IN THE PECOS COUNTRY
By Lieutenant R. H. Jayne [pseudonym of Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840-1916)]
CHAPTER I. A WARNING
In the valley of the Rio Pecos, years ago, an attempt at founding a settlement was made by a number of hardy and daring New Englanders, whose leader was a sort of Don Quixote, who traveled hundreds of miles, passing by the richest land, the most balmy climate, where all were protected by the strong arm of law, for the sake of locating where the soil was only moderate, the climate no better, and where, it may be said, the great American government was as powerless to protect its citizens as was a child itself. The Rio Pecos, running through New Mexico and Texas, drains a territory which at that time was one of the most dangerous in the whole Indian country; and why these score or more of families should have hit upon this spot of all others, was a problem which could never be clearly solved.
The head man, Caleb Barnwell, had some odd socialistic theories, which, antedating as they did the theories of Bellamy, were not likely to thrive very well upon New England soil, and he pursuaded his friends to go with him, under the belief that the spot selected was one where they would have full opportunity to increase and multiply, as did the Mormons during their early days at Salt Lake. Then, too, there was some reason to suspect that rumors had reached the ears of Barnwell of the existence of gold and silver along this river, and it was said that he had hinted as much to those whom he believed he could trust. Be that as it may, the score of families reached the valley of the Upper Pecos in due time, and the settlement was begun and duly christened New Boston.
"How long do yer s'pose you folks are goin' to stay yer? Why, just long enough for Lone Wolf to hear tell that you've arriv, and he'll down here and clear you out quicker'n lightning."
This was the characteristic observation made by the old scout, hunter and guide, Sut Simpson, as he reined up his mustang to chat awhile with the new-comers, whom he looked upon as the greatest lunk-heads that he had ever encountered in all of his rather eventful experience. He had never seen them before; but he did not care for that, as he had the frankness of a frontiersman and never stood upon ceremony in the slightest degree.
"Did you ever hear tell of Lone Wolf?" he continued, as a group, including nearly the entire population, gathered about the veteran of the plains. "I say, war any of you ever introduced to that American gentleman?"
He looked around, from face to face, but no one responded. Whenever he fixed his eye upon any individual, that one shook his head to signify that he knew nothing of the Apache chief whose name he had just mentioned.
"What I meant to say," he continued, "is that any of you have got any yearnin' toward Lone Wolf, feeling as if your heart would break if you did n't get a chance to throw your arms about him, why, you need n't feel bad, 'cause you'll get the chance."
There was a significance in these words which made it plain to every one of those who were looking up in the scarred face of the hunter. As they were spoken, he winked one of his eyes and cocked his head to one side, in a fashion that made the words still more impressive. As Sut looked about the group, his gaze was attracted by two figures—a man and a boy. The former was an Irishman—his nationality being evident at the first glance—while the latter seemed about fourteen years of age, with a bright, intelligent face, a clear, rosy, healthy complexion, and a keen eye that was fixed steadily and inquiringly upon the horseman who was giving utterance to such valuable information. The hunter was attracted by both, especially as he saw from their actions that they were friends and companions. There was something in the honest face of the Irishman which won him, while the lad by his side would have carried his way almost anywhere upon the score of his looks alone.
As the entire group were gazing up in the face of the scout, he spoke to them all, although, in reality, his words were now directed more at the two referred to than at the others. When he had completed the words given, there was silence for a moment, and then Mickey O'Rooney, the Irishman, recovered his wits. Stepping forward a couple of paces, he addressed their visitor.
"From the manner of your discourse, I judge that you're acquainted with the American gentleman that you've just referred to as Mr. Lone Wolf?"
"I rather reckon I am," replied Sut, with another of his peculiar grins. "Me and the Wolf have met semi-occasionally for the past ten years, and I carry a few remembrances of his love, that I expect to keep on carrying to my grave."
As he spoke, he laid his finger upon a cicatrized wound upon his cheek, a frightful scar several inches in length, and evidently made by a tomahawk. It ran from the temple to the base of the nose, and was scarcely concealed by the luxuriant grizzled beard that grew almost to his eyes.
"That's only one," said Sut. "Here's another that mebbe you can see."
This time he removed his coon-skin hunting-cap and bending his head down, he parted the hair with his long, horny fingers, so that all saw very distinctly the scar of a wound that must have endangered the life of the recipient.
"I've got half a dozen other scars strung here and there about my body, the most of which was made by that lonely Apache chief that is called Lone Wolf; so I reckon you'll conclude that he and me have some acquaintance. Oh! we was as lovin' as a couple of brothers!"
Mickey O'Rooney lifted his cap, and scratched his red head in a puzzled way, as if he were debating some weighty matter. Suddenly looking up, he asked:
"Was this Mr. Wolf born in these parts?"
"I can't say, precisely, where he first seed the light, but it must have been somewhere round about this part of the world. Why did you ax?"
"I was thinking p'raps he was born in Ireland, and came to this country when he was of tender age. I once knowed a Mr. Fox, whose petaty patch was so close to ours, that the favorite amoosement of me respected parents was flingin' the petaties over into our field by moonlight. His name was Fox, I say, but I never knowed anybody by the name of Wolf."
"He's a screamer," continued Sut Simpson, who seemed to enjoy talking of such a formidable foe. "The Comanches and Apaches sling things loose in these parts, an' the wonder to me is how you ever got this fur without losing your top-knots, for you've had to come right through their country."
"We have had encounters with the red men times without number," said Caleb Barnwell, who was standing erect, with arms folded, looking straight at the hunter. He spoke in a deep, rich, bass voice, recalling the figures of the early Puritans, who were unappalled by the dangers of the ocean and forest, when the question of liberty of conscience was at stake. "We have encountered the red men time and again," he continued, "so that I may conclude that we have become acclimated, as they say, and understand the nature of the American Indian very well."
Sut Simpson shook his head with a displeased expression.
"If you'd understood Injin nature, you'd never come here to settle. You might have gone through the country on your way to some other place, for, when you're on the way, you can keep a lookout for the varmints; but you've undertook to settle down right in the heart of the Apache country, and that's what I call the biggest piece of tom-foolery that was ever knowed."
This kind of talk might have discouraged ordinary people, but Barnwell and his companions had long since become accustomed to it. They had learned to brave ridicule before leaving their homes, and they classed the expressions of the hunters who had called upon them with the utterances of those who failed to "look into the future."
"We were not the dunces to suppose that this was a promised land, in which there were no giants to dispossess," replied Barnwell, in the same dignified manner. "Our fathers had to fight the Indians, and we are prepared to do the same."
Sut Simpson had no patience with this sort of talk, and he threw up his head with an impatient gesture.
"Did you ever toss a hunk of buffler meat to a hungry hound, and seen how nice he'd catch it in his jaws, and gulp it down without winkin', and then he'd lick his chops, and look up and whine for more. Wal, that's just the fix you folks are in. Lone Wolf and his men will swallow you down without winkin', and then be mad that there ain't somethin' left to squinch thar hunger."
As the hunter uttered this significant warning, he gathered up the reins of his mustang and rode away.
CHAPTER II. A BRIEF CONFERENCE
Sut Simpson was thoroughly impatient and angry. Knowing, as well as he did, the dangerous character of Arizona, New Mexico, Northwestern Texas and Indian Territory, he could not excuse such a foolhardy proceeding as that of a small colony settling in the very heart of that section. The nearest point where they could hope for safety was Fort Severn, fifty miles distant. There was a company of soldiers under command of an experienced United States officer, and they knew well enough to keep within the protection of their stockades, except when making reconnoissances in force.
All those who were acquainted with the veteran scout were accustomed to defer to his judgment, where Indians were concerned, and he was so used to receiving this deference, that when he was contradicted and gainsayed by these new settlers, he lost his patience, and started to leave them in a sort of mild passion.
The place fixed for the location of New Boston was in a gently sloping valley, with the Rio Pecos running on the right. The soil was fertile, as was shown in the abundance of rich, succulent grass which grew about them, while, only a few hundred yards up the river, was a grove of timber, filled in with dense undergrowth and brush—the most favorable location possible for a band of daring red-skins, when preparing to make a raid upon the settlement. The hunter turned the head of his mustang in the direction of this wood, and rode away at a slow walk. He had nearly reached the margin, when some one called to him:
"Hist, there, ye spalpeen! Won't ye howld on a minute?"
Turning his head, he saw the Irishman walking rapidly toward him, after the manner of one who had something important to say. He instantly checked his horse, and waited for him to come up.
"Do you know," struck in Mickey, "that I belaved in Misther Barnwell till we reached Kansas City? There we met people that had been all through this country and that knew all about it, and every one of the spalpeens told us that we'd lose our sculps if we comed on. I did n't consider it likely that all of them folks would talk in that style unless they meant it, and half a dozen of us made up our minds that the best thing we could do was to go back, or stop where we was. We wint to Misther Barnwell and plaided with him, and I was ready to break a shillalah over his head by way of convincin' him of the truth of me remarks, but it was no use. He just grinned and shook his head. The folks all seem to be afeard of him, as though he were St. Patrick or some other sensible gintleman, and so we comed on."
"What made you come?" asked Sut, throwing his knee upon the saddle and looking down upon the Irishman. "You could do as you choosed."
