The Boy Land Boomer/Chapter 1
THE BOY LAND BOOMER.
DICK ARBUCKLE'S DISCOVERY.
The call came from a boy of sixteen, a bright, manly chap, who had just awakened from an unusually sound sleep in the rear end of a monstrous boomer's wagon.
The scene was upon the outskirts of Arkansas City, situated near the southern boundary line of Kansas and not many miles from the Oklahoma portion of the Indian Territory.
For weeks the city had been filling up with boomers on their way to pre-empt land within the confines of Oklahoma as soon as it became possible to do so.
The land in Oklahoma had for years been in dispute. Pioneers claimed the right to go in and stake out homesteads, but the soldiers of our government would not allow them to do so.
The secret of the matter was that the cattle kings of that section controlled everything, and as the grazing land of the territory was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to them they fought desperately to keep the pioneers out, delaying, in every manner possible, legislation which tended to make the section an absolutely free one to would-be settlers.
But now the pioneers, or boomers as they were commonly called, were tired of waiting for the passage of a law which they knew must come sooner or later, and they intended to go ahead without legal authority.
It was a dark, tempestuous night, with the wind blowing fiercely and the rain coming down at irregular intervals. On the grassy plain were huddled the wagons, animals and trappings of over two hundred boomers. Here and there flared up the remains of a campfire, but the wind was blowing too strongly for these to be replenished, and the men had followed their wives and children into the big, canvas-covered wagons, to make themselves as comfortable as the crowded space permitted.
It was the rattle of the rain on the canvas covering of the wagon which had aroused the boy.
"I say father!" he repeated. "Father!"
Again there was no reply, and, kicking aside the blanket with which he had been covered, Dick Arbuckle clambered over some boxes piled high in the center of the vehicle to where he had left his parent resting less than three hours before.
"Gone!" cried the lad in astonishment. "What can this mean? What could take him outside in such a storm as this? Father!"
He now crawled to the opening at the front of the wagon and called at the top of his voice. Only the shrieking of the wind answered him. A dozen times he cried out, then paused to strike a somewhat damp match and light a smoky lantern hanging to the front ashen bow of the turnout's covering. Holding the light over his head he peered forth into the inky darkness surrounding the boomer's temporary camp.
"Not a soul in sight," he mused. "It must be about midnight. Can something have happened to father? He said he felt rather strange in his head when he went to bed. If only Jack Rasco would come back."
From the front end of the wagon Dick Arbuckle shifted back to the rear. Here the same dreary outlook of storm, mud and flapping canvases presented itself. Not so much as a stray dog was in sight, and the nearest wagon was twenty feet away.
"I must find out where he is. Something is wrong, I feel certain of it."
Thus muttering to himself the youth hunted up his overcoat and hat, put them on, and, lantern in hand, swung himself into the sea of half-submerged prairie grass, and stalked over to the other wagon just mentioned.
"Mike Delaney!" he cried, kicking on the wagon wheel with the toe of his boat; "Mike Delaney, have you seen my father anywhere?"
"Sure, an' Moike Delaney is not here, Dick Arbuckle," came in a female voice. "He's gone off wid Pawnee Brown, and there's no tellin' whin he'll be back. Is yer father gone?"
"Yes, and I don't know where," and now Dick stepped closer, as the round and freckled face of Rosy Delaney peered forth from a hole in the canvas end. "He went to bed when I did, and now he's missing."
"Saints preserve us! Mebbe the Injuns scalped him now, Dick!" came in a voice full of terror.
"There are no Indians around here, Mrs. Delaney," answered the youth, half inclined to laugh. "But he's missing, and it's mighty strange, to say the least."
"He was sick, too, wasn't he?"
"Father hasn't been real well for a year. He left New York very largely in the hope that this climate would do him some good."
"Moike was sayin' his head throubles him a good bit."
"So it does, and that's why I am so worried. When he gets those awful pains he is apt to walk away and keep right on without knowing where he is going."
"Poor mon! Oi wisht Oi could help yez. Mebbe Moike will be back soon. Ain't Jack Rasco about?"
"No, he is off with Pawnee Brown, too. Rasco and Brown have been looking over the trails leading to Oklahoma. They are bound to outwit the United States cavalry, for the boomers have more right to that land than the cattle kings, and right is always might in the end."
"Especially wid Pawnee on the end o' it, Dick. He's a great mon, is Pawnee, only it do be afther givin' me the shivers to hear him spake the Pawnee language loike he was a rale Injun. Such a foine scout as he is has no roight to spake such a dirthy tongue. How illegant it would be now if he could spake rale Oirish."
