Chapter III. Barringford's Strange Discovery
 

The new cabin of the Morrises, built after the burning of the old, was somewhat similar in shape to that which had been reduced to ashes. There was the same small bedroom at the north end, which, as before, had been turned over to Dave and Henry. But this room boasted of two windows instead of one, each fitted with a heavy wooden shutter, to be closed in winter or during an attack by the Indians.

The old four-post bedstead, of walnut and hickory, with its cords of rawhide, was gone, and in its stead the Morrises had built a wide bunk against the inner wall of the apartment, with a mattress of straw and a pillow of the same material, for feathers were just then impossible to obtain. Under the window was a wide bench made of a half log, commonly called a puncheon bench, and the flooring was likewise of puncheons, that is, split logs with the flat side smoothed down. Into the walls were driven pegs of wood, upon which the youths could hang their garments.

The room was cold, almost icy, and it did not take Dave and Henry long to get into bed after they had made up their minds to retire. Having said their prayers, they huddled close together for warmth, covering themselves with blankets and a fur robe James Morris had brought from his trading-post.

The wind had been gradually rising and by midnight it was blowing half a gale, whistling shrilly around the cabin and through the heavy boughs of the neighboring trees. The doors and shutters rattled and awakened Mrs. Morris, but the boys and men slept well, for the sounds were familiar ones.

In the early morning came a change. The wind went down and there was a heavy fall of snow which kept up steadily for many hours. By the time Dave and Henry arose the snow was several inches deep on the doorstep, where it had previously been swept clean.

"Traveling for Sam Barringford will certainly be bad," remarked Rodney, who was already at work, blowing up the fire for his mother. "If this keeps on, it will be a couple of feet deep by nightfall."

As there was but little to do that morning, Dave and Henry took their time in dressing. After breakfast they set about cleaning the wild turkeys and the rabbits. The feathers of the turkeys were saved and also the rabbits' skins, for all would come in useful, sooner or later, around the cabin home.

"The wind is rising once more," remarked Joseph Morris in the middle of the afternoon, after a trip to the cattle shed, to see that the stock were safe. "It is blowing the snow in all directions."

The boys had been out, trying to clean a path to the spring, but found their labors unavailing. So they filled a cask which stood in the pantry with water, that they might not fall short of this necessary commodity should they become completely snowed in.

Nightfall was at hand, and the wind was whistling more fiercely than ever, when Henry chanced to go to the door, to see if the snow was covering the cattle shed.

As he looked out he heard a faint cry. He listened intently and soon the cry was repeated.

"Somebody is calling for help!" he exclaimed to the others.

"Where?" asked Joseph Morris quickly, and reached for his hat and greatcoat.

"I think the call came from yonder," answered the son, pointing in the direction.

"Was it Sam Barringford's voice?"

"I couldn't make out."

"Perhaps some traveler has lost his way," put in Rodney.

"We can go out and see," said Joseph Morris. He went to the doorway. "This way!" he shouted. "This way!"

"Help!" came back faintly. "Help!"

"We're coming!"

Joseph Morris was soon out of the house, and James Morris followed him. Without delay Mrs. Morris lit the lantern and hung it outside of the doorway, that they might see their way back, and also placed a candle in the window. The fire was stirred up, so that the one in trouble might be warmed up and given something hot to drink.

With the snow swirling in all directions around them, it was no easy matter for Joseph Morris and his brother to move forward to the spot from whence the cry for help had proceeded. In spots the snow lay three and four feet deep, and to pass through some of the drifts was out of the question.

"Sam, is it you?" called out James Morris presently.

"Yes!" was the feeble answer.

"Where are you?"

"Here, by the old split hickory. Jest about lost my wind, too."

"We'll soon be with you," answered James Morris.

There was a row of brushwood to the south of the split hickory tree, and in the shelter of this the Morrises moved forward as rapidly as possible. The keen wind cut like a knife, and they knew that it was this which had exhausted the old frontiersman they were trying to succor.

Almost blinded, and nearly out of wind themselves, they at last reached the split tree, to find Sam Barringford crouched behind a mass of the snow-laden branches. He had a large pack on his back and also a bundle in his arms.

Sam Barringford was a backwoodsman of a type that has long since vanished from our midst. He was between fifty and sixty years of age, tall, thin, and as straight as an arrow. He wore his hair and his beard long, and his heavy eyebrows sheltered a pair of small black eyes that were as penetrating as those of any wild beast. He was a skilled marksman, and at following a trail had an instinct almost equal to that of the red men with whom he had so often come in contact. He was dressed in a long hunting shirt and furs, and wore a coonskin cap, with the tail of the animal hanging over his shoulder.

"Winded, eh?" remarked Joseph Morris laconically.

