E-text prepared by Al Haines
KIDDIE THE SCOUT
[Frontispiece: "That's the way of it," he said.]
KIDDIE THE SCOUT
"Kiddie of the Camp," "Gildersley's Tenderfoot," "Cooee," "Rattlesnake Ranch," etc.
Illustrated by Frank R. Grey
London C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. 18 Henrietta Street, W.C. 2 1920
BERNARD EVERETT, Esq.
My dear Everett,—It was you who suggested this continuation of the story of Kiddie, and it is my pleasure to inscribe the volume with your name.
I THE MYSTERIOUS SNIPER II THE UNIFORM OF THE PLAINS III A DANGEROUS ENEMY IV BROKEN FEATHER'S WAY V BLAZING THE TRAIL VI JIM THURSTON'S SUBSTITUTE VII RUBE CARTER'S VISITOR VIII KIDDIE'S LUCK IX KIDDIE'S "SELFISHNESS" X THE GUARDIAN OF THE HONEYCOMB XI LESSONS IN TRACKING XII A MOONLIGHT VISITOR XIII A MATTER OF BUSINESS XIV LONE WOLF CANYON XV THE CRY OF THE JAY XVI THE SIGN OF THE BROKEN FEATHER XVII THE RUSE OF THE BUFFALO TRAIL XVIII THE BATTLE OF POISON SPIDER CREEK XIX KIDDIE'S ANSWER XX FOUL PLAY XXI THE CLUE OF YELLOW WORSTED XXII RUBE CARTER'S THEORY—AND KIDDIE'S XXIII EVIDENCE FOR THE PROSECUTION
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"THAT'S THE WAY OF IT," HE SAID . . . . . . Frontispiece
KIDDIE SAW THE MUSTANG REAR ON ITS HIND LEGS
RUBE TURNED SHARPLY ROUND AND LOOKED UP AT THE INTRUDER
"FRIZZLE ME IF IT AIN'T KIDDIE OF THE CAMP!" CRIED KEARNEY
"I'VE GOT HIM, SURE; HE AIN'T GOIN' TER WRIGGLE AWAY"
KIDDIE REACHED FOR THE SQUARE OF PAPER
"LOOKS TO ME LIKE SHERIFF BLAGG," SAID KIDDIE
HE SPOKE TO THE CROWS IN THEIR OWN TONGUE
THE MYSTERIOUS SNIPER
"A pity Kiddie ain't here along of us, to help. He'd sure tell us if thar's Injuns prowlin' around. My old eyes ain't just what they used ter be for spottin' a crawlin' Redskin from afar. Now, Kiddie had eyes like spy-glasses, hadn't he, Isa? As for his sense of hearin'—well, I allow he c'd 'most hear the grass a-growin'."
Old Man Birkenshaw was peering searchingly through the dim light of the early dawn, expecting at any moment to see the feathered head of a stealthy Indian warrior moving among the deep shadows. From where he lay on the dewy grass beside the crowded horse-corral, with his repeating rifle across his arm, he searched into the darkness of the larch woods and down the misty slopes to the thick line of bushes bordering the hidden creek.
"Yes," he went on, speaking in a cautious undertone, "Kiddie was a marvel."
"That's so," agreed the man stationed next to him, "a marvel for scoutin', he was. Like a cat, too."
"Yes," Isa Blagg nodded, "allus fell on his feet, didn't he? He allus came out on top. I never knew such a one fer turnin' up right on the spot whenever there was danger hangin' around."
"Wonder where he is now?" sighed Gideon Birkenshaw.
"Why, away in England, of course," drawled Isa. "In England without a doubt, occupyin' that thar comfortable seat of his in the House of Lords, wearin' a gold coronet an' a gold watch an' chain, an' a robe trimmed round with ermine skins; livin' in the grand style with all them high an' mighty aristocratic friends of his; never givin' a thought ter this yer camp here in the wilds of Wyoming, or to Laramie Peak, or to you, or to me."