"No, I could n't. I hired out to Mr. Moonson for a year, and there ain't half a year gone yet, and I've got to stick to him till the time is up."
"Whose little boy is that I seed standing by you?"
"That's Mr. Moonson's boy, Fred, one of the foinest, liveliest lads ye ever sot eyes on, and I'm much worried on his account."
"Are his parents with you?"
"Naither of 'em."
The hunter looked surprised, and the Irishman hastened to explain.
"I never knowed his mother—she havin' been dead afore I lift owld Ireland—and his father was taken down with a sort of fever a week ago, when we was t'other side of Fort Aubray. It was n't anything dangerous at all but it sort of weakened him, so that it was belaved best for him to tarry there awhile until he could regain his strength."
"Why did n't you and the younker stay with him?"
"That's what orter been done," replied the disgusted Irishman. "But as it was n't, here we are. The owld gintleman, Mr. Moonson, had considerable furniture and goods that went best with the train, and he needed me to look after it. He thought the boy would be safer with the train than with him, bein' that when he comes on, as he hopes to do, in the course of a week, be the same more or less, he will not have more than two or three companions. What I wanted to ax yez," said Mickey, checking his disposition to loquacity, "is whether ye are in dead airnest 'bout saying the copper-colored gentleman will be down here for the purpose of blotting out the metropolis of New Boston?"
"Be here? Of course they will, just as sure as you're a livin' man. And you won't have to wait long, either."
"Inside of a week, mebbe within three days. The last I heard of Lone Wolf, he was down in the direction of the Llano Estaeado, some two or three hundred miles from here, and it won't take him long to come that distance."
"Is he the only Indian chief in this country, that ye talk so much about him?"
"Oh, no! there are plenty of 'em, but Lone Wolf has a special weakness for such parties as this."
"When he does come, what is best for us to do?"
"You'll make the best fight you can, of course, and if you get licked, as I've no doubt you will, and you're well mounted, you must all strike a bee-line for Fort Severn, and never stop till you reach the stockades. You can't miss the road, for you've only got to ride toward the setting sun, as though you meant to dash your animal right through it."
"Where will the spalpeen come from?"
The hunter pointed toward the woods before them.
"That's just the place the varmints would want—they could n't want any nicer. You may be lookin' at that spot, and they'll crawl right in afore you'r eyes, and lay thar for hours without your seein' 'em. You want to get things fixed, so that you can make a good fight when they do swoop down on you. I guess that long-legged chap that I was talkin' to knows enough for that. You seem to have more sense than any of 'em, and I'll give you a little advice. Let's see, what's your name?"
The Irishman gave it, and the hunter responded by mentioning his own.
"Do you put some one in here to keep watch night and day, and the minute you see the redskins comin' give the signal and run for your friends there. Then if the red-skins foller, you must let 'em have it right and left. If you find you can't hold your own agin 'em, you must make all haste to Fort Severn, as you heard me say a while ago. Aim for the setting sun, and after you've gone fifty miles or so you'll be thar. Good by to you, now; I'm watching the Injin movements in these parts, and, if the signs are bad, and I have the chance, I'll give you notice; but you must n't depend on me."
The hunter leaned over the saddle, and warmly shook the hand of the Irishman, the two having conceived a strong liking for each other.
Then he wheeled his mustang about, and gave him a word that caused him at once to break into a swift gallop, which quickly carried him up the slope, until he reached the margin of the valley, over which he went at the same rate, and speedily vanished from view.
The Irishman stood gazing at the spot where he had vanished, and then he walked thoughtfully back toward the settlement, where all were as busy as beavers, getting their rude huts and homes in condition for living. In doing this Caleb Barnwell was guided by a desire to be prepared for the Indian visitation, which he knew was likely soon to be made. They had gathered an immense quantity of driftwood along the banks of the Rio Pecos, and the other timber that they needed had already been cut and dragged from the woods, so that about all the material they needed was at hand.
Even with their huts a third or a half finished, they would be in a much better condition to receive the attack of the Apaches than if compelled to place their heavy luggage-wagons in a semi-circle and fight from behind them.
"The gentleman spakes the thruth," muttered Mickey, as he walked along, "and I'm not the one to forgit such a favor, when he took so much pains to tell me. I'll remember and fix a watch in the wood."
CHAPTER III. FRED GOES ON GUARD
Mickey O'Rooney, fully believing the warning of the hunter, could not but feel deeply anxious for the safety of himself and those around him. He was particularly concerned for his young friend, Fred Munson, who had been committed to his charge.
"It's myself that is the only one he has to look after him, and if I does n't attend to my dooty, there's no telling what may become of it, and be the same towken, I can't say what'll become of him if I does attend to the same. Whisht! there."
The last exclamation was uttered to Caleb Barnwell, whom he approached at that moment. The leader stepped aside a few minutes, and they conferred together. The Irishman impressed upon the leader the warning he had received from the hunter, and Barnwell admitted that there might be grounds for the fear, but he added that he was doing all he could to guard against it. At Mickey's suggestion, he sent two of his most trustworthy men to the woods to keep watch, while a third was stationed on some elevated ground beyond, where he commanded an extensive view of the surrounding prairie. As this was to be a permanent arrangement, it would seem that he had taken all reasonable precautions. Not a suspicious sign was seen through the day.
When night came, the two men were called in, and Mickey O'Rooney, Fred Munson, and a man named Thompson went on duty. As two was the regular number at night, it will be seen that the boy was an extra.
"We're to come in at one o'clock," he said, in reply to the remonstrance of his friend, "and I'm sure I can keep awake that long. I believe the Indians will be around to-night, and I won't be able to sleep if I go into the wagon."
Mickey had not yet learned how to refuse the boy, and so he took him along.
Thompson was a powerful, stalwart man, who had joined the party in Nebraska, and who was supposed to have considerable knowledge of the frontier and its ways. He had proved himself a good shot, and, on more than one occasion, had displayed such coolness and self-possession in critical moments, that he was counted one of the most valuable men in the entire company.
The sentinels were stationed on the other side of the wood, Mickey at one corner, Thompson at another, with Fred about half way between, something like a hundred yards separating them from each other.
It must be said that, so far as it was possible, Fred Munson was furnished with every advantage that he could require. He had a rifle suited to his size and strength, but it was one of the best ever made, and long-continued and careful practice had made him quite skillful in handling it. Besides this, both he and Mickey were provided each with the fleetest and most intelligent mustang that money could purchase, and when mounted and with a fair field before them, they had little to fear from the pursuit of the Apaches and Comanches.
But it is the Indian's treacherous, cat-like nature that makes him so dangerous, and against his wonderful cunning all the precautions of the white men are frequently in vain.
"Now, Fred," said Mickey, after they had left Thompson, as he was on the point of leaving the boy, "I don't feel exactly aisy 'bout laving you here, as me mother used to observe when she wint out from the house, while I remained behind with the vittles. If one of the spalpeens should slip up and find you asleep, he'd never let you wake up."
"You need n't be afraid of my going to sleep," replied Fred, in a voice of self-confidence. "I know what the danger is too well."
With a few more words they separated, and each took his station, the Irishman somewhat consoled by the fact that from where he stood he was able, he believed, to cover the position of the lad.
The moon overhead was gibbous, and there were no clouds in the sky. Thompson's place was such that he was close to the river, which flowed on his right, and he had that stream and the prairie in his front at his command. Mickey O'Rooney, being upon the extreme left, was enabled to range his eye up the valley to the crest of the slope, so that he was confident he could detect any insidious approach from that direction. Down the valley, on the other side of the settlement, were placed a couple of other sentinels, so that New Boston, on that memorable night, was well guarded.
The position of Fred Munson, it will be understood, was apparently the least important, as it was commanded by the other two, but the lad felt as if the lives of the entire company were placed in his hands.
"Talk of my going to sleep," he repeated, as soon as he found himself alone. "I can stand or sit here till daylight, and wink less times than either Thompson or Mickey."
As every boy feels this way a short time before going to sleep, no one who might have overheard Fred's boast would have been over-persuaded thereby. Before him stretched the sloping valley of the Rio Pecos. Glancing to the right, he could just catch the glimmer of the river as it flowed by in the moonlight, the banks being low and not wooded, while looking straight up the valley, his vision was bounded only by darkness itself. Carefully running his eye over the ground, he was confident that the slyest and most stealthy Indian that ever lived could not approach within a hundred feet of him without detection.
"And the minute I'm certain its a red-skin, that minute I'll let him have it," he added, instinctively grasping his rifle. "A boy need n't be as old as I am to learn that it won't do to fool with such dogs as they are."
The grove which was guarded in this manner, it will be understood, was nearly square in shape, reaching from the shore of the Rio Pecos on toward the left until the termination of the valley in that direction had been gained. It had been so plentifully drawn upon for logs and lumber that here and there were spaces from which, several trees having been cut, the moon's rays found unobstructed entrance. One of these oasis, as they may be termed, was directly in the rear of Fred, who noticed it while reconnoitering his position. The open space was some twenty feet square, and was bisected by the trunk of a large cottonwood, which had fallen directly across it.
