Alden the Pony Express Rider/Chapter 9

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THE next look we take of the train under the guidance of Shagbark, the veteran of the plains, is several weeks after the incidents just described. The route which they in common with thousands of emigrants, including the Pony Express riders, followed, led due west up the Kearny valley to Julesburg, a distance of two hundred miles. Here it crossed the South Platte, trended northwest to old Fort Laramie, passed thence over the foothills at the foot of the Rockies to South Pass, and by way of Fort Bridger to Salt Lake.

You must bear several facts in mind. Colorado at the time of which I am writing had not yet been formed into a Territory, nor had Wyoming. The oldest white settlement in the latter section was Fort Laramie—since abandoned—which was made a trading post in 1834, rebuilt by the American Fur Company two years later, and sold to the United States and garrisoned as a fort in 1849.

In speaking of the great overland trail, which was used for a score of years after the discovery of gold in California, one is apt to think of it as of comparatively slight width. Yet, although it narrowed to a few miles in some places, there were others where the ground traversed was fifty or a hundred miles across. Thus it happened that trains which were following parallel routes were often out of sight of one another for days, and perhaps weeks. The breadth of the famous South Pass, the gateway of the Rocky Mountains, is so great that parties of emigrants frequently did not know for a long time that they were really traveling through it.

Although there were many incidents worth telling, we must skip them and come to the time when our friends were plodding some distance beyond the straggling town of Cheyenne, which was to attain importance during the building of the transcontinental railway eight or nine years later. They were heading for Fort Laramie, on the western slope of the spur known as the Laramie Mountains. Far ahead the crests could be seen, tinted with a soft blue, as they raised their summits into the clear spring sky. The ground was more rolling and undulating, and streams of varying depth and volume had to be crossed. The greater elevation gave a sensible coolness to the air. Although summer was near at hand, the nights were chilly and the warmth of blankets and the roaring camp fire was grateful to all alike.

Indians had been descried many times, and Shagbark expected an attack, but since the affair many miles to the eastward, not a hostile shot had been heard. He was inclined to think this was due to the vigilance of the emigrants. No matter how tranquil everything looked, all the adults took turn in mounting guard each night. The redmen more than once rode up within two or three hundred yards and seemed to meditate a closer approach, as if for barter. But with good reason they distrusted the white men, who knew their treacherous nature. Occasionally these warriors waved their blankets and made tantalizing gestures as if to draw a shot, but Shagbark would not permit any to be fired.

“Thar’s no use of throwing away powder and ball,” he said; “we’re likely to need all we’ve got afore we see Salt Lake, and them insults don’t hurt.”

Several times our friends had seen the Pony Express riders as they skimmed across the country with the speed of the wind. A wave of the hand from the flying horseman, without the slightest pull of rein, was the only acknowledgment made to the salutations of the emigrants. The majority of these headlong riders were not seen, for, always hunting the speediest route, they were generally well north or south of the trail of the ox teams.

A goodly part of the journey was over, and yet the train had suffered no serious accident. In crossing a rapid stream, where the animals had to swim, Jethro Mix performed another exploit which won the praise of his friends. One of the oxen, stupid as the species always is, became entangled in his yoke and would have been drowned had not the African urged his pony alongside, where with a swift, powerful wrench, some shouting and a savage blow or two with the butt of his gun, he straightened out matters and saved the valuable animal.

More than likely any man in the company would have done the same thing had circumstances equally favored, but Jethro was the nearest to the endangered animal, and seconds were beyond estimate. His promptness was what won.

Despite this service and the remarkable exploit on the night attack by the Indians, Shagbark never showed any special liking for the African. It may have been because of his race, but, although he could not have been induced to harm the dusky youth, he preferred to have as little to do with him as possible.

Alden Payne had become the favorite of the guide. At his invitation the young man frequently rode with him. When the nature of the ground permitted, the two kept side by side. If this was not practical, Alden dropped to the rear, pressing forward again when the chance offered. Shagbark had his silent moods, but not so often when the two were together. A peculiar result of nature and training shown by the veteran amused Alden. The guide never lost his habit of eternal alertness. No matter how deeply interested the two were in what was being said, Shagbark kept glancing ahead, on each side, and frequently behind him. Even when sitting on the ground or eating with the others this bird-like flitting of his eyes was kept up. It seemed impossible for such a man to be caught off his guard.

There had been stormy skies and the train lay by for most of the day, but on the whole the weather continued favorable. The guide said more than once that the best of luck had been with them from the very day they left St. Joe.