"His knowledge of the Indian tongue has helped both him and our government a good deal, Mrs. Delaney. But I mustn't stop here talking. If my father—"
A wild, unearthly shriek cut short further talk upon Dick Arbuckle's part. It came from the darkness back of the camp and caused Mrs. Delaney to draw back and tumble to the bottom of her house on wheels in terror.
"It's the Banshee—" she began, when Dick interrupted her.
"It's Pumpkin Bill. I'd know his voice a mile off," he declared. "Somebody ought to send him back to where he belongs. Creation, what a racket!"
Nearer and nearer came the voice, rising and falling with the wind. The shrill shrieking penetrated to every wagon, and head after head was thrust out of the canvases to see what it meant. In another minute Pumpkin Bill, the dunce of the boomer's camp, "a nobody from nowhar," to use Cal Clemmer's words, came rushing along, hatless and with his wild eyes fairly starting from their sockets.
"Save me! a ghost!" he yelled, swinging his hands over his head. "A ghost full of blood! Oh, oh! I'm a dead boy! I know I am! Stop him from following me!"
"Pumpkin!" ejaculated Dick, striding up and catching the fleeing lad by the arm. "Hold on; what's this racket about?"
The dunce paused, then stood stock still, his mouth opening to its widest extent. He was far from bright, and it took him several seconds to put into words what was passing in his mind.
"About, about?" he repeated. "Dick Arbuckle! Oh, dear me! I've seen your father's ghost!"
"Yes, I did. Hope to die if I didn't. I was just coming to camp from town. Some men kept me, and made me sing and dance for them—you know how I can sing—tra-la-la-da-do-da-bum! They promised me a dollar, but didn't give it to me. I was running to get out of the wet when I plumped into something fearful—a ghost! Your father, covered with blood, and groaning and moaning, 'Robbed, robbed; almost murdered!' That's what the ghost said, and he caught me by the hand. See, the blood is there yet, even though I did try to wash it off in the rain. Oh, Dick, what does it mean?"
"It means something awful has happened, Pumpkin, if your story is true——"
"Hope to die if it ain't," and the dunce crossed his heart several times. Suddenly, to keep up his courage, he burst into a wild snatch of song:
"A big babboon
Glared at the moon,
And sang la-la-la-dum!
'Come down to me
And I will be
"Stop it, Pumpkin," interrupted Dick. "Come along with me."
"To where you saw my father."
"Not for a million dollars—not for a million million!" cried the half-witted boy. "It wasn't your father; it was a ghost, all covered with blood!" and he shrank back under the Delaney wagon.
"It was my father, Pumpkin; I am sure of it. He is missing, and something has happened to him. Perhaps he fell and hurt himself. Come on."
The dunce stopped short and stared.
"Missing, is he? Then it wasn't a ghost. La-la-dum! What a joke. Will you go along, too?"
"And take a pistol?"
"Poor mon, Oi thrust he is not very much hurted," broke in Rosy Delaney, who had been a close listener to the foregoing. "If he is, Dick Arbuckle, bring him here, an' it's Rosy Delaney will nurse him wid th' best of care."
As has been said, many had heard Pumpkin Bill's wild cries, but now that he had quieted down these boomers returned to their couches, grumbling that the half-witted lad should thus be allowed to disturb their rest.
In a minute Dick Arbuckle and Pumpkin were hurrying along the road the dunce had previously travelled. The rain was letting up a bit, and the smoky lantern lit up the surroundings for a circle thirty feet in diameter.
"Here is where I met him," said Pumpkin, coming to a halt near the edge of a small stream. "There's the hat he knocked off my head." He picked it up. "Oh, dear me! covered with blood! Did you ever see the like?"
Dick was more disturbed than ever.
"Which way did he go?"
"I don't know."
"Didn't you notice at all, Pumpkin? Try to think."
"Nary a notice. I ran, that's all. It looked like a bloody ghost. I'll dream about it, I know I will."
To this Dick did not answer. Getting down on his knees in the wet he examined the trail by the lantern's rays. The footsteps which he thought must be those of his father led around a bend in the stream and up a series of rocks covered with moss and dirt. With his heart thumping violently under his jacket he followed the footprints until the very summit of the rocks was gained. Then he let out a groan of anguish.
And not without cause. Beyond the summit was a dark opening fifteen feet wide, a hundred or more feet long and of unfathomable depth. The footprints ended at the very edge of this yawning abyss.