"Why didn't you throw down your packs and leave 'em?"

"Couldn't leave this 'ere pack nohow," returned Barringford, nodding at the bundle in his arms.

"Why not? Nobody is going to steal it tonight, I reckon."

"Taint that, Joe; the bundle's alive."

"What!"

"Babies--two on 'em, too."

"I vow!" put in James Morris. "Babies! Give them to me and I'll carry 'em to the house. Joe, you give Sam a lift, if he needs it."

James Morris took the precious bundle, while his brother relieved the old frontiersman of the pack on his back and took the latter's arm. The return to the cabin was made without delay, James Morris getting there some minutes before Joseph managed to arrive with Barringford clinging to his arm.

"Sam has brought a couple of babies, Lucy!" said James Morris, as he rushed up to the fireside and proceeded to open the bundle in his arms.

"I do declare!" gasped Mrs. Morris. "Babies! Where did he get them?"

"I don't know, but--Oh!"

The bundle had burst open, and there to the astonished gaze of all gathered around were presented to view two little fat and chubby boy babies, each about a year of age.

"Oh, the dear little things!" cried Mrs. Morris, snatching up one of them and hugging it to her breast. "Are you alive?"

For answer the baby boy set up a faint cry and this was immediately answered by a similar cry from the other baby. Then arose a grand chorus which left no doubt of the facts that the babies were alive and that each possessed a good pair of lungs and full knowledge of how to use them.

"Warm them up, James, while I get them some pap," said Mrs. Morris.

"Oh, the nice little babies!" put in little Nell, crowding close to touch the soft and somewhat cold cheeks. "And such pretty eyes, too, and such soft hair! Mamma, I think they are just too beautiful for anything!"

While Mrs. Morris was preparing some pap and some warm milk Joseph Morris arrived with Sam Barringford, and proceeded to make the old frontiersman comfortable. The water was already boiling in the big iron pot, and Barringford was given a glass of hot liquor which soon made him feel like himself once more. Later still he was served with a hearty meal, which he ate as if famished.

"Great babies, ain't they?" he said. "Beats all creation how I found 'em, too."

"So you found them?" put in Rodney. "Where?"

"On the road about three miles from this place--close to where the Chelingworth cabin used to stand."

"Did you find them in the snow?" queried Dave, with deep interest.

"I did an' I didn't. Ye see, they was wrapped in the bundle an' the bundle was tied up to a tree limb."

"And left there all alone?" cried Mrs. Morris, who was busy feeding the little ones.

"It was a case of necessity, ma'am. The man who had had the children had done his best by 'em, an' he couldn't do no more," returned Sam Barringford gravely.

"Tell us the particulars, Sam," said James Morris.

"I will. I was coming along the trail, fightin' my way as best I could in the teeth of the wind, an' feelin' bitter cold a-doin' of it, when I came to a spot where there had been a fight between a man, a horse, and some wild beasts--wolves, most likely. I couldn't git the straight of it at fust, but at last I figured out that the horse had gone into a hole, broke his leg, and pitched the man out on his head on the rocks. The man had had the babies in a bundle, and to keep 'em from gettin' too cold had put 'em in the tree instead of on the ground, or else he did it to save the babies from the wild beasts.

"The wild beasts had done their bloody work well, and man an' horse had been torn limb from limb. The man's skull was crushed, and it and part of the horse lay in a nasty hole, an' that's what makes me think both had the accident. The man had emptied his two pistols and used his knife, but it wasn't no use. The fight was ag'in him from the start."

"Horrible!" murmured Mrs. Morris, while little Nell and some of the others shuddered.

"I didn't notice the bundle in the tree at fust, but while I was takin' in the awful sights afore me I heard a strange sound. 'Sam Barringford, thet's a wildcat,' sez I to myself and swung my gun around putty quick. But it wasn't no wildcat at all, but them babies beginning to set up a howl. Maybe I wasn't taken back. It war the greatest amazement ever overtook me, barrin' none!" added the old frontiersman emphatically.

"Was there anybody else around?" asked James Morris.

"Not a soul. I looked everywhere, an' tried to git a shot at some of the wild beasts, but they had gone clean an' clear. Then I made up my mind the best to do war to get them babies to some shelter, or they'd freeze to deth. I didn't know ef other folks around here war to hum, so I made for this place. When I got to the split hickory I war so tuckered out I set up the yell you heard."

"Did the man have anything with him besides the babies?" asked Rodney.

"No bundle. But he had his pistols, the knife, a gold watch, some gold and silver, and some other things which I didn't pick up because of the snow an' the wind. Here are the things I did bring along," and Sam Barringford brought them forth from a bag he had carried and laid them in a pile on the table.