The Huge Hunter/Chapter X
DURING THE absence of Baldy Bicknell in search of the steam man, neither Mickey nor Ethan had been disturbed by Indians.
They had worked unceasingly in digging the gold mine to which they had gained access through the instrumentality of the trapper. When they had gathered together quite a quantity of the gravel and dirt, with the yellow sand glittering through it, it was carried a short distance to the margin of the river, where it underwent the 'washing' process.
While thus engaged, one of them was constantly running up the bank, to make sure that their old enemies did not steal upon them unawares. Once or twice they caught sight of several moving in the distance, but they did not come near enough to molest them, doing nothing more than to keep them on the qui vive.
There was one Indian, however, who bestrode a black horse, who haunted them like a phantom. When they glanced over the river, at almost any time, they could see this individual cautiously circling about on his horse, and apparently waiting for a chance to get a shot at his enemies.
'Begorrah, but he loves us, that he does, as the lamb observed when speaking of the wolf,' said Mickey, just after he had sent a bullet whistling about their ears.
'Jehosiphat! he loves us too much!' added the Yankee, who had no relish for these stolen shots. 'If we ain't keerful, there'll be nuthin' of us left when Baldy comes back, that is, if he comes back at all.'
This red-skin on his black horse was so dangerous that he required constant watching, and the men could perform only half their usual work. It was while Mickey was on the lookout for him that he caught sight of the steam man coming toward him, as we have related in another place.
So long as that personage was kept puffing and tearing round the vicinity, they knew there was no fear of disturbance from the treacherous red-skins, who were so constantly on the alert to avenge themselves for the loss they had suffered in the attack; but it would hardly pay to keep an iron man as sentinel, as the wear and tear in all probability would be too much for him.
After consulting together upon the return of Baldy, and after they had ridden behind the steam man to their heart's content, they decided upon their future course. As the boy, Johnny, had no intention of devoting himself to manual labor, even had he been able, it was agreed that he should take upon himself the part of sentinel, while the others were at work.
In this way it was believed that they could finish within a couple of weeks, bidding good-by to the Indians, and quickly reach the States and give up their dangerous pursuits altogether, whereas, if compelled to do duty themselves as sentinels, their stay would be doubly prolonged.
This arrangement suited the boy very well, who was thereby given opportunity to exercise his steam man by occasional airings over the prairies. To the east and south the plains stretched away till the horizon shut down upon them, as the sky does on the sea. To the west, some twenty odd miles distant, a range of mountains was visible, the peaks being tinged with a faint blue in the distance, while some of the more elevated looked like white conical clouds resting against the clear sky beyond.
From the first, young Brainerd expressed a desire to visit these mountains. There was something in their rugged grandeur which invited a close inspection, and he proposed to the trapper that they should make a hunting excursion in that direction.
'No need of goin' so fur for game,' he replied, 'takes too much time, and thar's sure to be redskins.'
'But if we go with the steam man we shall frighten them all away,' was the reply.
'Yas,' laughed Baldy, 'and we'll skear the game away too.'
'But we can overtake that as we did the poor Indian the other day.'
'Not if he takes to the mountains. Leastways yer isn't him that would like to undertake to ride up the mountain behind that old gintleman.'
'Nor I either, but we can leave the wagon when we get to the base of the mountain.'
'And give the reds time to come down and run off with yer whole team.'
'Do you think there is danger of that?'
'Dunno as thar be, but ef they catched sight of yourself, they'd raise yer ha'r quicker'n lightning.'
Seeing that the little fellow was considerably discouraged, Baldy hastened to add:
'Ef you're keerful, younker, and I b'lieve yer generally be, take a ride thar yerself, behind yer jumping-jack, but remember my advice and stick to yer wagon.'
Having thus obtained permission of the hunter, Johnny Brainerd, as may well be supposed, did not wait long before availing himself of his privilege.
The weather, which had been threatening toward the latter part of the day, entirely cleared away, and the next morning dawned remarkably clear and beautiful. So the boy announced his intention of making the expected visit, after which, he promised to devote himself entirely to performing the duty of sentinel.
'Abeout what time may we look for you, neow!' asked Ethan, as he was on the point of starting.
'Sometime this afternoon.'
'Come in before dark, as me mither used to observe to meself, when I wint out shparkin',' added Mickey.
The boy promised to heed their warnings, and began firing up again. The tank was completely filled with water, and the wagon filled nearly full of wood, so that the two were capable of running the contrivance for the entire day, provided there was no cessation, and that he was on the 'go' continually.
Before starting, it was thoroughly oiled through and through, and put in the best possible condition, and then waving them all a pleasant farewell, he steamed gayly toward the mountains.
The ground was admirable, and the steam man traveled better than ever. Like a locomotive, he seemed to have acquired a certain smoothness and steadiness of motion, from the exercise he had already had, and the sharp eye of the boy detected it at once. He saw that he had been very fortunate indeed in constructing his wonderful invention, as it was impossible for any human skill to give it any better movement than it now possessed.
The first three or four miles were passed at a rattling gait, and the boy was sitting on the front of his wagon, dreamily watching the play of the huge engine, when it suddenly paused, and with such abruptness that he was thrown forward from his seat, with violence, falling directly between the legs of the monster, which seemed to stand perfectly motionless, like the intelligent elephant that is fearful of stirring a limb, lest he might crush his master lying beneath him.
The boy knew at once that some accident had happened, and unmindful of the severe scratch he had received, he instantly clambered to his feet, and began examining the machinery, first taking the precaution to give vent to the surplus steam, which was rapidly gathering.
It was some time before he could discover the cause of difficulty, but he finally ascertained that a small bolt had slipped loose, and had caught in such a manner as to check the motion of the engine on the instant.
Fortunately no permanent injury was done, and while he was making matters right, he recollected that in chatting with the trapper as he was on the point of starting, be had begun to screw on the bolt, when his attention had been momentarily diverted, when it escaped his mind altogether, so that he alone was to blame for the accident, which had so narrowly escaped proving a serious one.
Making sure that everything was right, he remounted the wagon, and cautiously resumed his journey, going very slowly at first, so as to watch the play of the engine.
Everything moved with its usual smoothness, and lifting his gaze he descried three buffaloes, standing with erect heads, staring wonderingly at him.
'If you want a chase you may have it!' exclaimed the boy as he headed toward them.