But no comforting shouts greeted them. The woods were silent, save for the calls of birds and animals, which, friendly though they might be, were powerless to aid the two girls against this traditional enemy of every furred and feathered creature in the forest.
Steadily they plodded on. Bessie knew the ground well by this time, and, one by one they passed the landmarks she knew so well, until they came at last to the cross path which had brought Bessie back to the trap Lolla had prepared for her. And there they came upon a startling interruption of their journey.
For suddenly Lolla herself, who had evidently been hiding there when they had passed, alone, before their meeting with John, sprang out and stood in front of them. Long as she had resisted her fear of the supernatural force that had come to the aid of the girls, she was plainly afraid of it still, for at sight of them her cheeks paled, and she cried out in terror. And behind her, as scared as she was herself, came Peter, the big gypsy, shaking in every limb.
“A fine mess you made of things—letting them escape,” growled John, as he saw his two compatriots. “If I hadn’t found them on the trail, by sheer luck, they’d have been back at the lake by this time.”
“Let them go—for heaven’s sake, let them go, John,” wailed Lolla. “There is a devil fighting for them—he will kill you if you try any longer to keep them from their friends.”
“Pah! What child’s talk is this? Be thankful that I do not beat you with my stick for letting them get free!”
“Listen to her, John,” said Peter, warningly. “She speaks the truth. It was a devil that spoke from the air. I saw his horns and his red tail. Be careful—he may be here now.”
John laughed, scornfully.
“Run away, if you are afraid,” he said. “I will manage alone now. I would not trust you—you have failed me once, both of you. Do not think you can frighten me into failure because you are as brave as a—chicken!”
“Let them go, I say,” said Peter, with a sternness in his voice that gave Bessie a new ray of hope. “I have had my warning, I will profit by it.”
“You coward!” sneered John.
But that was too much for Peter. With a cry of rage he sprang forward.
“I fear no man, no man I can see or touch,” he cried. “And no man shall call me coward!”
In a moment the two were grappling in a furious fight. John was smaller than Peter, but he was wiry and as lithe and powerful as a trained athlete, so that he was a match, at first, for the rugged strength of Peter. But he had had a hard day, and gradually Peter’s strength wore him down, and, as they crashed to the ground together, Peter was on top, and plainly destined to be victor in the fight. He looked up at the two girls.
“Go!” he said. “I will have nothing to do with you. I am fighting with my friend to save him, not for your sakes, you who have a devil to help you. If he keeps you harm will come to him. John, listen to me: I do this because you are my friend.”