"Mebbe so—mebbe so," mused Gideon. "I allow it's a long, long while since I'd a letter from him—not since that time when he sent me the Arab mare. Seems as if he'd clean forgotten me, though I never reckoned as Kiddie would ever forget. He ain't that sort."
"Hullo!" Isa Blagg was suddenly alert. "What's that? Listen! D'ye hear it, Gid—a horse gallopin' along the trail—comin' this way? Listen!"
The two men lay perfectly still and silent. From afar they could hear the unmistakable sound of a horse's hoofs, becoming momentarily more distinct.
"Injuns?" questioned Birkenshaw. He glanced about to assure himself that his men were all at their appointed posts.
"No," Isa answered. "'Tain't no prairie cayuse. I c'n make out the ring of its shoes on the hard trail. 'Tain't the Pony Express, neither. Guess it's just one of the boys from Red Buttes comin' along in advance to lend us a neighbourly hand. We c'n do well with another gun, Gid—allowin' that young Rube Carter's information was correct; allowin' that Broken Feather and his braves are sure out on a horse raidin' stunt."
"Young Rube ain't anyways liable to be in error in a serious case like this," Gideon assured his companion. "And if Broken Feather's shapin' ter steal horses, why, nat'rally he'll calculate on findin' what he covets right here—the best herd within fifty miles, ter say nothin' of that Arab mare, which he's had his eye on for a while back. No, Young Rube's warnin' ain't no false alarm. I'm figurin' that the Redskins are in ambush down there among the willows. It's likely they've been there all through the night. They'll attack before sunrise; and they'll approach by way of the hollow yonder, where they c'n tread quiet on the marshy ground."
"Say, that rider's wastin' no time, Gid," Isa interrupted, "Guess he's in some hurry by the way he's poundin' along."
"We ought ter catch a view of him as he gallops over the ridge," reflected Gideon. "Might even be Broken Feather himself. He's cute enough ter come along in disguise, ridin' a saddled pony that's decently shod."
The old man raised himself on an elbow and glanced along the line of men whom he had posted at equal intervals behind the defence of a wide grassy bank commanding the front of the threatened horse corral. Next to himself was Isa Blagg, then Jake Paterson and Tom Lippincott. Between Lippincott and the man at the end station, Abe Harum, was young Rube Carter. There were six guns in all, not counting revolvers.
Gideon beckoned to young Rube, and the boy crept cautiously towards him, treading softly in his moccasined feet, carrying his rifle under his arm and taking good cover.
"Crawl down towards the shack, Rube, an' get a sight of the rider that's comin' along the trail," Gideon ordered. "Just see who he is as he tops the risin' ground, and then get right back to your place an' be ready ter open fire when I give the sign."
Rube was not absent very long. When he returned he passed close behind the Boss, so silently that Gideon was not aware of his presence until a hand was pressed on his spurred heel.
"He's a stranger, Boss," Rube reported in a whisper. "I don't reco'nize him, nor his pony neither. It don't look as he means comin' here to our camp, or he'd sure have turned in at the new gate."
"Didn't hear him crossin' the wooden bridge," said Gideon, "and his mount ain't wearin' soft moccasins."
"Seems to me he's come to a halt," added Isa Blagg.
There was an anxious spell of silent, watchful waiting. No sound or movement betrayed the presence of marauding Indians, and already the clouds in the east had taken on the rosy tinge of daybreak.
Gideon Birkenshaw was beginning to comfort himself in the belief that there would be no attack after all; that his horses were safe. He was even on the point of laying aside his Winchester and bidding his men return home with him for breakfast, when suddenly from the farther side of the corral there came the sharply startling ring of a rifle shot. It came from a direction in which none of his men had been stationed.
"Who fired that shot?" he cried in wondering surprise. "Whose gun was it? Anybody know?"
Abe Harum rose to his feet, and, bending his body forward, ran swiftly past the corral gate. Then he went down on his knees and elbows and crept along by the stout timbers of the stockade, screened by the long grass.
The corral was built in a circle, and there were no corners or buttresses behind which he could conceal himself. Neither could he yet see anything of the man who had fired the shot. What he did see, when he had crept a few yards beyond the gate, was a crowd of Indians gathered close against the palisade. One of them was in the act of climbing over the sharp-pointed rails. Some seemed already to have dropped on the inner side, for the ponies were running about the enclosure in wild alarm.
