Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 15
NOW FOR THE MAIL STATION
NO wonder Alden Payne was rattled. Who wouldn’t be thrown into a panic by the discovery of his helplessness in so dangerous a situation?
Moreover, Dick Lightfoot’s revolver was with his body. Still the youth had his own small weapon which he carried at his hip, where he could draw it the instant needed. Besides this he had his hunting knife, which would be of little help in the circumstances. He might do something in the way of defense with his pistol, but of what avail against a party of Indians armed with rifles, or possibly bows and arrows? All they would have to do would be to remain beyond his range and “snipe” him at their leisure.
The only desperate hope which flashed upon him was that the red men had not seen him leap from the saddle and dash for the boulder. But even in that case, they could not fail to notice that the pony was riderless and they would understand why.
He tried to force the bullet down the barrel of the gun. In vain; then he savagely strove to chew it down to the right size. If he succeeded with one missile before he could compress a second into shape the crisis would be upon him.
He had just inserted the metal between his molars in the despairing effort to reduce the size of the same, when his hair almost lifted the hat from his head. From the direction of the trail came a guttural whoofing sound, its repetition showing that the cause was drawing nearer.
Before he could guess what the curious noise meant his eyes told him the truth. An enormous bear, dark in color, came swinging forward from the direction of the ridge. His waddling, lumbering gait, and his vast bulk left no doubt of his identity. In any circumstances he would have been a most formidable foe to meet.
“It’s a grizzly!” whispered Alden, shrinking behind the boulder so low that only by taking off his hat was he barely able to peer over.
In one sense the discovery was a relief, for it explained the panic of the pony. Better a dozen grizzly bears than half as many Indians.
Alden’s belief was that the monstrous animal would keep on with his ponderous gait in the grotesque attempt to overtake the fleet footed horse which was safe beyond his reach; but to the consternation of the watcher the brute halted at the very spot where the fugitive had landed when he dropped from the saddle. He snuffed the ground as if he suspected the truth.
“By gracious!” gasped Alden, who now lowered his head and peeped round the side of the boulder, “he has scented me.”
It did have that look and dropping his rifle, he drew his revolver.
“I wonder if he will mind a little thing like this. Shagbark said it took several rifle bullets to slay a grizzly. If that’s so, he’ll laugh at my weapon, but he’ll have to move lively if he beats me dodging round this rock.”
The scent of the ursus species is by no means as fine as that of many other animals, but this one unquestionably was on the track of something and it looked very much as if that something was an American youngster crouching behind a boulder a few rods off and scared almost out of his wits.
The bear suddenly raised his head and dipped his snout forward in several directions one after the other, snuffing as if he knew something was in the wind. Back and forth the huge front swayed until in a minute or two it remained pointed directly at the boulder! It suggested an immense canine that had flushed its game.
“No use; he’s after me!” decided Alden, who now glanced about in quest of a tree which he might climb. Afraid even to peer around the edge of his hiding place, lest he should betray himself, he drew back, grasped his revolver and held his breath as he listened with all the intentness at his command.
For a few seconds he did not hear the slightest sound. His heart fluttered with renewed hope. The beast must be moving off. Probably he had caught sight of the pony and was making after him.
“He can’t know I’m here; all I have to do is to wait.”
Uneasy over the stillness, Alden slowly straightened up until he could once more look over the top of the boulder. Could he believe his eyes? The bear was not ten paces distant and swinging straight toward him! The fact that just then he emitted another of his whiffing grunts made it appear that he had seen the youngster and was congratulating himself upon the certainty of a dainty titbit for supper.
Alden had to decide quickly, for in another minute the gigantic brute would be upon him. His decision was to wait until only the breadth of the boulder separated them and then blaze away with all the chambers of his pistol in instant succession. He would aim at the eyes and head, and would not miss with a single bullet. That would check him for a few moments if the discharge did not bowl him over. The interval thus gained would be improved by the young man to the utmost. He would make a lightning-like change of base in the hope of securing a better refuge.
