Chapter XII. Ralph the Ranger
 

One thing was certain. There was no chance of obtaining the clothes at present. Probably his best course would be to wait till night, and then come back to the house on the chance of gaining Mrs. Bickford's attention. In the meantime, probably, the best thing to be done was to conceal himself temporarily in a belt of woods lying about a mile back of Abner Holden's house.

As soon as his breath was recovered, Herbert got up, and headed for these woods. A few minutes found him in the midst of them. He made his way with some difficulty through the underbrush, parting the thick stems with his hands, until he reached a comparatively open space of perhaps an acre in extent. In the midst of this space a rude hut was visible, constructed of logs, and covered with the branches of trees. In front of it, sitting on the stump of a tree, which perhaps had been spared for that purpose, sat a tall man, with very brown complexion, clad in a rough hunting suit. His form, though spare, was tough and sinewy, and the muscles of his bare arms seemed like whipcords. A short, black pipe was in his mouth. The only covering of his head was the rough, grizzled hair, which looked as if for months it had never felt the touch of a comb or brush.

Herbert, though he had never before seen this singular being, recognized him at once as Ralph the Ranger, as he was properly called in the village. For years he had lived a hermit-like existence in the forest, supporting himself mainly by his rifle. This was not difficult, for his wants were few and simple. What cause led him to shun the habitations of his kind, and make his dwelling in the woods, no one knew, and perhaps no one ever would know, for of himself he was silent, and it was not easy to draw him out.

He looked up as he heard Herbert's step, and said, abruptly: "Well, boy, what do you want?"

His manner was rough, but our hero was not afraid. He answered frankly, "I am hiding."

"Hiding? Who from?"

"From Abner Holden."

"Humph! Why should you hide from him? What has he to do with you?"

"I am bound to him, and he is angry with me because he thinks I interfered in a trade of his. He wanted to beat me, so I ran away."

"Good!" said Ralph, approvingly. "Tell me about it."

Herbert drew near, and told his story.

Ralph listened attentively.

"Boy," said he, "I think you are honest. There are not many that can be said of. As for Abner Holden, I know him. He's a mean skinflint. Pah!" and he spit, contemptuously. "You'd better not go back to him."

"I don't mean to," said Herbert, promptly.

"What are your plans? Have you formed any?"

"I want to go to New York."

"To New York," repeated Ralph, thoughtfully. "You wish to get into the crowd, while I seek to avoid it. But it is natural to youth. At your age, it was so with me. I hope, my boy, the time will not come when you, like me, will wish to shun the sight of men."

Herbert listened in sympathy, not unmingled with surprise, to the speech of this man, which was quite superior to what might have been expected from one of his appearance.

"When do you wish to start?" asked Ralph, after a pause.

"First, I want to get my clothes."

"Where are they?"

"In my room, at Mr. Holden's house."

"How do you expect to get them?"

"Mrs. Bickford, the housekeeper, is a friend of mine. I thought I might go there to-night, and attract her attention without rousing Mr. Holden. She would get them for me."

"Good! I will go with you."

"Will you?" asked Herbert, gladly.

He had felt a little doubt as to the result of his expedition, as, if Mr. Holden should be awake and start in pursuit, he would stand a good chance of being captured, which, above all things, he most dreaded. But with so able an auxiliary as Ralph, he knew he could bid easy defiance to Abner, however much the latter might desire to molest him.

"Yes, I will stand by you, and you shall share my cabin with me as long as you like. You are not afraid of me?"

"No," said Herbert, quickly.

Ralph looked kindly at him.

"Some of the children run from me," he said. "It is not strange, perhaps, for I look savage, I suppose, but you do well to trust me. I will be your friend, and that is something I have not said to any living being for years. I like your face. It is brave and true."

"Thank you for your favorable opinion, Mr.--" Here Herbert paused in uncertainty, for he had never heard Ralph's surname.

"Call me Ralph. I have done with the title of civilization. Call me Ralph. That will suit me best."

"Thank you for your kindness, then, Ralph."

"What is your name?"

"Herbert--Herbert Mason."