Abe levelled his rifle and fired at the Redskin now slinging a naked leg over the spikes.
The shot missed its mark, and the Indian, balancing himself as he gripped one of the rails, was preparing to jump within when he was struck by a bullet fired from beyond the other Indians and between them and the main trail.
Believing that some of the cowboys from Three Crossings had arrived, and were already at work defending Birkenshaw's property, Abe ran back to hasten Gideon and his mates.
He met all five of them before reaching the gate.
"Quick—quick!" he urged, "they're attacking on the far side. We been watchin' at the wrong place, and they've sneaked past through the long grass. Say, Gid, some of 'em have gotten inside the corral, over the rails. They're among the ponies right now. Hear 'em? Rube—" he added, turning to the boy, "you hang back thar outer the line of fire. Keep an eye on the corral gate."
Shots were being fired in rapid succession now from beyond the curve of the stockade. The Indians, assailed on both flanks, had scattered themselves to take cover behind boulders and bushes, and from their ambush they were aiming their arrows and firing with their repeating rifles.
An arrow took off Birkenshaw's hat, another grazed Tom Lippincott's cheek, but most of the Redskins were aiming down the slope in the direction from which the most effective fire was coming into their midst.
"Thar's a band of the boys from Three Crossings down yonder," Abe Harum announced. "See, they're pickin' off a Injun with 'most every shot!"
"I'm figurin' as thar's no more'n one gun down there," declared Isa Blagg with a wise headshake. "One gun alone. But the man that's behind it, he sure knows how to shoot. I'm curious t' know just who it c'n be. Eh? Yes, that's so; they're drawin' off. Guess they've had about enough. They didn't catch us sleepin', as they thought to."
The Redskins were retiring into the shelter of the neighbouring pine trees, clearly with the purpose of enticing the defenders away from the corral. Gideon Birkenshaw, falling into the snare, was planning to follow them up or to head them off on the farther side of the wood. He was rallying his forces to give each man his direction when Rube Carter ran towards him.
"Abe!—Gid!" the boy cried excitedly, "they've broke open the gate—from the inside! They're stampeding our ponies. Come back and stop 'em! Say, Gid, Broken Feather's gone off, mounted on your Arab mare!"
"Eh? What's that? Mounted on Sultana, is he?" Gideon ran back, refilling the magazine of his rifle as he went. Abe Harum, Tom Lippincott, and the rest of them followed him.
They found the stout double gate of the corral standing wide open. The horses had been driven out by the Indians, who moved about, hidden in their midst. Many of the animals were already at liberty, racing in close company in the direction taken by the Arab mare.
So dense was the pressing throng of horses at the entrance, that it was impossible for Gideon to push his way through in an attempt to shut the gate. Neither could he fire upon the Indians, for fear of injuring the animals.
The Indians, indeed, were going out under the cover of the horses, and as each brave passed the open gate he seized his chosen pony, tied an end of his lariat about its muzzle, and mounting, bare-backed, rode off.
At length Isa Blagg succeeded in reaching the gate and closing it. He flung the heavy bars across and secured them in their staples. Only a score or so of the ponies remained in the corral. Over a hundred had been driven off in the confused stampede.
When Isa returned to his companion there was not a live Redskin to be seen. Even the wounded had been carried away.
"Seems as how we've gotten the worst of it, this time," Isa Blagg regretted. "I'll allow that Broken Feather laid his plans real well. You made a mistake, Gideon, in plantin' us all together beside the gate, as if that was the only possible point of attack. Say, we oughter been distributed in pickets, same as Buckskin Jack allus recommended."
"We ain't none of us wounded," reflected Gideon, wiping a streak of blood from his face. "Leastways, not wounded serious. An' that sniper hidden in the bush yonder must ha' picked off quite a dozen of the Injuns. I'm hopin' he'll show up, now, an' let us know who he is."
