Ralph woke to numbing cold. He opened his eyes and stared at the hairy face before him. The beaver slapped his tail and dove into the water. Ralph struggled to find footing. Finally he staggered to his feet. Half the beaver lodge was destroyed ... apparently by his fall. Situated as it was against the edge of the creek, the damage was not visible from above. How long had he been out?
He climbed stiffly up the bank and slumped against a tree. He was wet, cold and hungry, but the cold water had stopped his shoulder wound from bleeding.
He glanced around, but there was no sign of the Indians. Hopefully he had led them away from Rachel. Though finding her trail again ranked first in his desires, reasoning suggested that he might actually lead the Indians to her by doing so. It was nearly dark and if he didn't find shelter and a fire, he wasn't going to last much longer. In his pocket he carried a piece of flint. What he needed now was some dry wood and a sheltered area where the flames wouldn't be seen from a distance.
Luck finally found him, revealing a small cave hidden by dense brush. He might not have found it at all if it hadn't been for the dead limb he had decided to break off for fuel. The cave was barely tall enough for him to sit upright in, but its walls reflected the heat of the fire. In a bowl he carved from bark, he warmed some water and made a broth from some plants. It wasn't much, but it helped. He laid out his pistol and powder to dry and stretched out on the ground. Sleep claimed him almost instantly.
It was long after daybreak that he woke again. He felt weak, but better. His shoulder wound even looked better. He emerged from the cave and made a circle of the area, searching for tracks. He found none. The only thing he did find was the rawhide strip he had used to tie the meat to his belt...a rotten piece of meat still attached. Maybe wolves had found it. A little further away, he found a bear track. It was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of his neck. If he had kept the meat on his belt, the bear would have found him in the cave. Lessons were hard-learned in the wilderness, usually by trial and error. Every once in a while a person learned a lesson without paying the ultimate price. He mopped a few beads of moisture from his forehead. What would Rachel do if she ran across a bear? More important, what would the bear do?
It served no purpose to dwell on such morbid thoughts, so he put them from his mind. Better he should spend his energy finding Rachel.
Satisfied that he wasn't being followed by anything human, he left the area and made his way down the slope to the creek. As he passed the damaged beaver lodge, a beaver dived into the water, smashing his tail against the surface in a sharp warning. Ralph found a place to cross the creek downstream from the beaver lodge. He circled back to the place where the Indians had ambushed him yesterday. The arrow was gone, leaving only a small gash in the tree to assure him that he was in the right spot.
After about an hour on the trail, he was certain that the war party had not found Rachel's tracks. What he did find was a lone set of moccasin tracks. The big Indian was still following her; still hanging back. Why? Try as he might, he could make no sense of it.
Rachel's trail wandered away from the creek and then back. In some places it seemed as if she might even be trying to cross it. The thought was disturbing, especially since one of the places was deceptively deep. Something had changed her mind, though, and she had turned abruptly and headed into the forest. There she had apparently found a hollow tree for the night.
He stopped beside the tree, staring at the packed down grass. She was using her head, but she was traveling slowly. Fatigue, hunger? Probably a lot of both. If he could only catch up and help her carry the baby. What was it, boy or girl? Not that it mattered. A healthy baby was all they both wanted. The weather and the trek weren't doing anything to insure health, though. All the same, Rachel seemed to be holding up remarkably well.
When Rachel left the hollow tree, she headed almost due south for a while. She was less than five miles from the road, and soon she should be turning west. Following her trail made for slow progress, but he dared not assume anything. In less than an hour he was glad he had taken the time, because her trail swung east again, toward the creek. Why? Was she turned around? And then he knew. She had not seen the bend in the creek where he instructed her to turn west. She was still doggedly following the creek.
By evening, he had other worries. Rachel was still following the creek south. If she stayed with the creek until it reached the river, she could follow the river back to the fort, but that would add almost another day to her journey. Did she have food enough to last? The nights were cold, and he had found only the campfire in the cave. The hollow tree wouldn't have provided much shelter from the cold damp night air. Was the baby still alive? His throat constricted. He had found nothing to indicate otherwise. Occasionally he had seen places where she had dragged her feet while walking. She was obviously exhausted. How much further could she travel?
Impending darkness brought yet another question. She had approached a log as if intending to cross the creek. Why? He found a place where she had stood for a while, and then her tracks turned back west. Had she discovered her error? For what ever reason, at least she was now headed in the right direction. She'd added another six miles or so to her journey by following the creek, but she still might make it late tonight.
Her trail headed west for nearly a mile, and then turned south again. What was worse, the Indian was still stalking her. For what purpose? Again he pondered the reason, and found only one implausible purpose. Could the Indian actually be trying to protect her? It was a ridiculous idea, and yet, what other reason could there be? Maybe he merely wanted to think the Indian was helping...that he was providing her with food and direction to shelter. But Rachel would be terrified of Indians after what had happened. No, that couldn't be what was happening...unless...He frowned at the trail in the fading light. Unless the Indian was assisting her without her knowledge. He shook his head. He must be delirious.
Night eventually surrounded him, burdening him with concern, and robbing him of patience. He had no choice but to stop. She could be anywhere, even within the sound of his voice. He called out.
"Rachel?" He waited for a few silent moments. "Rachel?" he called louder. But there was no answer. Should he go on and risk losing her trail in the dark? No, she would have to stop for the night as well. If he woke early, he might be able to catch up with her.
In the dark, he was unable to find a shelter, so he merely propped his back against a tree to sleep. It would be uncomfortable that way, but he would get some rest and the cold would wake him early.
