The Huge Hunter/Chapter IX
AT this juncture the trapper whispered that the Indians were again stealing around them. Johnny's first proceeding was to pull the whistle wide open, awaking the stillness of the night by a hideous, prolonged screech.
Then, letting on the steam, the man made a bound forward, and the next moment was careering over the prairie like a demon of darkness, its horrid whistle giving forth almost one continual yell, such as no American Indian has ever been able to imitate.
When they had gone a few hundred yards, Johnny again slackened the speed, for there was great risk in going at this tremendous rate, where all was entire blank darkness, and there was no telling into what danger they might run. At the speed at which they were going they would have bounded into a river before they could have checked themselves.
'Yer furgot one thing,' said Baldy, when they had considerably moderated their gait, and were using great caution.
'What is that?'
'Yer oughter had a lamp in front, so we could travel at night, jist as well as day.'
'You are right; I don't see how I came to forget that. We could have frightened the Indians more completely, and there would have been some consolation in traveling at such a time.'
'Is it too late yet?'
'Couldn't do it without going back to St. Louis.'
'Thunderation! I didn't mean that. Go ahead.'
'Such a lamp or head-light as the locomotives use would cost several hundred dollars, although I could have made one nearly as good for much less. Such a thing in the center of a man's forehead, and the whistle at the end of his nose, would give him quite an impressive appearance.'
'Yer must do it, too, some day—My God!'
The boy instantly checked their progress, as the trapper uttered his exclamation; but quickly as it was done, it was none too soon, for another long step and the steam man would have gone down an embankment, twenty feet high, into a roaring river at the base. As it was, both made rather a hurried leap to the ground, and ran to the front to see whether there was not danger of his going down.
But fortunately he stood firm.
'I declare that was a narrow escape!' exclaimed the boy as he gazed down the cavernous darkness, looking doubly frightful in the gloom of the night.
'Skulp me if that wouldn't have been almost as bad as staying among the red-skins,' replied the trapper. 'How are we goin' to get him out of this?'
'We've got to shove him back ourselves.'
'Can't we reverse him?'
'No; he isn't gotten up on that principle.'
By great labor they managed to make him retrograde a few steps, so that he could be made to shy enough to leave the dangerous vicinity, and once more started upon the broad firm prairie.
'Do you suppose these Indians are following us?' inquired the oy.
'No fear of it.'
'Then we may as well stay here.'
The fires were drawn again, everything made right, and the two disposed themselves again for spending the night in slumber.
No disturbance occurred, and both slept Roundly until broad daylight. The trapper's first proceeding upon awakening was to scan the prairie in every direction in quest of danger.
He was not a little amused to see a dozen or so mounted Indians about a third of a mile to the west. They had reined up on the plain, and were evidently scanning the strange object, with a great deal of wonder, mixed with some fear.
'Do you think they will attack us?' inquired the boy, who could not suppress his trepidation at the sight of the warlike savages, on their gayly-caparisoned horses, drawn up in such startling array.
'Ef thar war any danger of that, we could stop 'em by 'tacking 'em.
'Jest fire up and start toward 'em, and see how quick they will scatter.' The advice was acted upon on the instant, although it was with no little misgiving on the part of the engineer.
All the time that the 'firing-up' process was under way the savages sat as motionless as statues upon their horses. Had they understood the real nature of the 'animal,' it cannot be supposed that they would rave hesitated for a moment to charge down upon it and demolish it entirely.
But it was a terra incognita, clothed with a terror such as no array of: enemies could wear, and they preferred to keep at a goodly distance from it.
'Now, suppose they do not run?' remarked Johnny, rather doubtingly, as he hesitated whether to start ahead or not.
'What if they don't? Can't we run another way? But yer needn't fear. Jist try it on.'
Steam was let on as rapidly as possible, and the momentum gathering quickly, it was soon speeding over the prairie at a tremendous rate, straight toward the savages.
The latter remained motionless a few moments, before they realized that it was coining after them, and then, wheeling about, they ran as though all the legions of darkness were after them.
'Shall I keep it up?' shouted Johnny in the ear of the hunter.
'Yas; give 'em such a skear that they won't be able to git over it ag'in in all thar lives.'
There is some fun in chasing a foe, when you know that he is really afraid of you, and will keep running without any thought of turning at bay, and the dwarf put the steam man to the very highest notch of speed that was safe, even at the slight risk of throwing both the occupants out.
The prairie was harder and nearer level than any over which they had passed since starting, so that nothing was in the way of preventing the richest kind of sport.
'Are we gaining?' inquired Johnny, his eyes glowing with excitement.
'Gaining? Thar never was a red-skin that had such a chase in all the world. Ef they don't git out the way mighty soon, we'll run over 'em all.'
They were, in truth, rapidly overhauling the red-skins, who were about as much terrified as it was possible for a mortal to be, and still live.
To increase their fears, the boy kept up a constant shrieking of his whistle. If there had been any other contrivance or means at his command, it is possible the red-skins would have tumbled off their horses and died; for they were bearing almost all the fright, terror and horror that can possibly be concentrated into a single person.
Finding there was no escape by means of the speed of their horses, the Indians sensibly did what the trapper had prophesied they would do at first.
They 'scattered,' all diverging over the prairie. As it was impossible for the steam man to overtake all of these, of course, this expedient secured the safety of the majority.
Neither Baldy nor the boy were disposed to give up the sport in this manner; so, they singled out a single 'noble red-man,' who was pursuing nearly the same direction as they were, and they headed straight for him.
The poor wretch, when he saw that he was the object of the monster's pursuit, seemed to become frantic with terror. Rising on his horse's back, he leaned forward until it looked as though there was danger of going over his head altogether. Then, whooping and shrieking to his terrified horse, that was already straining every nerve, he pounded his heels in its sides, vainly urging it to still greater speed.
In the mean time, the steam man was gaining steadily upon him, while to add variety to the scene, Johnny kept up the unearthly shrieking of the nose-whistle of the giant. It was difficult to tell which sounded the most hideously in this strange chase.
The remaining Indians had improved their advantage to the utmost. Fearful that their dreadful enemy might change its mind and single them out, they kept up their tearing light, all regardless of the great extremity to which their companion was reduced, until finally they disappeared in the distance.
A short distance only separated pursuer and pursued, when the latter, realizing that there was no escape in flight, headed toward the river, which was a short distance on the right.
This saved him. When with a bowl, horse and rider thundered over the bank and disappeared, the steam man could not follow him. He was compelled to give up the chase and draw off. A few days later, and without further noteworthy incident, the steam man reached Wolf Ravine, being received in the manner narrated at the beginning of this story.