Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 20

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CHAPTER XX

A STRANGE PROCEEDING

SEVERAL facts saved Alden Payne from drowning. In the first place, the deep hole into which he stepped was only three or four feet across. The space was so slight indeed that his own momentum in walking threw him against the other side, where the water was shallower than before. Moreover, he was a powerful swimmer, but the strongest swimmer that ever lived could not sustain himself when incumbered by such heavy clothing, two mail pouches and a rifle. The youth promptly let go of the weapon, but clung to Uncle Sam’s property as if it were his very life. It was a desperate struggle but when he floundered to his feet he held the bags intact and they were with him as he stepped out upon the bank.

His gun was gone beyond recovery, but he had his revolver, which like the contents of his match safe was not affected by the submersion. It could be fired as readily as before, though it was a weak substitute for the gun that was gone.

But his plight could not have been more dismal. He was wet to the skin by the frigid water which made his teeth chatter, and the night had grown so cold that he must do something quickly to save himself from perishing. Two plans offered themselves. His first thought was to hunt a sheltered spot, gather wood and start a vigorous blaze, but a minute’s reflection showed him that would never do. Leaving out the danger of such action, the largest fire in the open would do little good. With no blanket, his clothing saturated and most of the warmth going to waste, he would only make his condition more miserable. He might pivot his body to the blaze, but he would always be chilled. It would take a long time to collect enough fuel, and he would have to keep the fire going throughout the night.

The only thing that could save him was exercise. The healthful, reviving glow must come from within, and that had to be generated by action. He recalled the words of his father when the two were caught in a drenching rainstorm while on a hunt deep in the forest.

“Our clothes and shoes are wet through and through; no fire we can start in the woods will dry them or make us comfortable. When your shoes are soaked don’t take them off even in the house, but walk, walk, walk. Soon your chilled feet will become warm, and the man who dries his stockings and shoes upon him will never catch cold therefrom.”

It was the best of advice, and Alden never forgot it. He could hold the general direction, and the few miles between him and the station were but a brief walk for which in ordinary circumstances he would care nothing. Before leaving the stream he did another sensible thing. He studied the myriads of stars in the sky and fixed upon one of the first magnitude. In the crystalline air, it gleamed like the sun it really was. He thought it was Venus, but whether right or wrong, he knew the location of the planet and he determined to make it his compass.

Without such a guidance he would inevitably drift from his course, follow a circle and come back to his starting point, or never get anywhere except to the place he shouldn’t go.

It seemed strange to Alden that he saw no emigrant train plodding westward. With the hundreds dotting the country all the way from the Missouri to Salt Lake City, it would seem that he ought to be in sight of one or more all the time, but he had not observed any since parting from his own friends.

One welcome fact was apparent: that part of the trail over which he was walking was more favorable than the miles already traversed. The ground was comparatively level, though the piles of rocks, an occasional ridge (none very high), and the growth of willows continued at intervals. By making his detours as brief as possible, he steadily gained ground.

When he started he could not prevent his teeth from sounding like the music made by “bones” at a minstrel entertainment. He shivered and felt wretched, with the soggy leathern pouches flapping his neck, like a grotesque tippet; but ere long his incisors stopped their music, and the chills shook no more. Then a most glowing warmth permeated through his body. Even the numb feet felt as if he were toasting them in front of a fire. Clearly he had done the only sensible thing to do.

“What’s become of Venus?” he abruptly exclaimed, stopping short when he had gone something like a mile; “she’s played the sneak act. That beats me!”

He located the beautiful orb well to his left instead of in front. He knew the explanation. He had started on the tramp of a big circle which he assuredly would have followed, but for the care he used.

The best explanation of this curious tendency is that every person is either right or left handed. When walking without the unsuspected guides that serve during daylight, one side displays a little more vigor than the other, and causes a deviation from a straight course.

Alden faced about like a soldier on drill, and took care that he did not wander astray again. If he had made no mistake at the beginning, he was sure to arrive at his destination before long.

