Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 18

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ALTHOUGH the meal lasted but a few minutes, much was said. Harper and Altman developed a talkative streak and had much to tell their guest. The three had been located at the station for more than two months during a portion of which time “business was lively.” Only a fortnight before, the cabin underwent a siege for three days and nights from a large party of Piutes, who peppered the logs well. They ran off a couple of ponies, but Harper and Jenkins recovered both after a long pursuit.

The redskins circled about the structure and fired through the windows, but did not harm any of the defenders, who picked off two or three of them. Things might have turned out ill had not one of the Express Riders carried the news to the nearest fort which hurried a squad of cavalry to the spot.

There had been no trouble with the Indians since, though parties now and then appeared in the distance as if reconnoitering. It was not to be expected that they would remain tranquil much longer.

“What kind of a route is it to the next station?” asked Alden, when the party had gone outside and he had mounted.

“Pretty much like what you’ve ridden over. Some stretches of good ground, with plenty of ravines and gullies and two or three streams to cross, but you couldn’t have a better season.”

“The pony seems to be a good one; I shall be satisfied if he is the equal of Dick.”

“He’s tough and fast; I think he once belonged to a circus, for he knows a good many tricks.”

“If he knows the trick of getting me through, neither I nor any one else could ask anything more of him.”

Alden was about to start when he recalled the matter of the cartridges. He gave his belt to Jenkins and accepted one from him. It might seem a trifling thing that he should leave the heavier one behind for the sake of the saving in weight, but such was the fact, though the difference was slight. He could secure all the other cartridges he might need from his friends.

“I must weigh twenty pounds more than Dick Lightfoot and everything counts. What is the pony’s name?”

“Bucephalus,” was the amazing reply.

“Great Cæsar!” laughed Alden; “do you call him that?”

“’Ceph for short; well, good bye!”

Alden waved his hand and was off like a thunderbolt.

Our young friend was hardly out of sight of the little group who stood watching him, when ’Ceph became playful. He had been resting so long that he yearned for exercise and action. As an introduction he reached around and nipped at the rider’s ankle. A horse is quick to learn what kind of man holds the reins, and woe to him whom the equine despises! Bucephalus would not have needed any enlightenment had Harper or any one of the regular riders been in the saddle, but he wasn’t sure about the lusty young fellow who was trying to lord it over him.

When the head came about, and Alden saw what the pony meant, he gave him a vigorous kick on the end of his nose. ’Ceph wasn’t pleased with that, and after a brief wait tried to bite the other ankle. Alden promptly kicked him harder than before.

Evidently that wasn’t the right way to overcome the conceited young man, so what did Bucephalus do but suddenly buck? He arched his back, jammed his hoofs together and bounced up and down as if the ground had suddenly become red hot. Alden hadn’t expected anything of the kind, and came within a hair of being unhorsed. He saved himself, braced his legs and body and then let the animal do his best or worst. The youth was sorry he had no spurs, for he would have been glad to drive them into the sides of the mischievous brute. The latter bucked until tired, then spun around as if on a pivot and finally dashed off on a dead run.

Alden let him go unrestrained, knowing he was taking the right course, for he saw plenty of hoof prints in the ground over which they skimmed. It was not difficult for our young friend to keep his seat, and he was rather pleased with the liveliness of the animal.

“There won’t be much of this left in you at the end of fifteen miles, ’Cephy, and I have no objection so long as it doesn’t block the game.”

After a time it was plain the pony had given up the fight. He was galloping steadily, as if like the others, he had but one ambition in life which was to throw the miles behind him in the shortest possible time. All the same, Alden was on his guard. There was no saying what whim might enter the head of the brute. One of his kind will be good for weeks with no other object than to throw a man off his guard. It did not seem likely that such was the case with the animal Alden was riding, though it might be so. He thought it more probably due to a natural exuberance of spirits, which after a time would wear off.

There was no perceptible change in the character of the country through which he was riding until some four or five miles had been traversed. The undulations were trifling and at the end of the distance named, it may be doubted whether horse and rider were ten feet higher or lower than at their starting point. The surface was rough in many places, but not once did ’Ceph slacken his splendid pace, which must have risen to twenty miles an hour. He had to swerve and occasionally make rather long detours to avoid natural obstacles, but he lost no time. Had the conditions lasted he would have covered the fifteen miles well within three-fourths of an hour.