Being left entirely to himself, the boy now devoted himself to the somewhat dismal task of keeping watch, an occupation that cannot be classed as the most cheerful in which a man may engage. The excitement and apprehension that marked the first two or three hours prevented the time from hanging too heavily upon his hands, but as the night stole along and nothing was heard or seen to cause alarm, the fear grew less and less, until, like a boy, he began to suspect that all these precautions were useless.
For the twentieth time he stood up and listened. The soft, musical murmur of the Rio Pecos was heard, as it flowed by on his right, and now and then the gentlest possible breath of night-wind disturbed the branches overhead; but nothing else caught his notice. To prevent the feeling of utter loneliness from gaining possession of him, Fred occasionally emitted a low, soft, tremulous whistle, which was instantly responded to from the direction of Mickey. It was the old familiar signal which they had used many a time when off on their little hunting expeditions, and either, hearing it, could not mistake its source. But this grew wearisome at last, and he leaned back against a tree, looking out upon the moonlit valley beyond, where nothing as yet had caught his eye that looked in the least suspicious, and where everything still appeared as silent as a graveyard.
"I don't believe there are any Indians within fifty miles," he muttered, impatiently; "and yet we must have three or four men on the look-out till morning. Well, I s'pose it's the only safe thing to do, and I'm bound to stick it out till one o'clock. It must be near midnight now, and if Mickey should come around here, an hour from now, and find me asleep, I never would hear the last of it."
He felt very much like sitting down upon the ground, but he knew if he did that he would be sure to fall asleep, while, as long as he kept his feet, he was sure to retain his senses. When disposed to become too drowsy, a sudden giving away at the knees recalled him so vigorously, that it was a considerable time before the drowsiness crept over him again.
Thus the night advanced, until all at once, Fred aroused himself as if a sharp pin had been thrust in him.
"By George! I heard something then!" he exclaimed, in an excited undertone, looking sharply about him; "but I don't know where it came from."
His impression was that it came from some point directly before him out on the open space; but the most rigid scrutiny failed to reveal the cause. There was the level stretch of grass, unbroken by stone or shrub, but nothing that could be tortured into the remotest resemblance to a human figure.
"It can't be there," he muttered; "or if it was, it do n't amount—"
His senses were aroused to the highest pitch, and he was all attention.
Just as the thoughts were running through his head, he caught the slightest possible rustle from some point behind him. He turned his head like lightning, and looked and listened. He could dimly discern the open moonlit space to which reference has already been made; but the intervening trees and undergrowth prevented anything like a satisfactory view.
"There's where it seemed to come from," he said, to himself; "and yet I do n't see how an Indian could have got there without our finding it out. Maybe it was n't anything, after all."
He waited and listened awhile longer, but no more. Anxious to learn what it all meant, he began a cautious movement toward the open space, for the purpose of finding out.
CHAPTER IV. FACING LONE WOLF
Fred's few weeks spent in crossing the plains on his way to the valley of the Rio Pecos had taught him much of the ways of the Indians, and he knew that if any of the scamps were in his immediate neighborhood, it would be almost impossible for him to stir from his position by the tree without betraying himself. The lad half suspected that the sound was made by some wild animal that was stealing through the wood, or what was more likely, that it was no more than a falling leaf; but, whatever it was, he was determined to learn if the thing were among the possibilities.
A veteran Comanche, himself, could not have picked his way through the undergrowth any better than did he; and, when at last he stood upon the edge of the open space and looked around, he was morally certain that no other creature was aware of his movement. Nor was he aware of the action of the other party, if there was really such a one, which had been the means of bringing him thither. If some wild animal or wild Indian were lurking in the vicinity, he knew how to remain invisible.
"I'll stay here a little while—"
Fred at that moment was looking at the cottonwood tree, which, it will be remembered, had been felled directly across the opening, when, to his speechless terror, the figure of an Indian warrior suddenly rose upright from behind it, and stood as motionless as a statue. His action indicated that he was not aware that any one was standing so near him. He had probably crept up to the log behind which he crouched, until, believing he was not in danger of being seen, he arose to his feet and assumed the attitude of one who was using his eyes and ears to their utmost extent.
He was of ordinary stature, without any blanket, his long, black hair hanging loosely down upon his shoulders, his scarred and ugly countenance daubed and smeared with different colored paint, his chest bare, and ornamented in the same fashion, a knife at his girdle, and a long, formidable rifle in his hand—such were the noticeable characteristics, to a superficial observer, of Lone Wolf, the Apache chief—for the Indian confronting Fred Munson was really he, and no one else.
The lad suspected the identity of the red-skin, although, having never seen him, it amounted only to a suspicion. No matter who he was, however, he was prepared for him.
The Apache showed his usual cunning. He was evidently attempting to steal upon the sentinels, and, having risen to his feet, he remained motionless and upright, listening for any sign that might betray any motion of the individuals whom he was seeking to slay, as does the assassin at night.
"He must have been after me, for he is right behind where I stood," thought the boy, as he grasped his rifle more firmly than ever, resolved to fire upon the wretch the moment he attempted to advance.
Lone Wolf stood but a minute in the position described, when, seemingly, he was satisfied that the way was clear, and, throwing one moccasin on the trunk, he climbed over as silently as a shadow, and stood again holt upright upon the other side. This brought the Indian and boy within ten feet of each other, and still the advantage was all upon the side of the latter, who stood in such deep shadow that he was not only invisible, but his presence was unsuspected.
The Indian was not gazing in the direction of the lad, but seemed to turn his attention more to the left, toward the spot where Mickey O'Rooney, the Irishman, was stationed. In ignoring the proximity of a boy, it cannot be said that he acted unreasonably.
Lone Wolf remained like a carven statue for a few seconds longer, and then began a cautious movement forward. In the moonlight, Fred could observe the motion of the foot, and the gradual advance of the body. He felt that it would not do to defer any longer his intention of obstructing him. If permitted to go on in this manner, he might kill Mickey O'Rooney, and bring down a whole host of red-skins upon the sleeping settlers, cutting them off to a man.
Fred had his rifle to his shoulder, and pointed toward the Indian. Suddenly stepping forward, he placed himself in the moonlight, and, with the muzzle of his piece almost at the breast of the chief, he said:
"Another step forward, and I'll bore you through!"
The lad did not stop to consider whether it was likely that the Indian understood the English tongue; but, as it happened, Lone Wolf could use it almost as if to the manner born; and it would have required no profound linguistic knowledge upon the part of anyone to have comprehended the meaning of the young hero. It was one of those situations in which gesture told the meaning more plainly than mere words could have done. But if ever there was an astonished aborigine, Lone Wolf was the same.
It was not often that such a wily warrior as he was caught napping, but he was completely outwitted on the present occasion. When he saw the muzzle of the rifle pointed straight at his breast, he knew what it meant, even though the weapon was in the hands of a boy. It meant that any attempt on his part to raise his gun or draw his tomahawk or knife, would be met by the discharge of the threatening weapon, and his own passage from time into eternity. So he stared at the lad a moment, and then demanded in good English:
"What does my brother want?"
"I want you to leave, just as quickly as you know how, and never show yourself here again."
"Lone Wolf's wigwam is many miles away," supplied the Indian, pointing northward, "and he is on his way there now."
Fred started a little at this terrible chieftain's name; but he held his gun pointed steadily towards him, determined to fire the instant he attempted the least hostile movement, for his own salvation depended upon such a prompt check-mating of his enemy.
An Indian is always ready to make the best of his situation, and Lone Wolf saw that he was fairly caught. Still, he acted cautiously, in the hope of throwing the young hero off his guard, so as to permit him to crush him as suddenly as if by a panther's spring.
"If your wigwam is there, it is time you were home," said Fred. "We are on the lookout for such customers as you, and if any of the others see you they won't let you off so easy as I do. So the best thing is for you to leave."
Lone Wolf made no direct reply to this, except to take a step toward the side of the lad, as if it were involuntary, and intended to further the convenience of conversation; but Fred suspected his purpose, and warned him back.
"Lone Wolf, if you want to carry your life away with you, you will go at once. I do n't want to shoot you, but if you come any nearer or wait any longer, I'll fire. I'm tired of holding this gun, and it may go off itself."
The Apache chief made no answer, but, with his eyes fixed upon the lad, took a step backward, as an earnest of his intention of obeying. Reaching the log, he hastily clambered over it and speedily vanished like a phantom in the gloom of the wood beyond, leaving the boy master of the field.
CHAPTER V. THE APACHES ARE COMING
As soon as Lone Wolf was out of sight, young Munson stepped back in the shadow of the wood, and quickly placed himself behind the trunk of a large tree. He had learned the nature of the Indian race too well for him to give this precious specimen any chance to circumvent him. Had he remained standing in the moonlight opening, after the Apache entered the wood, the latter could not have had a better opportunity to pick him off without danger to himself. Had he meditated any such purpose, when he wheeled to fire the shot there would have been no target visible.
The strained ear of the lad could not detect the slightest rustling that might betray the where-abouts of the dreaded chief, and Fred knew better than to expect any such advantage as that which just permitted to pass through his hands. But what would Lone Wolf do? This was the all-important question. Would he sneak off through the wood and out of the valley, and would he be seen and heard no more that night? or would he return to revenge himself for the injury to his pride? Was he alone in the grove, or were there a half dozen brother-demons sulking among the undergrowth, like so many rattlesnakes, except that they did not give any warning before striking their blow? Had any of them visited Mickey or Thompson, and was a general attack about to be made upon the settlement? Such questions as these surged through the mind of Fred, as he stood leaning against the tree, rifle in hand, listening, looking, and thinking.
