Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 5

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SHAGBARK kept continually scanning the horizon in all directions. It lacked an hour of sunset when the flickering forms to the northwest passed over the rim of vision. But the guide was not misled by the fact. He thought it likely that some of the red men, whose tribe he did not know, had galloped farther away, fearing they had been observed by the emigrants. Even in those days, the dusky rangers of the plains knew of the artificial eyes used by the whites, which enabled them to see far beyond the unaided vision.

The trapper rode some distance out on the plain, and made complete circuit of the camp. He studied every point of the compass and with his permission, Alden Payne was his companion on the brief ride. The company halted earlier than usual, and every preparation was made against attack.

Alden with his glass was no more successful than the glum old fellow, who used only the power that nature gave him.

“I can’t catch a glimpse of them,” remarked the lad when the circuit was completed, and he lowered his instrument.

“Hooh! ye needn’t tell me that; if the varmints was to be seed I’d seed ’em.”

The six lumbering wagons were drawn up in a circle, the space inside being about a hundred feet across. In the center of this a fire was kindled from the driftwood brought from the bank of the Platte, where all the animals were allowed to drink, after which a number of vessels were filled and brought to camp. While the water was roiled and not specially attractive in appearance, no one felt any objection to it. As one of the men remarked, it “beat a raging thirst all hollow.”

Over the fire several of the women busied themselves boiling coffee and cooking venison from the game that was shot that morning. As has been intimated, the company carried a reserve of food, in the form of bread and jerked beef, but it was not thought prudent to draw upon it until no choice was left. There was an abundance of sugar, salt and various spices, and enough tea and coffee to last the entire journey, provided it was not lengthened beyond expectation.

When the fire had served its purpose it was allowed to sink. The night was so mild that the blaze was not needed for warmth. Every one had comfortable clothing, for they knew they would need it before reaching the coast. Soon after the meal was finished the children were bundled to bed. Three of the wagons were set apart for them and their mothers, the others being given over to the male members of the party. The parents were warned not only to keep the heads of the little ones below the upper edge of the wagon bodies, but to make sure that they did so themselves. So long as this caution was observed, they had little to fear, for the thick wood was arrow and bullet proof.

It was comparatively early in the evening when Shagbark placed the guards. His plan was that six should act as sentinels until midnight, when, if nothing occurred, they would give place to the same number, and retire to their quarters for the remainder of the night. As for Shagbark, he said he would be on duty until daylight. If when morning came, he found himself in need of sleep, he would lie down for a short time in one of the wagons, hut he didn’t expect to feel any drowsiness unless he was robbed of slumber for two or three nights in succession.

Each of the six wagons was put under the charge of a single man, who was warned to be vigilant through every minute while on duty. They did not need to be told that their foes were the most cunning fighters in the world who were sure to try every possible trick upon them.

“If ye see anything moving outside, shoot!” was Shagbark’s instruction to each: “no matter if it is only a bunch of grass waving, bang away at it and ye’ll find it’s the head of a redskin. If ye fall asleep when you wake up ye’ll put your hand on top of your head and discover yer skulp’s gone.”

Since the sentinels could not pace to and fro, as is the usual custom, they were at much disadvantage in that respect, for we all know how insidious sleep is and how in many circumstances it is impossible to fight it off. Shagbark met this statement of the situation by Fleming thus:

“Ye ain’t likely to begin snoring so long as ye keep on your feet. No matter how much ye may feel like setting down or leaning up agin a wheel or side of a wagon, don't do it for so much as a minute. Ye can steal back and forth on the inside of the circle of wagons, fur that will help keep yer peepers peeled, but ba’rs and beavers! no man’s wuth shucks if he can’t stay awake till midnight, and them as comes on duty then will have had ’nough sleep to last ’em till daylight.”

This sounded so reasonable that there was a general expression of confidence that none would find any difficulty in keeping full command of his senses.

Alden Payne felt complimented by the trust which the veteran showed in him. He led the youth to one of the wagons in which some of the mothers and their children had lain down. While approaching it, they heard the murmured prayers of the parents and the little ones. A tiny girl, known for her remarkable sweetness of voice, sang softly a hymn that she had learned at her mother’s knee. The words could not be distinguished, but when the soft tones, like those of an angel hovering near reached the couple, the trapper abruptly stopped and listened. The voice ceased the next minute and he sighed. Neither he nor Alden spoke, but the soulful strains must have awakened some childhood’s remembrance in the breast of the old hunter. Alden even fancied when he raised his hand, that it was to brush away a tear from the eyes that were unused to weep. If so, Shagbark did not know his companion had noticed his action.

