Boys of the Fort/25
A LUCKY MEETING.
"Captain, where am I?"
"In the woods with me, Peck."
"What has happened?"
"Don't you remember? The Indians surprised us, and you were shot in the side."
The brow of the wounded soldier contracted for a moment, and then he drew a long and painful breath.
"Ah, yes, I remember now, Are we alone?"
"And what of the others, captain?"
"I am afraid they have either been shot down or taken prisoners. Poor Carwell and Leeds I know are dead."
"It was a nasty surprise, wasn't it? I was sure they hadn't seen me."
"Those Indians are sly, Peck. They never let on until they are fully ready. We can be thankful that we escaped."
"How long have we been here?"
"The best part of the day. I carried you along the brook and to here, and I haven't dared to go any further. Those Indians can't be far off."
"It was good of you to do that for me, captain," said the private gratefully.
"I know you would have done as much for me, Peck. What I am worried about is what we are to do next."
"Perhaps you had better wait till dark, and then sneak to the fort."
"How do you feel?"
"Weak, captain, weak as a rag."
"I shan't leave you, Peck."
"But you ought to try to save yourself."
"We can both try to do that, when you are stronger."
Slowly the day wore along until night was once more on the pair. Peck had tried to stand up, but the effort had proved a dismal failure.
"It's no use," he murmured. "I reckon I'm a fit subject for the hospital," and he gave a sickly grin.
The night was one Captain Moore never forgot. He was hungry, but there was nothing at hand with which to satisfy the cravings of the inner man. Peck's mind began to ramble again, and once he struggled violently, thinking he was fighting with an Indian, who was trying to tear out his side.
With the coming of dawn the young officer felt that matters were growing desperate and that he must do something. He determined to go on a short exploring tour, leaving the soldier where he lay.
"I'll be back inside of half an hour," he said. "Make yourself as comfortable as possible while I am gone."
"Don't desert me!" groaned Peck. "Promise to come back, captain—promise!" he pleaded, and the young officer promised.
On the opposite side of the brook was a series of rocks leading to the top of rather a high hill, and Captain Moore had an idea that from this eminence he could obtain a faint view of the fort and its surroundings.
Half of the rocks were passed when he came to a sudden halt. A low groan ahead had reached his ears. As he stopped and listened the groan was repeated.
"That sounds familiar," he thought. "I've heard that before. But where?"
At last he made up his mind that the sounds came from some wild animal that was wounded, and plucking up courage he moved forward again, but with his rifle before him, ready to shoot at the slightest provocation.
"The panther—and dying!"
The young officer was right. There on a shelf of rocks lay the wounded beast, its breath coming short and heavy, and its eyes letting out a glassy stare that caused the captain to shiver in spite of himself.
At the sight of a human being the panther tried to rise. But the effort was too much for it, and it sank down, groaning with pain, in a pool of blood which had formed.
At first Captain Moore thought to finish by putting a bullet through its head, but then he remembered that ammunition was scarce and lowered his rifle.
"He'll be dead by the time I get back," he thought, and continued on his way up the mountain side.
At last the top was gained, and he looked around eagerly. At first only the plain far below met his view, but presently he made out a spot which he knew must be the fort. But all was in a blue haze, and no details could be distinguished.
Having spent quarter of an hour on the mountain top he picked his way back to where he had left the panther. The creature had now breathed its last, and lay stiffened out on the rocky ledge.
"I must have something to eat, and so must Peck," he said to himself. "Panther steaks may be tough, but they will be better than nothing. I'll go back for the hunting-knife and cut off as much meat as we'll be likely to need for a couple of days."
When he reached Peck's side he found the soldier sleeping quietly, and did not disturb him. Going back, he cut off a generous slice of the panther meat, leaving the rest to the wild beasts.
The captain hated to build a fire, fearing it would attract the attention of the enemy, but he did not wish to eat the meat raw, and presently, having no matches, shot his gun into the midst of some dry leaves. By this means he soon had a blaze, which he fed with the driest wood he could find, thus avoiding a great cloud of smoke. Over the blaze he cooked the steak, which was soon done to a turn.
When Peck awoke he felt stronger, and readily partook of the meal brought to him, washing down the meat with some water from the brook.
"What do you calculate to do now, captain?" he asked.
"From the top of yonder hill I can see the fort in the distance," answered the young officer. "But how to get to it is a question. It would be a hard enough journey as it is, without having to be on guard against Indians and desperadoes."
"Better leave me here, and go it alone."
"No, I shan't desert you, Peck. We'll see the thing through together."
"But the Indians might come down on us."
"We've got to run that risk. The question is, can you walk at all?"
For reply Peck got up on his feet. At first he swayed around a little, but presently steadied himself.
"I'm good for a little distance, captain, but I don't reckon to go into any walking match just yet."
"Then we'll go ahead. As soon as you feel played out, don't hesitate to say so."
Captain Moore carried the rifle, hunting-knife, and what was left of the meat, and also insisted upon having the private lean on his arm. In this fashion two miles were covered by noon, when they came to a rest under the shade of a big tree. Peck was pale, and showed plainly that the exertion had done him no good.
"Hardest walking I ever did," he admitted, as he stretched himself at full length. It was his will-power alone that had kept him up.
"Well, we are gaining," said Captain Moore cheerfully. "Three miles more will see us through."
"If the enemy don't gobble us in the meantime."
"The Indians are nowhere in sight."
"They won't be showing themselves if they can help it. They spring on us— Hark!"
Peck broke off short, and both listened.
"Somebody is coming this way!" whispered the young officer. "Come, we must get out of sight!"
He took the wounded soldier by the hand, and with all speed the pair crept into some brushwood behind the big tree. In the meantime the footsteps of the unknown party came closer.
As the man came into view, Captain Moore let out a shout which was full of joy.
"Hank Leeson! How glad I am to see you!"
The old hunter started around and drew up his gun. Then the weapon dropped, and he ran forward.
"Captain Moore!" he ejaculated. "Hang me ef I aint glad to set eyes on ye! Who is that with you?"
"Private Peck of Company B. We've had a fight with the Indians, and a number of the soldiers were killed."
"The Injuns are on the warpath, along with the desperadoes under Matt Gilroy," returned Leeson. "I got the word from Sam Benson early this mornin'."
"And where was Benson?"
"Out among the hills, a-lookin fer you."
"And what of my brother, and my cousin? Have you heard anything of them?"
"They are safe at the fort."
"Thank Heaven for that!"
"I see ye'er both of ye wounded," went on Leeson, as he came closer.
"My wound is not much. But Peck's is bad. I hardly knew how I was going to get him to the fort. Are the Indians or desperadoes around?"
"They are, captain—but whar is jest now the conundrum. Captain Lee—he's in command now—thinks there's a big plot on foot ter wipe out the fort."
"He is right. But Colonel Fairfield—what of him? Did they drug him?"
"They did, captain. But it's queer you know of all this."
"Then Joe didn't tell you I was with him at the cave?"
"I didn't have time to hear the whole story. Benson was coming out, and I came with him. Now, as you're found, I reckon I had better go back with you," went on Hank Leeson.
"By all means, for we'll have to take turns in supporting Peck."
A few minutes later the march for the fort was taken up. It was a tedious journey, and there were times when the young captain felt as if it would never come to an end. But at last they came within sight of the stockade and the big flag floating so proudly to the breeze, and then several came rushing out to meet them, and their hard ships, for the time being, came to an end.