Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 11

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NO argument could be held with such intelligence as this. Shagbark, with a queer expression on his bearded countenance, looked at the grinning Jethro, but did not speak. Possibly he felt that he was blamable in the matter, for it had been his awful words that caused the senseless panic of the colored youth, and made him flee from before a harmless antelope, when the lad had a loaded rifle in his hands and knew how to use it.

Alden was so amazed that at first he suspected his dusky friend was jesting, but there could be no doubt of his earnestness. Jethro was confident that he had saved his life by his own brightness.

“It’s too much for me,” commented Alden with a shake of his head.

When all three were in their saddles, they rode out to where the two carcasses lay at the foot of the slope. Shagbark compelled Jethro to dismount and help sling the body of the buck across the back of the pony and balance in front of the saddle. Since the animal weighed nearly as much as the African himself, the veteran ordered him to walk beside his horse and hold the burden in place until the party reached camp. The female which had been shot was so much lighter that Shagbark took it on the back of his powerful steed with him. The burden was weighty, but the distance was not far, and all moved at a moderate walk.

At the moment of starting, the sun was shining from a clear sky. Ten minutes later the radiance turned a dull leaden hue, and all three were wrapped in the swirl of a furious snow squall. The millions of big flakes, eddied and spun around and so filled the air that they could not see one another, when they were barely ten feet apart. Shagbark called to the two to fall in line behind him and not stop. They bent their heads and pushed on, leaving the direction to the ponies.

Presto! the squall ended as quickly as it began. At the close of fifteen minutes not a flake was in the air. The ground was covered with a thin white sheet which speedily melted in the warm rays of the sun. The radius of the curious flurry was so slight that it was speedily left behind them.

Jethro led his pony alongside of Alden’s mare. The guide, as was his custom when riding with the emigrant train, kept a brief way in advance, looking straight ahead and paying no attention to the two behind him.

“Say, Al, what’s de matter wid Mr. Shagbark?” asked Jethro, lowering his voice.

“Nothing; why do you ask?”

“What’s he gwine back to de ridge fur? Does he wanter shoot some more antelopes?”

It seemed to Alden that the hunter had turned from the direct course, but the youth knew he had good reason for doing so.

“If you will look to the right you will see that he isn’t riding toward the ridge.”

“Don’t make no difference; we’ll neber git home if we trabel the way he’s gwine now.”

“If you think best, you might point out his mistake to him.”

“Gorrynation! he’s too touchy for me to put in my oar; you am de one to set him right.”

“I must first know that he is wrong; wait until then.”

Accordingly Jethro held his peace, though he often muttered to himself. He was silent, however, when the circle of Conestogas, with the men, women and children moving outside and among them came in sight. Shagbark had kept to a bee line from the last starting point to the emigrant camp.

The forenoon was not half gone, but Shagbark decided that the party should rest until after the midday meal. As has been explained, there was no need of haste, and the occasional halts did the oxen and horses good. They could crop the grass at their leisure, and though capable of long continued strain, the cessation was none the less grateful to the patient, plodding animals.

Shagbark dressed and roasted the two carcasses. No chef could have done the work better. The odor of the broiling meat whetted every appetite and the meal was one of the most satisfying of which they had partaken since crossing the Missouri. Enough “fragments” remained to serve quite well for a lighter feast, and they were carefully laid aside for that purpose. It was about two o’clock when the yokes were adjusted to the necks of the oxen, the horsemen swung into their saddles, and the cavalcade headed for Fort Laramie, on the other side of the mountain spur which bears the latter half of that name.

From the saddle, Alden Payne scrutinized the country to the north, the west and the south. He was searching for the company with which his enemy Ross Brandley was traveling. His one regret was that the antelope hunt had lessened the probability of meeting that combative young man. Like many a mistaken youth, Alden was sure he could not be happy until he had evened up matters between them.

“He nearly knocked me over in the first place,” reflected the youth for the hundredth time, “and when I protested, he insulted me, put up his fists, and got in a blow. What roils me,” added Alden to himself, with a flash of the eye and a compression of the lips, “is that he must have taken my politeness last night for fear of him. If I had only known who he was, I should have said something that would have made his cheeks tingle. It will be strange if we miss each other, for we are both anxious to meet, and, after all, there can’t be so very many miles between us.”

Far ahead towered the Laramie range, the peaks, softened by the intervening miles, gradually taking on a clearer view, as the separating distance was lessened. To the northward country was undulating or level, mostly covered with the billowy, succulent lush grass, which makes the region one of the finest grazing grounds in the world.

Halting Firebug, so that his gait should not interfere with his sight, the young man studied the outlook in that direction. He was thus employed when Shaghark drew rein beside him.

“Wal, younker, what do ye make of it?”

“It seems to me,” replied Alden, lowering the binocular, “that I can see a faint, bluish shadowy outline of something in the horizon. Is it a mountain range?”

“That’s what it is,” said Shaghark; “ye’re looking at the Medicine Bow Mountains, which lay a good many miles south; afore long they’ll fade out of yer sight; see anything else?”

