristic patience.  Poor, horrified Nunaga thought it best to let her companion remain in ignorance of what was proposed, and cast about in her mind the possibility of making her escape, and carrying the news of her danger to the camp.  If she could only get there and see Angut, she was sure that all would go well, for Angut, she felt, could put everything right ­somehow.

In a short time the robbers were far away from the scene of their consultation; and the darkness of the night, as predicted, became so intense that it was quite impossible to advance further over the rough ground without the risk of broken limbs, if not worse.  A halt was therefore called for rest, food, and consultation.

The spot on which they stood was the top of a little mound, with thick shrubs on the land side, which clothed a steep, almost precipitous descent.  Just within these shrubs, as it were under the brow of the hill, Nunaga observed a small natural rut or hollow.  The other, or sea, side of the mound, was quite free from underwood, and also very steep.  On the top there was a low ledge of rock, on which the fierce robber laid his bundle down, while the others stood round and began to discuss their circumstances.  The leader, who had taken charge of Nunaga, and held one of her hands during the journey, set the girl close in front of him, to prevent the possibility of her attempting to escape, for he had noted her activity and strength, and knew how easily she might elude him if once free in the dark woods.

Although these woods were as black as Erebus, there was light enough to enable them to distinguish the glimmer of the sea not far off, and a tremendous cliff rising in solemn grandeur above it.

“Yonder is a good place to throw your witch over,” remarked the leader carelessly.

The fierce robber looked at the place.

“Yes,” he said, “that might do; and the way to it is open enough to be crossed, even at night, without much trouble.”

At that moment a bright idea suddenly struck Nunaga.

Have you ever noticed, reader, how invariably “bright ideas” deal sudden blows?  This one struck Nunaga, as the saying goes, “all of a heap.”

She happened to observe that the leader of the band was standing with his heels close against the ledge of rock already mentioned.  In an instant she plunged at the robber’s chest like a female thunderbolt.  Having no room to stagger back, of course the man was tripped up by the ledge, and, tumbling headlong over it, went down the steep slope on the other side with an indignant roar.

The rest of the robbers were taken by surprise, and so immensely tickled with the humour of the thing that they burst into hearty laughter as they watched the frantic efforts of their chief to arrest his career.

All at the same instant, however, seemed to recover their presence of mind, for they looked round simultaneously with sudden gravity ­and found that Nunaga was gone!

With a wild shout, they sprang after her ­down the slope, crashing through the underwood, scattering right and left, and, in more than one instance, tumbling head over heels.  They were quickly joined by their now furious leader; but they crashed, and tumbled, and searched in vain.  Nunaga had vanished as completely and almost as mysteriously as if she had been a spirit.

The explanation is simple.  She had merely dropped into the rut or hollow under the brow of the hill; and there she lay, covered with grasses and branches, listening to the growlings of indignation and astonishment expressed by the men when they re-assembled on the top of the mound to bewail their bad fortune.

“We’ve got the old witch, anyhow,” growled the fierce robber, with a scowl at the bundle which was lying perfectly still.

“Away, men,” cried their leader, “and search the other side of the mound.  The young witch may have doubled on us like a rabbit, while we were seeking towards the hills.”

Obedient to the command, they all dispersed again ­this time towards the sea.

What Nunaga’s thought was at the time we cannot tell, but there is reason to believe it must have been equivalent to “Now or never,” for she leaped out of her place of concealment and made for the hills at the top of her speed.  Truth requires us to add that she was not much better on her legs than were the men, for darkness, haste, and rugged ground are a trying combination.  But there is this to be said for the girl:  being small, she fell lightly; being rotund, she fell softly; being india-rubbery, she rebounded; and, being young, she took it easily.  In a very short time she felt quite safe from pursuit.

Then she addressed herself diligently to find out the direction of the Eskimo camp, being filled with desperate anxiety for her old friend Kannoa.  Strong, almost, as a young Greenland fawn, and gifted, apparently, with some of that animal’s power to find its way through the woods, she was not long of hitting the right direction, and gaining the coast, along which she ran at her utmost speed.

On arriving ­breathless and thoroughly exhausted ­she found to her dismay that Angut, Simek, Rooney, and Okiok had left.  The news of her capture had already been brought in by the women with the oomiak, and these men, with as many others as could be spared, had started off instantly to the rescue.

“But they are not long gone,” said Nunaga’s mother, by way of comforting her child.

“What matters that?” cried Nunaga in despair; “dear old Kannoa will be lost, for they know nothing of her danger.”

While the poor girl spoke, her brother Ermigit began to prepare himself hastily for action.

“Fear not, sister,” he said; “I will run to the great cliff, for I know it well.  They left me to help to guard the camp, but are there not enough to guard it without me?”

With these words, the youth caught up a spear, and darted out of the hut.