“It can’t continner,” he added, “so we must make the best of it while we’ve got it; we’re getting into the mountains, and though it’s about summer, we’ll catch some squalls that’ll freeze the nose onto yer faces.”

“It strikes me, Shagbark,” said Alden, “that that train two or three miles ahead of us have kept almost the same distance for the last few days.”

“Ye’re right, younker.”

“What do you make of it?”

“That we both happen to be tramping at the same rate. If they went a little faster they’d draw away from us, or if we went a little faster we’d overhaul ’em.”

“How large do you make out the party to be?”

“’Bout the same as ours; they’ve got an extra wagon and a few mules, but I don’t think thar’s more men and women.”

“Wouldn’t it be well for us to unite and travel together? It would be much safer in case of attack by Indians.”

Shagbark shook his head.

“’Twon’t work; they’ve got thar guide and we’ve got ourn; which one would be the boss in them sarcumstances?”

“You, of course.”

“The other chap, whoever he might be, would have something to say ’bout that, and like ’nough him and me would have a fout to settle the question. Our folks are all good friends and git along powerful pleasant; ’tain’t likely we could do that if we took in a lot of strangers that we’d never heerd of afore. No, sir.”

And Shagbark puffed hard at his pipe, which had nearly died out during the conversation.

That night the train went into camp on the western bank of a stream fifty yards wide, but comparatively shallow. There was no difficulty in fording it, the women and children riding in the wagons without getting wet.

The current was clear and so icy that it was evident it had its source in the mountains.

The wagons were ranged as usual in a circle with the animals surrounded, where there was enough grass for their supper. Some trouble was met in getting all the wood needed, but enough was obtained to serve for the preparation of supper. By that time the air had become so chilly that the blaze was carefully nursed in order to reinforce the blankets. The effort, however, was not very successful.

The fact that no Indians had been seen for the last two or three days did not affect the watchfulness of the company. The usual guards were stationed, and it again fell to the lot of Alden Payne to act as one of them. Jethro Mix was placed at the wagon which stood next to his, the duty of both being to serve until midnight. Shagbark, who seemed to sleep only now and then, for brief intervals, decided by and by, to take a long rest. He never occupied any of the wagons, but wrapping his heavy blanket around his shoulders, lay down near the smouldering camp fire, with the animals grouped on all sides. It was always understood that if anything occurred he was to be roused at once. The men had learned much during the long journey thither of the ways of the plains, but he never fully trusted them.

The steady tramping, riding and the dragging of the heavy Conestogas made the rest welcome to men, women, children and to the animals. By nine o’clock everything was in the form it would be two hours later, provided no disturbance took place.

Night had hardly shut in, when a mile or so to the westward the lights of another camp twinkled through the darkness. All knew it came from the party that had been traveling near them for several days past. Shagbark had spoken of riding forward with Alden and making a call upon the emigrants, but decided to wait a while.

The night was similar to that of the Indian attack. Perhaps there were more clouds drifting across the sky, but the moon near the full, plowed through the snowy masses and made the illumination fitful and uncertain. Sometimes one could see objects for a hundred yards and more, and then the view was shortened to half that distance.

Alden was leaning against a wheel of the vehicle, in his favorite attitude. Now and then when he felt a faint drowsiness stealing over him, he moved about for a brief space until he felt fully awake. Then he listened to the heavy breathing which came from some of the wagons, to the stamping of the horses, some of which were still on their feet, with an occasional murmur of voices from those who had not yet drifted into forgetfulness.

Suddenly through the stillness, Jethro Mix called in a husky undertone:

“Helloa, Al, am you dere?”

“Of course I am; what do you want?”

“Dere’s somebody out dere, and not fur off, too!” was the startling explanation of the hail. “Haben’t you seed him?”

“No. Is it an Indian?”

“Dunno; he’s on de back ob a boss; come ober here and take a look fur yourself.”

Alden knew the objection to leaving his post, but he thought the circumstances justified him in joining his friend for a few minutes. He hastily crossed the intervening space.

“Where did he show himself, Jeth?”

“Right in front ob us; wait till dat cloud passes and you’ll see him suah.”

The surprise came the next moment, when the clearing sky disclosed not one, but two horsemen, a few rods away. They had halted their ponies and were sitting side by side, evidently studying the camp as if in doubt whether to venture nearer. The first sight showed they were not Indians, but white men. Two equestrian statues could not have been more motionless than they.

Placing one hand as a funnel, Alden called in a low voice:

“Helloa, neighbors! Why don’t you come forward?”

