Jem could not walk any farther; his ankle was badly hurt, there was no doubt of that, and, brave little lad though he was, his heart sank within him, for he knew all the consequences which might ensue from such a disaster. It was not the pain that daunted him—Jem would have scorned the imputation; neither did he fear to spend a night in the forest—he could sleep under a tree as soundly as in his own bed under the rafters of his Father’s cabin. It was warm dry weather, and he had a hunch of bread in his pocket; there was nothing therefore to be afraid of except Indians, and his Father said there were none in the neighbourhood at present.
Jem’s mind would have been quite easy on his own account, but he was on his way through the forest to a village on the farther boundary to obtain some medicine for his sick Mother, which the doctor had desired she might have without fail that very night. Our hero, though but eleven years old, had just finished a long day’s work, and it was already dusk, but he loved his Mother dearly, and gladly volunteered for the ten-mile walk to fetch the medicine; he did not even wait to eat his supper, but, putting it in his pocket to munch on the way, trotted off on his errand.
Jem’s Father was a small farmer, who had built his own log cabin and cleared his own fields, with no other assistance than that of his little son; this was, however, by no means small, for frontier boys are, of necessity, brought up to be helpful, hardy, and self-denying. Jem therefore felt his life of incessant labour and deprivation no hardship: he was as happy and merry as the day was long. But the misfortune that had now fallen upon the brave little man was so severe and unexpected, he did not know how to bear it. The thought of the dear, suffering Mother waiting patiently for the medicine which would relieve her, and of the anxious, careworn Father, who would look so vainly along the forest track for his return, was too much for his affectionate little heart; so, leaning his arms against a tree, he dropped his head upon them and sobbed bitterly. Then, struggling up, he made another attempt to walk, for he knew he had accomplished more than half the journey, but the injured foot would not support him, and the attempt to stand caused him the sharpest agony.
“It is of no use—I cannot stand,” groaned Jem half-aloud, as, resolving to make the best of circumstances, he sat down, settled his back against a tree, and munched up his hunch of bread. Then he said his prayers, with the addition of a special one that God would make his dear Mother better without the medicine, and prepared to wait with what patience he might till morning, when he knew that some fur traders or hunters would surely be passing along the track, who would give him the assistance he needed. One thing Jem was determined about: he would not go to sleep. He set himself to count the stars which peeped through the leaves above his head, and listened to the occasional stir of birds and squirrels in their nests.
He knew and loved them all, and they on their parts knew that Jem never stole birds’ eggs or merry baby squirrels, as the other boys did.
“It is only Jem,” they would say when they saw him coming, and they never thought of hiding from him.
But somehow Jem did not get very far in his counting of the stars—they danced about too much, his head would drop down, and his eyes would not keep open. It is not easy for a tired little boy of eleven years old to keep awake at night, and so in a very few minutes Jem was fast asleep.
It seemed to him that he had scarcely closed his eyes when a slight noise caused him to open them, and then he was wide awake in a moment, for, with a thrill of horror, he became aware of two Indians standing close beside him in the strange pale-green light of early dawn. As they silently gazed down upon him his heart seemed to stand still, and his next impulse was to cry out, but he had learned to keep his wits about him, and remember that even an Indian has a certain respect for a manly spirit. So he sat up and boldly returned the gaze of the fierce black eyes—but at the same time he had heard too many tales of the cruelties practised by Indians on their captives not to realise the danger he was in.
The younger of the red men was already fingering his hatchet, whilst he muttered some hostile words which boded no good to our hero, but the elder, who appeared to be a man of some importance, silenced his companion with a gesture, and then, crossing his arms, said, in musical, broken English: “My young brother is abroad early.”
“I was going across the forest to get medicine for my Mother,” replied Jem.
“But the medicine-man of the palefaces does not live in the forest,” returned the Indian. “Where does the Mother of my brother live?”
“In the clearing of the entrance to the west track. It was nearly dark when I started and I fell and hurt my leg, so that I can go no farther.”
“Hu,” exclaimed the Indian, kneeling down, and taking Jem’s injured foot gently in his hand. “Then my brother is the son of the good paleface woman who tended Woodpecker when he was sick, and made him well again?”
“Are you Woodpecker?” exclaimed Jem gladly. “My Mother has told me about you.”
The Indian nodded, and, tearing a strip from his blanket, he dipped it in a spring of water which was near at hand, and bound it firmly round the boy’s swollen ankle. “The Mother of my young brother is very sick?” he inquired.
“Yes,” replied Jem, “and she is waiting for the medicine, and I cannot fetch it.” He winked bravely to keep back the tears which filled his eyes at the thought.
“Woodpecker will fetch the medicine. Woodpecker owes a big debt to his paleface sister, and Indians have grateful hearts,” said the red man gravely.
Jem eagerly held out to him a piece of paper, but Woodpecker shook his head.
“My brother shall speak himself to the medicine-man,” he said, and, raising the boy on his broad shoulders, he strode away quickly towards the village. It was scarcely daylight and no one was yet stirring, or the sight of an Indian carrying a white boy would have excited some curiosity.
The doctor’s sleepy assistant, who hastily answered Woodpecker’s loud rap on the door, rubbed his eyes and stared, but he had a wholesome awe of such a visitor, and, making up the medicine, delivered it to Jem with unusual speed.
The second Indian had disappeared on the way to the doctor’s, and the two strangely-matched companions immediately set out on their return journey through the forest, which was rapidly traversed by Woodpecker, and by four o’clock in the morning he set Jem down on the threshold of his Father’s door.
“Will you not stay and see how Mother is? Father would like to thank you,” said Jem.
“Not now,” replied Woodpecker, taking with a grave and courteous smile the small hand extended to him, “but say to my good white sister that her Indian brother does not forget kindness and that Woodpecker will return.”
And as the farmer, roused by the sound of voices, opened the door, the tall figure of the red man disappeared into the forest. Jem was made happy by finding his Mother better when, after having explained matters to his Father, he was carried in and placed on the bed beside her. And after they were both recovered he had many a grand day’s hunting with the friendly and grateful Indian, who had taken a great liking for the brave little lad, whom he ever afterwards caused his tribe to respect as his English brother Jem.