The Boy Land Boomer/Chapter 4
OUT OF THE CAVERN.
Slowly but surely the great rattlesnake came closer to where Pawnee Brown stood motionless in the darkness of the cavern.
The reptile had been enraged by the shot the great scout fired, and now meant to strike, and that fatally.
Listening with ears strained to their utmost, the boomer heard the form of the snake slide from rock to rock of the uneven flooring.
The rattler was all of ten feet long and as thick around as a good-sized fence rail.
One square strike from those poisonous fangs and Pawnee Brown's hours would be numbered.
Yet the scout did not intend to give up his life just now. He still held his pistol, four chambers of which were loaded.
"If only I had a light," he thought.
Retreat was out of the question. A single sound and the rattlesnake would have been upon him like a flash. It was only the darkness and the utter silence that made the reptile cautious.
Suddenly the scout heard a scraping on the rocks less than three feet in front of him.
The time for action had come; another moment and the rattler would be wound around his legs.
Crack! crack! Two reports rang out in quick succession and by the flash of the first shot Pawnee Brown located those glittering eyes.
The second shot went true to its mark, and the rattler dropped back with a hole through its ugly head.
The long, whiplike body slashed hither and thither, and the scout had to do some lively sprinting to keep from getting a tangle and a squeeze.
As he hopped about he struck a match, picked up the lantern, shook the little oil remaining into the wick and lit it. Another shot finished the snake and the body curled up into a snarl and a quiver, to bother him no more.
It was then that Pawnee Brown paused, drew a deep breath and wiped the cold perspiration from his brow.
"By gosh! I've killed fifty rattlers in my time, but never one in this fashion," he murmured. "Wonder if there are any more around?"
He knew that these snakes often travel in pairs, and as he went on his way he kept his eyes wide open for another attack.
But none came, and now something else claimed his attention.
The cavern was coming to an end. The side walls closed in to less than three feet, and the flooring sloped up so that he had to crouch down and finally go forward on his hands and knees.
The lantern now went out for good, every drop of oil being exhausted.
At this juncture many a man would have halted and turned back to where he had come from, but such was not Pawnee Brown's intention.
"I'll see the thing through," he muttered. "I'd like to know how far I am from the surface of the ground."
A dozen yards further and the cavern become so small that additional progress was impossible.
He placed his hand above him and encountered nothing but dirt, with here and there a small stone.
With care he began to dig away at the dirt with his knife. Less than a foot of the cavern ceiling had thus been dug away when the point of the knife brought down a small stream of water.
Feeling certain he was now close to the surface, he continued to work with renewed vigor.
The scout was right. The knife had found the outer air, and a dim, uncertain light struck down upon the hero of the plains.
It did not take long to enlarge the opening sufficiently to admit the passage of Pawnee Brown's body.
He leaped out among a number of bushes and stretched himself.
Having brushed the dirt from his wet clothing, he "located himself," as he put it, and started up a hill to the entrance to the Devil's Chimney.
He was on the side opposite to that from which he had descended, and, in order to get over, had to make a wide detour through some brush and small timber.
This accomplished, he hurried to where he had left Bonnie Bird tethered.
As the reader knows, the beautiful mare was gone, and had been for some time.
"I suppose that young Arbuckle took her," he mused. "But, if so, why doesn't he come back here with her?"
There being no help for it, the scout set off for the camp of the boomers on foot.
He was just entering the temporary settlement when he came face to face with Jack Rasco, another of the boomers.
"Pawnee!" shouted the boomer, "You air jess the man I want ter see. Hev ye sot eyes on airy o' the Arbuckles?"
"I'm looking for Dick Arbuckle now," answered the scout. "Isn't he in the camp? I thought he came here with my mare?"
"He ain't nowhar. Rosy Delaney says he went off with Pumpkin to look for his dad, who had disappeared——"
"Then he didn't come back? What can have be come of him and Bonnie Bird?" Pawnee Brown's face grew full of concern. "Something is wrong around here, Jack," he continued, and told the boomer of what had happened up at the Devil's Chimney. "First it's the father, and now it's the son and my mare. I must investigate this."
"I'm with yer, Pawnee—with yer to the end. Yer know thet."
"Yes, Jack; you are one of the few men I know I can trust in everything. But two of us are not enough. If harm has befallen the Arbuckles it is the duty of the whole camp—or, at least, every man in it—to try to sift matters to the bottom."
"Right ye air, Pawnee. I'll raise a hullabaloo and rouse em up."
Jack Rasco was as good as his word. Going from wagon to wagon, he shook the sleepers and explained matters. In less than a quarter of an hour a dozen stalwart boomers were in the saddle, while Jack Rasco brought forth an extra horse of his own for Brown's use.
"Has anybody seen the dunce?" questioned the scout.
No one had since he had gone off with Dick to look for the so-called ghost.
"We will divide up into parties of two," said Pawnee Brown, and this was done, and soon he and Jack Rasco were bounding over the trail leading toward the Indian Territory, while others were setting off in the direction of Arkansas City and elsewhere.
