Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 6
SUDDENLY through the tomblike stillness brooding over camp and plain, came the dull sounds of rifle firing. Two shots were in quick succession, a third followed, then two more, after which all was as silent as before.
The reports were apparently a half-mile to the northwest. Every one of the sentinels listened closely, but nothing further reached them.
Jethro Mix snatched up his gun with a gasp and held his breath. Then he moved on tiptoe around the rear of the wagon to where Alden Payne stood tense and motionless as a statue.
“Did you hear dat?” asked the negro in a husky whisper.
“What do it mean?”
“I can’t tell; we shall soon learn.”
The two did so for a few seconds, and then Alden said in an undertone:
“I didn’t hear anything more; did you?”
“What did it sound like?”
“A hoss’s hoofs; wait a minute.”
Jethro dropped on his knees and pressed an ear to the ground. He had done the same thing in different circumstances, and knew what help it was to the hearing.
The next instant he sprang up.
“De Injins am coming! I hear dar hosses!”
Alden imitated the action of his companion and then quickly rose.
“It is a single horse, and he is coming this way on a run; I don’t think the Indians are near or we should hear more hoofs; I wish Shagbark would show up.”
But the guide did not appear for some minutes. Still standing the two noted the sounds made by the hoofs of a pony traveling at the highest speed. The sounds rapidly grew more distinct, and the two were quickly able to locate the horseman. It was toward the point whence came the rifle reports, and the fugitive must have had something to do with them.
“Dar he is!” whispered Jethro trembling with excitement; “shall I shoot him?”
“No; wait till we find what it all means.”
Just then the drifting clouds swept from before the face of the moon, whose rays streamed down upon the prairie. From out this misty obscurity shot a horse and rider, the animal with outstretched neck, tail streaming and straining every nerve to carry the man who was leaning well forward, beyond the zone of danger. The same rhythmic beat that had fallen on their ears that afternoon greeted them again. The pony was running for all that was in him.
Just as the rider flashed opposite the group of silent canvas covered wagons, he seemed to catch sight of them. Without drawing rein or checking the desperate speed of his horse he shouted:
“Look out for Injins! they’re close onto you!”
And then man and animal plunged into the night and disappeared, though the fast diminishing thumping of hoofs was heard for some seconds later.
“He’s a Pony Express rider,” said Alden; “and is making for the next station as fast as his horse can carry him.
“Ye’re right, younker,” remarked Shagbark, who appeared at the side of the two with no more noise than that of the flitting shadows on the plain.
“Did he fire any of those shots?” asked Alden.
“He couldn’t; he don’t carry a rifle.”
“He has his revolver.”
“It’s easy to tell the difference atween the barking of a revolver and a big gun; there warn’t any pistol used. He run right into the hornet’s nest afore he seed it, and the varmints opened on him; he must have throwed himself forrard on his hoss and the animal scratched gravel as them ponies know how to do. Every shot missed ’em both; I reckon that rider will carry his gun after this, even if its adds to the weight of his load.”
“It seems to me,” said Alden, “that if those Indians intended to attack us they wouldn’t have fired at the express rider.”
“Because it warns us of our danger.”
“Thar’s a heap of sense in what ye say, younker; that would have been the way of it, if the rider hadn’t dashed into ’em afore he knowed it, and afore they could slip out of his way; so they tried to shoot him from his saddle; beats all natur’ what poor shooters most of the varmints are.”
Shagbark glanced at the two.
“I’m powerful glad to see you both awake; I’m going to sneak out a little way on the perarie where I kin see furder than from hyar. So don’t shoot off yer guns ontil ye’re sartin it ain’t me but a redskin.”
Having given these instructions to each of the sentinels, Shagbark set about the task he had in mind. It certainly was risky, for, while he might count upon avoiding any collision with the red men, it was quite likely that some of the sentinels in their nervousness would fire upon the first glimpse of him. Be that as it may, the thought gave him little concern.
Jethro Mix stole back to his place on the other side of the wagon. A big scheme had flashed upon him, and he wished to turn it over in his mind.