"Then, Herbert, I think you must be hungry. Have you eaten your dinner?"

"No," said Herbert.

"Then you shall share mine. My food is of the plainest, but such as it is, you are welcome. Come in."

Herbert entered the cabin. The only table was a plank supported at each end by a barrel. From a box in the corner Ralph drew out some corn-bread and some cold meat. He took a tin measure, and, going out of the cabin, filled it with water from a brook near by. This he placed on the rude table.

"All is ready," he said. "Take and eat, if my food is not too rude."

Herbert did eat, and with appetite. He was a growing boy, whose appetite seldom failed him, and he had been working hard since breakfast, which he had taken at six, while it was now one o'clock. No wonder he was hungry.

Ralph looked on with approval.

"You are the first that has shared my meal for many a long day," he said. "Day after day, and year after year, I have broken my fast alone, but it seems pleasant, after all," he said, musingly. "Men are treacherous and deceitful, but you," he said, resting his glance on the frank, ingenuous face of his youthful guest, "you must be honest and true, or I am greatly deceived."

"I hope you will find me so," said Herbert, interested more and more in the rough-looking recluse, about whose life he suspected there must be some sad secret, of which the world knew nothing.

After dispatching the meal provided by his hospitable entertainer, Herbert sat down on the grass just outside the cabin, and watched lazily the smoke which issued from Ralph's pipe, as it rose in many a fantastic curl.

"How long have you lived here, Ralph?" asked our hero at length.

"Ten years," said the recluse, removing his pipe from his lips.

"It is a long time."

"Yes, boy, a long time in the life of one as young as you, but to me it seems but yesterday that I built this cabin and established myself here."

"Are you not often lonely?"

"Lonely? Yes, but not more so than I should be in the haunts of men. I have company, too. There are the squirrels that leap from bough to bough of the tall trees. Then there are the birds that wake me with their singing. They are company for me. They are better company than men. They, at least, will not deceive me."

He paused, and bent his eyes upon the ground. He was thinking, not of the boy beside him, but of some time in the past, and the recollection apparently was not pleasant.

The afternoon wore away at length, and the shadows deepened in the woods. Herbert wandered about, and succeeded in gathering some nuts, which he carried to Ralph's cabin. When eight o'clock came, the Ranger said: "You had better lie down and rest, my boy; I will wake you up at twelve, and we will go together to Holden's place, and see if we can get your clothes."

To this proposal Herbert willingly assented, as he began to feel tired.

He slept, he knew not how long, when he was gently shaken by Ralph.

"Where am I?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.

The sight of the Ranger bending over him soon brought back the recollection of his position, and he sprang up promptly. Ralph showed him an easier way out of the woods than that by which he had entered, and less embarrassed by the growth of underbrush.

In half an hour they were standing by Abner Holden's house. It was perfectly dark, the inmates probably being fast asleep.

"I know where the housekeeper sleeps," said Herbert. "I'll throw up a pebble at her window, and perhaps it will wake her up."

He did as proposed. Mrs. Bickford, who was a light sleeper, heard, and went to the window.

"Who's there?" she asked.

"It is I, Mrs. Bickford," said Herbert.

"What, Herbert? Shall I let you in?"

"No; I don't want to come in. All I want is my clothes. They are up in my trunk."

"I'll go up and get them for you."

She went upstairs and quickly returned with the clothes, which she let down from the window.

"Are you hungry, Herbert?" she asked. "Let me bring you something to eat."

"No, thank you, Mrs. Bickford; I am stopping with Ralph the Ranger. He has kindly given me all the food I want."

"What are you going to do? Are you going to stop with him?"

"No, I am going East in a day or two. I am going to New York. I will write to you from there."

"I am sorry to have you go, Herbert. I wish things could have been pleasanter, so that you might have stayed. But I think I hear Mr. Holden stirring. Good-by, and may God be with you!"

She closed the window hastily, and Herbert, not wishing to get into a collision with Abner Holden, who he suspected might have heard something, withdrew swiftly. Ralph, who was standing near by, joined him, and both together went back to the woods.