A LL night long the children slept soundly in the hayloft, with the moon peering in at them through the chinks between the logs. In the morning they were awakened by the music of cow-bells, and by the voice of the old herdsman, who stuck his head up through the hole in the floor and called out "Wake up, my young heroes! The sun is already looking over the crest of Rigi, and it's time you were on your way."
Seppi and Leneli sat up and rubbed their eyes, and for a moment could not think where they were or how they came to be there. Then they remembered, and, springing from their rude beds, ran out into the glorious morning and washed their faces and hands in the mountain stream that flowed near the hut. Then there were the goats to be milked, and breakfast to be eaten, and the shadows were already shortening when at last they were ready for their lonely and dangerous journey.
The old herdsman packed some bread and cheese in their lunch-cloth, Leneli slung the bundle on her alpenstock, and Seppi called Bello to herd the goats. But the goats were well pleased with the rich green grass of the alp, and were unwilling to leave the pasture. They frisked and gamboled and stood on their hind legs butting each other playfully, and it was some time before Seppi and Bello could get them fairly started.
The old herdsman had done his milking very early in order to go a little way with the children, and now, leaving the cows in charge of his faithful dog, he led the way down the steep mountain path.
The morning air was so clear and sparkling and the sun shone so bright upon the snow-capped peaks, that the children almost forgot the dangers of the unknown path. It seemed impossible that anything could happen to them in such a wonderful and beautiful world, and they said good-bye quite cheerfully to the good old herdsman when at last he stopped and told them he must go back to his cheese-making. From the place where they stood, they could see the path like a tiny thread, winding through forests, down a long, narrow valley shut in by high cliffs, past waterfalls fed by mountain snows, and losing itself at last where a tiny white steeple marked the little village which was the home of the old herdsman. The old man pointed to it. "Follow the path and remember Peter of Lucerne," he said. "This is your chance! Trust the good God, do not be afraid, and soon your troubles will be over and you will be once more in your mother's arms." He stood on a rock and watched the little procession until a bend in the path hid it from sight, then he went back to his lonely pasture.
For an hour or so, the children trudged quite cheerfully on their way. "This isn't hard at all," said Seppi. "The pass is easier to follow than our own. How silly we were to be scared!"
They were so used to climbing about in perilous places that when a little later the path led them along a shelf-like projection on the side of steep cliffs, overhanging a mountain stream, they were not frightened. But when they began to grow tired, and the trail led them into a dark forest, where the sun came through the thick boughs and shone only in patches of light upon the slippery spruce needles, they grew less courageous.
"I don't like the forest," said Leneli, shivering a little and looking behind her. "It always seems as if things would happen to you in the woods."
"What kind of things?" said Seppi, who was beginning to feel a bit shaky himself.
"Why—you know," answered Leneli, "the kind of things that giants and dragons and dwarfs do! And then there's that story about Pontius Pilate. You know our old Mount Pilatus was named that because they say his body was thrown into one of its lakes, and his spirit haunts the mountain. He only comes out once a year, but oh, Seppi, suppose this should be the time!"
"Huh!" said Seppi scornfully. "Girls' talk! Of course I don't believe such things; besides, he only comes out on Good Friday, anyway!"
"Well," said Leneli, "lots of people do believe them, even grown-up people."
"Pooh," said Seppi, and just to show that he didn't care at all about such idle tales he began to whistle; but Leneli noticed that he too looked behind him now and then.
It grew more and more difficult to find the way, for there were openings between the trees that looked like paths and the true path wound in and out, and came near losing itself entirely among the rocks. The brown needles covered the ground in every direction, so the pass was no different in color from the rest of the forest floor. When they looked behind them or peered fearfully under the spruce boughs for dwarfs or giants, of course they were not watching the trail carefully, and so, when suddenly there was a loud whirring noise above the trees and a great bird flew almost over their heads, they were so startled they just ran without noticing which way they were going. Bello was startled too, and began to bark. This started the goats, and before you could say "Jack Robinson" children, dog, goats, and all were galloping pell-mell through the woods.
After the loud whirring noise the forest was still again, and the children stopped their mad race, but they could not stop the goats. On and on they ran with Bello after them, and there was nothing for the children to do but follow, for had not their father told them that the welfare of the whole family depended upon the goats, and if any should be lost, they alone would be to blame? Stumbling over roots, dodging trees and rocks, they plunged wildly along until finally they saw a light spot ahead and a moment later came out suddenly upon the edge of a precipice, from which they could look straight down into a deep valley below. The goats were there before them huddled together an the brow of the cliff, bleating piteously. Bello sat on his haunches with his tongue hanging out and looked at the scenery! Seppi and Leneli looked at each other in dismay.
"Now you've done it!" said Seppi miserably. "We've lost the path, and it's all your fault! If we had been thinking about Peter of Lucerne instead of about those silly old giants and dwarfs, this would not have happened."
"You were just as scared as I was," said Leneli, "and you needn't try to lay it all on me! You jumped and ran just as soon as I did, when that bird flew over our heads."
Seppi knew that this was true, so he said nobly: "Very well, let's not quarrel about it. What we need to do is to get the goats back to the path."
He took some salt from his pocket, as his big brother had taught him to do, and walked slowly toward them, holding out his hand. Nanni stretched her neck forward and had taken just one lick of the salt when suddenly the loud whirring noise came again, there was a terrific scream overhead, and from the crags above them a great golden eagle swooped down towards the frightened group on the cliff, and, sticking his terrible talons into Nanni's back, tried to lift her bodily into the air! For an instant she swung dizzily over the edge of the cliff as the eagle beat his wings furiously in an effort to rise with his heavy burden. But in that instant Seppi leaped forward and, seizing the goat by the tail, pulled back with all his might. Leneli sprang to the rescue of Seppi, grasping him firmly around the waist, and screaming like a wildcat as she added her strength to his.
Meanwhile Bello barked furiously, and the rest of the goats fled bleating into the woods in a mad stampede. It was all over in less time that it takes to tell it. The goat, wounded and bleeding, dropped to the ground, the great bird soared away into the dizzy spaces beyond the cliff, and the children dashed into the shelter of the woods, dragging Nanni after them. They could not sink down on the ground and recover from their fright as they longed to do, for by this time the goats had scattered among the trees and must be brought together again at once. Bello was distractedly trying to round them up, but as he had no idea of the direction in which to drive them, they were all galloping wildly about, first this way, then that.
It was some time before the children succeeded in getting the flock together again, but at last they were able to drive them farther into the woods, and away from the dangers of the cliffs, and were soon fortunate enough to come upon a little mountain stream which was singing its way through the forest. Here the goats stopped willingly to drink, and for the first time the children were able to give some attention to Nanni. Her back was torn and bloody, but her injuries were not serious and on the whole she seemed little the worse for her experience.
"We must let all the goats rest a little," said Seppi. "There isn't any food for them, but they can have a good drink while we eat our lunch, and then we just must find that path."