“Wish I war dat Pony Expressman,” he muttered; “he’s gwine so fast dat de Injins won’t get de fust glimpse agin ob him. I’d like to be one ob dem riders, if I could allers keep riding toward St. Joe. What’s to hender me sneaking Jilk out from de oder critters an going like blazes fur de Missouri riber?”
That was the thought which had taken possession of him.
“Ef I kin git a good start dere ain’t any animal in dis crowd dat could ketch us, and when I arroves at St. Joe, it’ll take a double team ob horses to pull me away again.”
A few minutes’ reflection, however, showed the young colored man that his plan was impossible. He could not withdraw his pony from the group within the circle without being seen by the sentinels who would permit nothing of that nature. Moreover, Shagbark was likely to return at any moment from his reconnaissance and it would be just like him to shoot down Jethro.
“I doan’ think he lubs me much anyway; he’s been onrespectful in his remarks when he spoke to me afore others. Guess I’ll hab to wait till we gits to Salt Lake, where we’ll change guides and I’ll be mighty glad ob it.”
It must be deemed fortunate for Jethro Mix that he did not attempt the wild scheme in his mind, for the consequences must have been disastrous to himself.
Having little or no faith in the fellow’s courage and vigilance, Alden Payne acted as if he were wholly alone in guarding the wagon in which a number of the women and children were asleep, unconscious of any danger that might be stealing upon them. He had not long to wait when he made a disquieting discovery.
For most of the time the stillness was profound. The oxen had lain down within the enclosure and were either chewing their cuds or sleeping. Two or three of the horses kept their feet, but most of them were also lying down. Occasionally the stamp of a hoof sounded dully, but nothing else disturbed the watchers. In all directions on the level plain reigned the silence of the grave. The wide sweeping Platte, though not far off, coursed between its banks with no ripple or eddy that could be heard a hundred yards away. It was hard to believe that men were abroad in this silent world, hunting for a chance to slay their fellow creatures, but such was undoubtedly the fact.
The ever shifting shadows as the clouds tumbled past the moon, tantalized Alden. Much would he have preferred that the sky should be darker or lighter, provided it remained the one or the other.
It was not anything he heard which gave him his first thrill of fear. He caught no sound, but it suddenly occurred to him that there was a movement in the grass a few rods out. At first he could not define its nature. It was as if some reptile, possibly a rattlesnake, was stirring at that point. The disturbance was so slight that a moment later he felt sure he had been deceived. The face of the moon cleared, and a silver flood of light bathed the grassy plain. The spot which had roused his suspicion stood out almost as at midday, when the sky is partly cloudy.
“Could I have been mistaken?” he asked himself, motionless and peering into the obscurity. “Shagbark warned me to be on my guard against everything, but I can’t make this out.”
If a serpent had been disturbed and was zig-zagging through the grass, he had nothing to fear, for it would not molest him.
The occasion was one in which Jethro might be able to give help. Alden called cautiously to him, but there was no answer. He stepped softly around the rear of the wagon, but before he discovered the big fellow lying on the ground, he noticed his heavy breathing.
“Asleep,” muttered his master disgustedly; “I wonder that he kept awake so long.”
Without returning to his former position, Alden again scrutinized the plain spread out to view. In the flickering illumination, he could not descry anything out of the usual order of things.
“It must have been a mistake but I don’t understand—helloa!”
A ragged cloud again swept past the moon, whose full rays descended upon the earth. Could Alden Payne believe his eyes?
Barely a hundred yards away stood an Indian warrior. He seemed to be looking at the youth himself, though that was impossible because Alden must have been invisible to the keenest of eyes while wrapped in the shadow. The red man was as erect as a statue, a rifle in one hand which rested at the side below his hip. The youth noted even the feathers which projected from the crown of his head, the naked chest, the sash around the waist and the handle of the knife thrust behind it. A glimpse could be caught of the leggings below, most of them with the moccasins being hidden, however, in the grass.
The whole thing was beyond explanation. It looked as if the Indian while crawling over the ground and hidden by the grass, had changed his mind and deliberately risen to his feet, where he must have known he would be in full view of the vigilant white men. What could it all mean?
The next moment, while Alden was staring at the strange sight, he recalled the orders of Shagbark.
“The minute ye’re sure it’s a redskin, shoot!”