“Hyar’s where ye’ll stand,” said the guide, lowering his voice, so as not to disturb anyone within the wagon; “I don’t have to tell ye that the favorite spot for them varmints to strike is where there’s only women and children; a good deal depends upon ye, younker.”

“I shall do my duty,” quietly replied Alden.

“You needn’t tell me that; a feller’s got only to look at ye to see the sort of stuff ye’re made of; I like ye, younker.”

Never had Shagbark uttered so pointed praise, and it sent a grateful thrill through the youth, who could not doubt the sincerity of the words.

“Now ’bout that darky,” added the guide; “it won’t do to put any dependence on him."

“He means well, but I shouldn’t advise you to trust him too far.”

“No fear of that, but he such a big, hulking chap and eats so much that he oughter be made to do something; I’m going to put him on tother side of this wagon and make him b’leve it’s the most important post of all, and that if he drops asleep, the whole shebang will be wiped out by the redskins. Mebbe he’ll be able to stay awake but I don’t b’leve it.”

Shagbark walked as silently as a shadow to the middle of the circle, where the fire had sunk to smouldering embers. He had seen Jethro there some minutes before and as he expected found him sitting on the ground, upon which he had spread his blanket. The spot attracted the dusky youth, for it was farthest removed from the wagons, and was the safest place except the interior of the vehicles. He would have cuddled down there among the sleepers, had not Shagbark notified him that he had work for him to do.

Jethro did not hear the soft footfall, but hastily climbed to his feet when the guide gruffly spoke to him:

“Wal, younker, be ye ready?”

“Ise allers readdy to do my dooty; what is it you want, Mr. Shagbark?”

“Ye know how ticklish things is to-night; we must all take turns in watching fur the redskins that will be sure to try to steal in among the wagons and skulp us all; ye are to stand guard till the middle of night, when some one else will take yer place,—that is if ye live to give ’em a chance.

Jethro’s teeth rattled at these awful words.

“Do you think, Mr. Shagbark, dey’s gwine to pitch into us?”

“That’s what Injins seem built for; ye can feel powerful sartin that if we give ’em the chance they’ll grab it.”

“Yas, sir,” replied the youth, as he gingerly followed the guide to the wagon where he had placed Alden Payne a short time before; “I wish I felt better.”

Shagbark stopped abruptly and turned upon him.

“What’s the matter with ye?”

“De fac’ is, Mr, Shagbark, I doan’ feel very well dis ebening: I hain’t felt well all day,—sorter oh a big pain in my innards.”

He leaned over, pressing his hand against his side and groaning.

“I observed that ye eat as much as me and young Payne together; don’t seem to affect yer appetite any.”

“Dat’s de way it allers takes me; sometimes I kin stop de pain—Oh! oh!—by swallering all de food I kin git hold of.”

“Ye won’t think anything about yer pain, when ye see a big Ingin stealing up out of the grass and making ready to skulp ye; come on.”

Jethro dared not refuse to obey the terrible fellow, and kept at his heels until they reached the wagon, where Alden grinningly awaited them.

“Younker,” said the hunter in his rumbling voice; “being this the most dangerous p’int, I’m going to put two of ye here.”

“A good plan, Shagbark; I never knew a fellow with better eyesight and ears than Jeth; between him and me, the red man will find it hard to steal upon us unawares.”

“Whar—whar am I to stand?” faltered the negro.

“Ye will stay right whar I place ye,—alongside of the left hand wheel of the wagon; the younker will hold his position clus to the right wheel; ye two will then have only the breadth of the wagon between ye; neither of ye must stir from the spot till I come round to bring some one else to take yer place. Do ye understand?” he demanded of the terrified Jethro.

“Yas, sir; I’ll do de best I kin; nobody can’t do no better dan dat.”

“And nobody asks you to do any better; wal, I reckon I’ve said ’nough.”

And the guide moved away with his noiseless tread melting from sight in the gloom.

It must be said of Jethro that although scared almost out of his senses, he was resolved to do his duty so far as it lay within him to do it. Even in his panic, he saw an advantage over the other sentinels. A wagon guarded by two persons must be twice as well protected as one under the care of a single person. Alden was so watchful that he could be counted on to detect any approach of danger. Jethro was in the position of a man who had a reliable support in an enterprise involving great peril.