By way of reply the couple twitched their reins and rode to the edge of the camp. Neither dismounted. Alden noted that one was a large, bearded man, while his companion was a youth of about his own age. The two wore broad brimmed hats, which partly hid their features, but when the elder spoke, Alden fancied there was something familiar in his voice.

“Good evening, friends,” he said. “We meant to call earlier, and it has grown so late that we shall defer it to-night. I presume all except the guards have turned in?”

“They did so some time ago; it will not do for us to leave our stations, but we shall be glad to welcome you at any other time. You belong to the company that has gone into camp a little way from here?”

“Yes; we have been in sight of each other for several days; had the situation become threatening because of Indians, I should have proposed that we unite, but everything seems to be peaceful.”

“Have you had no trouble with them?”

“None whatever, though we have seen many parties at a distance.”

“We were attacked one night some weeks ago along the Platte, but drove them off without harm to us.”

“How was it with them?” asked the man significantly.

“We got several who were too venturesome.”

Jethro could not restrain himself any longer.

“Yas, and de fust warmint dat got soaked, he done it—suah as you’s born!”

“I congratulate you on your success; doubtless it had much to do with repulsing your enemies.”

“Jethro told you the incident so as to force me to say that he picked off another of the redskins. Incredible as it may sound, it is true.”

The man in the saddle looked down with renewed interest upon the burly African, who had set the stock of his rifle on the ground, folded his arms over the muzzle, and assumed a lolling attitude, as if the matter was of no concern to any of them.

“Dat ain’t nuflin,” he said airily; “de sarpint furgot dat I was on de lookout fur him and as soon as he fired and missed, why, I plugged him; ’tain’t wuth speaking ’bout.”

“Fortunate is that company which has two such sentinels as you,” commented the man, with something like a chuckle; “if we run into danger from Indians, shall we be able to borrow you two, or if your friends cannot spare both, can we have one?”

“Who would be your choice?” asked Alden, entering into the spirit of the moment.

“Jethro, as you call him; of course he’s the most valuable.”

“Dunno ’bout dat,” said the African with dignity; “de wimmin folks and de children will blubber so hard when dey find I think oh leabin’ dem dat Shagbark won’t be likely to allow it; howsumeber. I’ll think it ober.”

“Thank you; you are very kind.”

During the conversation, which continued for several minutes longer, with nothing of moment said, the youth who accompanied the elder caller did not speak a word. He seemed to be peering from under his hat at Alden, as if studying him.

“Well,” said the man, “we shall ride back to camp now and doubtless shall soon see you again. I need not assure you that you and your friends will be welcome at all times. My name is Garret Chadwick, and I have charge of the other company. My friend here is my nephew, Ross Brandley.”

“Very glad to have met you. I am Alden Payne, and I am on my way from St. Joe to join my father, who left for California some months ago.”

As Alden spoke he made a military salute to the two. The elder returned it, but his companion slightly nodded without speaking or saluting. The two then wheeled their animals and rode off at a walk.

The incident showed there was nothing to be feared from hostiles for some time to come. Alden, therefore, did not scruple to linger for a few minutes with his sable friend.

“Jeth, there was something familiar in that man’s voice.”

“Ob course dere was; doan’ you remember him?”

“No; do you?”

“You hain’t forgot dat splendid fout you begun wid dat chap in St. Joe when he butted into you?”

“Certainly not.”

“Wal, dat’s de gemman dat pulled you apart.”

“And that fellow with him is the one who struck me?”

“Suah’s you’s born; he knowed you, if you didn’t know him; I seed him watching you mighty sharp, as if he was achin’ to get another chance at you; he’d done it, too, if his uncle hadn’t been wid him.”

“If the chance ever does come, he’ll find me ready,” said Alden, compressing his lips, for the memory of the insult rankled. “I remember he called him ‘Ross’ in St. Joe, but forgot it a minute ago.”

“Why doan’ you ask him to come alone and wisit us?”

“If he called here it would be as my guest, and that would never do: it would be a breach of hospitality.”

“Den go ober and wisit him.”

“That would place him in my position as it is now. No; we shall have to meet on common ground. He must have thought I recognized him,” added Alden with a thrill of disgust, “and wanted to make friends with him. I hope we shall come together pretty soon, where nothing can prevent a settlement of our quarrel.”

“And dat ’minds me, Al, dat I haben’t tole you my big secret yit.”

“I don’t care anything about your secret,” replied his master impatiently, for he was in anything but an amiable frame of mind. “Attend to your duty and I will attend to mine.”

With which the youth walked back to his own wagon and resumed his task of sentinel while most of the company slept.