Nothing could be easier than for the youth to bring his rifle to a level where he was screened by the darkness, and bring down the Indian as he would bring down any other game. But he could not do it. The thought of shooting a human being, even though an enemy probably seeking the life of the youth himself, was intolerable. It would have been a crime for which Heaven would hold him accountable and for whose commission he could never forgive himself,
“I shan’t let him get out of my sight; he can do no harm so long as he stands there; if he attacks, I’ll shoot. Shagbark will laugh at me, but I prefer he should do that rather than offend my Creator.”
How long the Indian would have held his pose is doubtful, had not an unlooked for interruption occurred. Alden was trying to discern the countenance more clearly. He thought it was striped and daubed with paint, but the view was not distinct enough to make sure. Without intending to venture into the moonlight, the youth stepped softly aside and back a single pace in the effort to obtain another angle of view. In making the movement, he placed his foot directly over the mouth of Jethro Mix, and rested most of his weight on it before he could check himself.
“Gorrynation!” gasped the African, catching the offending shoe with both hands and struggling to free himself, “who frowed dat house on top of my head?”
“Shut up!” commanded Alden as he flirted his foot; “Why are you sleeping when you were placed here to watch for the Indians?”
“Who’s sleeping?” demanded Jethro, climbing heavily to his feet; “I war jest setting down to tie my shoestring when you come along and stepped on my head so it’s bent out ob plumb.”
“Look over the plain and tell me what you think of that,” said Alden impressively.
Startled by his words and manner, the African rubbed his eyes and did as directed, but failed to discover anything.
“I doan’ see nuffin,” he growled.
Nor did Alden. Everything was as when Jethro lay down. The sound of his voice must have been heard by the Indian, who vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. It was easy for Alden to understand that, but he could not comprehend why the redskin should have shown himself at all.
It was necessary to give some explanation to Jethro, but his young master had no purpose of telling everything.
“I saw an Indian out there a few minutes ago and stepped across to tell you about it, but you were asleep and didn’t know any more than you do when you are awake. The best thing for you to do, Jeth, is to lie down and keep on sleeping.”
“Do you mean dat?” eagerly asked the other.
“Of course I do.”
“All right; if you finds you have to do any trampin’ bout I’ll be obleeged if you doan’ step into my mouth agin. If you do I’ll bite your foot in two.”
Alden without noticing the fellow walked back to his first position. He did not give Jethro a second thought.
Despite the self-evident cause of the disappearance of the skulking warrior, the youth was ill at ease. He decided to await the explanation of Shagbark, who would probably join him ere long.
But worst of all, the proof had been given that the redskins whom all dreaded were prowling near the camp. One of them would not have ventured alone to the neighborhood. There might be a dozen, a score, or half a hundred who were formulating if they had not already formulated a plan to surprise and massacre every one of the whites. As to what that plan was he was as ignorant as the slumbering Jethro Mix.
All that Alden could do was use his eyes and hearing. No fear of his falling asleep, even if he did lean against the thick spokes of the wagon wheel. He knew better than to confine his attention to the spot where the warrior had appeared and vanished. The fact of his having done so would prevent his repeating the trick. He would aim to strike his next blow from another point. And that such was the fact became apparent a few minutes later when a fluttering disturbance similar to the first caught his eye, though from a point well to the left.
It was so far over indeed that, without any hesitation the youth moved a rod or more in that direction, keeping so far as he could in the shadow of the Conestoga, but the change of position carried him into the moonlight, and he crossed half the interval between his wagon and the one next to it. The fewness in number of vehicles compelled their wide separation, for the circle was large.
There was no call for him to go any farther, since the sentinel there must be as vigilant as himself, and it was not wise to leave his own charge unguarded even for a few minutes. Still further, Shagbark had warned every one against abandoning his post.
Because of all this, Alden halted just beyond the shadow thrown out by the huge wide cover of the Conestoga. His nerves were at the highest tension, and the feeling was strong upon him that some frightful danger was stealing upon the camp.
With the suddenness of lightning the truth flashed upon him. The second disturbance in the grass was for the purpose of drawing him away from his post, so as to leave that particular wagon and its precious load unguarded!
Not only was such the purpose of the Indian but the daring plan succeeded!