"Something curious about them air Arbuckles," observed Rasco as they flew along side by side. "Mortimer Arbuckle said as how he was coming hyer fer his health, but kick me ef I kin see it."
"I think myself the man has an axe to grind," responded the leader of the boomers. "You know he came West to see about some land."
"Oh, I know thet. But thar's somethin else, sure ez shootin' ez shootin', Pawnee. It kinder runs in my noddle thet he is a'lookin fer somebuddy."
"Ah, thar's where ye hev got me. But I'll tell ye something. One night when the boy wuz over ter Arkansas City the old man war sleeping in the wagon, an' he got a nightmare. He clenched his fists an' begun ter moan an groan. 'Don't say I did it, Bolange,' he moans. 'Don't say that—it's an awful crime! Don't put the blood on my head!' an a lot more like thet, till my blood most run cold an I shook him ter make him wake up. Now, don't thet look like he had something on his mind?"
"It certainly does, and yet the man is not quite right in his upper story, although I wouldn't tell the son that, Rasco: But what was the name he mentioned?"
"Bolange, or Volange, or something like thet. It seems ter me he hollered out Louis onct, too."
A sudden light shone in the great scout's eyes. He gripped his companion by the arm.
"Try to think, Jack. Did Arbuckle speak the name of Vorlange—Louis Vorlange?"
"By gosh! Pawnee, you hev struck it—Vorlange, ez plain ez day. Do yer know the man?"
"Do I know him?" Pawnee Brown drew a long breath. "Jack, I believe I once told you about my schoolboy days at Wellington and elsewhere before I left home to take up a life on the cattle trails?"
"Yes, Pawnee. From all accounts you wuz cut out for a schoolmaster, instead of a leader of us boomers."
"I was a professor once at the Indian Industrial school at Pawnee Agency. That is where I got to be called Pawnee Brown, and where the Pawnees became so friendly that they made me their white chief. But I aspired to something more than teaching and more than cow punching in those boyhood days at Wellington; I wanted to have a try at entrance to West Point and follow in the footsteps of Grant and Custer, and fellows of that sort."
"Ye deserved it, I'll bet, Pawnee."
"I worked hard for it, and at last I got a chance to compete at the examination. Among the other boys who competed was Louis Vorlange. He had been the bully of our school, and more than once we had fought, and twice I had sent him to bed with a head that was nearly broken. He hated me accordingly, and swore I should not win the prize I coveted."
"Did he try, too?"
"Yes, but he was outclassed from the start, for, although he was sly and shrewd, book learning was too much for him. The examination came off, and I got left, through Vorlange, who stole my papers and changed many of my answers. I didn't learn of this until it was too late. My chance of going to West Point fell through. There was nothing to do but to thrash Vorlange, and the day before I left home I gave him a licking that I'll wager he'll remember to the day of his death. As it was, he tried to shoot me, but I collared the pistol, and for that dastardly attack knocked two of his teeth down his throat."
"Served him right, Pawnee. But I don't see whar—"
"Hold on a minute, Jack. I said Vorlange didn't go to West Point; but he was strong with the politicians, and as soon as he was old enough he got a position under the government, and now I understand he is somewhere around the Indian Territory acting as a spy for the land department."
"By gosh! I see. An' ye think Mortimer Arbuckle knows this same chap?"
"It would look so. If I can read faces, the old man is innocent of wrong-doing, and if that is so and there is the secret of a crime between him and Louis Vorlange you can wager Vorlange is the guilty party."
"Pawnee, you hev a head on yer shoulders fit fer a judge, hang me ef ye ain't," burst out Jack Rasco admiringly. "I wish yer would talk to Arbuckle the next time he turns up. Mebbe yer kin lift a weight off o' his shoulders. The poor old fellow—creation! wot's that?"
Jack Rasco stopped short and pulled up his horse. A wild, unearthly scream rent the air, rising and falling on the wind of the night. The scream was followed by a burst of laughter which was truly demoniacal.
Pawnee Brown pulled his horse up on his haunches. What was this new mystery which confronted him?
Again the cry rang out; but now the scout recognized it and a faint smile shone upon his face.
"It's the dunce," he exclaimed. "Pumpkin! Pumpkin! Come here!"
A moment of silence followed and he called again. Then from the brush which grew among the rocks emerged the form of the half-witted boy.
"Pumpkin, where is Dick Arbuckle?" questioned Pawnee Brown, leaping to the ground and catching the lad by his arm.
"Lemme go! I didn't hurt him!" screamed Pumpkin. "He went that way—like the wind—on a bay horse which was running away. Oh, he's killed, I know he is!"
"You are sure of this?"
"Hope to die if it ain't so. Poor Dick! He'll be pitched off and smashed up like his father was smashed up. Hurry, and maybe you can catch him."
"I believe the dunce speaks the truth," broke in Jack Rasco. "How long ago was this?"
"Not more'n an hour. Hurry up if you want to save him," and with a yell such as he had uttered before, Pumpkin disappeared.
Pawnee Brown and Rasco wasted no more time. Whipping up their steeds, they set off on a rapid gallop in the direction the runaway horse had pursued.