Alden raised the glasses again and studied the section.

“I see the white tents of an emigrant train well to the southwest and several miles behind them, other wagons, both slowly pushing westward.”

“Ye’re right; I wonder how many hundred of ’em there is atween St. Joe and Sacramento?”

“It isn’t possible, Shagbark, that either of those trains is the one to which Mr. Chadwick belongs?”

The veteran guffawed.

“Ef it war Jeth that asked that tom fool question I shouldn’t be ’sprised, but I didn’t look for anything like it from yerself, younker. How could the company ye’re speaking off, which war a purty long way to the northwest swing round into that part of the world, ’specially when there ain’t any reason for them doing so?”

“It wasn’t a sensible question, Shagbark, but it was caused by my wish to meet that chap who visited us with his uncle last night.”

The hunter looked curiously at his young friend, but said nothing. The simple minded fellow was not without a natural share of curiosity, but he asked no question. What may be called a rude delicacy restrained him. If Alden chose to tell him more, he would listen, but it rested with the young man himself.

The latter was on the point of describing that affray on the streets of St. Joe, but a curious feeling of shame restrained him. He was not sure how the veteran would view it. He might discourage the resolution of Alden, though the probabilities were the other way.

“He can’t dissuade me, but I don’t want him to try. If I let him know I am eager to meet that fellow again, he will do all he can to help, without my saying anything further.”

The two resumed their riding in advance of the company, and after a few minutes’ silence the guide, speaking with his briarwood between his lips said:

“Thar’s one thing that may comfort ye, younker.”

“What’s that?”

“Most of the companies that’s tramping ’cross the plains do as we done,—that is they don’t hurry, which ain’t never a good thing unless thar’s no help fur it. Them folks that ye want to see will stop to rest while we’re pushing on, jest as we done.”

“That being so,” said the pleased Alden; “we stand a fair chance of coming up with them between here and Salt Lake?”

“Yas; long afore we get that fur.”

“I am glad to hear you say that.”

“And I’m mighty glad that ye are glad,” grimly commented Shagbark, who proceeded to explain that the Laramie Range would be crossed some fifty miles to the south of Fort Laramie. A depression there made an easy passage through the rugged spur, whose western slope would be followed northward to the military post named. The same direction was to be held before turning westward again. This was the route of the trains and Pony Express riders, who followed the line of the least resistance as may be said.

By that time they would be well into the prodigious mountainous region which would confront them for a thousand miles or more, for it is the foothills of the Rockies. The present state of Colorado is traversed by the main axis or continental divide of the Rocky Mountains which there finds its greatest northern development. The culminating crest of the main range is the Wind River Mountains in the west-central part of the State, which is traversed by numerous other ranges, including the Big Horn in the north-central section, the Laramie Mountains already mentioned, the Medicine Bow in the south; north of them the Sweetwater and Rattlesnake ranges, and in the west the Teton, Shoshone and Gros Ventres mountains. The extreme northeast is penetrated by the Black Hills from South Dakota. The loftiest peak is Fremont’s in the Wind River Mountains, two and a half miles high, with others of almost as great elevation.

The Wind River Mountains display that remarkable fact which is probably familiar to our readers. Rain falling in a comparative brief area divides so that some of the drops flow westward and find their way into the Columbia and thence to the Pacific. Another part of the rainfall or melted snow winds its way ultimately to the Colorado and into the Gulf of California, while a third gropes to the Missouri and finally into the Gulf of Mexico. The southeastern part of the State, through which our friends were journeying, is drained by the North Fork of the Platte and its affluents, including the Laramie and Sweetwater rivers, the Lodge Pole, Rock, Poison Spring, Medicine Bow, Horse and Rawhide creeks. It may be added that that grand national playground known as the Yellowstone Park covers a wide area in the northwestern corner of the State.

One of the most deceptive things is distance on the plains and among the mountains. Alden Payne was certain of reaching the base of the Laramie range before the company went into camp at nightfall, but as the afternoon drew to a close, the wild region seemed as far off as ever.

“If all goes well we shall strike ’em by tomorrow night,” commented Shagbark; “howsumever ye have observed that another company has camped two miles off on the same creek that we’re going to use.”

“Is there any possibility of its being the one that Mr. Chadwick is with?” asked Alden.

“Shouldn’t be ’sprised, but thar ain’t no way of telling without making a call.”

“I think I shall ride over just before dusk and find out.”

“Nobody’ll object to that; will ye go alone?”

Alden hesitated. His first intention was to ask Shagbark to accompany him, but the uncertainty of his sentiments caused the youth to decide otherwise. He would take Jethro, for companionship, rather than for any help he could give. Shagbark made no comment on the decision, and it is not likely he cared one way or the other.

Sometime later, Alden dropped back to the main body, where he turned over his pony to the care of Jethro, and entered the wagon in which Mrs. Fleming and several of the women were riding. He apologized for intruding, though he was ever welcome. He explained that he wished to do some writing.