Suddenly he gave utterance to a low whistle, which he was accustomed to use as a signal in communicating with Mickey. It was almost instantly answered, in a way which indicated that the Irishman was approaching. A minute later the two were together. The lad hastily related his stirring adventure with the great Apache war-chief, and, as may be imagined, Mickey was dumfounded.
"It's meself that has n't seen or heard the least sign of one of the spalpeens since the set of sun, and they've been about us all the time."
"How was it they got here without being seen?"
"There be plenty ways of doing the same. They've found out that we were watching this pint, and so they slipped round and came the other way."
"Do you think they will attack us to-night?"
"I'm thinkin' they're only making observations, as me uncle obsarved, when he was cotched in the house of Larry O'Mulligan, and they'll be down on us some time, when everything is ready."
"It seems to me it is a poor time to make observations—in the night."
"The red-skin is like an owl," replied Mickey. "He can see much better at night than he can by day; but there's Thompson; let us see whether some of the spalpeens haven't made a call upon him in the darkness. Be aisy now, in stepping over the leaves, for an Injin hears with his fingers and toes as well as his ears."
The Hibernian led the way, each advancing with all the caution at his command, and using such stealth and deliberation in their movements that some ten or fifteen minutes were consumed in passing over the intervening space. At last, however, the spot was reached where they had bidden good-bye to their friend, earlier in the evening.
"Here's about the place," said Mickey, looking about him; "but I does n't observe the gintleman, by the token of which he must have strayed away. Hilloa!"
He repeated the call in a low, cautious voice, but still loud enough to be heard a dozen yards or more from where he stood; but no response came, and, although neither of the two gave any expression to it, yet they were sensible of a growing fear that this absence or silence of their friend had a most serious meaning.
"Yonder he is now," suddenly exclaimed Fred. "He's a great sentinel, too, for he's sound asleep."
The stalwart figure of Thompson was seen seated upon the ground, with his back against a tree, and his chin on his breast, like one sunk in a deep slumber. The sentinel had seated himself on the edge of the grove, where all the trees and undergrowth were behind, and the open space in front of him. At the time of doing so, no doubt his figure was enveloped in the shadow, but since then the moon had climbed so high in the sky that its rays fell upon his entire person, and the instant the two chanced to glance in that direction, they saw him with startling distinctness.
"Begorrah! if that does n't bate the mischief!" exclaimed Mickey, impatiently, as he looked at his unconscious friend. "I thought he was the gintleman that had traveled, and knew all about these copper-colored spalpeens. S'pose we' all done the same, Lone Wolf and his Apaches would have had all our skulp-locks hanging at their goordles by this time. I say, Thompson, ain't you ashamed of yourself to be wastin' your time in this fashion?"
As he spoke, he stooped down, and seizing the arm of the man, shook it quite hard several times, but without waking him.
"Begorrah, but he acts as if he had n't a week of sleep since he had emigrated to the West. I say, Thompson, me ould boy, can't ye arouse up and bid us good night?"
While Mickey was speaking in this jocose manner, he had again seized the man, but this time by the shoulder. At the first shake the head of the man fell forward, as if he were a wooden image knocked out of poise.
The singularity of the move struck Mickey, who abruptly ceased his jests, raised the drooping head, and stooped down and peered into it. One quick, searching glance told the terrible truth.
"Be the howly powers, but he's dead!" gasped the horrified Irishman, starting back, and then stooping still lower, and hurriedly examining him.
"What killed him?" asked the terrified Fred, gazing upon the limp figure.
"Lone Wolf, the haythen blackguard. See here," added Mickey, in a stern voice, as he wheeled about and faced his young friend, "you told me you had your gun pinted at that spalpeen; now it's meself that wants to know why in blazes you did n't pull the trigger?"
"He hadn't hurt me, Mickey, and I did n't know that he had been doing anything of this kind. Would you have shot him, in my place?"
The Irishman shook his head. It looked too cowardly to send a man, even though he were an Indian, out of the world without an instant's warning.
"Well, Thompson is done for, that's dead sure, and we'll have to give him a dacent burial. Whisht, there! did ye not hear somethin'?"
Footsteps were heard very distinctly upon the leaves, and the two shrank back in the shadow of the wood and awaited their approach, for they were evidently coming that way. Something in the manner of walking betrayed their identity, and Mickey spoke. The prompt answer showed that they were the two men whose duty it was to relieve Thompson and the Irishman. They came forward at once, and when they learned the truth, were, as a matter of course, terribly shocked. They reported that the sentinels nearer the settlement had detected moving figures during the night skulking about the wood and valley, and the sound of horses' hoofs left no doubt that they were Indians who had gone.
The death of Thompson, of course, was a terrible shock to the new arrivals, but it was one of the incidents of border life, and was accepted as such. The two took their stations unflinchingly, and Mickey and Fred returned to the settlement, the body of the dead sentry being allowed to lie where it was, under guard, until morning.
On the morrow the body was given decent burial, and the building of the houses was pressed with all possible activity, and scouts or sentinels were stationed on all the prominent lookouts.
Barnwell was confident that if no interruption came about within the next two or three days, he could put the defenses in such shape that they could resist the attack of any body of Indians; but an assault on that day or the next would be a most serious affair, the issue of which was extremely doubtful; hence the necessity of pressing everything forward with the utmost dispatch. Fred rendered what assistance he could, but that did not amount to much, and, as he possessed the best eyesight, he took upon himself the duty of sentinel, taking his position near the river, where he remained for something over an hour.
Nothing of an alarming character was seen, and, thinking his standpoint was too depressed to give him the range of observation, he concluded to climb one of the trees. This was quickly done, and when he found himself in one of the topmost branches he was gratified with the result.
On his right hand, he could trace the winding course of the Rio Pecos for several miles, the banks here and there fringed with wood and stunted undergrowth. His attitude was such that he could see over the tops of the trees in his rear, and observe his friends busily at work as so many beavers, while off on the left, stretched on the prairies, with the faint bluish outlines of mountains in the distance. All at once the eye of the boy was arrested by the figure of a horseman in the west. He was coming with the speed of a whirlwind, and heading straight toward the settlement.
Fred, wondering what it could mean, watched him with an intensity of interest that can scarcely be imagined. At first he supposed him to be a fugitive fleeing from the Indians; but none of the latter could be seen on the right, left or in the rear and so he concluded that that explanation would not answer.
The speed soon brought the horseman within hail. As he neared the Rio Pecos Valley, he rose in his stirrups, and swung his hat in an excited manner. At that moment Fred recognized him as Sut Simpson, the scout, whose voice rang out as startling and clear as that of a stentor.
"The Apaches are coming! The Apaches are coming! Lone Wolf will be down on yer quicker'n lightnin'!"
CHAPTER VI. THE APACHE ATTACK
"The Apaches are coming! The Apaches are coming!" shouted Sut Simpson, as his mustang thundered up to the edge of the valley, while his clear, powerful voice rang out like a bugle.
The words were startling enough, and the sudden dropping of a dozen bombshells among the unfinished dwellings of New Boston could not have created greater consternation, emphasized as they were by the towering form of the hunter and steed, who looked as if they had been fired from the throat of some immense Columbiad, and had not as yet recovered from their bewilderment. There was some system, however, in the movements of the pioneers, for there was ever present in their thoughts the very danger which had now come upon them so suddenly.
In the structure which was nearest completion were placed the dozen women and children, while the other houses that were in a condition to afford the means of defense were taken possession of by the men, gun in hand, ready to defend themselves to the last. Fortunately enough, the horses happened to be corraled within the inclosure, so that, unless the defense should utterly fail, there was little danger of their being stampeded by the Indians.
While these hurried preparations were going on, the hunter remained seated upon his mustang, looking down upon the pioneers with a gathering calmness, as though he were a general watching the evolutions of his army. Now and then he anxiously gazed off over the prairie, his manner showing that he was mentally comparing the speed of the approaching Apaches with that of the labors of his friends.
To Fred Munson, perched in the top of the lofty tree, the whole scene seemed like a hurrying panorama of a dream. He never once thought of his own personal danger, in the intensity of his interest in what was going on before his eyes.
The hunter had scarcely checked his mustang when the lad saw the Apaches appear upon a ridge some distance behind. It was less than two miles away, and they all dashed over at the place where the avant courier had come at his break-neck pace; and as soon as they were all over, and stretching away in the direction of the settlement, Fred had some chance of estimating their number.
"There must be a thousand of them," he muttered, in a terrified voice. "They will murder us all—none can get away."
His imagination, however, intensified matters. The Apaches numbered several hundred, and, armed to the teeth as they were, brave, daring, and mounted upon the best of horses, they were as formidable a party as if they were composed of so many white desperadoes of the border. A month before they would have walked over this party of pioneers; but there is no teacher like experience, and in the long journey across the plains, marked by innumerable skirmishes with the red-skins, the settlers had acquired a coolness and steadiness under fire which was invaluable in such emergencies as this.
But Simpson still maintained his position, glancing from the settlement below him to the approaching Apaches, with that quick, nervous motion which showed only too plainly that he felt a crisis was at hand, and he could delay only a few moments longer.