The pony slackened his pace, though still maintaining a gallop, for the ground not only compelled him to veer first to the right and then to the left, but took an upward turn. Following his rule of leaving his animal to his own will, Alden did not touch the reins. The fact that tracks showed on the right and left as well as in front indicated that he was following a well-traveled course, though he could not discern any traces of wagon wheels.

The sun had sunk behind the mountain range which towered to the northwest and the jagged crests were tinted with the golden rays. The scene was grandly beautiful, and though he had looked upon many like it, Alden never lost his admiration of those pictures which are nowhere seen in such majesty and impressiveness as in our own country.

Well to the northward rose a peak, whose white crest showed it was always crowned with snow. Seen in the distance the spotless blanket had a faint bluish tint, caused by the miles of pure, intervening atmosphere. Although the range to his left did not sweep around far enough to cross the course he was pursuing, Alden could not help wondering whether a turn in the trail would not force him to pass through the spur as he had done in the case of the lesser range behind him.

“If it is so, there must be a pass, for many others have traveled this road before me.”

It seemed that he ought to overtake some emigrant train, since hundreds of them were plodding westward, and his speed was much greater than theirs. But he saw no more evidence of other persons about him than if he were in the midst of an unknown desert. He might as well have been the only horseman or footman within a thousand miles of the spot.

It was with a queer sensation that once more scanning the ridge to the northwest, Alden distinguished a column of smoke climbing into the sky, just as he had discerned one earlier in the afternoon. He had not yet decided in his own mind whether the former bore any relation to his passage through the gorge, and he was equally uncertain about the signal that now obtruded itself. He brought his binocular to bear, and with ’Ceph on a rapid walk, spent several minutes in studying the vapor. The result was as in the previous instance, except that the fire which gave off the smoke appeared to be burning among a clump of pines instead of behind a pile of boulders. Once or twice in the gathering gloom he fancied he detected the twinkle of the blaze; but if so, the fact gave him no additional knowledge of the puzzling question.

It cannot be said that he felt any misgiving, so long as the course of the pony did not lead him toward the signal smoke which may not have been a signal after all. Wandering bands of Indians must have had frequent need of fires for preparing food, and it would seem that more of them ought to have been seen by the horseman.

’Ceph was still walking. Although the steepness had declined, he showed no disposition to increase his pace. Alden was surprised, for it was not that way with Dick. The viciousness shown by the pony lowered him in the esteem of the youth. He could not shake off the suspicion that the ugly spirit would show itself again, even though the animal had been conquered for the time.

For the last fifteen minutes, Alden was conscious of a dull, steady roar which gradually increased as he went on. He was drawing near the cause and must soon learn its nature, he was still wandering and speculating, when he caught the gleam of water through the sparse willows that lined the trail.

“Jenkins told me I should have to cross some streams and this must be one of them.”

So it proved. A minute later, the animal came to the margin of a swift creek which flowed at right angles to his course. In the obscurity of the settling night, Alden made out the farther bank, which was about a hundred yards away. A growth of willows showed, and ’Ceph hesitated with outstretched nose, as he snuffed the ground. Instead of entering the water at once, he moved to the right for several rods and stopped again. He was looking for the ford, from which fact his rider judged they were off the regular trail. Leaning over in the saddle he scrutinized the ground. He saw no signs of hoof prints or tracks of wagon wheels.

He did not interfere with the horse, who, having passed the brief distance, began snuffing again and gingerly stepped into the stream. When the water came to his knees, he paused long enough to drink and then resumed feeling his way across.

With the setting of the sun, the temperature had fallen a number of degrees. Alden was warmly clothed, but had no blanket. When he left the train in company with Jethro he expected to rejoin his friends before the close of the afternoon and a blanket would have been an incumbrance, but quite acceptable now.

“I hope ’Ceph won’t have to swim,” he said, with a shudder: “I shall be chilled, for I know the water is icy, but there’s no help for it.”

The roar that had caught his attention some time before sounded on his left in the direction of the ridge, where the signal fire was burning. The explanation was clear: the stream issued from some gorge or tumbled over rapids or falls, and gave out the noise that was audible for a long distance in the stillness of approaching night.

The pony felt his way carefully, with nose thrust forward, occasionally snorting and not bearing down until he found the bottom with his advanced hoof. Once he slipped, but instantly recovered himself.

