Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII

JUST IN TIME

AT the instant of turning, Alden saw a form rise from the grass, less than two rods from the wagon, and glide with incredible swiftness toward it. The Indian was crouching, a rifle in his left hand and a knife in his right. Through an unexplainable instinct he knew where some of the women and children were sleeping, and he intended to bound in among them, strike right and left with venomous fierceness, slaying the sleepers with lightning-like quickness, and then dart away in the moonlight.

Half the intervening space was passed when the youth brought his gun to his shoulder and in the same instant fired. The interval was too brief to miss. The warrior emitted a rasping screech, flung up his arms and dived head foremost, so close to the Conestoga that he slid like a sleigh over the ice beyond the hind wheels and lay motionless on his face.

Alden was on the spot in a twinkling. Aflame with rage, he looked down at the lifeless form and bitterly exclaimed:

“I couldn’t fire on you a few minutes ago, but I never felt more pleasure than in doing so just now!”

It was a proof of the excellent training of the sentinels by Shagbark that, startling as was the episode, not one of them abandoned his station. Each knew that to do so would be to invite an attack from the undefended quarter. All held their ground, alert and ready to fire the instant the chance offered.

The crack of the rifle and the shriek of the red man roused more than one sleeper. Three of the men caught up their guns and scrambled out of the wagons. They were bewildered and at sea for the moment. The youth saw the terrified face of a mother peering out of the open space in the canvas at the rear of the Conestoga.

“What does it mean, Alden?” she asked, failing to see the feet of the redskin who lay under the axletree.

“I fired at an Indian,” replied the youth; “keep out of sight for the bullets may be flying any minute.”

The face vanished, for the woman was sensible even in her fright. Her two small children had not awakened, and she lay down between them, an arm over each, while a prayer went up to the only sure refuge in time of peril.

Alden was sure that the report of his gun and the outcry of the victim would bring Shagbark to the spot and he was not mistaken. The lad was watching the plain for him when he came silently forward from the rear and spoke:

“Good for ye, younker! I won’t need ye many years under my care to make a fust-class hunter and trapper of ye. How was it?”

His youthful friend told what had occurred.

“Have ye loaded yer gun?”

“Not yet; I didn’t think of it, and have hardly had time.”

“When ye shoot off yer piece, the next thing is to load up ag’in, for ye’re likely to need it mighty sudden; ’tend to that while I take a look round.”

The rifle used in those days was not the modern breech-loader, though they were beginning to come into use, but Alden’s weapon, like those of his friends, carried but the single charge which entered the muzzle. Screening himself in the shadow cast by the wagon, he proceeded to ram a charge down the barrel, while the guide did as he said he would do. He passed from one guard to another until he had made the round. He told the three who had been roused from sleep to go back and wait until he called them.

Mr. Fleming was stationed at the Conestoga which stood opposite and the farthest from the one in which his wife and others lay.

“I don’t like it,” he said curtly to Shagbark; “I ought to guard my own family.”

“Could ye do any better than that younker done?” asked the guide.

“I don’t believe I could; none the less, I feel that my right place is there.”

“I tell ye that younker is a hummer; not yerself nor any man in the crowd is better than him at a time like this; if his father and mother don’t want him I’m going to adopt him. In two or three years among the Rockies he’ll make the best kind of a hunter or trapper, instid of wasting his time larning larning which ain’t no good to nobody. But I say, Abner, if ye really want to change places with him, ye can do so.”

“I do wish it.”

“Come on, then; it won’t do any hurt to leave yer post for a minute, ’specially as them varmints don’t seem to be in a hurry to tackle us.”

As soon as the couple joined Alden he hastily crossed the open space and took his station beside the other wagon.

“Somehow or other,” he mused, “I suspect that the next move will be against this point; the redskins have learned that Fleming’s wagon is well guarded and they won’t try it there a second time. I shan’t be caught asleep again.”

He shuddered, as he recalled that it was his own desertion of post which caused the warrior to risk an attack upon the wagon. He had successfully maneuvered to draw the youth away, in order that he might commit the crime. Alden said he was sure he would have seen the Indian when, after completing his awful work, he leaped from the rear of the wagon to make off.