Seating himself with his back against the side of the Conestoga, as it lumbered easily over the plain, Alden drew out his note book, sharpened his lead pencil and framed the following:

“Ross Brandley, Sir,—I did not recognize you when you called last night with Mr. Chadwick. Had I known at the time who you were (my colored servant told me afterward), you would have heard some plain words from me, though coming as our guest, I should have treated you with politeness which probably you would not have appreciated. Fearing that a similar restraint may be upon you when I return the call, I hand you this note.

“I ask you to ride after me as I return, until I reach a point midway between our camps. I shall wait there for you. We shall then be upon neutral ground and I challenge you to a finish fight with fists as weapons. This would have been the case in St. Joe had not your relative, fearing you would suffer harm, carried you away, though it was plain to me that he did not have much trouble in getting you beyond my reach.

Alden Payne.”

Alden read this belligerent message and smiled. He was pleased with it.

“Those last words will hit him hard. A fellow would rather be called anything than a coward. I can’t say he showed any sign of wishing to sneak out, and when I remark that his uncle didn’t have any trouble in lugging him off, I suppose I exaggerate, but I want to make sure the scamp doesn’t find an excuse for dodging a square, stand up fight. I don’t think I can improve the letter.”

He folded the paper and wrote the name of Brandley on the outside, after which he placed the slip between the pages of his note book which was shoved into the inner pocket of his coat. Without consulting the women around him or letting them know what was in the wind, he sprang out of the wagon to the ground.

A few minutes later the halt for the night was made. Alden told Jethro he intended to visit the camp in front and wished him to go along.

“I ’spose you’ll wait till after supper?” inquired the servant.

“Of course; I know how much it would hurt you to miss a meal.”

“I’m allers ready to take keer ob you, Al,” remarked the servant in an aggrieved voice.

What a fatality often attends small things! Jethro had no suspicion that the company in advance was the one from which the two visitors had come the night before. Alden did not aim to hide the fact from him, but simply omitted to mention it. Had Jethro known the meaning of this evening call, he would have forced his master to hear the momentous secret which the dusky youth had been carrying for weeks. And had that secret been revealed, Alden Payne would have made a most important change in his programme.

Since it was not so to be, the two after the evening meal, cinched their saddle girths and rode out on the plain. They took a course almost due west. The camp fires of the other party twinkled like stars in the horizon, and the space was covered in less than half an hour, the horsemen riding at an easy gallop.

As he drew near, Alden was struck by the resemblance of the camp to his own. The eight wagons were ranged in a similar circle and the emigrants seemed to number nearly the same. They had mules, however, in addition to oxen and horses. All were cropping the grass, while a small stream of icy water flowed within their convenient reach.

The guards had not yet been placed, though such a precaution would not be long delayed, for it was unsupposable that any company of emigrants should have penetrated thus far on their journey to the Pacific without learning the lesson which Shagbark had impressed upon his charges from the day they crossed the Missouri.

Little or no notice was taken of the two horsemen until they rode up to the nearest wagon. The animals were guided to one side where the big camp fire threw out its rays, which were reflected from the ponies and their riders.

“I’ll stay on Jilk and wait fur you to come back,” said Jethro; “I doan’ think any ob dem folks keers ’bout seeing me.”

Alden did not object, and had hardly swung out of the saddle to the ground, when two men came forward to greet him. One was unusually tall, the other of medium height and both wore heavy beards. The youth scanned them closely, in the partial obscurity, but neither was Mr. Chadwick. They cordially greeted the visitor and invited him to go forward and join in their meal. Most of the group were gathered around the “festal board,” which happened just then to be their blankets spread on the green grass.

‘T thank you,” replied Alden, “but my servant and myself partook just before leaving our own camp. This is really a business rather than a social call.”

“In what way can we serve you?”

“I have a letter which I shall be glad if you will hand to a member of your party.”

Alden drew out his note book and took the folded paper from between the pages.

“Perhaps it will be better if I give it to Mr. Chadwick and ask him to hand it to his nephew Ross Brandley. I owe a call to Mr. Chadwick.”

The two men glanced in surprise at Alden. He of the shorter statue was about to reach out his hand to take the missive but refrained.

‘T do not recognize the names you mention.”

The elder is Garret Chadwick and his nephew, who I judge is nearly my own age, is Ross Brandley. The note is for the younger.”

“Sorry, but I never heard of them before.”

“Then,” said the disappointed Alden, “they cannot be members of your party.”

“They are not; we have never met either.”

“I beg your pardon for my mistake; you will excuse me for not remaining. I thank you for your courtesy, and you and your friends have my best wishes for a pleasant journey to the other side of the continent.”

The trio exchanged military salutations, after the men had repeated their invitation for the visitor to go forward and meet other members of the company. Alden put his foot in the stirrup and sprang into the saddle.

“Too bad,” he muttered, “but I shall meet that fellow before many days.”

He was right in his surmise, but little did he dream of the circumstances which were to attend that memorable meeting.