Well was it for old Kannoa that night that Ermigit was, when roused, one of the fleetest runners of his tribe.  Down to the shore he sprang ­ partly tumbled ­and then sped along like the Arctic wind, which, we may remark, is fully as swift as more southerly breezes.  The beach near the sea was mostly smooth, so that the absence of light was not a serious drawback.  In a remarkably short space of time the lad overtook the rescue party, not far beyond the spot where the women had been surprised and Nunaga captured.  Great was their satisfaction on hearing of the girl’s safe return.

“It’s a pity you didn’t arrive half an hour sooner, however,” said Rooney, “for poor Angut has gone off with a party towards the hills, in a state of wild despair, to carry on the search in that direction.  But you look anxious, boy; what more have you to tell?”

In a few rapidly-spoken words Ermigit told of Kannoa’s danger.  Instant action was of course taken.  One of the natives, who was well acquainted with the whole land, and knew the mound where the robbers had halted, was despatched with a strong party to search in that direction, while Rooney, Okiok, and the rest set off at a sharp run in the direction of the great cliff which they soon reached, panting like race-horses.

Scrambling to the top, they found no one there.  By that time the short night of spring had passed, and the faint light of the coming day enabled them to make an investigation of the ground, which tended to prove that no one had been there recently.

“We can do nothing now but wait,” said Red Rooney, as he sat on a projecting cliff, wiping the perspiration from his brow.

“But we might send some of the young men to look round, and bring us word if they see any of the robbers,” said Simek.

“If we do that,” replied Okiok, “they will get wind of us, and clear off.  Then they would kill my great-mother before casting her away.”

“That’s true, Okiok.  We must keep quiet,” said Rooney.  “Besides, they are pretty sure to bring her to the cliff, for that is a favourite mode among you of getting rid of witches.”

“But what if they don’t come here?” asked Ippegoo.

“Then we must hope that they have slept on the mound,” returned Okiok; “and Angut will be sure to find them, and kill them all in their sleep.”

“Too good to hope for,” murmured Arbalik.

“We must hide, if we don’t want to be seen,” suggested Simek.

Feeling the propriety of this suggestion, the whole party went into a cave which they found close at hand and sat down to wait as patiently as might be.  Rooney was the last to enter.  Before doing so he crept on hands and knees to the extreme edge of the cliff and looked down.  Nothing was visible, however; only a black, unfathomable abyss.  But he could hear the sullen roar of ocean as the waves rushed in and out of the rocky caverns far below.  Drawing back with a shudder, a feeling of mingled horror, rage, and tender pity oppressed him as he thought of Kannoa’s poor old bones being shattered on the rocks, or swallowed by the waves at the foot of the cliff, while behind and through Kannoa there rose up the vision of that grandmother in the old country, whose image seemed to have acquired a fixed habit of beckoning him to come home, with a remonstrative shake of the head and a kindly smile.

They had not long to wait.  They had been seated about ten minutes in the cavern when the man who had been left outside to watch came gliding in on tip-toe, stepping high, and with a blazing look about the eyes.

“They come,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

Who come, you walrus?” whispered Okiok.

“The man with the witch.”

On hearing this, Rooney, Okiok, and Simek went to the entrance of the cave, followed by the rest, who, however, were instructed to keep under cover till required, if no more than three or four men should arrive.

A few seconds later, and the robber chief appeared on the flat space in front of them.  He was closely followed by a squat comrade and the fierce man with the bundle on his back.  As they passed the cave, the bundle gave a pitiful wail.

This was enough.  With a silent rush, like three bull-dogs, our heroes shot forth.  Rooney, having forgotten his weapon, used his fist instead, planted his knuckles on the bridge of the leader’s nose, and ruined it, as a bridge, for evermore.  The robber went down, turned a complete back-somersault, regained his feet, and fled.  Okiok seized the fierce man by the throat almost before he was aware of the attack, causing him to drop his bundle which Rooney was just in time to catch and carry into the cave.  There he set it down tenderly, cut the fastenings of the skin, and freed the poor old woman’s head.

It was a beautiful sight to see the livid hue and gaze of horror change into a flush of loving benignity when Kannoa observed who it was that kneeled beside her.

“Poor old woman!” shouted Rooney in her ear.  “Are you much hurt?”

“No; not hurt at all; only squeezed too much.  But I’m afraid for Nunaga.  I think she got away, but I was bundled, when I last heard her voice.”

“Fear no more, then, for Nunaga is safe,” said Rooney; but at that moment all the men rushed from the cave, and he heard sounds outside which induced him to follow them and leave the old woman to look after herself.

On issuing from the cave, he saw that the fierce robber was the only one captured, and that he was on the point of receiving summary justice, for Simek and Okiok had hold of his arms, while Arbalik and Ippegoo held his legs and bore him to the edge of the cliff.

“Now then!” cried Simek.

“Stop, stop!” shouted Rooney.

One ­two ­heave!” cried Okiok.

And they did heave ­vigorously and together, so that the fierce man went out from their grasp like a huge stone from a Roman catapult.  There was a hideous yell, and, after a brief but suggestive pause, an awful splash!

They did not wait to ascertain whether that fierce man managed to swim ashore ­but certain it is that no one answering to his description has attempted to hurl a witch from those cliffs from that day to this.