Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI

A SETBACK

THE arrival of Alden Payne at the station and the story which he carried caused a profound sensation. When the door was opened in response to his knock, he dropped the pouches on the floor, sat down on the nearest stool and exclaimed:

“There’s your mail; the Indians got Dick Lightfoot.”

And then as the hardy fellows gathered round him, he told the experience with which you are familiar. Even in their grief they did not forget their courtesy. He was pressed to eat, but replied that he had partaken so late in the day and was so tired that he had no appetite: all he wanted was rest. They talked a few minutes longer and then he was urged to lie down in one of the bunks. This brought the question that was on his tongue when he entered the cabin:

“What are you going to do with the mail?”

“I shall be on road in ten minutes,” replied one of the three, a man of slight figure, bright eyes and alert manner.

“Won’t you let me take it?”

They looked at one another in astonishment. Then the eldest, who had done most of the talking for his friends, said with a smile:

“You haven’t any pony.”

“But you have.”

“You have never been over the route and don’t know the way.”

“The pony does; I brought the mail here and and this is the first time I was ever so far west.”

“But you are worn out.”

“How far is it to the next station?”

“A little short of twelve miles, but a part of the way is pretty tough and you’re liable to run into redskins before you’re out of sight of the station.”

The men admired the pluck of the youth, but they would have been foolish to yield to him. The mail was certainly safer in charge of one of their number than with a youth who was strange to the country. They shook their heads, and, since there was no help for it, Alden lay down on the couch which felt as delightful to his body as eider down. He could hardly keep awake while removing his clothing and five minutes after his head pressed the doubled blanket which served for a pillow, he was asleep, and did not open his eyes until the morning light streamed through the windows and the door that was drawn far back.

One of the men was preparing breakfast and the odor of the steaming coffee and broiling venison was the sweetest perfume that could greet a hungry person. The others were outside looking after the ponies and attending to their ablutions. After greeting his host, Alden was directed to the spring near at hand, where he bathed and drank. That finished, he surveyed the emigrant camp. Everything there was bustle and activity. Breakfast was also in course of preparation, and men were corraling the animals that were cropping the lush grass and holding back from harness and yoke.

“They won’t start for an hour,” reflected Alden, as he walked back to the cabin; “after breakfast. I’ll go over and call on Mr. Ross Brandley. He must have learned of my arrival from his uncle, and there shouldn’t be any trouble about arranging for a meeting between him and me. We are both traveling in the same direction, and I don’t think he feels backward about that little matter. In fact he has proved he doesn’t. I’ll give him the fight of his life!”

And Alden compressed his lips and walked more briskly to the door through which he passed, entering as the others were sitting down to the table. He was greeted warmly and knew he could not have been more welcome.

It impressed Alden that two facts were self-evident; since all the men were present the rider who had taken charge of the mail must have carried it to the next station and returned during the night. Inasmuch as the entire ride was less than twenty-five miles the achievement was not remarkable, when the circumstances are remembered. Every rider had a swift intelligent pony, and both were familiar with the route.

Moreover, since the force at the station had increased from three to four men, one of them must be the horseman whom Alden met, and who refused to speak a word to him. A glance at the different ones told the youth which was he, but, as he made no reference to his freak bet, the guest did not think it well to mention it.

Having thanked the men for their hospitality, Alden rose to go. Addressing the one who had announced his intention of carrying the mail to the next station, he asked:

“Did you have any trouble in getting through last night?”

“Who? Me? None at all,” replied the rider with a grin, “’cause I didn’t go.”

“Which one of you made the trip?”

And Alden looked from one face to the other. The tallest man, the chief speaker replied:

“None of this crowd went.”

“Hasn’t the mail been sent on? Then I shall take it after all.”

“Oh, the mail reached the station long ago if all went well; one of the party in camp over yonder took it.”

This was strange and Alden asked:

“How was that? I don’t understand it, when you refused me the chance.”

“I should have given you the chance, if you hadn’t been tuckered out; the fellow who took the mail was as fresh as a daisy and eager for the trip.”

A suspicion flashed upon Alden.

“What is his name?”

“He is a young chap about your size and build: name’s Brandley, Ross Brandley.”

Alden sprang to his feet.

“And you let him rob me of my honors! The last fellow in the world!”

The four men looked at him in astonishment. The tallest asked:

“What do you mean?”

Alden saw the absurdity of his action. Resuming his seat, he said:

“I beg your pardon; how came you to select him?

“You hadn’t laid down ten minutes when he came over from camp. He said he had some important business with you and wanted us to wake you. That didn’t seem right, seeing how tired you were, and he agreed to wait till morning. Then he saw Cal about to start with the mail and the notion got into his head that it was the job next to his heart. He begged to be allowed to take his place. He wouldn’t accept no for an answer, and I was fool enough to give in, doing something contrary to the rules and if anything happens to him, I shall get into trouble for it.”

“He rode on my pony, that knows every foot of the way,” added the rider referred to as Cal; “I guess he got through.”

After a moment’s silence, Alden asked:

“Did he leave any message for me?”

The agent glanced to the rider to answer.

“He told me to let you know his name and to say that, as you had given up your job, he took pity on you and would finish it for you. He would try to fix things so you wouldn’t have to wait long for the meeting which he’s a good deal more anxious than you to bring about.”

Poor Alden Payne! He was “boiling.” Nothing could have occurred to roil him more deeply. After completing two-thirds of the trip with the mail pouches and going through terrifying perils, his enemy, as he persisted in regarding him, had quietly stepped in and stolen the honor from him. Not only that, but he had left an insulting message, as if his act itself were not sufficient.