"Meantime," interposed Abe Harum, "what's goin' ter happen 'bout our ponies? You can't afford ter lose that Arab mare, Gid. A valuable beast, anyhow, let alone her being a present from Kiddie."
"I'm figurin' out just how I'm to get her back," nodded Gideon. "I shall have her back, though I have to organize a special raid into their reservation' and enlist the help of the military from Fort Laramie. Rube," he called, "just slip down to the trail. Thar's a squad of the boys from Red Buttes just arrived. Tell 'em to come right here. Tell 'em as I'm plannin' to foller up them Redskins and round up my ponies before they're corralled."
There were seventeen frontiersmen in the squad, all of them disappointed in being too late to help in defending Birkenshaw's ponies, but all of them eager to join in the pursuit of Broken Feather and his braves.
Gideon yielded the leadership to Nick Undrell, a man of blemished reputation, a drunkard, a desperate gambler, and a convicted thief, but a magnificent horseman, a capable scout, and the hero of many an Indian fight.
Nick knew where the Indian village was situated, and which way Broken Feather was most likely to take.
"They're plumb sure ter pass through One Tree Gulch," he declared. "We c'n overtake them in the defile, goin' by way of Poison Spider Creek and the old Buffalo Trail, droppin' on 'em when they least expect us."
They saw no sign of the Indians for several miles; not even on the wide expanse of Laramie Plain. Here, however, Nick Undrell pointed to the dusty ground where the track of a horse crossed his path obliquely.
"See that, Mr. Birkenshaw?" he said, glancing along the distinct line of hoof marks. "That rider, whoever he is, wasn't dawdlin' none. Looks as if ho was makin' fer the far side of White Bull Ridge, which ain't a thousand miles from Broken Feather's village. Anybody you know? Ridin' a big horse, he is, shod by a town blacksmith. Might have started from the neighbourhood of your camp just about the time you stopped shootin'."
"Don't know nothin' about him," returned Gideon. "He ain't one of our lot, anyhow. Push along, Nick. I'm frettin' considerable about my Arab mare. Wouldn't have exchanged her fer any hoss as ever chewed grass."
"No, and I'm figurin' as Broken Feather won't be a whole lot eager to part with her, now he's gotten a cinch on her," rejoined Nick.
"Gid!" Abe Harum called from behind, "thar's dust risin' from the mouth of One Tree Gulch. If we puts on a hustle we shall drop on 'em 'fore they gets out on the open prairie."
They spurred their ponies to the gallop. They raced at top speed into the gulch, caring nothing for the clatter of hoofs, knowing that there could be no escape for the mounted Redskins up the steep hillsides. Midway along the defile, where it widened beyond a projecting spur of cliff, they saw the Indians driving the stolen herd of horses before them, urging them with yells and stinging quirts.
Nick Undrell divided his forces into two companies, giving them instructions to ride forward, one on either flank of the enemy, with the endeavour to head them off. Nick himself, with Abe Harum, was to remain in the rear, as support, while Isa Blagg and Gideon Birkenshaw were, if possible, to work their way round to the captured ponies and cut them off from the Indians, to be rounded-up after the expected fight.
Gideon so far succeeded in his object as to get in advance of the Redskin rearguard. By riding obliquely down the slope towards them, he might now hope to place himself between them and his ponies.
He spurred his horse, holding his revolver ready for instant use. But as he rode forward he caught sight of Broken Feather, mounted on the Arab mare, and impulsively he resolved to recapture Sultana at all risks. He drew rein. On the instant his obedient pony swerved.
As it did so, Gideon, glancing forward to the farther mouth of the gulch, saw a strange horseman approaching at a full gallop. He came like a wild gust of wind, leaning over in his seat and slinging his supple lariat above his flapping hat as he came. He wore the usual red shirt and blue scarf of the frontiersman, and he was mounted on a splendid bay horse, that was less like a prairie mustang than a well-trained cavalry charger.
Watching him in astonishment, Gideon saw that he had singled out the Indian chief, and was riding down upon him. He saw the lariat shoot out from the uplifted hand like a wriggling snake. The wide loop opened like a wheel, grew suddenly tense and smaller. Then it dropped clean over Broken Feather's head and shoulders, and in an instant the chief's two arms were pinioned to his sides.
