Boys of the Fort/23
A PANTHER IN CAMP.
As Captain Moore fell upon one of the Indians, Peck the private stole after the guard who had walked toward the bushes. The other soldiers jumped to where the remaining Indians were sleeping, to gain possession of the firearms.
The Indian the captain had tackled was a young but powerful brave, and he put up a hard fight to release himself. But he had been taken unawares, and after he was on the ground the captain saw to it that he did not get up.
In the meantime the Indian near the bushes turned just in time to see Peck raise the hunting-knife. Crack! went the red man's rifle, and the bullet clipped the soldier's ear. The shot was so close that to the day of his death Peck carried in his face some traces of the burnt powder.
The shot was the last the Indian ever fired, for in the midst of the smoke Peck hurled himself at the warrior, and a second later down came the hunting-knife, piercing the red man's back and entering his right lung. The stroke was a fatal one, and before the fighting in the glade came to an end the Indian had breathed his last.
When the sleeping Indians awoke they could not for the moment realize what was going on. In his bewilderment one leaped up and rushed at a soldier, who promptly laid him low by a heavy blow from a rifle stock, which almost cracked the warrior's skull. Seeing this, the other brave became frightened and ran for the bushes.
"Don't let him escape!" cried Captain Moore, who was still holding his man down.
At once two of the soldiers ran after the fleeing Indian, and presently two rifle shots rang out, followed by a scream from the red man.
"He's done for," said one of the soldiers, after the smoke had cleared away. "He has gone to his happy hunting-ground."
After this turn of affairs it did not take the soldiers long to make prisoners of the two Indians who remained alive. These fellows were in truth much frightened, but tried their best to suppress their feelings.
From one of the Indians, Captain Moore learned that more Indians were expected early the next morning.
"That's all right," said he. "They will come in time to release you and save you from starvation."
"Going to tie em up, captain?" asked Peck.
"Yes. There is nothing else to do."
"Better shoot em."
"I can't shoot them in cold blood, Peck. That would not be human."
"The wretches don't deserve to live, captain. The Indians and those desperadoes are plotting to wipe out everybody left at the fort."
"I know that. Still, I cannot bring myself to take their lives—and we can't stop to take them along as prisoners. The sooner we get back to the fort the better."
"If we can get back," put in another soldier.
"I don't believe the fort is surrounded just yet," returned the young officer.
"But if it is?"
"Then, perhaps, it will be better for us to be out than in."
"You wouldn't desert the crowd at the fort, would you?"
"You know me better than that, Gorman. We might be able to ride to the next fort and obtain re-enforcements."
"That's so, captain! I didn't think of that."
Leaving the dead Indians in the bushes and the others tied to the trees, the captain and his companions now lost no time in striking out for the fort.
Fortunately, Peck was well acquainted with every foot of the territory to be covered, and he led the way by a route which was fairly easy and as direct as could be expected, considering the wild region to be covered.
As he hurried along, the young captain's thoughts were busy. Where were Joe, Darry, and Benson, and how were things going at the fort?
"The Indians are not so much to be blamed as the desperadoes," he said. "They have some wrongs, although they are more fancied than real. But the desperadoes ought all to be either shot down or placed under arrest."
"Right you are," returned Gorman. "This district will never prosper until the desperadoes are cleaned out."
It was not long before the party began to grow hungry, and they had to halt for an hour, to prepare some birds which one of the number had brought down with a gun.
All the time they were eating, one of the soldiers remained on guard, for they were fearful a band of Indians might come up unawares to surprise them. But not a red man or desperado showed himself.
Nightfall found them still sixteen miles from the fort, and unable to walk further.
"We will camp out where we are," said Captain Moore. "It is useless to think of covering the distance in the dark. Besides, we might fall into some trap."
A storm had been threatening, but now the clouds passed and the night proved clear and pleasant. It was decided that two men should remain on guard at a time, each taking a turn of three hours.
The young captain slept from nine o clock until three in the morning. Then he awoke with the feeling that further sleep was out of the question. Getting up, he walked to a nearby brook, intending to wash up and obtain a needed drink.
While Captain Moore was in the vicinity of the brook something stirring in the bushes attracted his attention.
"Carwell, did you see that?" he asked, of the guard who was nearest to him.
"See what, captain?"
"That thing in yonder bushes."
"I see nothing, sir."
"Something is moving there. Come here and look."
The private did as commanded, and both gazed steadily into the bushes.
"By Jove!" exclaimed the young officer at length, "Do you see what it is now, Carwell?"
"I do not, captain."
"It's a panther, unless I am greatly mistaken."
"Lying on the fallen tree, behind that tall bush," and Captain Moore pointed with his hand.
As he did this the panther arose suddenly, then crouched down as if to make a leap at them.
"Shoot!" ordered the captain, and as quickly as the private could raise his rifle he fired. But his aim was poor, and the bullet flew a foot over the panther's head.
"Missed, hang the luck!" muttered Carwell.
Scarcely had the words left his lips, when the panther made a fierce leap and landed directly at the feet of the astonished pair. The beast was evidently very hungry, or it would not have attacked human beings in this semi-light of the early dawn.
Full of fear, Carwell staggered back, with his smoking rifle still in his hand.
The panther growled and switched its tail from side to side. The rifle shot had filled it with wonder, and it did not know what to do next.
"Be careful—he is going to take another leap!" cried the young captain.
He was right; the panther was now preparing for another spring. Before Carwell could get out of the way, the beast came on, pinning the private to the earth.
As Carwell went down the whole camp roused up, and the second guard came up on the double quick.
"What's up, captain?" he sang out.
"Shoot the panther!" answered the young officer. "Quick, or you'll be too late. Don't hit Carwell."
Crack! the rifle spoke up, and the beast was hit fairly and squarely in the side. At this it let out a blood-curdling scream of pain. It had caught Carwell by the arm, but now it released its hold.
"A painter!" roared one of the old soldiers. "And a big one. Git your guns, boys! He aint no beast to fool with, I can tell you that!"
Those who had guns ran for them. But in the meantime the panther turned around, as if to retreat.
Then, of a sudden, it seemed to catch sight of Captain Moore, and with a snarl of rage it threw itself upon the young officer, and both went over with a loud splash into the brook.