Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 19
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
ALDEN Payne was in the quandary of his life. Deserted by the unprincipled Bucephalus, he was left with saddle and mail pouches six miles or more from his destination, and still farther from the station behind him. And the worst of it was he did not know the way to either.
It would not have been quite so bad if, when the outrage occurred, he had been on the well-marked trail, for then he could have groped forward, certain of arriving sooner or later at the place he had in mind.
“If I had the chance I’d shoot that confounded ’Ceph!” he exclaimed; “if a horse knew how to grin, how he is grinning over the youngster he fooled! Well, I shan’t bother with you, that’s certain.”
These words were addressed to the saddle, which he flung impatiently to the ground: “whoever chooses can find you; I don’t tote you another rod.”
It was different with the mail pouches. He felt a peculiar awe concerning them. In some way they stood for the great United States. Having been locked in distant Missouri, they were not to be opened until San Francisco was reached. Within those leathern receptacles, wrapped in oiled silk nestled the hundreds of letters, written on fine tissue paper and sealed in flimsy envelopes. Who could tell their weighty import? Every writer had paid five dollars in advance, and far away on the Pacific coast were anxiously waiting the men and women for whom the messages were intended. No; whatever happened, Alden must get them to the station, if the task were within human possibility.
Weighing only twenty pounds, the pouches were not burdensome. Slinging one over either shoulder, and trailing his rifle, the sturdy youth could have walked a score of miles without being irked. The whole and sole problem was to go in the right direction.
It was a puzzle indeed. The most sensible course seemed to stay where he was until morning. Daylight would enable him to find the trail, and the labor was comparatively easy. He walked to the nearest boulder and sat down. The night had grown more chilly and he shivered. He always carried a box of matches in a small rubber safe, it was easy to collect enough twigs and branches to start a fire.
Two causes, however, prevented his doing this. He could not forget that signal smoke which told that Indians were not far off. The blaze was likely to draw them to the spot. Again, his mind was in such a tumult, that he could not sit still. He must keep moving.
There was no moon in the sky, but the millions of stars were never more brilliant. In the clear atmosphere they gave enough illumination to show quite well where he trod, except when threading through the willows or passing close to the towering masses of rocks. Inasmuch as he had decided to keep up the effort to reach the next station, the obvious thing to do was to follow in the hoof prints left by the pony. Doubtless he was making for the station and would reach it within the coming hour. What would the agents think when he dashed up without rider, saddle or mail pouches? What could they think except that the man had been killed and the bags stolen? It is a difficult but not impossible task to trail a horse by night. To do it, however, requires the finest woodcraft. That wonderful scout Kit Carson performed the exploit many times, when he had neither the moon nor stars to aid him. First locating the trail, he reasoned out the point for which his enemies were making. His familiarity with the country and his intimate knowledge of the red men were rarely at fault. It might be some river crossing a dozen miles away. Paying no further attention to the trail, the pursuer hurried to the ford, where by passing his hands over the earth he learned whether the hoof-prints were there. If so, and as I have said he seldom missed it, he decided the next most likely point for which the fugitives were heading, when he took up the pursuit and pressed it as before. More than once by this remarkable strategy he reached a certain place ahead of the Indians and ambushed them when they came up.
But such exploits make an accurate knowledge of the country indispensable. Alden Payne was a stranger in a strange land, beside which his experience was not to be compared with that of the peerless scout and mountaineer named. And yet to a certain extent he followed the policy of the veteran.
His conclusion was reasonable that Bucephalus was making for the station and would change his course only when turned temporarily aside by obstacles. He would follow the line of least resistance all the way through. His late rider meant to do the same.
Standing a few minutes at the beginning of the trail, with mail pouches slung over his shoulders he took up his hard task. So long as he was erect, he could not see the impressions in the earth, but by stooping low made them out. At such times, when the surface was flinty or pebbly, he not only used the sense of feeling, but lighted a match. Holding this close to the ground he was generally able to see that for which he was seeking.