It was a thrilling sight, the hurried preparations of the pioneers, and the swift approach of their assailants. The latter came in no regular order, but swept along like so many Centaurs, at first well together, but, as they approached the valley, gradually separating and spreading out, like a slowly opening fan, until the crescent was several hundred yards in breadth, and it looked as if they intended to surround the settlement.
Such being their apparent purpose, the hunter speedily saw that it would not do to stay another second. He had come to warn the whites of their danger, and now that it had burst upon them, he emphasized his good intentions by dashing down the valley, and, leaping from the back of his mustang, took his place among a dozen defenders who were gathered in the building with the women and children.
His horse was covered with foam and sweat, for his master had ridden like Paul Revere, and he needed the rest that was now given him. He possessed extraordinary intelligence, and Sut knew that he could be thoroughly depended upon in case matters got mixed, and a stampede was attempted by the assailants.
There was no dilly-dallying. The most serious kind of business impended, and all were forced to prepare for it. In a twinkling, as it seemed, the hurry, bustle, and confusion suddenly ceased. Everything settled down into quiet, and the defenders, with their loaded rifles, calmly awaited the assault that was soon to be made.
As the Apaches neared the valley, they gradually slackened their speed, but all reached the margin, from which they could look down upon the pioneers, with their steeds upon a gallop, and then, without checking them, branched still further apart, and, speeding down the slope, began the battle forthwith.
In an instant the sharp crack! crack! of rifles was heard from different directions, as the Apaches opened fire upon the whites, who showed an equal readiness in replying. The Indians never allowed their steeds to rest. They were constantly in motion, back and forth, round and round, circling here and there, seemingly at times in inextricable confusion, but with a certain system, as shown in the evolutions of a large party upon a stage, and with the result of never interfering with one another's efficiency.
Some of the Apaches, in the very wantonness of their skillful horsemanship, threw themselves from side to side upon the backs of their steeds, firing under the neck or belly with as much accuracy as if from the saddle. None of them were furnished with the regulation saddle; some had blankets, while the most were mounted bareback. Their skill was little short of the marvelous. Again and again, one of the red-skins would make a lunge over the side of his animal, as though he were going to plunge headlong into the earth; but, catching his toe over the spine of his horse, he would sustain himself apparently by no other means, while he kept up his fusilade. When his horse wheeled, so as to expose the rider to the fire of the whites, the Indian would quickly swing over the other side, where he would continue the same demonstrations.
Thus it was that within five minutes after the Apaches came down in the valley, the settlement was surrounded by the several hundred, who were circling back and forth, and sending in their shots, whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The wood to which frequent reference has been made, it will be remembered, was situated some distance from the settlement, and, as Fred Munson was perched in a tree upon the other side, many of the gyrating horsemen were frequently shut out from his view by the intervening trees; but enough was constantly in view to keep his excitement up to the highest pitch, and to cause him to forget his own prominence as a target.
As has been already said, the settlers, from behind their intrenchments, were prompt in returning the fire of their assailants. The effect upon persons who had never been brought in collision with Indians would have been to bewilder and terrify them. It is very probable that such was one of the principal objects of the Apaches in making their attack as they did; but it failed utterly in that respect. Carefully avoiding any exposure of themselves, they popped away right and left, the reports of the rifles mingling together, while the warriors, as they tumbled to the ground here and there, showed how effectual the defense of the pioneers was.
The Apaches scarcely expected such a vigorous defense, and, after losing several of their best men, they widened their circle so as to avoid such a close range, and fired more seldom, but with greater care.
New Boston was a peculiarly built, or rather laid out, city. If Caleb Barnwell committed an absurdity in attempting to plant a settlement in the valley of the Rio Pecos, when the entire surrounding country was hostile, he showed some wisdom in the manner in which he conducted matters after the attempt was made. The town was in an irregular circle, with a grassy court in the centre, in which were pitched their horses.
Knowing how indispensable these animals were to men in such circumstances, there could be but little doubt that the Apaches would make a desperate attempt to stampede them, and the whites were therefore on the look-out for such an effort. Not only Sut Simpson, but Barnwell and a number of the principal men, held fire after the first repulse, so as to meet such an essay at the very instant it was attempted.
The Apaches edged away some distance, under the galling fire of the pioneers, until the watchful hunter saw them hurriedly massing on the slope above. He knew the meaning of that the moment he perceived the action.
"Be ready! they're coming for the animals!" he shouted, in a voice so loud that the words were distinctly heard by Fred Munson from his perch in the tree.
All those who held empty rifles hastily reloaded them, and the others, raising the hammers of their weapons, fixed their eyes upon the hideously painted forms, which resembled so many demons about to sweep down upon them. There was barely time for preparation, and in another minute the horde came rushing down the slope, like a mountain torrent, their objective point being the square where the horses were secured. Before they could reach them, however, the settlers poured in their most murderous volleys, bringing many a glaring red-skin to earth, wounding a number of their animals, and creating such a panic that the foremost swerved off to the right and dashed up the valley, followed by the others, while the property of the whites remained uninjured.
The first attack of the Apaches resulted in a repulse, and that, too, when led by Lone Wolf; but the peril was not past. That war-chief had learned the situation fully, and there was no danger of his repeating this blunder. The next time he was sure to succeed.
CHAPTER VII. IN A TREE
All this passed in much less time than has been necessary to describe it. Not until Fred Munson saw that the Apaches were repulsed did he reflect upon the startling fact that there was no one among all the settlers that was placed in as perilous a position as he.
The red-skins were between him and the houses, or fortifications, as they may be considered. He was alone, and although he had no gun in his possession, yet it cannot be supposed that his situation would have been any less dangerous on that account. In the excitement of interest, he had climbed to the highest attainable portion of the tree, where he not only had a good view of the thrilling contest going on under his very eyes, but where the contestants themselves, had they chosen to glance toward him, could have obtained an equally good view of him. Whether or not they had done so remained to be seen.
"My stars! I hope they have n't seen me," muttered the terrified lad, as he began retreating toward the trunk, with the intent of descending to the ground. "If they have, I'm a goner, that's certain."
The Apaches, although defeated, and driven beyond range of the settlers' rifles, did not withdraw altogether. Reaching a point several hundred yards from the houses, they continued moving about on their horses, as though reconnoitering from that distance. The red-skins did not go together, as would have seemed natural under circumstances, but kept up that peculiar restless movement, as though it were impossible for them to settle down into anything like quiet. This action upon their part threw a number of the red horsemen among the woods, where Fred was perched, so that he had every reason for being alarmed.
He was a skillful climber, however, and when he reached the trunk he moved down it, with the nimbleness of a monkey, taking care, however, not to be too rapid or sudden, as the movement might attract notice. Then, too, he had the benefit of a denser vegetable growth, in which he thought it quite possible to conceal himself even from an Indian passing beneath.
"If they have n't noticed me," he reflected, as he crouched upon a limb, and looked and listened, "I've a good chance of keeping out of their sight altogether. It's a pity I had n't had enough sense to think of all this before."
He continued creeping down the tree, until he was within twenty feet or so of the ground, when he paused, deeming it hardly safe to descend to the solid earth until matters looked a little less threatening. Fred was in a bad predicament, and he was sorely puzzled to decide what was best to do. There could be no doubt that numbers of Indians were in the wood around him, and if he descended to the ground he ran that much more danger of falling into their hands. He could not avoid a strong suspicion that he had been seen, and that his movements had been watched and understood for some time past.
"I should n't think those Apaches would consider a boy like me of much account," he muttered; "but if they have a chance to grab me, I s'pose they will. I'm sure I saw Lone Wolf at the head of the attacking party, and he'll want to pay me up for that big scare I gave him last night."
The afternoon was well advanced, and he finally concluded to stay where he was, provided the red-skins permitted him to do so; so he crawled into the place, where he seemed the best protected by the surrounding vegetation and branches, and, crouching down, he awaited the coming of darkness with an anxiety which can scarcely be described.
It will be understood that he had come down so low in the tree that he could see nothing of his friends on the other side of the wood. He was so near the margin that his view on the right was comparatively unobstructed. Occasionally he caught sight of a horseman in the distance, but the majority of the red-skins were in other directions. Now and then the crack of a rifle broke the stillness, which was so perfect that he distinctly caught the sound of the hoofs of the mustangs, as they whirled and spun hither and thither.
When one is placed in such a position as was Fred, his imagination is sure to be very active, and, time and again, he was sure that he heard the stealthy tread of a moccasin upon the leaves below. All this, however, was not imagination; for he had not been on his perch more than half an hour, when, peering downward through the leaves, he saw the unmistakable figure of an Indian, gliding along in the stealthy manner peculiar to that race. The heart of the lad throbbed violently, and he grasped the limb more tightly, watching every movement of the red-skin.
"He must be looking for me," was his thought. "He saw me in the tree, and he has now come to kill or take me away."
He was sure that that particular Apache was not Lone Wolf, although he could not be certain that any advantage was to be reaped from that. The chief was not likely to be more devoid of anything like mercy than was the greatest or humblest of his warriors.