It was a splendid pose that the youth took in the same minute. The rifle lay on the ground, and his right arm rested on the surface of the rock which was as high as his shoulders. The main weight of his body was supported on his right foot which was advanced like a runner about to start on a race. The left arm hung to his hip while the other lay on the top of the rock, and was extended full length, the hand closed around the butt of a revolver which was leveled at the mountainous brute, lumbering heavily forward with his head swinging from side to side. His piggish eyes were fixed upon the brave lad who saw the horrid front, the great red jaws parted, the slobbering tongue lolling out and the teeth showing. He had discovered his prey and was going for it with unshakable resolution.
The next instant it was bang, bang—five times in succession, and the metal cones buried themselves in that bulk as if it were a colossal cushion. That the missiles did harm was beyond question, but they did not stop the advance of the bear. The wounds would likely prove mortal sooner or later, but not soon enough to save Alden Payne.He was on the point of wheeling and dashing off, with no clear idea of the direction to take, when another report rang out. It was that of a rifle, whose bullet went straight to the seat of life. With a snarling growl, the bear reared on his hind legs and clawed at the wounds made by the revolver bullets, as if he thought they were splinters which he tried to pluck out.
It was the rifle ball that settled the business. He sagged over on his side, struck and kicked for a few seconds and then the prodigious carcass lay still, for he was as dead as Julius Cæsar.
From the same direction that the bear had come, advanced a Pony Express Rider, with smoking rifle in hand. He had arrived in the nick of time and could not have asked a fairer target than that presented by the brute. The man, however, did not know whom he had saved, until Alden Payne came from behind the boulder and confronted him. Then he reined up and looked wonderingly at the youth.
“Who the mischief are you?” he asked, as Alden appeared.
“A young fellow in need of the help you gave.”
“How comes it you’re on foot and in this fix?”
Alden hastily explained.
“So Dick Lightfoot’s dead, eh? Too bad; where did you leave him?”
“Two or three miles back; he was shot from his pony by an Indian arrow.”
“Where’s his pony?”
“He made off when I sprang from the saddle and hid here.”
“Umph! never run from a bear like that.”
“I never met a grizzly before.”
“And you didn’t meet one this time: only an ordinary black hear. Why didn’t you use your rifle?” asked the rider, with a glance at the weapon on the ground.
“My bullets don’t fit.”
The horseman scrutinized the gun.
“Why it’s Dick’s; you didn’t think to take his bullets; I can let you have a few; you may need ’em before you reach the station.”
He deftly extracted a half dozen which he passed to the grateful Alden.
“Don’t lose any time in reloading, which reminds me.”
And he proceeded to recharge his own weapon.
During this brief chat, it struck Alden that the man resembled in looks and voice the rider who lay on the ground several miles away. The alert manner and crisp way of speaking were the same.
“You are about the weight of Lightfoot and have much his appearance.”
“Umph! I ought to; I’m his brother.”
He snatched out a small watch and glanced at it.
“I’ll be hanged! I’ve lost six minutes; I must be off; bye-bye.”
He touched the flanks of his pony with his spurs, and the animal bounded away at full speed. Almost immediately he disappeared.
To put it mildly, Alden Payne was surprised. Here was a man who received the news of his brother’s death without a sign of emotion, and yet doubtless he felt it deeply. But it was all a part of the game. The living brother might pass over the Great Divide in a brief while and join the other. Such was the life of the Pony Express Rider.
Alden would have liked to ask the man more questions, had time permitted. He would have turned over the possessions taken from the fallen man, had he thought of it. He wished to ask him about that signal smoke which still stained the sky in front and the rider could have given him valuable suggestions.
It was too late now. The opportunity was gone and the youth must think for himself. Six or eight miles remained to be traversed through a dangerous country and he was on foot. The pony had fled and he doubted whether he could be recovered.
“He has the mail with him and may take it into his head to go to the station without me,” was the thought of Alden, as he turned back over the trail. The hoof prints left by the animal showed clearly in the ground and it was easy to follow them.
A little way and he came to where the open space broadened. His vision widened and the first survey showed him Dick quietly cropping the grass, as if nothing unusual had happened to him. His side was toward Alden, who whistled.