“Which is jes’ what he wouldn’t have done; he would have sneaked from the front, and whisked out of sight afore anyone could know what he’d done; and,” grimly added the guide, “more’n likely he’d knifed one or two others on his way to the perarie agin.”

Although the veteran knew Alden had disobeyed orders when he moved from his station, he made no reference to it at the time nor afterward. Had the offender been anyone else, he would have been called down with an emphasis that he never would have forgotten.

It will be recalled that a short while before the incident related, Shagbark had started off on a reconnaissance of his own. Assured as he was that the Indians of whom he had caught glimpses during the afternoon, and the reports of whose guns he had heard not far away, were drawing near the camp with the most sinister designs, he set out to checkmate them so far as it was possible. He could not trust all his sentinels as he would have liked to trust them, and he hoped to anticipate the attack of their foes.

Shagbark dreaded that they might rush the camp—that is, dash right in among the wagons and animals and slay on every hand. This was giving them credit for a courage which the American Indian rarely shows; but if the dozen whom the hunter had seen were the advance of a more numerous party, it was by no means impossible that this risk would be taken.

Another policy to be feared almost as much was that the warriors would gallop up and fire into the camp, circling off again until they could reload and repeat their attack. The discharge would be quite sure to kill or wound some of the oxen and horses. It was not improbable, too, that, despite the protection of those on guard, the whistling bullets would find some of them.

The guide thought that by venturing out on the plains he might get a glimpse of their enemies and penetrate their plans. Could he do so, possibly he might take steps to baffle them. Several ways presented themselves to his fertile mind.

The situation was one which called for all the woodcraft of which he was master. Naturally gifted in this respect, he had been educated in the best of all schools—experience. Those who had trapped and hunted with him agreed that he had no superior, and never was he more anxious to succeed than now.

Leaving the wagon on the north, he walked toward the Platte, which flowed only two or three hundred yards away. He stooped low and moved slowly, halting every few paces, peering round in the moonlight and listening intently. Instead of being bothered by the shifting light, he was aided by it. When the moon was obscured he hurried forward, taking care to pause and stoop before the full light streamed out again.

The course of the hunter was diagonal to that of the river, and gradually took him toward it. He was still fifty paces away, when his keen hearing told him something. It was such a plash as is made by a fish leaping above the surface and falling back again. That probably was the cause, and yet it was possible it had more significance than that.

Upon hearing the slight noise, Shaghark instantly sank flat upon the ground, where the grass hid him from the sight of any one passing within a dozen feet. He did not raise his head, until a second faint rippling, different from that caused by the sweep of the stream, came to him. Then he removed his sombrero, and cautiously lifted his eyes until he could see all the way to the low level bank. With one hand he parted the vegetation, and kept as far down as he could and still see.

An Indian warrior having swum the stream, stood for a moment on the shore. He was afoot, a fact which surprised the watcher, who knew that none of his race wandered far in that country without a pony to carry him. Standing thus, the redskin emitted a soft bird-like call which the listening ear could hardly detect. The response was in the form of a second Indian, who came into sight from some point up stream. The two met and talked in voices which were only the faintest murmur to the eavesdropper.

Shagbark formed a daring plan as he thus lay in the grass, with his eyes upon the couple, who sometimes faded from sight and then stood out in relief, when the light of the moon was unclouded. He decided to wait until the shifting positions of the two brought them within direct range and then fire and bring both down.

And incredible as it may seem, that is what he would have done but for the occurrence already described. With nerves of steel he brought his rifle round in front, drew the hammer back, and paused until the orb of night should show they were in the right relative position. Thus matters stood when the report of Alden Payne’s weapon and the death cry of his victim rang out with thrilling clearness in the still night.

It would be hard to say which party was most startled. The Indians, standing on the bank of the river, whisked out of sight, and halting only a moment, Shagbark turned and ran with all speed to the camp. There was the call for him, and he could not lose a second. It has been shown that he arrived in time. Neither Alden nor any of the others suspected the experience through which the guide had passed, nor did they learn of it until long afterward.

