John Brent/Chapter XVII
Caitiff Baffles Ogre
Another rush of horses’ feet behind us.
And that pale, gray shadow of a man, whose pony the Elder drags by the bridle, and lashes cruelly forward, — who?
Sizzum rode straight up to Brent.
The two men faced each other, — the big, hulking, bullying saint; the slight, graceful, self-possessed gentile. Sizzum quailed a little when he saw the other did not quail. He seemed to change his intended form of address.
“Brother Clitheroe wants his daughter,” said Sizzum.
“Yes, yes, gentlemen,” said Mr. Clitheroe in feeble echo, “I want my daughter.”
Brent ignored the Mormon. He turned to the father, and questioned eagerly.
“What is this, dear sir? Is Miss Ellen missing? She is not here. Speak, sir! Tell us at once how she was lost. We must be on her track instantly. Wade, shift the saddles to Fulano and Pumps, while I make up our packs. Speak, sir! Speak!”
Brent’s manner carried conviction, even to Sizzum.
“I did not like to suspect you, gentlemen,” said Mr. Clitheroe, “after our pleasant evening and your kindness; but Brother Sizzum said it could not be any one else.”
“Get the facts. Wade,” said Brent, “I cannot trust myself to ask.”
Sizzum smiled a base, triumphant smile over the agony of my friend.
“Tell us quick,” said I, taking Mr. Clitheroe firmly by the arm, and fixing his eye.
“In the night, an hour or more after you left us, I was waked up by two men creeping into the wagon. They whispered they would shoot, if I breathed. They passed behind the curtain. My daughter had sunk on the floor, tired out, poor child! without undressing. They threw a blanket over her head, and stifled her so that she could not utter a sound. They tied me and gagged me. Then they dragged her off. God forgive me, gentlemen, for suspecting you of such brutality! I lay in the wagon almost strangled to death until the teamster came to put to the oxen for our journey. That is all I know.”
“The two gamblers, murderers, have carried her off,” said I; “but we’ll save her yet, please God!”
“O,” said Sizzum, “ef them devils has got her, that’s the end of her. I haint got no more interest in her case. I believe I’ll go. I’ve wasted too much time now from the Lord’s business.”
He moved to go.
“What am I to do?” said Mr. Clitheroe.
Forlorn, bereaved, perplexed old man! Any but a brute would have hesitated to strike him another blow. Sizzum did not hesitate.
“You may go to the devil across lots, on that runt pony of yourn, with your new friends, for all I care. I’ve had enough of your daughter’s airs, as if she was too good to be teched by one of the Lord’s chosen. But she’ll get the Lord’s vengeance now, because she wouldn’t see what was her place and privileges. And you’re no better than a backslider. You’ve been grumblin’ and settin’ yourself up for somebody. I would cuss you now with the wrath to come if such a poor-spirited granny was wuth cussin’.”
The base wretch lashed his horse and galloped off.
Even his own people of the mail party looked and muttered contempt.
Mr. Clitheroe seemed utterly stunned. Guide, Faith, Daughter, all gone! What was he to do, indeed!
“Never mind, Mr. Clitheroe,” said Brent, tenderly, “I hope you have not lost a daughter. I know you have gained a son, — yes, two of them. Here, Jake Shamberlain!”
“Here, sir! Up to time! Ready to pull my pound!”
“Wade and I are going after the lady. Do you take this gentleman, and deliver him safe and sound to Captain Ruby at Fort Laramie. Tell Ruby to keep him till we come, and treat him as he would General Scott. Drive our mules and the mustangs to Laramie, and leave them there. We trust the whole to you. There’s no time to talk. Tell me what money you want for the work, and I’ll pay you now in advance, whatever you ask.”
“I’ll be switched round creation ef you do. Not the first red! You think, bekase I’m a Mormon, as you call it, I haint got no nat’ral feelin’s. Why, boys, I’d go with you myself after the gal, and let Uncle Sam’s mail lie there and wait till every letter answered itself, ef I had a kettrypid what could range with yourn. No, no, Jake Shamberlain ain’t a hog, and his mail boys ain’t of the pork kind. I’ll take keer of the old gentleman, and put him through jest ’z if he was my own father, and wuth a million slugs. And ef that ain’t talkin’ fair, I dunno what is.”
We both griped Jake Shamberlain’s friendly fist.
Mr. Clitheroe, weary with his morning’s ride, faint and sick after his bonds of the night, and now crushed in spirit and utterly bewildered with these sudden changes, was handed over to his new protector.
The emancipating force had found him. He was free of his Mormonism. His delusion had discarded him. A rough and cruel termination of his hopes! How would he bear this disappointment? Would his heart break? Would his mind break? his life break?
We could not check ourselves to think of him. Our thoughts were galloping furiously on in succor of the daughter, fallen on an evil fate.
While this hasty talk had been going on, I had shifted our saddles to Pumps and Fulano. Noble fellows! they took in the calm excitement of my mood. They grew eager as a greyhound when he sees the hare break cover. They divined that their moment had come! Now their force was to be pitted against brutality. Horse against brute, — which would win? I dared not think of the purpose of our going. Only, Begone! Begone! was ringing in my ears, and a figure I dared not see was before my eyes.
I was frenzied with excitement; but I held myself steady as one holds his rifle when a buck comes leaping out of the forest into the prairie, where rifle and man have been waiting and trembling, while the hounds’ bay came nearer, nearer. I drew strap and tied knot of our girths, and doubled the knot. There must be no chafing of saddles, no dismounting to girth up. That was to be a gallop, I knew, where a man who fell to the rear would be too late for the fight.
Brent, meantime, had rolled up a little stock of provisions in each man’s double blanket. We were going we knew not how far. We must be ready for work of many days. A moment’s calmness over our preparations now might save desolate defeat or death hereafter. We lashed our blankets with their contents on firmly by the buckskin thongs which are attached to the cantle of a California saddle, — the only saddle for such work as we — horses and men — have on the plains.
“Rifles?” said I.
“No. Knives and six-shooters are enough,” said Brent, as cool as if our ride were an ornamental promenade à cheval. “We cannot carry weight or clumsy weapons on this journey.”
We mounted and were off, with a cheer from Jake Shamberlain and his boys.
All this time, we had not noticed Armstrong. As we struck off southward upon the trackless prairie, that ghastly figure upon the gaunt white horse was beside us.
“We’re bound on the same arrant,” whispered he. “Only the savin’s yourn and the killin’s mine.”
Did my hope awake, now that the lady I had chosen for my sister was snatched from that monstrous ogre of Mormonism?
Yes; for now instant, urgent action was possible. We could do something. Gallop, gallop, — that we could do.
God speed us! — and the caitiffs should only have baffled the ogre, and the lady should be saved.
If not saved, avenged!