THE UNIFORM OF THE PLAINS
It was some five hours later when Gideon Birkenshaw, Abe Harum, and Isa Blagg returned to the camp at Sweetwater Bridge. After a sharp fight in the gulch, they had recovered the larger number of their stolen ponies, and the rest of their company were still out, rounding-up others abandoned by their captors.
Greatly to Gideon's annoyance, his precious Arab mare had not yet been restored to him, and he had no knowledge of what had happened to the Indian chief.
Leaving Abe and Isa to corral the horses, Gideon dismounted at the side of the trail and walked slowly and wearily up the woodland path to his homestead.
Abreast of the well in front of the veranda he came to an abrupt halt, staring with amazed eyes at a great bay horse that was tethered to the tie post. Young Rube had removed the saddle and was in the act of spreading a blanket over the animal's perspiring body.
"Where in thunder did that hoss come from?" Gideon demanded to know.
"A real beauty, ain't he?" said Rube. "A thoroughbred, sure. An' look at the saddle and bridle. Ain't they just wonderful?"
"It's the identical hoss that I seen in One Tree Gulch only a few hours ago," declared Gideon. "Thar's no mistakin' it."
"It's the same as I seen racin' down the trail just before the Indians came along," added Rube.
"But who brought it? Who rid it?" Gideon asked. "Who does it belong to?"
"Dunno," Rube answered, shaking his head in perplexity. "Can't make him out nohow. Never seen him before. He's just a stranger. A stranger, an' yet he seems ter know his way 'bout this yer camp most as well as I do meself. He's in the house right now, jawin' with mother. Seems he kinder knows her."
"Knows her? Knows your mother? Knows Mee-Mee? I'm amazed! Your mother ain't bin outer this yer camp, not for years an' years. How c'n any stranger know her? What's the man's name? Where does he come from?"
"Dunno, Boss; dunno." Rube shrugged his shoulders. "Guess th' best way fer you ter straighten out all them things is to step indoors an' 'vestigate."
Gideon straightened the wide rim of his hat, arranged his scarf, and tightened his belt. The horse's furnishings told him that the stranger was not a low-down prairie loafer. He strode to the veranda steps, and, crossing to the open door, looked furtively within the living-room.
Mee-Mee, Rube's Redskin mother, stood with her back to the cooking-stove, stirring a cup of steaming coffee as she smiled at the stranger, talking to him in the Pawnee tongue, which Gideon did not understand. The stranger sat on the edge of the table, facing her, boyishly swinging a loose leg. He took the proffered cup of coffee and rested it beside him on the table, almost touching his revolver.
Gideon noticed that the ivory butt of the revolver, projecting from its holster, was silver-mounted. He also noticed that the man's leather belt was new and brightly polished, that his red shirt was of very fine flannel, and his spotted blue scarf of fine soft silk. His short hair was black, and his complexion as dark as that of an Italian.
The stranger did not look round until Gideon was close up to him. Then he stood up from the table and turned.
"Well, Gid, old man," he said very quietly, "d'ye know me?"
Gideon drew back, staring into the stranger's handsome, clean-shaven face, trying to recognize it. His visitor smiled, showing his even white teeth. Then, dropping his hat on the floor, Gideon leapt forward with eager, outstretched hands.
"Kiddie!" he cried. "Kiddie!—you—back here! Here to th' old shack?"
Kiddie took the old man's head tenderly between his hands, drew it to him, and kissed the straggling grey hairs.
"Yes, Gid," he said. "It's me, sure; come back to the old shack and the old man—back like a wild coyote to its lair among the rocks."
"And it was you, then, as came gallopin' along the trail this mornin', time the Injuns crept up to the corral? It was you as fired all them shots from behind the willows? You that raced like mad inter One Tree Gulch an' dropped your lariat over Broken Feather? Oh, Kiddie, Kiddie, I might ha' known—I might ha' known. But I never thought, never guessed it c'd be you. My! how you've growed! how you've—improved! And you ain't wearin' your earl's coronet, nor your robe trimmed round with ermine skins? You've come just like one of ourselves."