The red-skin was on foot, and bore a rifle in his hand. Instead of the fanciful scalp-lock ornamenting his crown, his black, wiry hair straggled down around his shoulders, over which was thrown a dirty army blanket, that had once belonged to the United States government. The hideous paint upon his face was easily seen from the perch of the lad, and the red-skin was as repulsive and dreaded an object as can be imagined.
The scamp was moving along with that stealthy, cat-like tread which is characteristic of all his race; but although directly under the tree when first seen by the lad, he did not look up nor act in any way which would suggest that he suspected the presence of anyone over him. He did not hesitate in his movement, and thus it was that he was scarcely seen when he disappeared in the wood beyond, and the boy was alone.
Fred was now fully satisfied that it would not do to leave the tree so long as a particle of daylight remained. Apaches were too plentiful in those parts.
"I s'pose they'll hang around till night, though I can't see what they're going to make by it," said the boy to himself. "They've tried to clear out Mr. Barnwell and the rest of them, but could n't begin to do it, and now it won't do them any good to stay here. It'll be pretty risky for me to try and get into the house after dark, but they know I am out here and they will be looking for me. And then Mickey—"
At the mention of the Irishman's name, Fred suddenly stopped with a start, for he was reminded of a fact which had escaped him until that moment. Mickey O'Rooney had gone out on a little scout of his own, some hours before, and he had not yet returned, so that his situation, in one sense, was like his own. But he manifestly had greater advantage, for he was not only fully armed, but was mounted on one of the fleetest mustangs of the West; so that, unless he ran into some trap, he need fear no disturbance from them.
"I only wish I was with him," reflected Fred, "mounted upon Hurricane. I wouldn't mind a little run into some of these Apaches that think they are such wonderful riders."
As has been intimated in another place, young Munson had been furnished with one of the finest of prairie steeds—one whose speed, endurance, and intelligence was extraordinary. There was naturally a great attachment between the two, and Fred would have been off most of the time, skimming over the prairie, had he been allowed to do so, but Hurricane was in the group in the centre of the settlement, with the others, which the Indians had tried so hard to stampede, and he was as difficult to reach, under the circumstances, as were his friends themselves.
CHAPTER VIII. THE SWOOP OF THE APACHE
The afternoon dragged slowly by with Fred crouching, as he was, in the top of the tree and waiting for the time to come when he might descend and make the attempt to rejoin his friends, who could not but be greatly concerned over his absence. At rare intervals, the spiteful crack of a rifle reached his ear as before, and he knew that the white and red men were watching each other, both ready to seize the first opportunity that might offer for obtaining the slightest advantage. The occasional clamping of the hoofs of a galloping horse showed, too, that his dreaded foes were close at hand.
Finally, the sun disappeared, and darkness slowly settled over wood, forest, and prairie. There was the moon, shining as bright and unclouded as on the night before; but the shadow was so dense among the trees that this was of no particular importance, and so soon as night was fairly come the impatient lad was resolved upon making the attempt to reach his friends.
No Apaches had been seen beneath the tree since the departure of the first stealthy visitor, and the hope was quite strong within the lad that in the hurry and swirl of the fight the red-skins had failed to note him in his hiding-place. If such were really the case, it would seem that there was a chance of his passing through the lines without detection.
"Anyhow, I am going to try it," he muttered, with set teeth, as he resumed his cautious descent of the tree.
A moment later he found himself upon the nethermost limb, where he hesitated a few seconds, peering around in the breathless darkness and listening for anything that might betray the location of his enemies. The silence of the tomb seemed to have settled upon the earth, and, hanging by his hands a moment, he let go and dropped lightly to the ground. As he did so, he purposely sank upon his hands and knees, in the belief that he was less liable to be seen in that position than in any other.
The signs continued favorable, and, without any useless waiting, he turned his face in the direction of New Boston and began stealing forward, with the care and caution of a veteran courser of the plains. There was a fluttering hope that, with the coming of night, the red-skins had departed, but he knew better than to rely upon any such chance to reach his friends. If they had really gone, he would have heard something from Sut Simpson.
No more trying ordeal can be imagined than that which Fred endured when he attempted thus to steal his way through the Apache lines to his friends. He crept along upon his hands and knees, for he dared not trust himself in an upright posture, and he studiously avoided all those places through which the rays of the moonlight made their way. There was scarcely a minute in which he did not fancy that he heard the stealthy movement of some one near him, and stopped and lay flat upon his face, remaining thus until hopeful that it was safe to move forward again. And this apprehension was not always imaginary. Two separate times the sound of footsteps were too distinct to be mistaken, and the glimpse obtained of a shadowy figure, as it flitted across a partially moonlit space, was equally conclusive.
Almost an hour had passed, when Fred finally found himself on the edge of the open area which separated the wood from the settlement. Thus far he had evaded all danger and only a comparatively small space remained to be passed over in order to reach the haven of safety.
The boy assumed an upright position, and, standing in the shadow of the wood, debated with himself as to the best means of getting over that narrow but dangerous neck of territory which still interposed. It would be useless to attempt to creep over it, for the moon would be sure to reveal him to the Indians that were lurking near, and it was not likely that he could advance a dozen yards without detection. If it were possible, by drawing himself along on his face, to elude the vigilance of the Apaches, it would be clearly impossible to escape being discerned by his own friends. At such a time, the entire company would be on the look-out for just such insidious advances, and the chances were that he would be taken for a savage and shot by his own friends.
Fred was compelled to do a good deal of thinking, and the conclusion he came to was the next best possible to reach. Clearly, the wiser course was for him to remain where he was for the time being. So long as darkness remained, it was comparatively easy for him to keep concealed, and, while the situation could not have grown any worse, with the passage of the night, the chances were that it would improve, as the way for a safe run across the exposed area would have shown itself in due time. But it was natural that the boy should become impatient, and he easily persuaded himself that his position became more critical each moment.
He decided to make a run straight for the larger building, depending not upon concealment but upon speed. He expected to be fired at, and probably chased by some of the Apaches, but there was a reasonable chance of his escaping both. The distance was short, and he was sure to gain a good start at the beginning; but his main reliance was upon his being recognized by his friends, who would cover his flight. Having decided upon this course, he did not delay its execution a moment, since delay foreboded so much.
Breathing a prayer to heaven to guide him safely, he drew in a deep breath, and, leaping full into the moonlit space, started through his fiery gauntlet.
For a second or two the tomb-like silence continued, and then he heard several hoarse, crow-like calls, which he knew were made by the Apaches. Then came several rifle reports, but he was not injured. It showed, however, that his flight had been discovered. Fred had nothing to do, however, but to run, and he put on the utmost speed to which he could force himself, straining every nerve in the hope of making the log-house, which seemed to recede as he advanced.
Silence succeeded the shots and shouts, and the heart of the young fugitive was throbbing with a wild hope, when a noise caused him to look over his shoulder. To his horror, he perceived an Indian runner on foot, and within a dozen feet, bearing down upon him with the speed of the wind. The poor lad felt as if weighed down by a horrible nightmare, but he bent to his work with the desperation of despair.
It was useless.
His speed was not one half as great as that of the trained Apache, who bounded forward like a panther, and the next instant griped his horny fingers in the arm of Fred, who uttered a wail, and sank like one dying.
At that moment, the sharp, penetrating crack of a rifle came from the direction of the large building, and the warrior, with an ear-splitting screech, threw up his hands, and fell backward.
"Run, you young beaver! Thar's a chance for you yet!"
The ringing voice of Sut Simpson, aroused the boy, who, finding himself loose from the grasp of the Indian, bounded forward again. But he had scarcely done so, when the tramp of horses' hoofs were heard, and a warrior, more daring than the others, sent his mustang forward with arrowy swiftness, not behind the lad, but directly in front of him, so that he was compelled to turn to one side, in the attempt to dodge him.
Detecting his purpose, a fusilade of rifles was kept up from the houses, but the Apache seemed to escape them all; and, throwing himself on the opposite side of the horse, so as to interpose the body of the latter between himself and his enemies, and, without checking his speed, he reached down, and catching the bewildered lad, dashed up the slope, bearing him away in triumph.
CHAPTER IX. IN LONE WOLF'S CLUTCHES
Poor Fred Munson struggled with the vigor of desperation to escape the clutches of the Indian, who swooped down upon him in the fashion described, but it was in vain; and he scarcely heard the thunder of the horses' hoofs and saw the figure of the rushing mustang, when he was snatched up by the muscular and far-reaching Apache, and borne away amid the shower of bullets, which hurtled as harmlessly about the red rider and his steed as if the two bore charmed lives.
The daring warrior who performed this remarkable feat had no sooner secured the boy than he righted himself on the back of his horse, sitting bolt upright, while, almost at the same instant, the dead run was toned down to a moderate walk. Turning his head, the Apache emitted several tantalizing whoops, intended to irritate the whites into firing.
Although he was within easy rifle-shot, no one essayed to fire, and he knew none would do so. Not even that skillful marksman, Sut Simpson, dared make the trial, for the painted body of the sinewy red-skin was covered by that of the boy, whom he held in front of him, and he who fired at the wretch was much more likely to kill the lad so cunningly held in his arms. Thus it was that the captor made off with his prize, and no one was able to check him, although the hearts of the whites were burning with rage and with the desire to shoot the Apache who had baffled them so utterly.
Fred was still struggling, in the frantic hope of twisting himself loose from the grasp of the redskin, when the latter spoke in his harsh, guttural voice:
"Stop, or I'll kill."
