Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 10
SINCE there was no call for haste, the progress of the emigrant train sometimes ceased altogether. This was the case on the morning following the incident just related. The cause of the stoppage was to permit Shagbark to go a-hunting. They had entered a region some time before where game abounded, and his policy was to use as little of the reserve supplies as possible. The day was likely to come when they would have no other recourse. It was not practical to carry much fodder for the animals, but even that scant supply was hoarded against the inevitable “rainy day.”
Although the American bison or buffalo has been virtually extinct for years, the animals were numbered by the hundred thousand on the western plains at the time we have in mind. The droves seen in the distance seemed often to cover a fourth of the horizon, and their dark, shaggy backs as they cropped the herbage and hitched continually forward, were like the fretted waves of the sea. Shagbark had shot a number, and twice he took Alden and Jethro with him on the excursions. A nearly fatal result to Alden followed the attempted slaying of an enormous bull by shooting him in the head instead of just behind the fore leg, but the mistake was not repeated. Jethro showed his natural timidity, and kept as close as he could to the veteran, while Alden indulged in spurts of his own which more than once brought results.
Shagbark, however, was not partial to buffalo meat, which many of his friends found coarse and tough. They preferred venison, which was not always tender, and they were able to obtain considerable quantities of it. He regarded the antelope with more favor than either. So it came about on the morning referred to, that he and the two youths set out to shoot some of the timid creatures. Occasionally Mr. Fleming and some of his friends took part in the hunts, but they preferred to stay in camp on this day and let the trio prove their prowess.
The effect of this halt was to increase the distance between the party and the one in advance, to which Garret Chadwick and his nephew belonged; for the latter company moved at an early hour and were many miles distant before nightfall.
Antelope hunting has been too often described for me to dwell upon this particular venture. When the three rode over the plains to the northwest in the direction of the towering Laramie Mountains, not one of the animals was in sight, nor had the guide seen any on the previous day. He had been over the region before, however, and knew he would not have to hunt long.
He first headed toward a ridge which rose two hundred feet or more above the prairie, showing few boulders and rocks, and no trees. Beyond it stretched a beautiful valley to the foothills of the mountain range. This space was several miles in width, and a small, clear stream meandered through the valley, on its way to the Sweetwater, and thence to the North Platte. Shagbark gave it as his belief that some of the animals would be found in the valley, and, as usual, he was not mistaken.
The American antelope or pronghorn is a native of the plains near the Rocky Mountains. Nearly always the upper parts of ts body are yellowish brown in color, while the under parts, the sides and the head and throat and the buttocks are white. It sheds the bony sheath of its horns every year. It may be worth noting that this creature is known also by the names of prongbuck, pronghorned antelope, cabrèe and cabut.
The most peculiar trait of the antelope is its curiosity. But for this weakness, it would be almost impossible for a hunter to get within range of the game. Lying in the grass, where his body is invisible, the man lifts his hat or a handkerchief on the muzzle or ramrod of his rifle. The moment the animal sees it he bounds off in a panic, but does not go far before he halts and looks back. The odd sight has roused his curiosity, and he gingerly draws near, ready to dash away again in the instant danger shows himself.
All the hunter needs to have is patience. The creature is sure to come within reach of his gun and fall a victim to the infirmity that had proved the undoing of many a human being. It is hard to understand this singular failing of the antelope.
At the base of the ridge Shagbark drew rein and his companions did the same.
“Don’t stir from hyar,” he said, “till I give ye the word.”
Dismounting, he walked briskly up the slope until near the top. There he slackened his pace, stooped low, and reaching a favorable point, removed his hat and peeped cautiously over. Alden and Jethro, who were watching him, saw him remain stationary for a minute or two. Then he crouched still lower, donned his hat and hurried back to them.
“Thar’s three of ’em,” he said, “and we oughter bag ’em all.”
“I shall be glad to do my part,” replied Alden.
“Which de same am likewise de fac’ as regards myself,” added Jethro.
