Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

THE ATTACK

IT looked to Alden Payne as if Jethro was eight feet long, when the guide was dragging him out of the front of the wagon by the nape of the neck. Like many persons, he was slow to regain consciousness, and was not fully awake until he was stood upon his feet. Even then he staggered uncertainly and was bewildered by the situation.

“What’s de matter?” he mumbled, spreading his feet apart and steadying himself.

“Whar’s your gun?” demanded Shagbark.

“In de wagon; I didn’t feel wery well and went in dere to lay down.”

“Get your gun and help shoot Injins,” was the startling order.

The flurry awoke the women in the Conestoga, and the excitement roused the whole camp. Dark forms appeared from the interior of the wagons, and hearing the voice of
 
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The Sharp Cracks of Weapons Rang Out in the Stillness.

 
the guide, most of them hurried to him to learn what they were to do.

Shagbark quickly explained the situation. The emigrants were about to be attacked, for there could be no doubt that their enemies were near at hand. Every man was needed, for much depended upon the vigor of the defense. Dividing the force so as to guard every point, the hunter cautioned the defenders to shield themselves as best they could, and to fire on the instant the least chance offered to do so with effect.

Once more the result of his training showed. The oxen and horses were in the middle of the open space, as far beyond danger as was possible; the women obeyed orders by keeping themselves and children behind the bullet-proof sides of the Conestogas. No more sleep for the mothers so long as the peril threatened. They listened, peered out and put up their prayers to heaven.

This tension had lasted but a few minutes, when the grass surrounding the camp became flashes of flame. From a score of places, representing so many different points of the compass, rifles gushed fire, the sharp cracks of the weapons rang out in the stillness, and the thud and pingeing of rifle balls were everywhere. In two instances the escapes of the defenders could not have been narrower. Abner Fleming felt the zip of a bullet which grazed his forehead, and one of his neighbors on the other side of the circle was scraped by a pellet of lead which abraded an arm.

Not an assailant could be seen. Leaving their ponies at a distance, the Indians had crept through the protecting grass to the nearest point prudent, and, crouching low or lying on their faces, fired into the camp. In the same moment the guns began popping from behind and alongside the wagons. Each man aimed at the flash nearest to him, for the instant illumination was his only guide. Then as quickly as the redskins could reload, they fired again, but always from a different point. They were using the trick common among white rangers of rolling aside the instant after pulling trigger. In the briefest conceivable time the whites discharged their weapons, but in that flitting interval, their enemies had shifted their position, and the bullets whizzed harmlessly past in the grass, or buried themselves in the earth. Inasmuch as each party rarely saw a member of the other, it was inevitable that most of the shots went wild.

Matters were “humming” thus, when the last person in the world that would have been believed capable of anything of the kind, did something so clever that it brought a compliment from Shagbark himself. That person was Jethro Mix.

When he recovered his gun, he leaped out of the wagon. The rear of the latter faced outward. Alden stood close to the body, and used the broad-tired wheel as a partial protection. No other man was near, they having been sent to different points. Instead of remaining in the vehicle and firing over the tailboard, where only his head would have been exposed, Jethro stood in the open—that is, directly in front of the cumbersome structure. He had not the benefit even of shadow, but must have been in plain sight of one or more foes in the grass.

“Don’t do that, Jeth!” called his young master in a guarded voice. “You’ll be shot.”

“Git out!” replied the negro, with his rifle at his shoulder, and alert for his opportunity. “I’m safe as you is; ’tend to your own bus'ness.”

It is hard to explain the mood of the African. He had earned the contempt of his friends by his timidity, but now none showed more intrepidity than he. Possibly he was so scared as to be unable to distinguish between danger and safety. That may be the right theory, but it cannot make clear what he did within the following three minutes.

Inevitably a painted redskin lying low in the grass took a shot at the dusky form and came startlingly near hitting him. It was a critical moment, but in the brief interval Jethro recalled one of Shagbark’s reminiscences, in which he told of dodging every return bullet during a night attack by rolling aside the instant he fired his gun. The circumstances now were precisely the same as in the former instance, except the position of the contending parties was reversed: the Indians were the assailants.

“It’s dem dat will flop over like a buckwheat cake de minute dey fires,” reflected Jethro, “but how de mischief ken I know which way de rapscallions will turn? Mos’ folks am right-handed, and I guess dat’s de way this sarpint will flop. If I’m right I must shoot to his left, ’cause he am facing me.”