This was said in the best of English, and the boy was astonished, as may well be supposed, at the linguistic accomplishment of the Indian. At first he imagined that it was a white man painted and disguised, but one searching glance not only removed that impression, but revealed the identity of his captor. It was Lone Wolf, whom he had baffled the night before in the wood.
"It's all up with me now," was the thought of Fred, when this intelligence flashed upon him. "He will never forgive me for the way I stopped him last night. How sorry I am that I didn't shoot him when I had such a good chance!"
For one minute he thought of appealing to his mercy, but a brief reflection convinced him that that was worse than useless, and he abandoned the idea as absurd. He was old enough to know that Indians are merciless.
It will be remembered that night was closing in when Fred was captured and a few minutes later, when he turned his head back toward New Boston, he was unable to distinguish a single house.
The mustang bearing captor and prisoner dropped into an easy gallop, passing entirely out of the valley and a short distance over the prairie, where, when he halted, he found himself amid some thirty or forty mounted Apaches. Here a halt was made and the red-skins engaged in a consultation, which, as a matter of course, was conducted in their own language, and, consequently, was unintelligible to the lad, who was as deeply interested as any of them in the proceedings.
The scene was a strange one, and was so firmly impressed upon his memory that he was sure he could not forget it if he lived a hundred years. The Indians he saw now for the first time with their animals perfectly motionless. They were grouped around their chief in an irregular circle, and in the gathering darkness, with their long, coarse, black hair dangling over their shoulders; their low, scarcely perceptible foreheads; broad, misshapen, painted faces and their hideous figures, they formed as unearthly a scene as can be conjured up. Several persisted in talking at the same moment, and they indulged liberally in gesture, so that it was very apparent that something exciting was before the convention.
What it was, Fred could not conjecture satisfactorily to himself. He could not believe that he himself was regarded of sufficient importance to cause any such discussion, and from what he had heard of the war-chief, it did not seem probable that he would allow any such wrangle over a prisoner which he had in his own possession. It surely was over some other matter, probably concerning the action of the Apaches, regarding which he had invited discussion; but whatever it was, Fred could only content himself with looking and listening.
The lad felt that he was as helpless as an infant, and, now that he had been given time to collect his senses, he stopped making any further effort to escape from his captor. Knowing the uncontrollable temper of the Indians, he resolved not to provoke an outburst by any action of his own. The wonder with him was, that the chief did not kill him the minute he found that he was in his power. They had not shown any desire to make prisoners, when it was so much more easy to rid themselves of their captives by a blow from the tomahawk or the thrust of the knife.
"I suppose they mean to do something dreadful with me," was the thought of Fred, as he shudderingly looked around upon the repulsive group.
There could be but little doubt of that, and he could do nothing but ask heaven to protect him in the terrible danger in which he was placed. At such a time a person's mind is unusually active and a hundred schemes agitated the mind of the young captive—schemes which, when analyzed by the clear light of reason, were about as unsubstantial as the fabric of a dream. Fred felt that if he was not killed immediately there was some chance for him. A few hours, or at least a day or two, would give time for his friends to do something. Mickey O'Rooney, upon returning to the settlement (as he would have to do sooner or later), would not consent to remain there as long as the fate of his young friend was in doubt. And there was Sut Simpson, the hunter, who had taken so much pains to come and warn the settlers of the impending attack. He had witnessed the capture of the lad and was certain to do all he could to rescue him. His long experience in the west, and his numerous encounters with these Indians, had given him a knowledge which would be of great value in such an emergency. Fred recalled too, that he had heard it stated more than once that the Indians frequently took prisoners for the purpose of ransom, and that he might be restored in this manner so soon as communication could be opened between the Apaches and his friends.
It so happened, therefore, as the minutes passed, that something like the renewal of hope came to the heart of the lad, who had reached the conclusion that the subject under discussion did not relate to himself.
This Apache convention did not prolong its session. Lone Wolf seemed to permit his warriors to talk until he became weary, when he said a few words, and the talk ended. During the discussion, numbers had continued to come in, until there were over a hundred gathered together. The moon was shining from a clear sky overhead, and the group gathered on the open prairie, where the members thereof were in readiness to dash in any direction, in case of an attack. With the words of Lone Wolf came the adjournment of the convention. The talk ceased instantly, as if by magic, and the heads of the horses were turned toward the north.
The Indians were about to leave the neighborhood where they had been so roughly used by the whites. A number had already gone, bearing with them the dead and wounded, and the remainder were about to depart—that is, for a time, until their forces could be marshaled into a body that would sweep New Boston from the face of the earth. Such was the decree of Lone Wolf. Was he to permit a party of white men to plant a settlement in the very heart of his country? Was he to allow his hunting grounds to be appropriated in this fashion? Was he to submit quietly to the encroachments of those who had never so much as asked his consent? Not so long as he could summon an army of the best warriors of the Southwest to his command. If his present company had been too small, then he would double and treble it. At all events, the power would be provided to accomplish his purpose.
The horsemen speedily arranged themselves; the head of all turned in a northerly direction. It took some minutes for them to arrange themselves, but they were about ready to receive the command of their chief, when the report of a rifle broke upon the stillness. An Indian, with a spasmodic shriek, threw up his arms and rolled backward, and then from his steed, which snorted and reared, as if it, too, had suffered some injury.
This warrior was directly in the rear of Lone Wolf, and had been so fairly in line with him that there could be no doubt that the bullet had really been intended for the chief. The point from whence it came could not be mistaken.
Over half of the war-party saw the flash of the gun, off to their right, in the direction of the settlement, and those who chanced not to see it were quickly informed of the spot by the appearance of a horse, looking as if he had sprung from the ground itself. No rider was visible; but, of course, he was there, as he had just demonstrated by means of his shot. That there might be no doubt of his identity, he uttered a loud yell, like that with which one Indian defies another, and called out in the Apache tongue:
"Sut Simpson sends the shot for the heart of Lone Wolf, who is a dog and a coward."
This was the favorite taunt of the hunter when he sought to draw out his old enemy. Some of the numerous scars which he received were the direct result of his daring defiance, and he was hopeful that the challenge would accomplish something in the present case. Nor was he disappointed.
CHAPTER X. TWO OLD ENEMIES
Lone Wolf recognized the taunt of his old enemy, and his black eye lit up with a gleam of fire and passion. He would not turn his back upon his white foe, who had just sent a bullet in quest of his heart. He would accept the gage of battle, and end his personal warfare of years. But, like all Indians, the chieftain was the personification of treachery, without a particle of chivalry or manhood, and when he resolved upon his attempt to destroy the frontiersman, it was without any regard for the fairness of the means which he should employ.
He handed the boy to one of the warriors sitting near him, as, of course, he could do nothing when impeded by his presence, although he had proved very convenient some time before, in the way of a shield. Then he said something to a dozen or so of the warriors immediately around him. The main body remained comparatively motionless, while the chief rode out in advance and headed toward his antagonist, his horse upon a slow walk, and moving with great caution.
Sut Simpson was not to be caught napping. No one understood the sneaking character of Lone Wolf better than did he. He had had it back and forth with him too many times not to be able to read the fellow through and through.
While the leader was coming forward in this cautious manner, he saw several other horsemen in motion. Their direction was not the same as their leader. They appeared to be riding further back upon the prairie, as though they had been sent upon some errand to a distant point. But Sut knew what it meant. They meant to steal away until they were out of sight, when they would come around behind him. There were enough to surround him completely and to cut off his escape in any direction.
Sut saw all this and was not surprised thereat. He believed that he was too old a bird to be caught with such chaff. The manner in which he could defeat the purpose of Lone Wolf was by direct fight, or by forcing him into a combat which would anticipate the intention of the Apache. He preferred the latter course, and he made the effort in the common Indian way, by uttering a taunt, still using the Apache tongue.
"Lone Wolf is a coward and a dog! He is afraid of the white hunter! He stays by his warriors, that they may hold his head when his heart grows faint at sight of his pale-face foe."
Anyone who understands the temper of an Indian will see that such a taunt as this was of the most exasperating nature. It rankled deeply in the heart of Lone Wolf, who would have given a dozen of his best warriors for the chance of burying his tomahawk in the skull of his foe; but he was too cunning to be misled by his desire for revenge. He, too, indulged in a little of the taunting business himself; and, as the hunter had honored him by speaking in the Apache language, he "threw himself," so to speak, in English.
"The white hunter is afraid of Lone Wolf. He dreads his scalping-knife. His heart trembles, and he knows not where to hide himself."
"He does not hide from Lone Wolf, for he has hunted days and nights to find him, and when Lone Wolf saw him coming, he ran among his warriors and hid."
"He is not among them now," retorted Lone Wolf; "while he seeks Sut Simpson, the brave hunter moves away."
Such was really the case. Judged from a superficial standpoint, the greatest show of courage was made by the Apache, whose horse was moving forward at a slow, cautious pace, while the mustang of Sut Simpson kept up a continued and equally guarded retreat, so that the distance between the two taunting enemies remained about the same. The hunter had a manifest purpose in this, which was simply to draw his foe far enough away from his support to gain a chance for a sudden dash at him before he could elude him. At the same time he did not forget the dozen horsemen that had stolen out so cautiously from the rear, and he knew that "if it were done, then 'twere well it were done quickly," as Macbeth so aptly puts it.
