Boys of the Fort/24
THE SKIRMISH IN THE BRUSH.
Up to the time the panther had turned upon him, the young officer had thought but little of his own safety, being concerned chiefly about Carwell, who was flat on his back, and who looked as if he as going to be chewed up by this wild, lean, and hungry beast of the forest.
But now Captain Moore found himself attacked, and as he went over into the brook he realized that he was in the most perilous position he had yet encountered. Facing Indians and desperadoes was nothing compared to facing this beast, that seemed bent upon his destruction.
The spot where the young officer struck the brook was five or six feet deep, and as the panther came down on top of him he went straight to the bottom.
The beast was also submerged, but not for long. Panthers, although they can swim, do not like the water, and this one lost no time in coming to the surface to get air. Then it let out another scream of pain, while the bullet wound in its side dyed the brook red.
As the panther came up the young captain tried to do the same. But the first thing he encountered was the beast's fierce claws, and he received a deep and painful scratch in his left shoulder. Then he went down again, and tried to come up further down the stream. But unfortunately the panther moved in the same direction.
In the meantime the other soldiers came up to the edge of the brook. They realized their captain's peril, and as soon as the panther showed itself two of them blazed away, one hitting the beast in the back and the other landing a bullet in the panther's neck.
The fury of the animal was now intense, and whirling around it lashed the water of the brook into a perfect foam. Then it leaped for the opposite shore, and made a break for the underbrush. Before anybody could fire again it was gone.
When Captain Moore regained the surface of the brook willing hands helped him out.
"Hurt?" questioned Peck anxiously.
"A little—on the shoulder," was the answer, with a gasp. "Where is the beast?"
"Got away in yonder bushes, sir. That's a nasty dig. You had better let me bind it up."
"Carwell, how are you?"
"The beast nipped me in the arm," answered the private, trying to suppress a groan. "By George, but he was an ugly one!"
"That's right," put in another soldier. "You can be thankful you wasn't chewed up."
A brief search revealed the fact that the panther had left the vicinity, and then the others set to work to bind up the wounds the captain and Carwell had sustained.
"We had better move on now," said the young officer, when the hurts had been attended to. "If there are Indians or desperadoes around they must certainly have heard those shots, and they will be wondering what they mean."
They marched on in the gloom, and did not halt until the sun was showing itself over the hills to the eastward. They had now gained a rise of ground from which with a field-glass the fort might have been seen. But the young captain's glass was gone—confiscated, as already told, by those who had first attacked him.
"We will draw closer with caution," said the young officer. "We don't want to walk into any trap."
Less than a mile was covered, when Peck, who had been sent out in advance, came back and called for silence.
"Some Indians are ahead," he said.
"How many of them?" questioned Captain Moore.
"Not less than a dozen or fifteen, captain. I counted eleven, and heard some talking that I couldn't see."
"Where are they?"
"Down behind where the brook flows over those sawtooth rocks. We were out there fishing last summer."
"I know the spot you mean. What are the redskins doing?"
"Nothing in particular. I overheard one say to another that he expected White Ox along before sundown."
They must be an advance guard of the tribe, then," returned the young officer thoughtfully. "Did any of them see you?"
"I don't think they did."
But in this Peck was mistaken, for scarcely had the soldiers started to walk around the spot where the Indians were encamped, when a savage war-whoop rang out, followed by half a dozen shots.
The first round was a deadly one, killing two of the men and wounding Peck in the side. A bullet likewise grazed Captain Moore's shoulder.
"To cover!" shouted the young officer, as soon as he could speak. "The Indians are on us!"
He had a gun in his hand, and as he gave the command he leveled it at the leader of the party, he who had killed one of the soldiers. Captain Moore's aim was true, and the Indian fell lifeless over the very body of the man he had slain.
By this time the other Indians were coming up, and all the soldiers could do was to take to the nearest cover, as the captain had ordered. The warwhoops continued, and shots were fired from several directions.
Scarcely knowing whether he was hit or not, Captain Moore dashed into the midst of some brushwood, and not far away from him; came Peck. The latter had broken his rifle over the head of one of the red men, and now advanced with the hunting-knife which was still in his possession. The young captain held a rifle, but just now had no time in which to reload the weapon.
"They are after us hot-like!" cried Peck, after several hundred feet had been covered.
The private's breath came short and sharp, and now for the first Captain Moore saw how he was suffering.
"You are wounded, Peck."
"That's right, captain."
"You can't run any more."
"I've got to run," muttered Peck, between his set teeth. "They'll be on—oh!—on us in another minute."
"Give me your arm—I'll help you along."
The private held out his hand, then gave a pitch, and, before the young officer could catch him, sank on the grass insensible.
Captain Moore's heart leaped into his throat, for he had known Peck for years, and the two were very friendly. He listened, and heard a distant shot. Evidently the Indians were not yet coming in that direction. They would first hunt down the others, providing they were not already slain.
Bending down, the young officer took Peck in his strong arms and threw the private over his shoulder. The weight was considerable, and made him stagger.
"I've got to carry him, somehow!" he muttered. "Heaven give me strength to do it!"
The brushwood was thick ahead, but there was a sort of trail, made by wild animals, and he pursued this until he came to a brook. Then to keep the Indians from following them, should they come in that direction, he followed the brook for a hundred yards or more. At last he reached a point where the banks of the brook were rocky, and here he came out, and crawled over the rocks. Not far off was an opening between two large bowlders, and here he sank down, too exhausted to take another step.
It was half an hour before Peck came to his senses. In the meantime the captain had obtained some water, washed the private's wound and bound it up in bandages torn from his shirt. The loss of blood had made Peck light-headed.
"Keep them off!" he murmured. "Keep them off! They want to bore a hole in my side. Keep them off!"
"Be quiet, Peck, you are safe," answered the young captain soothingly. "You've been wounded, that's the trouble," but the private continued to rave for some time, when he relaxed into a stupor.
With strained ears Captain Moore waited for the appearance of friends or enemies, but nobody came up the brook. Once he heard two shots far to the northward, but whether fired by the soldiers or the Indians he could not tell.
"I'm afraid it's been a regular slaughter," he mused sadly. "And our getting away was a miracle," and this surmise proved correct, for, as was afterward proven, all the others of the party were slain within an hour after the surprise occurred.