Alden waited till his feet were within a few inches of the surface. Then he slipped them out of the stirrups and drew them up in front. Deprived thus of his “balancing poles,” a quick flirt of the pony to one side would have flung him into the water, but ’Ceph, if he was aware of it (and it would seem he ought to have been), did not seize the chance.

Half the distance was passed and the dangling stirrups dipped. Would the good fortune continue all the way across?

It did. The stream shallowed, and increasing his pace, the pony stepped out on the other bank, with the moisture dripping from his fetlocks. Only the lower part of his body, however, had been wetted. Alden himself was dry even to the soles of his shoes.

“Thank fortune!” he exclaimed; “I hope we shall have the same luck at the next stream. Now we’re off again, old fellow.”

As nearly as the rider could judge, he had ridden half the distance to the next station. If he were right, seven or eight miles remained to be traversed. He was doing well but why did not ’Ceph “let himself out,” when the ground was favorable? He still walked, though ever stepping rapidly, with head dipping with each fall of the hoof.

For the first time, Alden broke the rule which had governed him heretofore: he spoke sharply to the pony and jerked the bridle rein. The animal instantly responded with a gallop which he kept up for a half mile, when he dropped again to a walk. And before he did this, his rider discovered to his consternation that he was going lame.

The limp showed more plainly when he was walking, and was steadily aggravated until the progress became painful to the rider. He was of a merciful disposition and could not bear the sight of suffering in a dumb creature. He stopped the horse and dropped from the saddle.

“I shall be in a fine fix if you give out, ’Ceph, not knowing the way to the next station nor to the one we have left, but I am more sorry for you than for myself.”

The animal was bearing his weight on three legs, the tip of the right fore hoof just touching the ground. He seemed to be suffering, and favored the disabled leg all he could. Speaking soothingly, Alden gently passed his hand down the graceful limb from the bent knee to the fetlock. Although he used only the weakest pressure, ’Ceph winced when the friendly fingers glided over the slim shank, as if the touch was painful.

“There’s where the trouble is,” he decided; “he must have strained a tendon, though I don’t feel any difference.”

With infinite care and tenderness Alden fondled the limb, and ’Ceph showed his appreciation by touching his nose to his shoulders as he bent over his task. The youth increased the pressure and rubbed more briskly. The action seemed to give relief, and by and by the pony set the hoof down on the ground and stood evenly on his four legs.

Hoping that the trouble had passed, Alden walked backward a few steps and called upon ’Ceph to follow. He obeyed and stepped off without the slightest evidence of trouble. The rider’s hopes rose higher.

“If you will lead I’ll be glad to follow; it won’t do—”

His heart sank, for hardly half a dozen steps were taken when ’Ceph limped again: the halt grew more pronounced, and suddenly he hobbled one or two steps on three legs, holding the remaining hoof clear of the ground as he did so.

“That settles it,” said his master; “you may be able to reach the station without any load by resting often, but it will be hard work.”

In the effort to aid the sufferer, Alden now removed the saddle and mail pouches. With his rifle they formed quite a burden, but he was strong and rugged, and knew he could carry them as fast and probably faster than his companion would travel.

“I ought to leave you here,” reflected the youth, “and I should do so, if I knew my way: I need you as a guide and shall have to suit my pace to yours.”

Once more he nursed the foreleg and after a time, ’Ceph set it down. He hobbled forward a score of paces before the limp reappeared. After that he kept it up until his master called to him to stop.

It looked as if the mustang understood what was asked of him, and was doing his utmost to grant it. Alden kept at his side, and as soon as he paused, patted his neck and spoke encouragingly.

’Ceph rested but a few minutes when he resumed his walk without any word from his master. The latter with amazement noted that the animal’s gait improved. He stepped off with increasing speed. Soon no limp was perceptible: he walked as well as ever!

“Good!” called Alden; “you’ve got pluck; I take back all I said against you. Whoa! whoa!”

Instead of obeying the youth hurrying at his heels, ’Ceph broke into a gallop and speedily passed from sight. Alden kept up the useless pursuit until exhausted. Then he stopped disgusted and angered. He understood the whole business.

It has been said that Bucephalus once belonged to a circus. He had been a trick pony and remembered several things. One of them was to get rid of a rider whom he disliked by pretending to be lame. He had worked the stratagem upon Alden Payne, who when too late saw through the whole mean business.