Twice while striding across a stretch of open ground, he fancied he saw the twinkle of a light ahead, but in the same moment it vanished and he concluded he was mistaken. When, however, it shone out a third time, he no longer doubted. Although its brightness varied it was never wholly lost.

He halted to study the manifestation, for to say the least it was out of the usual order of things. All lights at that time of night ought to be stationary. If it came from an emigrant camp or the window of a cabin, it would glow steadily, but a glance showed that it was moving. It had a rhythmic rise and fall, slight of itself, but distinct, such as is made by a person carrying a lighted lantern as he walks, or possibly by a horseman whose animal is on the same stride.

“I’m like Columbus on the Santa Maria,” thought Alden; “the first light which he saw as he drew near the New World, was carried by a man running along the beach, though it doesn’t seem that any one ever found who the fellow was. I wonder whether Columbus made any attempt to do so.”

It was far more to the point for Alden to learn the meaning of what he saw. It was not to be supposed that an Indian had anything to do with it. Such a performance was contrary to their nature, and to Alden it was none the less remarkable that a member of his own race should be the cause; still it must be one or the other.

With a natural curiosity, the youth held to his course with a view of meeting the one with the torch or lantern. The dipping motion continued, showing that the stranger was either walking or riding a horse.

It was hard to tell how far away a light is at night, but Alden must have cut down the interval two-thirds, when he asked himself whether it was prudent to meet a stranger in this manner. The latter would have a rifle, while the younger was confined to his revolver. Though it was probable that nothing was to be feared from the man Alden was wise in using caution.

Looking about for a hiding place, he could descry none in the obscurity. He ran a few paces until well to one side of the course of the stranger, when he sat down on the ground. The next minute he saw the other was riding a horse on a walk. Moreover he had no companion. The flickering rays did not tell this as much as the hoofbeats, which were those of a single animal. The illumination added a little more. The left arm was thrust through a large ring at the top of a lantern and thus supported it. Alden could make out in the reflection the stranger’s hands (one of which grasped the knotted bridle reins), the pommel of his saddle, and the tuft of hair at the base of his pony’s neck, but everything else was invisible in the darkness.

Yielding to a strange misgiving, Alden had lain flat on the ground to escape discovery. When the pony came opposite, he was within a dozen paces, near enough to scent that something was amiss. He snorted and leaped the other way. In the same instant the lantern flirted upward. Its uncertain light, revealed that the stranger had brought his rifle to his shoulder and was aiming at the point of disturbance.

“Don’t fire!” called the youth, springing to his feet; “I’m a friend.”

The other had soothed the fright of his horse and held him motionless. The rider did not speak and Alden, after a minute’s hesitation, walked up to him.

“Who are you and why do you carry that lantern?” asked the youth, looking up from the stirrup of the man. The latter lowered his weapon and peered down at him. He did not hold the light above his head, so Alden could not see his face. He was vexed by the persistent silence of the individual.

“Are you deaf and dumb?” sharply demanded our young friend.

Still the horseman did not utter a word. He grunted once and touched spur to his pony. The animal made a bound, and would have dashed off on a run, had not his master jerked him down to a walk. Then he moved off in the shadows, the rider still silent.

Alden looked after him in the gloom. Man and brute had disappeared but the light twinkled and dipped as before.

“That is a little ahead of anything I ever saw before!” was the exclamation of the puzzled Alden; “we have plenty of mutes in the east but I never met any on the plains, and I don’t believe he is one. I should set him down as a fool or one gone crazy.”

By and by the soft hoof beats died out, ever on the same deliberate walk. The pony would have gone faster had his master permitted, and why he did not was altogether beyond the understanding of the mystified lad.

But the questions could not be answered by standing in the midst of the plain and guessing and staring. The soggy pouches about his shoulders would not allow Alden to forget his duty. Besides, the soaked leather with its contents was growing heavy, and the brisk gait he had maintained for the last half hour or more was telling on him. He was weary and would have been glad of a rest.

“They must have known long ago at the station that something has happened to Dick Lightfoot; I should think they would search for him. If that man on horseback had not carried a light and locked his lips, I could believe that was his business, but he is acting in a way I don’t understand.”