It was the blindest kind of theorizing, but strange as it may seem, Jethro Mix was absolutely right in his conclusion. And the wonder of it all is that he reached it within a dozen seconds after the redskin’s bullet whizzed by his temple. Not only that, but he reasoned that the Indian would not shift his place for more than two or three feet, before reloading and trying another shot. Accordingly, having located his target by guesswork, Jethro sighted as best he could in the moonlight and pulled trigger.

And he got his man, too. A cry from the grass left no doubt on that point. He had hit the redskin as fairly as Shagbark could have done had the foe been standing on his feet with the sun shining overhead. And then like a veteran, Jethro, without stirring in his tracks, began reloading his gun.

Shagbark hurried forward. He was whisking from point to point, keeping the men keyed up and instructing them what to do. The shots still came from different points, but the firing was desultory and blind. The enemy hoped to hit man or animal, but there could be no certainty of doing so.

“Come back hyar,” said the guide sternly; “git behind this wagon if ye don’t want to git riddled by the varmints.”

“Yas, sir,” replied Jethro, suspending the reloading of his weapon and meekly obeying.

“Younker, was it ye who plugged that redskin?” asked the guide.

“No; it was Jeth.”

“How’d ye do it?” demanded the hunter.

“Ef you wants to larn how to tumble over one oh dem sarpents, Mr. Shagbark, I’ll tole you and you can try it yourself. I knowed dat de minute he pulled trigger he’d roll ober so dat when my bullet arobe he wouldn’t be dere to welcome it. So I aimed at de left side from here, and I reckons I got him.”

“B’ars and beavers!” exclaimed the guide, “ye’re the only one in the party that knowed ’nough to do that. Whar did ye larn it?”

“I heerd you tell how you done it once.”

“Wal, wal, it gits me; ye ain’t such a big fool as ye looks to be; keep on doing that thing, but don’t let ’em cotch sight of ye, if ye can help it.”

Shagbark’s admiration was not lessened by the fact that he knew the exploit of Jethro Mix was a piece of luck rather than real skill. By no possible means could he have known to which side the warrior would turn, but fortunately he guessed the right one, and the result was all that could be hoped for. None the less, Jethro had displayed a bravery and coolness in inexplainable contrast to his previous actions.

The grim irony of the situation was increased by what followed. Alden Payne did not forget the object lesson of a few minutes before. He knew that another shot would soon come from the grass in front, for the reports were heard on the other sides of the camp. He stood behind the wheel of the wagon, with gun leveled and alert for his chance.

He did not have to wait long. A spout of flame gushed from a point within a rod of where the former had appeared, and a thud told him the bullet had buried itself in the heavy timber of the Conestoga. Shifting his aim slightly to the left of the spot where the flash had shown, he let fly.

No outcry followed. The enemy had slipped in the opposite direction and was not harmed. Jethro had not quite reloading, and by the time he was ready, it was useless for him to fire. He therefore held his shot.

Meanwhile, Shagbark had moved to the wagon which Abner Fleming was guarding. Explaining the singular incident on the other side of the circle, he said:

“We’ll git our man sure, for the minute he blazes away, I’ll shoot a little to his right and ye do the same to his left: that’ll settle him.”

Hardly were the words spoken, when a flash appeared directly in front. The bullet went wide, but Shagbark had his weapon leveled in a twinkling.”

“Now let him have it!”

The two reports sounded like one. To the amazement there was no cry. Evidently the enemy had not been touched.

“Which side did ye fire, Abner?” asked the puzzled guide.

“To the left—that is, to the Indian’s left.”

“Thunder! that’s what I done; I meant to the left as we’re standing.”

“You ought to have explained clearly.”

“It’s too late now; be ready for the next show.”

But it did not come. The assailants were so discouraged by the vigilance of the emigrants that they abandoned the plan of rushing the camp. The desultory shots ceased and when a half hour passed without a sound, it looked as if the Indians had withdrawn altogether.

Shagbark, however, was not misled. The stillness might be meant to deceive the defenders and cause them to cease their watchfulness. The guide allowed the men who had stood guard the first half of the night to retire to rest in the wagons, while the relief took their places. As he intended from the first, he did not sleep, but moved from point to point, and made sure that none was neglected.