Alden must have traversed a furlong without turning to the right or left. At the end of that distance the ground began slightly rising, and led to a low rocky ridge. Once more he paused and held a lighted match to the ground.
He had made no mistake: the impressions showed clearly. The fact sent a thrill of hope through him. He might succeed after all.
Noting that the signs turned to the left, he did the same. A dozen paces brought him to a depression through which it seemed likely the pony had gone. He followed and coming up the opposite side made sure by lighting another match. The footprints were not visible.
He retraced his steps and went farther to the left. Coming to a level spot, he resorted to his tiny torch again. He was right; Bucephalus had chosen the easier course, though how the sagacious animal knew of its existence was beyond guessing.
By this time Alden understood that at the rate he was using his matches, they could not last beyond an hour or less. He slackened his pace and studied his surroundings with the utmost care. Only when absolutely necessary did he intend to ignite his lucifers.
He had never heard of the methods employed by veteran trailers, though Shagbark had practised them, but reflection caused Alden to try this one. He stooped and gently passed one hand over the soft earth. A few minutes of effort told him he was on the trail of the pony.
He had straightened up and was walking cautiously, when he was startled by the reports of several rifles fired so nearly together that he could not tell the number. They came from a point diagonally in front, but at a considerable distance. He paused, undecided what to do.
There was no guessing the meaning of the alarm, but naturally he accepted the worst construction. The guns must have been discharged by Indians with a sinister purpose. Probably one of the Pony Express Riders had fallen, as others had fallen before him and others were to fall in the remaining months of the service.
Alden paused for ten or more minutes and then resumed his tramp. It seemed to him that the spot where the guns were fired was well to the right. Still it was likely the trail veered in that direction, for no mortal man ever saw a path that was straight, unless laid out by compass and rule.
There was an additional reason for not lighting a match, for it might catch the eye of some of the dusky prowlers. Consequently Alden pushed on stealthily and slowly. Frequently he paused and listened. The trail could change without his being aware of it, for in his situation he had no means of judging. His bright wits were ever on a strain and when he came to a series of boulders, he again stooped and felt of the ground. The soil was pebbly and the sense of feeling did not help him.
He hesitated to light a match, for he knew he was near the spot whence had come the sounds of rifle firing. He straightened up and listened. A gentle wind stirred the willows in front, the faint murmur of the mountain stream behind him came softly to his ears, but all else was profound silence.
He had peered into the star gleam in front for some minutes when the conviction gradually came to him that something not a boulder or stone was lying a few paces away. He could not identify it without a nearer approach, and after a little wait he stepped forward on tiptoe.
He had accepted it as an explanation of the startling sounds that came to him a short time before. Another Pony Express Rider had gone down in the path of duty. But still drawing nearer, Alden found the next moment he was mistaken. It was the body of a horse lying on its side.
Forgetful for the moment of the peril of the act, the youth drew another match along the corrugated bottom of his little safe and held the speck of flame in front of him.
It was what was left of Bucephalus. He had been pierced by several bullets and killed while on a full gallop.
With a realization of the danger of what he was doing, Alden blew out the tiny light and flung it to the ground. Then he hastily retreated, turned aside and made his way in among the willows.
Everything was clear to him. A party of Indians had formed an ambush at that point for the Pony Express Rider. In the gloom, they may have supposed he was lying low on his horse’s back, but they fired together and snuffed out the steed supposed to be carrying him.
Deep gratitude stirred Alden Payne. He had believed himself the worst used person in the world, when he was deserted by the pony, and, say what we please, it was a shabby act, but the offender had paid dearly for it.
“Had he not tricked me, I should have ridden over this spot, and that volley which laid him low, would have done the same to me. Thank God!”
Often indeed do misfortunes prove blessings in disguise.
All the same, the young man was in a trying situation. Thus far he had been guided by the trail of the dead pony. Now he was deprived even of that slight help. What hope could he have of finding his way to the station in the darkness?
