Chapter XIII. A Moment of Peril

Abner Holden did not suspect that Herbert actually intended to leave him permanently; but when evening came, and he did not return, he became apprehensive that such was the case. Now, for more than one reason, he objected to our hero's leaving. First, because he was a strong, capable boy, and his services were worth considerable, and, secondly, because he disliked Herbert, and it was a satisfaction to tyrannize over him, as his position enabled him to do. There are some men in whom the instinct of petty tyranny exists to such an extent that they cannot feel happy without someone to exercise their authority over. Such a man was Abner Holden. He was a bully and a tyrant by nature, and decidedly objected to losing one so completely in his power as Herbert was.

When night came and Herbert did not return, he decided to search for him, and bring him back, if found, the very next day. He did not impart his purpose to Mrs. Bickford, for he was at no loss to discover that the sympathies of the kind-hearted housekeeper were not with him, but with the boy whom he wished to abuse. When breakfast was over, therefore, he merely said: "Mrs. Bickford, I am going out for a short time. If Herbert should return while I am absent, you may tell him to finish hoeing those potatoes in the garden."

"Do you think he will come back, Mr. Holden?" asked the housekeeper.

"Yes; he will soon be tired of wandering about. He will learn to prize a good home after he has slept out of doors one night."

Mrs. Bickford did not reply; but she did not feel quite so much confidence as her employer appeared to do in the excellence of the home which Herbert had enjoyed under Abner Holden's roof.

"It's just as well he doesn't suspect Herbert's plan," she thought, and without further words, began to clear away the breakfast dishes.

Abner was not long in deciding that Herbert was hidden in the woods. That, indeed, seemed the most natural place of refuge for one placed in his circumstances. He determined, therefore, to seek there first.

We must now return to Herbert.

"If you will wait till nightfall," said Ralph, "you will be more safe from pursuit, and I will accompany you for a few miles."

This seemed plausible, and our hero consented.

Ralph went off on a hunting expedition, but Herbert remained behind, fearing that he might tear or stain his clothes, of which it was necessary, now, to be careful. How to pass the time was the question. To tell the truth, the hunter's cabin contained little that would help him. There were no books visible, for Ralph seemed to have discarded everything that would remind him of that civilization which he had forsaken in disgust.

Herbert went outside, and watched the squirrels that occasionally made their appearance flitting from branch to branch of the tall trees. After a while his attention was drawn to a bird, which flew with something in its beak nearly to the top of a tall tree not far off.

"I shouldn't wonder," thought Herbert, interested, "if she's got a nest, and some young ones up there. I have a great mind to climb up and see whether she has or not."

He measured the tree with his eye. It was very tall, exceeding in its height most of its forest neighbors.

"I don't know as I can climb it," he said to himself, a little doubtfully; "but anyway, I am going to try. There's nothing like trying."

This was a lucky determination for Herbert, as will speedily appear.

It was twenty feet to the first branching off, and this was, of course, the most difficult part of the ascent, since it was necessary to "shin up," and the body of the tree was rather too large to clasp comfortably. However, it was not the first time that Herbert had climbed a tree, and he was not deficient in courage as well as skill. So he pushed on his way, and though once or twice in danger of falling, he at length succeeded in reaching the first bough. From this point the ascent was comparatively easy.

In a short time our hero was elated to find himself probably fifty feet from the ground, so high it made him feel a little dizzy to look down. He reached the nest, and found the young birds--three in number. The parent bird hovered near by, evidently quite alarmed for the safety of her brood. But Herbert had no intention of harming them. He only climbed up to gratify his curiosity, and because he had nothing more important to do. Though he did not know it, his own danger was greater than that which threatened the birds. For, just at that moment, Mr. Holden, in his wanderings, had reached Ralph's cabin, and Herbert, looking down, beheld, with some anxiety, the figure of the unwelcome visitor. He saw Abner enter the cabin, and, after a few moments' interval, issue from it with an air of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

"How lucky," thought our hero, "that he did not find me inside!"

Abner Holden looked about him in every direction but the right one. He little dreamed that the object of his pursuit was looking down upon him, securely, from above.

"I don't think he'll find me," thought Herbert. "Wouldn't he give something, though, to know where I am?"

But our young hero was doomed to disappointment. Just at that moment-- the unluckiest that could have been selected--he was seized with a strong inclination to sneeze.

Alarmed lest the sound should betray him, he made desperate efforts to suppress it but Nature would have its way, and probably did so with greater violence than if no resistance had been made.

"Ker-chew!" sneezed Herbert, violently.

As he anticipated, Abner's attention was attracted by the loud noise, which he rightly concluded could hardly proceed from a bird or squirrel. He had just been on the point of leaving the cabin for some other part of the woods, but at this sound he stood still. Looking up to discover whence it proceeded, his keen eyes detected Herbert in his lofty perch. His eyes sparkled with joy.

"Ha, you young rascal!" he exclaimed. "So you are there, are you? You were going to run away, were you?"

Now that Herbert was actually discovered, his fear left him, and he became perfectly self-possessed and confident.

"Yes, Mr. Holden," he answered, quietly; "such is my intention."

"Boldly spoken," said Abner, provoked by our hero's coolness, for he had hoped to find him terrified and pleading for forgiveness. "I admire your frankness, and will try to equal it. I suppose you'll give it up as a bad job now."

"No, sir," said Herbert, firmly.

"Take care, sir," said Abner, in anger and astonishment. "Take care how you defy me. Come down here at once."

"What for?" inquired Herbert, without stirring.

"What for?" repeated Abner Holden. "That I may flog you within an inch of your life."

"That's no inducement," said our hero, coolly.

"Do you refuse to obey me?" shouted Abner, stamping angrily.

"I refuse to be flogged. You don't get me down for any such purpose, Mr. Holden."

"Then, by Heaven, if you won't come otherwise, I'll come up and help you down."

The angry man at once commenced the ascent. Anger gave him strength, and, though he was unaccustomed to climbing, he continued to mount up about halfway to the first branching off, somewhat to Herbert's uneasiness, for he felt there was a chance that he might fall into Abner's clutches.

But Abner's success was only temporary. At the height of a dozen feet he began to slip, and, despite his frantic struggles, he slid gradually to the ground, tearing his coat, which he had not taken the precaution to remove, and blistering his hands.

What was to be done?

In his anger and excitement, he drew a pistol from his breast pocket, and pointed upward, saying menacingly, "Come down at once, you young rascal, or I will fire!"

Herbert was startled. He did not believe the pistol to be loaded. Still it might be.

"Will you come down?" repeated Abner, fiercely. "Quick, or I fire."

Herbert's cheek was pale, but in a resolute voice he answered, "I will not."

Abner Holder, laid his finger upon the trigger, and would, in his anger, have carried his threat into execution; but at the critical moment he was conscious of a violent blow, and the pistol was wrenched from his hand.

Turning quickly, he met the stern glance of Ralph the Ranger.