T HE sun was already dipping toward the west when they finished the last crumb of their bread and cheese, washed it down with a drink from the mountain stream, and started once more on their journey. They followed the path without much difficulty, for it had been trampled by the feet of many cattle that morning, and at the end of an hour had covered several miles without meeting a person or finding any sign of human habitation The way grew wilder and wilder and wound slowly upward.
"It's going to be dark pretty soon," said Leneli at last, trying hard to conceal the tremble in her voice, "and we are going up instead of down. Seppi, do you suppose there are any bears and wolves about here?"
"Maybe," said Seppi, and there was a little catch in his throat, too. "But then," he added, trying hard to look on the bright side of things, "if there are, they'd be much more likely to eat the goats. I don't believe they care much about eating people."
"Well, anyway, if they do," quavered Leneli, "I hope they'll begin with Nanni."
The afternoon waned; the shadows grew longer and longer, and they wire just making up their minds that they must soon lie down among the goats beside the trail and wait for morning, when a turn in the path brought them out on a spur of the mountain where they could look for miles across a deep valley towards the west. On the farther side, range after range of snow-capped peaks gave back the golden glory of the sunset, and from somewhere came the sound of an Alpine horn playing the first few notes of the hymn "Praise Ye the Lord."
"The Angelus!" cried Leneli clasping, her hands. "They can't hear the church-bells up here, so they blow the horns instead."
Far away across the valley another horn answered, then another and another, and the echoes took up the refrain until it seemed as if the hills themselves were singing.
Following eagerly the direction of the sound the children were overjoyed to see in the distance a lonely herdsman standing on a great rock overlooking the valley, his long Alpine horn in his hand, and his head bowed in prayer. Leneli and Seppi bowed their heads too, and it comforted them to think that their mother in the old farm-house, and Father and Fritz on the far-away alp, were all at that same moment praying too. It seemed to bring them near together in spite of the distance which separated them.
Their prayers said, the children hastened forward, driving the goats before them, and now the sound of cow-bells mingled with the tinkle of the bells on the goats. Another turn in the path revealed a green pasture where a herd of cows was grazing, and, just beyond, a rough shelter made of logs with the herdsman, still holding his horn, standing beside it. He was gazing in astonishment at the sight of two little children alone on the mountains at so late an hour. He was an old man, with a shaggy white beard, and strange kind eyes that seemed always looking for something that he could not find. Beside him, his ears pointed forward and his tail pointing back, was his dog. The dog was growling.
For an instant the children stood still, not quite daring to go nearer, but Bello, dear friendly old Bello, had no such fears. He ran forward barking joyfully; the two dogs smelled each other, and then trotted back down the path together as if they had been friends since they were puppies.
The man followed at a slower pace. "What in the world are you doing up here on the mountains with your goats at this time o' day?" he said to the children.
The Twins told him their story, and he stood for a moment scratching his head, as if he were much puzzled to know what to do with them.
"Well," he said at length, "you can't get down the mountain to-night, that's certain; and you must be hungry enough to eat an ox roasted whole, that's certain too. And your goats are hungry into the bargain. Goats aren't allowed in this pasture, but they mustn't starve either. Nothing is as it should be."
He scratched his head again, and Leneli, fearing he was going to turn them away, could not keep a large tear from rolling, down her nose and splashing off her chin.
"There, there," said the old herdsman, comfortingly, "don't you cry, sissy. Things aren't so bad but that they might be worse. You can sleep in the hay up yonder," he jerked his thumb toward the hut, "and I'll give you a bite to eat, and the goats will help themselves, I've no manner of doubt."
"We can drink goat's milk," said Leneli timidly, "and you may have all we don't take."
"We'll have to milk them first," said Seppi, "and we've never done it before. Mother always does the milking."
"I know how," said Leneli proudly. "Don't you remember, Fritz taught me the day Nanni swallowed my lunch?"
"I'll lend you a milk-pail," said the herdsman. "The cows were all milked some time ago."
He went back to the hut and soon reappeared with two pails, and as Leneli struggled with one goat he milked another, while Seppi fed both creatures with tufts of grass to keep them quiet. It was the first good grass the goats had seen since morning, and apparently they were determined to eat the pasture clean.
The herdsman looked at them anxiously and scratched his head again. "They certainly have healthy appetites," he said woefully; "they don't calculate to leave anything behind 'em but stones and gravel!"
The milking took some time and after it was done, the old man placed the sad and tired children on the bench beside his door, and while they ate the food he gave them and watched the moon rise over the mountains, he told them about his home in the village fifteen miles away at the foot of the pass, and about his wife and two grandchildren who lived there with him.
"The only thing you can do," he said, "is to go down the pass on this side of the mountain. You can spend the night at my house or at some farm-house on the way and it is only about ten miles back to your own village from the foot of the pass."
"But how can we find the way?" quavered poor Leneli.
The old man scratched his head, as he always did when he was puzzled, and finally said, "Well, I'm blest if I can tell you. It's a hard pass. I'd go with you, but I'm alone here and I can't leave the cows even for half a day. I'll start you right, the dog and the goats have some sense of their own; and the good God will guide you. Besides, Swiss boys and girls are never afraid."