The most pressing question was as to what had become of the fiends who committed this deed. It seemed to Alden they could not be far off, and the important thing for him to do was to get as far away as he could, without any delay.
He dared not push directly forward, for that would lead him over the course where the waiting red men expected the rider to pass. He determined to make a long detour until far removed from the dangerous spot, and then hide until daybreak, when he would renew his search for the station not many miles distant.
All know how hard it is to keep one’s bearings in groping through an unknown country. It is tenfold harder to do so at night, when there is no aid whatever, and nothing to prevent yielding to that curious tendency we all show to travel in a circle.
In the case of Alden Payne, however, a kind Providence took him in hand. Without being aware of it, he gradually shifted his course until he struck exactly the right one, and really advanced toward his destination. Several times he stopped with the intention of nestling down beside some rock, and sleeping if it should prove possible, but the anxiety to get as far as he could from that carcass kept him going.
There is no saying how long he would have continued had he not been suddenly checked by coming to the edge of another stream which crossed his course. He had heard no warning rippling or murmur, and almost stepped into the water before he saw what was in front of him.
“This is the second one which, as Jenkins told me, I shall have to cross, but plague take it! I don’t like the prospect at all.”
The stream was not more than half the width of the other, but it might be ten times as deep and dangerous. He found it was flowing rapidly, and it was natural that he should shrink from venturing into its treacherous icy depth.
The fact that it was an obstacle to his progress made Alden the more anxious to cross. Instead of waiting till the morrow, he felt he must do so at once.
Then he asked himself whether he could not construct a raft to bear him. He even searched up and down the bank but a few minutes showed him the impossibility of his plan. About the only wood he found were willows and a species of elder, none of which was thicker than his wrist. The squat pines scattered here and there required an axe to cut them down, and he had only his hunting knife. Perforce he abandoned the scheme.
It was at this moment that he fancied he dimly detected tracks in the mud on the edge of the stream. He had come so far from the carcass of the pony that he felt little fear of the Indians. He struck another of his matches and scrutinized the ground.
To his astonishment, he saw the prints of broad tired wagons, and the tracks of oxen and horses. They extended as far up and down stream as he could see. The inference was plain: in wandering from the course of Bucephalus, he had found his way to a portion of the main path followed by the emigrants going westward. This as was the rule was spread over a space of a mile or more in width, and still greater in other places.
All Alden had to remember was not to lose sight of these landmarks and he would reach the station sooner or later. Moreover the evidence on the bank of the stream left no doubt that it was a well-known ford, where teams could cross with little difficulty. Wherefore Alden could probably do the same.
He decided to try it. Ever mindful of the inestimable value of the mail treasure, he adjusted them with much care about his neck, somewhat as if they were life preservers, and holding his light rifle in his hand, he stepped cautiously into the current like an elephant venturing upon a rickety bridge.
Ugh! as the water crept up around his knees he shuddered. He was sure that half a degree colder would congeal it. Like some of the great rivers of Europe, it must issue from under a mass of ice. But he could stand it, and cheered himself with the thought that many others must have made the same passage, for not every man could ride in the heavy wagons of an emigrant train when fording a stream.
“I shan’t kick if it doesn’t force me to swim, for I shall be getting forward all the time, but when I do get across, the first thing I shall do is to build a fire and thaw out.”
He noticed that the bottom of the stream felt hard, as if it had been pressed down by the innumerable wheels and hoofs that had passed over it. He reflected that if he had to swim it would be difficult, for he could not afford to part with his rifle, and the mail must be saved at all hazards. The one consoling thought was that should he be forced to support himself, it would be only for a few strokes. The creek was narrow, and when he was half way over, the water had not yet reached his waist. It did not seem likely that the depth would pass beyond that.
“And I’m mighty glad,” reflected Alden, beginning to step more confidently; “it isn’t so bad to get half your body soused, but when it comes to going all under—”
At that instant he went “all under.” It was as if he had stepped into a well a thousand feet deep. Not expecting anything of the kind, Alden was not prepared, and went down like a stone.