Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 16

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ALDEN was convinced from a study of the signal smoke that it was gradually fading, as if the fire which caused it was not replenished. What this signified, as well as the meaning of the display itself, was beyond him.

When the interval between him and the danger point had dwindled to an eighth of a mile, Dick did an almost incredible thing. Until then he had shown no sign of seeing the warning. Suddenly he stopped, raised his head, thrust his ears forward and looked steadily at the thin column of vapor for several minutes. The reins lay on his neck and the rider did not touch them.

The animal wheeled abruptly to the right and broke into a gallop. His action showed that he read the signal smoke aright. Indians were there and he must avoid them.

“I shall not interfere again with you,” said Alden admiringly; “you know a hundred times more than I do of these matters.”

None the less, our young friend was uneasy. With all the pony’s sagacity, it would not have been strange if he was outwitted. The dusky enemies must have believed it was an experienced Express Rider who was coming from the east, and it would seem likely to them that he would direct his pony as the animal was now directing himself. If so, the precaution could hardly be of avail.

The ground rapidly changed in character. Before Alden looked for it the incline increased, and he was riding among boulders, rocks and dwarfed pines. He felt a coolness too in the air, though the ridge did not rise anywhere near to the snow line. Looking down at the ground he saw no signs of others having passed the way before him. He was the pioneer in that dismal solitude.

He was glad when the pony of his own accord dropped from the gallop to his rapid, graceful walk. It was impossible for him to progress in a straight line, and he was forever turning to the right or left, rarely following a direct course for more than a few rods.

Alden could not help smiling when it looked for a moment as if Dick had suddenly reached the end of his rope. He came opposite a mass of rocks, amid which the twisted pines pushed out in all directions, though ever striving to reach the vertical with their tops pointed toward the zenith. To the right and left, the flinty boundary extended beyond sight.

Without hesitation Dick turned to the left and walked briskly for a dozen rods. The barrier still interposed. He stopped, wheeled about and retraced his steps. He was searching for an opening or small pass, and was not satisfied to approach any closer to the Indian signal.

Within less than the distance named, to the right of his first turn, he found that for which he was looking. A gap showed and he entered it as if it were a stable door that had been opened for him.

“What’s the use of placing a rider on your back, Dick?” asked the delighted Alden. “Better to give you the mail pouch and tell you to deliver it at the next station. But then mighty few ponies know as much as you.”

How far this path led remained to be seen. But it had not been followed far when Alden met an experience that was as unique as unexpected. The appearance of the gorge suggested that a torrent of water poured through it, when the snows melted or the floods descended. Its width varied from fifty feet to two or three times that extent, and the irregular walls rose on each side almost as many feet. If the course lasted, it could not be more favorable.

The bottom of this peculiar ravine was broken at intervals by stones, and then only pebbles showed. It would have been easy for Dick to dash through on the gallop which seemed to be his natural gait, for it was comparatively level, but he chose of his own accord to walk. He was traveling round instead of crossing lots, as he had been accustomed to do, and the incident promised to prove another illustration of the proverb.

And then came the surprise. Dick had turned one of the many corners, his head dipping with each vigorous step, when he flung up his nose and snorted. The alert Alden in the same instant saw an Indian warrior coming toward him.

The redskin was a duplicate of the one who had launched an arrow at the youth several miles back. He had the same squat, sturdy figure, the coarse black hair dangling about his bare shoulders, and growing low upon his forehead, the naked chest, the frowsy hunting shirt of deerskin, with leggings and dilapidated moccasins. He carried a knife in the girdle about his waist, and his right hand grasped a heavy bow as long as himself. Behind his left shoulder the feathered tips of a number of arrows showed where he carried his quiver.

Neither the countenance nor chest displayed any of the paint of which the American Indians are fond. It may be doubted whether the vario-colored daubs would have added to the hideousness of that face, which was broad with protuberant cheek bones, an immense mouth, low forehead and piercing black eyes.

Never was a meeting between two persons more unexpected by both. The Indian emitted a startled “hooh!” and stopped short, as if transfixed. As late as the days to which I am referring hundreds of the western red men used the bow and arrow instead of the rifle. This was generally due to the difficulty of obtaining the modern weapon, but in many instances it was choice on their part. It may be questioned whether in the majority of cases, one was not as effective as the other.