He slept fitfully, waking often to listen for sounds in the night. Once he thought he heard something moving in the darkness - probably an animal. The idea of running into a bear or puma in the night was unnerving. Poor Rachel. How was she faring? Was she still terrified of the wilderness, or had she come to grips with her fear? His stomach twisted into a painful spasm with the thought of her anxiety.
Exhaustion overcame hunger and worry. His head nodded and he finally slept again. When he opened his eyes again, the night was making its fuzzy conversion into day. The forest was quiet...too quiet. He remained immobile, his head still resting on his arms as he made a 90-degree surveillance of his position. Nothing. Not a sound or a sign; and on the other side? Slowly, he lifted his head and leaned it back against the tree, only his eyes moving to one side and then the other. Slowly he let his breath out. The dawn was often unusually silent, but nothing seemed to be amiss. Careful to make no sound, he rose with his back to the tree. Finally, when he was satisfied that it was safe, he moved away from the tree and began his search for Rachel's trail. It didn't take long, as he had slept not far from it.
As soon as the light was bright enough, he was on the cold trail again. The occasional moccasin track, he accepted with nothing more than curiosity. Obviously this Indian he intended no harm, but why was he following her? Was he, too, curious? Was he aware that they were being followed?
Occasionally, he could see where Rachel had dragged a foot, and she rested often. She must be near exhaustion. Would she make it to the fort? She had only a few miles to go...and then she turned south again. He groaned. Obviously she was completely lost.
His focus was on the tracks, not the forest. What made him look up, he couldn't say, but when he did, it was into the barrel of his own gun. The Indian's face behind that gun bore no residual war paint, and yet, his possession of the gun put him at the cabin that fateful day. Or did it?
The Indian stood, unwavering in his aim. He was unusually tall, even for an Osage. Without a doubt, this was the Indian who had been stalking Rachel. His heart pounded. Where was Rachel? He met the expressionless black eyes, and for the second time in as many days, accepted the inevitability of his death. Why didn't the Indian shoot? Ralph thought of the pistol in his waistband. The Indian would shoot him before he got it out, aimed and fired. At least it was a chance.
As if reading his thoughts, the Indian lowered the gun slightly, staring hard at Ralph as he spoke. The words were sharp and clipped, completely incomprehensible.
Ralph lifted his palms to the sky and shrugged. His knowledge of Osage was minimal but the Indian seemed to be asking a question. When the Indian spoke again, he used French. Ralph shook his head and the Indian frowned. Again he spoke, but the words were strange. He seemed to be asking a question.
"Ooh loogfa ooma?" The Indian repeated.
Obviously the Indian wasn't determined to exterminate him, but what did he want? Ralph lifted his arms as if carrying a child. "I'm looking for my wife and child."
The Indian nodded vigorously and lowered the rifle. "Mére ... enfant." He pointed west. "Fort."
Ralph's heart beat double time. Two words he understood. Infant and fort. "What about my wife?" He asked, and then said slowly, "w-o-m-a-n"
"Ooma?" The Indian said, forming the letters carefully. "Ooh loogfa ooma?"
Ralph stared at him. "I'm looking for..." Of course! The Indian was asking him if he was looking for a woman. He nodded. "Si."
The Indian nodded. " Mére, enfant. Fort."
Mére must be the French word for woman. A woman and a baby...at Fort Osage?
The Indian held up the rifle. "Ooloos. Meekeep."
Ralph grinned. "Yeah, you keep."
Only a ghost of a smile touched the Indian's features. Without another word, he turned and trotted into the forest.
Ralph stared after him. There was only one way the Indian would know that Rachel and the baby were at the fort. He had been to the fort. But what was the Indian doing north of the fort. Only one thought came to mind...to steal a horse from the Shawnee. With that thought came the memory of the dead horse. The Osage Indian had taken the horse, he was certain of it. The Shawnee hadn't sought out the cabin for an attack. They had been following the Osage Indian. The cabin had merely been a way of venting their frustration, no doubt. And the Osage? Obviously he had been the one waiting outside the tunnel that night - the one that had chased him, and retrieved his rifle from where it had fallen. Had the Osage actually been intentionally following Rachel, or had it been mere chance that their trails had crossed? No, the Osage could have been to the fort and back twice in the time that it took Rachel to travel that distance. But why had he assisted her? Guilt? Possibly, but not likely. And then he knew. It had been Rachel's tenacity that had sparked the Indian's admiration. Whether he had actually intended to help, or simply been curious, he had been close throughout her journey. Would he have helped her, or merely watched to see how she handled the situation? He'd probably never know. The only thing that really mattered was that Rachel and the baby were safe at the fort.
He wasted no time covering the last few miles to the Fort. He arrived at the gate, hungry and exhausted, but feeling very much alive. His first words were directed at a tall wiry Sergeant. "Have you seen my wife and child? I think they came in yesterday."
The man spit a thin stream of tobacco at the ground. "A man in a wagon brought a woman and baby in last night, I heard." He peered at Ralph suspiciously. "You seen any savages? She said they burned out her home, but we ain't seen none."
"A hunting party of Shawnee attacked and burned our cabin a few days ago. I saw a few of them the next day, but I think they're gone now."
The man nodded. "Lookin' to get even with the Osage, no doubt. I heard they had a go-in a day or so ago."
Ralph nodded and turned down the road. The Titterman home wasn't far, and Rachel would be there. Somewhere in the compound a rooster crowed. He'd be better appreciated in a cook pot right now.