There was nothing to be done, Foster-father felt, save to wait with what patience he could; but his heart sank as, while Head-nurse and Foster-mother slept, outwearied by the past two days’ fatigue, and the children under Roy’s care played snowballs, he sat and watched the sky. At first there was only a cloud or two in the west; then a sudden wind sprang up and drove the fine, powdery snow in drifts. But still the sun shone, though it seemed to grow a little dimmer, a little paler; finally, about two hours after the others had left, Foster-father felt uncertain whether it was all drift that seemed to fill the air with a fine white film, or whether fresh snow was falling.
An hour later there was no doubt about it. Great flakes were circling down silently, the sun had vanished, all things had become grey. Head-nurse heaped up the fire, set a quilt before it for the children to play upon, and then opened out the wallets to see what she could find for supper. There was not much left, and she was about to knead up all the flour to bake hearth cakes when Foster-father crossed over to her and whispered:
“Half will do, sister; otherwise there may be none for to-morrow.”
“None?” she echoed. “But they will be back——”
Foster-father pointed to the snow that, driven now by a rising wind, had drifted underneath the door. “Not through that, sister! We may have to stay here till the weather moderates, for none save friends will risk their lives, and these men love us not!”
But even as he spoke there was a bustling at the door, Tumbu flew forward, barking loudly, and in stumbled——
Old Faithful and Meroo the cook-boy!
They were heavily burdened, half-blinded by the snow, and they had a disquieting tale to tell. About twelve miles back, just as the snow began to fall, their party, which had been delayed on the main road by a flooded river, had come upon the Captain of the Escort and his three troopers. Then had ensued a hurried consultation, in which several of the men had flatly refused to go on in face of the coming storm. It was, they said, sheer madness. Better return to the nearest township and await better weather. As for the prisoners, they had food enough to keep life in them for a day or two, and after that they must take their chance. Whereupon Old Faithful and Meroo had offered to go on, carrying some of the provisions they had with them, and trusting to be able to follow the tracks left by the horses in the snow. This had been agreed upon, and—here they were!