The guide explained his plan, which, it may be said, caused Alden mild surprise, inasmuch as it gave the African the post of honor. Shagbark had described so often the method employed in hunting the antelope that the youths understood it theoretically. It remained for them to prove that they had a practical knowledge also.
Shagbark remarked that everything was in their favor. The slight breeze came directly from the animals, so it could not carry the scent of the hunters to them. In the circumstances, with the protection of the grass, it ought to be easy to steal within gunshot of the game, provided their inquiring nature was turned to good account.
Jethro was to move along the slope parallel with it, until he had gone an eighth of a mile, when he was to creep over the crest with the utmost caution and sneak into the grass on the other side. Once there he must advance slowly and with the utmost care toward the antelope. If they took the alarm, which they were almost certain to do, he should cease moving, lie flat and raise his hat on the ramrod of his gun, one end of which was to be thrust into the soft earth.
Then the old performance would follow. One or more of the animals would begin a timid, hesitating approach, frequently bounding or circling away for some distance, halting and advancing again, hypnotized by the singular sight whose nature they could not fathom without a closer view.
“All ye’ve got to do is to lay still with yer gun p’inted and yer finger on the trigger till he comes within reach. Then let him have, it.”
“What will become of de oders?” asked Jethro.
“We’ll ’tend to them.”
“Am de antelope a wery savage critter, Mr. Shagbark?” asked Jethro, with so much misgiving as to rouse the waggery of the trapper.
“He stands next to the grizzly b’ar: he kin use them horns and sharp hoofs and chaw up a wolf while ye’re winking an eye.”
“Yas, sir,” said Jethro, swallowing a lump in his throat, as he set out to obey the directions of the guide.
Shagbark and Alden had little to do for an indefinite period except to watch the course of the African, who had every reason to look for success, since all the conditions, as the hunter had said, were favorable. In addition, it has been shown that the dusky youth was a fair marksman.
He kept below the crest of the ridge and walked fast, until he had gone even farther than told to go. Finally he crept up the slope, and like his director, removed his hat and cautiously looked over the summit of the ridge.
He as well as the antelope was in sight all the time, and Shagbark and Alden did not allow any of his movements to escape them. They saw him pass slowly over the top of the elevation and down the other side, where it was not so easy to trace him, because of the abundance of grass which screened the amateur hunter.
“Sometimes I think he isn’t such a big fool as he looks,” said the guide, after Jethro had begun worming his way through the vegetation. “I couldn’t do any better than he’s done so fur, but it’s best to wait to see how he makes out.”
“That is my opinion—helloa! what’s up now?
The largest of the animals, evidently a buck, was cropping the grass a few yards nearer the negro than were the other two animals. The three remained thus employed for some time after Jethro had left the base of the ride. That which caused the exclamation of Alden was the action of the buck. He suddenly stopped grazing, threw his head high in air and stared in the direction of the invisible hunter.
“He seems to be alarmed over something; it can’t be he has scented Jethro.”
“I might think so, for it’s easy to do that with him, if it warn’t that the wind blows the wrong way. But they’re mighty cute critters, and the buck is scared over something. Now’s the time when the darky oughter stop.”
“He seems to have done that. He is half hidden by the grass, but I don’t think he is stirring.”
From their elevation the couple by using care could peer over the crest without drawing the attention of the game to themselves. Looking down on the colored youth, as he was partly revealed, it was evident he had noticed the action of the prongbuck. Jethro had ceased moving, and sank so flat on the ground that the game became invisible to him.
Waiting thus a few minutes, he slowly raised his head, parting the spears in front until once more he saw the game.
The two had not stopped grazing for a moment, and the buck now lowered his head and resumed feeding. If he had been alarmed his fears quickly left him.
Jethro resumed his painstaking progress and kept it up until within two hundred yards of the group, no one of which raised a head. The distance was too great for a shot, though he might have succeeded in his aim. Seeming to think he had gone far enough, the youth now resorted to the usual trick, which has been described. Drawing his ramrod from its place under the barrel of his rifle, he placed his hat over one end and pushed the other down in the ground so hard that it stood upright without aid from him. That which followed was beyond the comprehension of either Shagbark or Alden.