The pony lifted his head, with the blades of grass dripping from his jaws, and looked questioningly at the youth, who whistled again and walked in his direction.
It would be interesting could we know what whims passed through the brain of the animal which was one of the most intelligent of his species. The Express Riders used so many horses and were forced by circumstances to shift so often from one to the other, that not often was any special affection formed between the human and brute. In other instances, the fondness was deep and the two stuck to each other whenever and wherever it was possible to do so.
Dick in his own way must have mourned the loss of his master when he tumbled from the saddle, but he accepted the substitute in the minute that he appeared, and yielded the same obedience to one as to the other. Brief as had been the pony’s service, he like his companions, had imbibed the fact that his one duty in life was to carry the mail pouches with the highest speed at his command, and that such service was to be performed under the guidance of the man who sat on his back.
When Dick, therefore, heard the whistle and recognized the youth, he paused only long enough to make sure there was no mistake, and then with a neigh of pleasure, he trotted toward him. As the two met, Alden patted the animal’s nose and spoke affectionately:
“Good Dick! you’re worth your weight in gold; I should be in a bad fix without you.”
He sprang into the saddle. He had hardly settled in his seat when the pony broke into a trot, which quickly rose to a gallop, though it was not a dead run. That would come very soon.
The observant Alden noted one fact: the horse did not take the course which he was following when alarmed by the approach of the black bear. He veered well to the left, thus leaving the carcass out of sight in the other direction. His kind dread a dead bear almost as much as a live one.
The action of Dick confirmed what his new master had suspected from the first: the route to the station was not over a single, narrow trail to which the riders confined themselves, but covered an area that gave wide latitude. That he took the path which was taken by the man who saved him from the bear was one of those providential occurrences that are more common in this life than most people believe.
The emigrant trains were disposed to keep to certain paths, where the face of the country compelled a closing in, but in other sections the respective courses were separated by miles, and, as has been shown the parties plodding across the plains, even though their routes were parallel, were often so far apart that for days they saw nothing of one another. Even the twinkle of their camp fires were too far over the “convex world,” to be visible.
Alden Payne could not free himself from the belief that it was safer to hold Dick down to a moderate pace than to give him free rein. The mail was already hopelessly behind time,—a fact which did not concern him—though he was determined to deliver it at the station if it were possible for him to do so. This could be done before dark with the pony on a trot or walk.
The feeling of the young Express Rider was natural. When drawing near a point where danger is suspected, we prefer to do so at the most guarded pace. With all of Dick’s sagacity he was more likely to go wrong when on a run than when on a walk.
The animal must have felt much as did the trained dog, who, having pointed a bird, was picked up by his new and sympathetic master and carried off the field, under the belief that he had been suddenly taken with cramps. Dick gathered his hoofs several times and broke into an impatient gallop, only to be drawn down again to a trot which finally dropped to a rapid walk. He gave up the dispute in disgust and by his action said:
“All right; if you think you know more than I do, you may run things.”
It did not add to Alden’s serenity of mind to notice that the course was gradually shifting to the left, and finally led directly toward the brush of smoke which still stained the blue tinted sky.
All manner of thoughts crowded upon him. The one hopeful truth was that the living Lightfoot had come over the route unharmed within the last hour. It would seem that Alden ought to be as fortunate as he. All! if he had only had time to question the rider who might have passed through a brush with the redskins!
Another fact gave basis for vague hope: a scrutiny of the whole horizon showed no answering signal. When Indians resort to such telegraphy, as they often do on the plains and among the mountains, there are calls and replies. It is on record that on one occasion the news of the signing of an important treaty at Washington affecting the Sioux was known to that tribe before the telegraphic messages could reach the army officers at the reservation. It was carried westward by Indian telegraphy which none of us fully understands, except that it seems to be through signal fires from elevated positions. But in that case there must have been smoke or blaze visible at different points, as we know was really the case.
But Alden Payne saw only the shadowy wisp of vapor in front of him, and must wait to learn its full meaning. That knowledge could not be long in coming.