The two stood so near each other that it was easy to converse in under tones. Within the Conestoga, all was still. The mothers and their children were sleeping, feeling secure in the protection of heaven and the strong and brave hearts around them.

“Say, Al, am you dar?” asked Jethro in a husky, half-whisper, as he peeped round the rim of the wheel at the figure dimly visible in the shadow, and almost within arm’s reach.

“I couldn’t well be anywhere else,” replied his master.

“What do you think ob things?”

“I think you and I have got to keep our eyes and ears open to-night, Jeth.”

“Dat’s what I’m doing; do you think de Injins will come?”

“You heard what Shagbark said; he knows a hundred times more about such matters than we do; he and I certainly saw a party of them a few miles away on the prairie, and I haven’t any doubt that they are a good deal nearer to us now and coming nearer every minute.”

“Gorrynation! Al, why didn’t you and me stay home?”

“Because we came with Mr. Fleming and his company; you were as eager as I to cross the plains, and you were told all about the Indians.”

“Blame it all. I didn’t b’lebe dat stuff.”

“I guess you believe it now, but, Jeth, I don’t think Shagbark wishes us to talk while we are on post.”

“Nobody can’t hear us.”

“It distracts our attention from our work; better give your whole mind to the business we have in hand; if you see anything that doesn’t look right, let me know.”

“Berry well.”

Now, you do not need to be told that one of the hardest things to do, is to stand still for an hour or two at a stretch. Even though you shift the weight from one foot to the other, the strain soon becomes unbearable, whereas a rugged man can find pleasure in pacing regularly to and fro after the manner of sentinels.

“A feller mought as well be comfor’ble,” mused Jethro, leaning his rifle against the side of the wagon body, where he could snatch it up the instant needed. He next placed his elbow on the highest point of the broad tire of the large hind wheel, and rested his head upon his hand. His pose was made still easier by swinging one foot in front of the other ankle, and supporting it on the toe of his shoe.

This posture was so agreeable that he was sure he could hold it for several hours without fatigue; but it is such poses that irks one the soonest. He changed the position of the feet, but found that rather awkward, so long as his elbow remained on the tire. By turning his body round so that his back was toward the open plain, he could use his other elbow and the relief was pleasant.

“Big idee,” he muttered to himself; “bime by when I git tired. I’ll swing round agin.”

It certainly was a strange pose for a sentinel, deliberately to turn his back away from the field from which danger threatened. Yet that is precisely what Jethro Mix did and his self explanation was not without some force:

“If any ob de Injins try to sneak up, Al will be sure to see ’em; he’ll let me know in time to whirl ’bout and lambast ’em or—git out ob de way myself.”

The neglectful guard found some comfort in another fact: he was gifted with an unusually keen sense of hearing, and believed his ears would tell him as much as his eyes. In the circumstances, however, when it is remembered that absolute silence is one of the features of Indian subtlety, this was the gravest of mistakes.

By and by, Jethro swung back and resumed his first position, shifting his feet again as before. He stood so well toward the front that he could not see his friend, except by leaning forward and peering round the tail of the wagon. He took care to keep a position that shut him from Alden’s sight.

“It’ll be jes’ like him to kick when he sees me standing with my back toward de Injins, and dere ain’t any use ob habing any quarrels at a time like dis.”

When Jethro pivoted to the front for the third time, he held the position longer than usual. The situation was one which impressed even his dull nature. The moon near its full, had risen and shone upon the silent earth below. Ragged, white clouds swept slowly across the sky, like moving mountain peaks of snow. The orb was forever groping among these feathery masses, some of which were attenuated while others had enough body to eclipse the orb for a few minutes. This dodging into view and out again made the light uncertain. The shadows ran swiftly over the ground and whisked out of sight, then came a brief space of gloom, and then the illumination revealed objects with diminishing distinctness, for a hundred yards out on the plain.

It was a night favorable for Indian cunning to do its work. The spring grass was tall enough to allow a warrior to steal through it while lying flat on his face, with little fear of detection, until he came close to the foe whom he was seeking to slay. If ever a sentinel needed all his wits it was on that night when more than half a dozen of them were guarding the emigrant train plodding its way to the distant Pacific coast.