The signal had hardly been set in place, when the buck flung up his head again. What induced him to do so cannot be told, unless it was that mysterious “sixth sense,” which some believe belongs to men and animals alike. There had not been the slightest noise, and it has been said that what little breeze was blowing could not carry the scent across the space.
But the first glance of the buck was at the hat on the upright stick. Almost immediately he wheeled and ran a dozen paces, his companions following. Then he paused, stared and walked toward the scarecrow, as it may be called. He did not go much nearer than before, and when he turned, ran round in a large circle, halted once more and repeated the movement described.
This peculiar performance continued until the buck was no more than a hundred yards from the dusky hunter lying low in the grass. Then his halt and stare were longer than before. His companions now caught to some extent his excitement. They discerned the cause, trotted here and there and back again, and looked and acted as if they wished to leave the spot, but could not shake off the attraction which drew them to the danger point.
It was noticeable, however, that the females did not approach the signal so near as their leader. They were as content for him to take the main risk as he was to take it upon himself.
“Why doesn’t Jethro fire?” asked Alden impatiently; “the antelope is within easy range, and he can bring him down dead sure.”
“I’ve been wondering over the same thing,” said Shagbark; “he can shoot from the grass or stand up and pick off the critter afore he turns. That’ll send the others this way and we’ll pick ’em off. What’s the matter with the chump?”
Jethro had partly risen from the ground and was seen more clearly by his friends. From his position the shot would have been an easy one. Shaghark had expected from the first that the African would make such an attempt. The plan, as has been shown, would have bagged all three of the antelope.
Jethro was seen to rise higher, though still stooping, and grasp his gun, which, however, he did not bring to his shoulder. Then he suddenly wheeled without firing a shot and ran at headlong speed directly away from the buck!
The most forcible exclamation that Alden Payne had ever heard from the lips of Shagbark was uttered at the astounding sight. The terrified buck had turned and dashed off with the speed of the wind in the opposite direction, running so swiftly that he drew away from his two charges.
“Don’t stir,” whispered the guide; “I’ll take the buck and you the one next to him; don’t fire till I give the word.”
The two were lying on their faces with their guns pointed over the crest of the ridge. The three animals in their panic came not straight toward the couple, but took a diagonal course which promised to bring them within easy range. Their extreme sensitiveness to scent and sound was familiar to Shagbark, and he knew they would turn aside before coming very near.
The buck detected his danger a minute later. In running from one of the ogres that strode through the country on two legs, he was leading his charges directly upon another.
In the same instant that the new peril flashed upon him, he veered abruptly to the right, still skimming the prairie with amazing speed.
“Now!” whispered Shagbark, pressing the trigger of his weapon.
There was only a second or two between the reports, and it is enough to say that each shot was perfect in its way. Like all their species, the antelope ran quite a distance after being mortally smitten.
The third was far beyond reach before either could reload his piece. Jethro would have fired had not the new turn of affairs thrown him out of range of all the animals. Seeing the two fall, he trotted forward with a huge grin on his ebon countenance. Allowing the carcasses for Shagbark to look after, the angered Alden turned upon the servant and exclaimed:
“Of all fools that I ever saw you’re the champion!”
“How’s dat?” asked Jethro, still smiling.
“When you had the best chance in the world to bring down that buck why didn’t you do it, instead of running away from him?”
Jethro shook with exulting laughter.
“You can’t fool dis chile; I reasoned out de whole thing. Mr. Shagbark tole me how dem critters chaw and stomp and bite a feller; I knowed dat if I brunged down dis one, it would make de oder two so mad dey’d come at me afore I could load up ag’in, and you wouldn’t hab any Jeth any more. So I luft; dem antelopes am wery rewengeful—wery rewengeful—and I’se too smart to gib ’em de chance dey wanted to lambast me.”