Venus held her proper place among the other brilliant orbs overhead, and the lusty youth swung off vigorously, determined to keep at it without further stop provided nothing unusual checked him.

Surely that was another light which he caught a long way ahead. A second glance revealed that it was not of the nature of the last. The glow was unwavering. It must be the big camp fire of a wagon train. Though certain on this point, Alden would not have turned aside, but the camp lay almost directly in front and he would soon come to it.

He decided to stop long enough to learn how far away the station was. If he had gone astray and the distance was far, he would rest, for he needed it, but if the interval was not great he would press on.

His first supposition proved right. In less than half an hour, he came up to a circle of white-topped Conestogas, in the midst of which a huge fire was blazing. Although it was not late, the evening meal had been eaten, and most of the tired travelers had withdrawn into the wagons and were asleep. Sentinels of course were placed, and Alden was challenged as he came out of the darkness. His response was satisfactory, and he walked between two of the lumbering vehicles to the cheerful blaze, around which half a dozen men were seated on the ground, smoking and talking together.

All looked up as he came forward and bade them good evening. His appearance was interesting, for he was on foot, carried no rifle, but had a couple of mail pouches slung over his shoulders. He flung them to the ground with a sigh of relief, looked around and laughed as he exclaimed:

“I’m glad to get rid of them for awhile.”

A tall, bearded man rose to his feet and walked toward him. He asked in surprise:

“What are you doing with the United States mail?”

“Trying to reach the station.”

“You are not the regular carrier.”

“The Indians got him; he was killed a long way back, beyond the other station.”

“Where is his pony?”

“I left him at the station, mounted another, that gave me the slip, was shot by Indians and I have made the rest of the way on foot.”

“Well, you are a hero!” was the admiring comment.

“Not by any means; any one could have done as well.”

The youth now looked more searchingly at the speaker, whose voice had a familiar sound. To his astonishment, he recognized him as Garret Chadwick, uncle of Ross Brandley. Alden at last had overtaken the other train, and would meet the combative youth for whom he had looked in vain throughout the past weeks.

The caller involuntarily glanced around. A dozen persons were in sight, most of them within the circle of light cast by the camp fire, while two or three were moving about a little farther off. Among them was none who resembled young Brandley.

Alden had not yet sat down, tired as he was. His wish to deliver the mail pressed upon him.

“Can you tell me how near I am to the station?” he asked of Mr. Chadwick.

“Almost within a stone’s throw; yonder it is.”

Looking in the direction he pointed, Alden saw the dull glow of light from the loopholes of the structure, not far beyond the confines of the camp. It was singular that he had not noticed it as he came up, but the bigger illumination obscured the lesser.

“I must go,” he said; “a good deal of time has been already lost.”

“Will you not come back and spend the night with us? We can give you comfortable quarters in one of the wagons.”

“Thank you; I may do so.”

He was about to move off when the other with a laugh asked:

“Did you see anything of a man on horseback carrying a lantern?”

Alden was all attention.

“I did, and I couldn’t make him speak a word; do you know what it meant?”

Chadwick laughed again.

“I called at the station a little while ago; they are much disturbed over the absence of Lightfoot the Pony Express Rider. One of the four was so certain that he would turn up before supper that after a hot argument, he made a freak bet. He agreed that if Lightfoot had not come by that time, he would carry a lighted lantern on horseback over both streams that have to be crossed between here and the station to the east. One condition was that he was not to speak a word to any one except the missing man. Of course if he ran into danger he might be compelled to yell, and, if he met Lightfoot on the way, he had the right to turn and come back with him. Failing in that, he must make the ride I have named.

“I have heard of a good many fool wagers, but I never knew anything more absurd than that. Well, the others wouldn’t delay supper a single minute, and I think they hurried through with it. The fellow who had made the bet was game. He saddled his pony, lighted the lantern and started off. I forgot to say that another condition was that his animal should not trot or gallop, but walk every step of the way out and back. He was sticking to the conditions when you saw him.”

“He certainly was, for I couldn’t make him open his mouth, and his pony never changed his pace. Well, I must go to the station and, gentlemen, I bid you all good-night.”