Our young friend could see no “ray of light.” Had he possessed his own pony he would have started in hot pursuit of Brandley, but Firebug was with the train and until he came up, no animal was at command. It was useless to ask the agent to loan him one of his horses, for there was not the slightest reason for doing so and every reason why he should not.

The chagrined Alden tried to formulate some plan by which he could even up matters with the fellow who had treated him so ill. He thought of going on afoot, but that would have been folly. The only method seemed to accompany the emigrant train until it met Brandley returning, or overtook him at the next station; but, to do that, placed him in a delicate and repugnant position. He would travel as the guest in one sense of Brandley’s relative, who was the head of the company. That fact must act as a restraint upon the nephew, and to a certain extent upon Alden himself. The foes must meet upon neutral ground, where the duty of hospitality did not bear upon either.

Seeing the train about to start, Alden, restless, impatient and trying hard to hide his anger, walked over to camp and went straight to Mr. Chadwick.

“I should like to ask,” he said; “how you came to allow Ross to take my place.”

The man was nettled by the unconscious brusqueness of Alden’s manner.

“Explain yourself,” he said, moving aside where the others who looked inquiringly at them, could not overhear what was said.

“I brought the mail pouches from the last station and expected to take them on to the next as I had a right to do.”

“Well, what of it?”

“And your nephew sneaked over and took them away from me.”

“Did the agent give him permission?”

“Certainty, though he now regrets it.”

“Then your question should be addressed to him and not to me.”

“You shouldn’t have permitted your nephew to do such a thing.”

“Since when have you assumed to advise me, young man? In the first place, Ross didn’t ask my permission, nor did I know he had gone until this morning.”

“And you would not have allowed him to do what he did had you known it?”

“I haven’t said that nor do I say it now; what I do say is that I am much pleased to bid you good morning.”

With which curt dismissal, Garret Chadwick turned about and gave his attention to the starting of the train, which was in motion a few minutes later.

Repulsed and turned back at all points Alden was in an unenviable frame of mind. He knew he had acted inexcusably toward Mr. Chadwick, and he would have apologized had the opportunity been given. Had he decided to go with his party to the next station, he could not do so after these words. He wandered back to the station where he sat down on one of the stools that had been brought outside and gloomily watched the lumbering wagons as they swung slowly westward under the strenuous pull of the oxen.

The result of all this dismal cogitation was the decision that there remained but the single thing to do: he must wait at the station until the arrival of the train under Shagbark’s guidance.

“He ought to be here by to-night or to-morrow forenoon. Before that, Chadwick and his party will be at the next station, and so many miles ahead of us that we shan’t overtake them this side of Salt Lake City, if we do even there.

“Ross Brandley is running away from me!” exclaimed Alden slapping his knee; “there isn’t a doubt of it. He knew that if he stayed in camp nothing would prevent our meeting to-day, so he made the excuse of wishing to carry the mail to the next station. When he gets there he’ll wait for his friends, and be gone long before we can come up with him.”

And this conclusion did not add to the young man’s peace of mind. He must pass the dragging hours as best he could until the arrival of his friends. He rose to his feet with the intention of taking the back trail to meet them, but gave over the plan when he reflected that the breadth of the route made it very easy for him to miss them.

“It would be my luck to do so,” he growled; “everything goes wrong with me.”

The man inside the cabin having cleared away the dishes and set matters to right, sat down on a bench and began mending his clothes; two others had gone off to look after the horses, which were grazing some distance away among the foothills. Probably they would go on a little hunt before their return. Cal the diminutive rider came out, bringing a stool with him and placed it beside the glum Alden.

“Sorry you feel so bad, my young friend: I had no idea of anything of the kind. Ross never told me of the trouble between you and him.”

“Of course not; he was afraid you would make him stay here till I could see him.”

Cal swung one of his sinewy legs over the other knee, struck a fly crawling several feet away, with a well aimed volley of discolored spittle, and said:

“No; I don’t think it was that; you must remember he was eager to wake you up when he first come to quarters.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t let him do so.”

“So am I, seeing how you feel. What’s your quarrel with him? I liked the fellow first rate, what little I seen of him.”

Alden told of the interrupted fray in St. Joe, when Brandley bumped into him, and instead of apologizing, added insulting words.

“Can’t say that I blame you for being r’iled, but I should like to ask a favor of you.”

“What is it?”

“When that fight comes off, fix things so I can observe it. I know it’ll be a hummer.”

Alden could not help smiling.

“I’m sure I have no objection, but I don’t see much chance of obliging you. He has left here and isn’t likely to come back.”

“But I can fix things so as to ride to the next station when the mail comes in from the east.”

“Well, if you are in the neighborhood, I’ll give you a reserved seat.”

“That’s the talk; I’ll do my best.”

“You mustn’t forget that he is running away from me.”

Cal swung the other leg over its mate and submerged a fly that was groping far beyond ordinary hydraulic range. Raising his hand he protested:

“Hold on, pardner; young Brandley ain’t running away from you.”

“How do you know he isn’t?”

“I warn’t with him long, but long enough to see what kind of stuff he’s made of; he’s true blue and don’t you forget it. He’ll be waiting for you when you get to the next station and you can then have it out.”

“I hope so, but I doubt it.”

“He’ll never show the white feather, more than you will.”

Inasmuch as Cal included Alden in this compliment, our young friend could make no objection to the same.