Alden Payne and Jethro Mix, acting on the advice of the veteran, lay down and despite the exciting incidents of the night were soon asleep.

The long hours dragged past without bringing any alarm. Shagbark kept moving around the camp, pausing at different points to talk with the sentinels, and twice he crept out from the wagon circle and pressed an ear to the ground. He was almost certain the Indians had withdrawn and nothing more would be heard from them.

When at last the increasing gray in the east told of the approaching day, the camp was astir. The light was an unspeakable relief, for brief as had been the hours of slumber, no one felt any disposition to stay inside the wagons after it was safe to venture out.

Before the sun rose, Shagbark had scanned every part of the horizon. No sight of the redmen was seen. The warriors must have gone back to their ponies, and leaping upon them, skurried off in quest of more inviting prey.

Beyond a doubt two or three of the assailants had fallen, but, as is the custom among Indians, their former comrades carried them away. Hardly a trace of the attack remained.

The women busied themselves in preparing the morning meal, a fire having been rekindled, and all ate with appetites such as come only to those who live in the open. A feeling of profound gratitude filled the hearts of all, for their deliverance was markedly providential.

“We’ve been a good deal luckier than I expected,” said Shagbark during the meal.

“We had more than one close call,” remarked Fleming; “I had something of the kind myself.”

It was found that three others had escaped by chances fully as narrow.

“That warn’t what I war most afeard of,” continued the guide; “we all had such good kiver that there never was much danger of being hit, but there’s one thing I don’t yet understand.”

In answer to the inquiring looks, Shagbark explained:

“With all them bullets whistling round us some of ’em oughter reached the hosses and oxen, but there hain’t one of ’em been so much as scratched.”

“Was not that because all were lying down?” asked Fleming.

“That had a good deal to do with it, but some of the hosses kept gitting on their feet and I had to watch ’em close and make ’em lay down agin; there warn’t any such trouble with the oxen, fur they was glad ’nough to lay down and chaw their cuds.”

“If we had lost a pony or two,” suggested Alden, “it would not have been so bad, for we could get on without them.”

“That ain’t what I’m driving at, but if a hoss had been wounded or killed, he would have kicked up such a rumpus he’d stampeded all the others; they’d have scattered over the perarie and upset things so promiscuous that we’d never got ’em agin. More’n that, thar would’ve been such times in camp that the varmints would have sailed in, and if we’d managed to stand ’em off, a good many of ye wouldn’t be left to talk about it this morning.”

The listeners shuddered at the picture brought up by the words of the grizzled guide. None of them had once thought of the terrifying peril named, but they saw that it had been real and beyond the power of exaggeration.

The most complacent member of the company was Jethro Mix. Shagbark and Alden had taken pains to tell of his exploit, and if the fellow had been capable of blushing, he would have turned crimson, but that being beyond his power, he affected to make light of it all.

“Pshaw! dat ain’t nuffin,” he said when the wife of Abner Fleming complimented him; “I ’spects to do de same thing a good many more times afore we gits across de plains; de fac’ is, I’m on to dem Injins and dey’ll find it out; when dey wokes up Jethro Mix dey wokes up de wrong passenger and dere’s gwine to be trouble in de land.”

‘T never heard of firing at a spot where an enemy is not supposed to be,” ventured Richard Marvin, another member of the company, and somewhat of a wag.

“Who ’sposed he warn’t dere?” demanded Jethro. “I knowed he was dere ’cause he wasn’t dere—so I aimed at'de spot where he wasn’t ’cause I knowed he was dere. Doan’ you see?”

“I’m glad to have so clear an explanation,” gravely replied the gentleman; “but it seems to me there must have been a good deal of guesswork, for there was no way by which you could know of a certainty which way—the right or the left—he had moved.”

“No guesswork ’bout it,” loftily remarked Jethro.

“Could you see him as he lay in the grass?”

“Ob course not.”

“You certainly couldn’t hear him.”

“Ob course I couldn’t; who said I could?”

“Then how could you know where he really was?”

“I’m ’sprised at your discomfuseness, Mr. Marvin; de way I knowed whar he was, was dat I knowed it; I felt he had flopped ober to de left, so I knowed jes’ de p’int to aim at; dat’s de skience oh de hull bus’ness.”

“I haven’t anything more to say, Jethro; you’re a wonder; I see Shagbark is getting ready to move on again and needs us.”