The particular red man in whom we are now interested had a formidable bow at command, and no doubt was an expert in its use, but before discharging an arrow, he must snatch it from behind his shoulder, fit it to the string and aim. Ere he could do all this the white youth could bore him through a dozen times had he possessed that number of guns. He had one which in the circumstances was as good as the larger number.

Dick at sight of the redskin had also stopped. Thus he and the savage faced each other as if the two were carved in stone. Alden was quickwitted enough to bring his rifle to his shoulder and aim between the ears of his pony. There was no mistake about it: he had “the drop” on the other fellow.

And that other fellow knew it. He had been trained never to give or ask quarter, and he did not ask for it now. Instead, he whirled about and dashed off in a wild headlong flight. There was something grotesquely comical in his performance, for instead of running in a straight line, he leaped from side to side, stooped, dodged, and then straightened up for a few seconds, during which his speed was amazing. He did not utter a sound, but no miserable wretch ever strove more desperately to escape the doom which he expected with every breath he drew.

Alden read the meaning of the odd actions. It was intended to distract his aim. Few Indians are fools enough to resort to the trick, but the Digger tribe sometimes do so.

When the warrior made off, Dick with a faint snort did the same. He was in pursuit, and since no man ever lived who could outrun a good horse, little chance was left for the fugitive.

Alden could have brought him down within the same moment that he stopped. Most men in his situation would have done so, but the whole thing was abhorrent to the youth. Only in self-defense would he shoot a human being, as he had proved weeks before.

“I don’t want your life; if you will get out of my path I won’t hurt you,” was the thought of Alden, who lowered his gun, but held it ready to use on the instant it might become necessary. He feared that because the shot was delayed, the Indian would turn and try to use his bow. In that event, the youth would fire to kill.

He held himself ready to anticipate hostile action. He was so close to the fleeing warrior and the air was so clear, that every trifle about the fugitive was noticed. He observed that the sole of his right moccasin was partly gone and flapped as he ran. Most of the ragged fringe at the bottom of his shirt had been torn off, but a piece kept fluttering about and hitting against his hip. The red men of the West generally wore different clothing from the one described, but the fugitive suggested a descent from those of his race who lived east of the Alleghanies.

Alden noted the play of the muscles between the shoulders, where they were not hidden by the bouncing quiver. The American Indian as a rule is deficient in muscular development, but this one showed several moderate ridges that doubled and shifted in response to the rhythmic swinging of his arms. Each was bent at the elbow with the hand close to the chest, like a professional runner, but the right hand was empty, while the fingers of the left were closed about the huge bow which he was obliged to hold diagonally before him, to prevent its interference with his running. The tousled head was pushed forward, and at intervals the redskin looked back. The glare of his black eyes through the meshes of flying hair suggested an owl peering from behind a thicket.

Those backward glances were only for an instant but were continually repeated. The swarthy face showed the terror of the fugitive, who must have wondered why the fatal shot was delayed. Perhaps he thought his pursuer meant to make him prisoner—a fate dreaded as much as death itself.

The Indian ceased his side leaps and ducking, and gave the last ounce of his strength to flight. He was running extraordinarily fast, but you do not need to be told that he steadily lost ground before the rushing pony. It was impossible for the man to get away by means of direct flight.

Meanwhile, queer thoughts must have bothered Dick. He had brought his new master within easy striking distance of his enemy and he did nothing. Why did he not shoot and close the incident? Why did he wait till the brief space was lessened still more?

The watchful Alden suddenly saw the right hand of the fugitive dart over to the left shoulder, where the fingers fiddled for a moment. Then they snapped out an arrow from the quiver and the missile vanished, as it was brought round in front of his chest. Since the white man held his fire, the red one meant to use his own weapon.

At the instant the Indian began fitting the shaft to the string while still running, Alden shouted at the top of his voice. It was a warning which was understood and went through the fugitive like an electric shock. He bounded several feet in air, and dropped the arrow to the ground, but he did not lessen the haste with which he was speeding in order to pick it up.

All this occupied but a few brief minutes. The disgusted Dick had carried his rider to within ten feet of the fugitive and now eased his pace. The respective speed of each was the same. The pony had done his part and refused to do more.