The sagacity of Shagbark told him that the incident was the best thing that could have occurred for the emigrants. Beyond a doubt the surrounding warriors were forming their plans of attack, counting much upon a surprise, when the death of the most daring of their number told them their mistake. In order to rush the camp they must reckon upon losing several of their number. The certainty of such a penalty has prevented many an Indian assault.

As Shagbark and Abner Fleming stood by the wagon which had escaped the dreadful peril, the latter shuddered.

“What’s the matter?” asked the guide.

The other indicated the inanimate form that still lay on its face under the Conestoga.

“Can’t we get rid of that, Shagbark?”

“Nothing is easier; obsarve.”

Leaning his rifle against the tailboard, the hunter stooped, seized each ankle, and raising his hands so that they were at his own hips, and with a moccasin on either side, he ran fifty yards out on the plains. Then dropping the feet, he turned about and dashed back, with the cool remark:

“We may as well keep his gun, fur he won’t need it any more.”

“Shagbark, that was risky on your part; even where it lies it is much closer than I like, for we shall all have to see it in the morning.”

“No, you won’t; it’ll be gone afore sunup.”

“Will they dare come near enough to take it away?”

“Keep yer eyes peeled.”

Leaving Fleming to himself, the guide made another cautious visitation of the sentinels. It was now not far from midnight and the change of guard must soon be made.

Alden Payne was left for the last before returning again to Fleming. Shagbark had formed a strong liking for the youth, and this feeling was deepened by the last exploit of Alden.

“Wal, younker, have ye diskivered anything new?” asked the man, in his low voice, which could not have been heard twenty feet away.

“Nothing at all; how is it with you?”

“The same way; ye obsarve the Injins knows that one of the sentinels keeps his eyes open all the time and they ain’t taking any chances they don’t have to take.”

“But I have been shifted to this side,” replied his young friend, as if he accepted the compliment in all seriousness; “some of them, therefore, ought to show up here.”

“That’s jest the p’int; the varmints knows we ’spects something of that sort, and have moved ye over to this side, where ye’ll give ’em the same kind of welcome ye did afore.”

“Come, now, Shagbark, that’s enough,” protested Alden; “it happened to fall to me to pick off that wretch, but anyone else in my position would have done the same.”

“P’raps,” grunted the guide, and that was the utmost he would admit.

“Well, I declare!” exclaimed Alden excitedly, turning to his companion; “that beats all creation!”

“What do ye now mean?” inquired the veteran.

“What’s become of Jethro?”

Strange that during all this time no one had noticed the absence of the colored lad, but he had been missing for more than an hour.

“What do you think has become of him?” asked Alden.

“Dunno, and can’t say I keer; the best use we kin put him to is to slip a yoke over his neck and let one of the oxen take a rest.”

There may have been some justice in these rough sentiments, but Alden could not dismiss the matter thus. Despite Jethro’s cowardice, his master felt a strong affection for him. They had been companions from early boyhood, and the African showed a dog-like regard for his master. He would willingly go hungry or suffer pain for his sake, though he drew the line at Indians.

Noticing the distress of the youth. Shagbark, with more consideration in his voice, asked:

“When did ye see him last?”

“A few minutes before I fired; I think I left him asleep near the other wheel of the wagon where I had been standing. Fact is, I know he was asleep.”

“And he warn’t thar when ye come back, which was powerful soon afterward?”

“I didn’t think of Jethro, but I must have seen him if he had stayed where he was.”

“What do ye think become of him?”

“He must have run away; I never saw a person so scared as he when he learned we were likely to be attacked by Indians. I am afraid he has scampered off over the prairie.”

“Couldn’t have done that very well without some one seeing him; more’n likely he crawled in among the hosses and oxen where he thought he’d be safer. Hark!”

From the interior of the wagon near which they were standing sounded the heavy snoring of some person.

“I’ll bet ye that’s him,” chuckled Shagbark.

“He isn’t the only one that puts on the loud pedal when he sleeps.”

Shagbark stepped on the tongue of the vehicle and peered inside. It was too dark to see anything. In fact, two other men were breathing less stertoriously, but he located the point from which the chief racket came. Feeling about with his hand, he gripped the shoulder of the sleeper, and bracing himself with one foot against the front board, he drew out the elongated form of the offender.