Sut carefully measured the intervening space with his eye, but Lone Wolf was still too near his reserve. The two men were eying each other like cats, and, although he taunted so loudly, yet no one would have been readier than the Apache to flee if he believed that he was in greater peril than his antagonist.
"Why does not Lone Wolf move faster?" asked Sut, hoping to spur him into doing so.
"Why does not the hunter wait for him?" asked the chief, very appropriately, in return.
The scout thought that if he could draw the savage a few yards further he would have him just where he wanted him. Feeling how precious the passing time was, he galloped his mustang a rod or so and then came to a sudden abrupt halt.
"Here I'll await you, you old copper-skinned hoodlum!" he called out, in unmistakable English.
Lone Wolf did not check his speed; nor, on the other hand, did he hasten it. Let alone, he was sure to reach the proper point in due time; but the trouble was that Sut had no time to spare. The dozen horsemen who were making their circuit must have accomplished considerable of it already, and would soon be closing in around him.
The hunter had been caught in just such predicaments many a time before, and had managed to pull through without material injury; but no brave man who was possessed of ordinary sense would willingly allow himself to be drawn into such a trap. The Apaches were as good riders as he, and a shot that would disable his horse would play mischief with the rider. He wished to avoid any such snarl, and so he dallied and trifled with his adversary in the hope of trolling him along to a point where he could hold him, while the Indian continued his advance like one whose only purpose was to hold his man until the other warriors could close in behind him. The moment speedily came when it would not have been best to wait a second longer.
Wheeling his horse with the suddenness of lightning, Simpson charged at full speed straight at Lone Wolf. The latter was surprised by the movement, but he was not thrown off his guard, nor did he seek to fall back on his reserves. It would be time enough to do that when he should become convinced of its necessity; besides which, he had only to keep the hunter engaged for a brief time in order to give his horsemen the chance to entrap him.
Bearing in mind the deceitful character of the chief, Sut waited until he was within a short distance, when he wheeled and let drive with a couple chambers of his revolver. Lone Wolf went over the side of his mustang so suddenly that the hunter believed he had been killed; but, as he checked himself before reaching the ground, he saw his mistake, and knew that the savage's "reply" would be forthcoming on the instant. Accordingly, Sut followed suit and interposed the body of his mustang like a flash between himself and the red-skin.
He was not a wink too soon. Just as he went over he caught the flash, and heard the report of a pistol. The chief had fired from beneath the neck of his steed, with his revolver—for Lone Wolf carried his revolver, like any other gentleman of the plains.
This was complicating matters so much that the hunter determined to force conclusions without a moment's delay.
There was no use of firing at the Indian as long as he was protected by his horse. He was to cunning to be caught napping. So, without a particle of hesitation, Sut threw the muzzle of his rifle beneath the neck of his steed, and fired straight at the one which was sheltering his adversary.
The shot was fatal, and, with a frenzied leap, the animal stumbled forward upon his neck, and fell dead in his tracks. Nimble Lone Wolf threw himself as quick as a flash from beneath the falling body, and, conscious of his disadvantage, started on a run for the main body of warriors; but Sut, with extraordinary shrewdness, had anticipated this very thing, and, assisted by the intelligence of his animal, he threw himself ahead of him, so as to shut off the flight in that direction.
Everything now went with bewildering swiftness. The Apaches, seeing their chief environed, rode forward to his assistance, while the hunter, revolver in hand, blazed away at him, determined to bring him to earth, now that he had the chance. The activity of Lone Wolf was simply marvelous.
He darted here and there, dodged back and forth, and once or twice actually shot beneath the belly of his adversary's mustang. His antics were confusing, and, although Sut succeeded in wounding him, it seemed utterly impossible to disable him.
The hunter had already discharged his rifle when he slew the horse, and when he emptied his revolver, he was chagrined, furious, and baffled.
"I believe you're the devil himself!" he exclaimed, ceasing his efforts to bring him down, "and I'll let you go this time!"
He turned to flee when he saw that the Apaches were all about him.
CHAPTER XI. HOT QUARTERS
The contest of Simpson with the wonderfully supple and sinewy Apache began and ended in a few seconds. In the most thrilling moments the hunter did not forget his peril from outside barbarians.
The main war-party seeing the desperate straits of their leader, who was liable to be shot down by a ball from the revolver, galloped forward to his assistance, and, almost at the same moment the dozen horsemen that had set out to head him off put in appearance, all coming from different directions, and converging toward the one point, where the veteran borderer was suddenly transformed from an aggressor into a deeply imperiled fugitive.
It was a time for "business" of the sternest kind, and the grizzled hunter went at it like one who understood what it meant. Rifle and pistol were discharged, and, therefore, useless. The former was slung over his back, and the latter was quickly jammed into his girdle. In a twinkling he had his huge bowie in his right hand, and, shouting to his mustang, he headed out on the prairie, and made a dash for life and freedom.
At such a crisis, everything depends upon the sagacity and intelligence of the horse. It requires something more than speed—it needs a grasp of the "situation," upon the part of the brute, and the guidance of his action which should result therefrom. It was in this respect that Sut Simpson possessed an advantage which can scarcely be appreciated. He made no attempt to guide or control the creature he bestrode; but, bending forward upon his back and clutching his terrible weapon in his hand, he uttered a shout, which the mustang interpreted as an appeal to do his best, and he proceeded to do so without an instant's hesitation.
Still, it was vain to try to dodge through the converging warriors without coming in contact with them. There were too many to permit any such performance, but the wall was not impenetrable. Like an arrow from the bow sped the animal, and, seeing the point toward which he was aiming, the Apaches endeavored to close the gap. The equine fugitive did not swerve in the least, and it looked as if he was plunging to his own destruction.
The scout saw it all, and made no effort to change the direction he was pursuing. He only grasped his bowie the more tightly and compressed his lips. There was an ugly gleam in his sharp gray eye as he braced himself for the conflict.
The nose of the mustang was almost touching the head of the other horses, when he swerved almost at right angles, and, with a tremendous burst of speed, shot through the nearest "opening." This threw all his enemies, by the brilliant maneuver, in his rear, and left the clear prairie before him as a path in which to complete his flight.
The space separating Sut from his enemies was too slight for him to reach safety by one plunge. The mustang was scarcely under way, when he was compelled to dodge as abruptly as before, and in a trice he made a third, which was done with consummate skill, and yet with the unavoidable result of bringing the scout in collision with a swarthy warrior. Sut was expecting it, and, bursting like a thunderbolt upon the howling red-skin, he drove the flashing bowie with such prodigious force that, to repeat an old expression, the first thing the Apache knew, he knew nothing.
At the moment of making the thrust, a painted warrior riding on the opposite side struck a terrific blow with his tomahawk, but the dextrous flirt of the hunter's head permitted the weapon to whizz by and graze his cheek. The time was to short for him to do any work with the knife in the other hand, quick as was Simpson in his movements; so the tomahawk had scarcely descended upon its harmless mission when he sent out his left hand straight from his shoulder, like the plunge of a piston rod.
It struck the astonished warrior straight in his face with irresistible force and his head went down and his heels up so suddenly that he was knocked completely off his horse—a thing which, it may be safely said, does not occur with an Apache or Comanche once in a thousand times, unless it be a bullet that tumbles him to the ground. This opened the way again and the magnificent mustang settled down to the work of life and death.
Sut saw that it was impossible for any of the horsemen to throw themselves across his track, and so he flung himself forward upon his matchless steed and said a few words encouragingly in the hope that it might add a particle to his speed; but that was impossible, as the noble creature was doing his very utmost.
The pursuing Apaches seemed to cling to the hope of capturing the daring scout, for they thundered away in pursuit, while he as steadily drew away from them. Suddenly came the crack of rifles, but Sut noticed that most of them came from a point in advance, and he raised his head enough to learn what it meant.
The mustang (whether by design or accident cannot be stated) had sped continually in the direction of New Boston, and was dashing down toward that point. The pioneers were on the alert, and the instant they could distinguish pursuers from pursued, they opened on the former, with the result of tumbling several from the backs of their steeds. This so disorganized the hot pursuit that in the flurry of the moment the scout shot in among the group of alarmed horses, sprang from his back, and was soon among his friends, from whom he had been separated less than half an hour.
Lone Wolf seemed meditating a charge down the valley, and once or twice a formidable number of his warriors were observed gathering upon the slope; but the moment they were discovered such a galling fire was poured in among them that they quickly scampered out of range. The chief, beyond question, was infuriated by the manner in which he had been baffled, and this fury tempted him, perhaps, to a rash deed or two; but he speedily regained his shrewdness and drew his warriors off.
A careful reconnaisance, made an hour later, failed to show a single Apache. The entire body had departed.
The special errand of Sut in venturing out was to effect the recapture of the lad. The chance of success was very desperate, but upon that alone the scout had based his hopes. Had the opportunity been tempting, the Apaches would have done all they could to head off any effort in that direction, but it is often by a sudden dash, when apparently there is no hope, that the most brilliant successes are made. But the issue in the present case had been a complete failure, and Sut chafed greatly under the reflection, for everything connected with it was mortifying to him.