Alden Payne decided upon his course at the beginning of the race. He would maintain the pursuit, allowing the Indian to hold his place a little in advance until the end of the gorge was reached and the wretch had the chance to dart aside. This, however, was not the end of the most peculiar occurrence.

In his panic the redskin attempted the impossible. Fancying the pony was upon his heels, and his rider about to reach over and seize or strike him, he made a turn to the right, leaped high in air and grasped the end of a projecting ledge of stone. Then with the same fierce haste as before, he strove to draw himself over the edge to the narrow support above. He succeeded, for the task was not difficult, but there was not enough space to hide any portion of his body. He had room barely to stand, and Alden could have picked him off as readily as when he was fleeing before him. The poor wretch shrank as close as he could against the wall and cowered and glared and awaited the bullet.

And Alden Payne, instead of harming him waved his hand and shouted:

“Good-by, old fellow! Give my love to your folks.”

It was a strange piece of jocularity, but the genial hearted youth doubted whether it would be appreciated. Having gone by the warrior he left him in the best possible position to discharge one of his missiles, and according to the general rule, that is what he would have done.

Much has been said and written about the gratitude of the American Indian. That he sometimes displays that virtue cannot be denied, but among the wild tribes of the plains, or Southwest, the rule is the other way. I have referred to this elsewhere. The first person an Apache strives to kill when the chance offers is he who has given him bread and drink. He is as quick to bite the hand that has fed his hunger as a rattlesnake is to strike the foot that crushes him.

It is a pleasure therefore to tell the truth regarding the Indian (whose tribe Alden Payne never learned) that had been spared by the amateur Pony Express Rider. He might have made it bad for the youth who was riding from him, and who as a consequence could not keep an eye upon his every movement. When Alden looked back as he did several times, he saw the warrior still on his perch, and watching him, but the huge bow in his hand was not raised nor was another arrow drawn to the head, while the horseman was within reach of the primitive weapon.

This strange situation could last only a brief time. The speed of Dick rapidly carried him and his rider beyond reach of any bow and arrow ever devised. The gorge remained comparatively straight for quite a way, and the mutual view lasted longer than would have been the case either earlier or later.

Alden was not yet out of sight of the Indian when he emitted a series of tremulous whoops, the like of which the rider had never before heard on his journey across the plains. The first sound was an explosive shout, and the half dozen which succeeded trailed off into silence. The redskin made this strange outcry three times and then ceased.

“I suppose he means that as a reply to my salute,” laughed Alden, who the next minute whisked beyond view around a turn in the gorge. “If I knew how to reply I should do so, but we’ll have to wait till next time.”

Dick showed no disposition to slacken his pace and his rider did not restrain him. Just after making the turn referred to Alden turned his head. What led him to do so he could not explain since he knew he was clear of the warrior whom he had nearly scared out of his wits, but he saw an amazing sight. The varying character of the gorge showed a projecting mass of stone on the right near the top. It was at a wide part of the ravine, and the peculiar shape of the rocks left a partial cavity behind the jutting portion large enough to hold several persons.

And in this depression three Indians, looking much like the one he had left out of sight, had evidently just risen from the ground and stood motionless as if watching him as he skurried from them. They must have been there when he rode beneath within fifty feet of where they were lying in ambush.

Alden was dumfounded. What could it all mean? After watching and probably signaling they had waited till he rode right into the trap and then had allowed him to ride out again, unharmed and all unsuspicious of his peril.

“That is too much for me,” mused the perplexed youth; “I spared one of them when I had him dead to rights, but why should those three spare me? That isn’t the way—”

Could those odd sounding signals which the single warrior sent forward from his perch on the rocks have had anything to do with it? Did they cause the forbearance of his comrades farther up the gorge? That such should be the case seemed incredible, but days afterward Alden submitted the question to Shagbark. The veteran stroked his whiskers, puffed his pipe for a minute, and then squinted one eye.

“Thar’s only one way to explanify it,” he answered; “the varmint whose scalp ye left on top of his head was so thankful that he signaled ahead to the other three varmints not to hurt ye, ’cause ye and him war friends.

“I’ll own that that ain’t the gin’ral style of the critters, but sometimes they act jest as if they war white men, and better than some white men I’ve met.”