"Yes," Kiddie laughed—"in the uniform of the plains, like a simple frontier scout, leaving all the useless fashionable fixings behind me in England."
"Didn't yer like it, then?" Gideon questioned. "Didn't yer cotton to it, bein' a English nobleman with a pile o' dollars an' vast estates? Didn't yer find that seat in the House of Lords altogether comfortable?"
Kiddie sipped at the cup of coffee.
"I never even entered the House of Lords," he explained. "It wasn't really necessary. As to my being an English nobleman—well, that was all right; nobody ever objected; everybody was tremendously kind and considerate. But somehow I didn't exactly cotton to it, Gid. I was never at my ease, except when out riding, or shooting, or yachting. You see, the blood of the wilds is in my veins. I didn't like the whirl and gaiety and excitement of London. It seemed somehow hollow and insincere. I yearned for the freedom and simplicity of life on the prairies; couldn't put myself on a level with men who had been to public schools and universities, or talk with elegant ladies who were maybe criticizing the way I ate and spoke and moved. I even felt myself inferior to my own valet, who addressed me as 'your lordship' while teaching me the proper way to wear my fine clothes."
"Ah!" sighed Gideon. "In them circumstances nat'rally you occasion'lly thought of the old trail here, an' of me an' the boys, eh?"
"Always," Kiddie answered him. "Always in the social rush of London I heard the dear old tune of the Sweetwater River, the musical murmur of the pine trees, and all the familiar voices of the wilds, and they for ever called to me, 'Kiddie, Kiddie, come back, come back! This is the life for you, not that.' And so, old man, I've come back."
"And haven't delayed none in droppin' inter your old ways," added Gideon. "Hadn't been back in camp ten minutes 'fore you was at your old graft of shootin' law-breakin' Injuns."
"Did you recover your ponies?" Kiddie asked.
"Some," Gideon nodded. "But not the Arab mare—the best of the bunch. She's took."
"Oh, but the Arab is all right," smiled Kiddie. "You'll find her in the old stable back of the timber stack."
"Eh? You captured her? Then what about Broken Feather—the Injun that rode her? Did he give you the slip, or——?"
"Oh, he's captured, too," said Kiddie. "I towed him along in the loop of my lariat, and fixed him up in one of your lean-to sheds. He's in need of some sticking plaster for a cut on his leg. If you'll come along, we'll go and attend to him, while Mee-Mee gets ready the breakfast."
They went out to the shed. Kiddie loosened the padlock, flung open the door and looked within. The place was empty. Broken Feather had escaped.
A DANGEROUS ENEMY
Broken Feather had certainly made his escape. There could be no doubting it. With a quick glance Kiddie searched within the empty shed; he even exercised his sense of smell, sniffing inquiringly.
"Seems he's bunked," he said, turning round to Gideon. "I'm puzzled to know just how he managed it. The door was securely padlocked on the outside. There's no other exit." He looked at the ground for new tracks of the Indian's moccasined feet, but saw no sign.
"That's kind o' queer," reflected Gideon. "It's a strong shed. You helped ter build it yourself, years ago, as a storehouse for pelts and ammunition. Thar's no chimney, no winder; only the door. You may well ask how did he quit? Say"—the old man clutched Kiddie's arm in consternation—"d'you reckon he's vamoosed on th' Arab mare?"
Kiddie shook his head decisively.
"That's not possible," he averred. "For one thing, he could hardly have mounted her with that bullet wound in his leg. For another thing, the mare's still safe in the stable where I locked her. I heard her snorting as we passed, a minute ago. Here's the key, if you like to go and have a look at her."
"Then you figure he's gone away on foot?" pursued Gideon, ignoring the proffered key. "In that case he sure ain't very far off. We c'n foller on his tracks. Don't you worry 'bout the way he escaped."
"That is just what I am worrying about," returned Kiddie. "It's a problem that interests me a heap. He didn't go by the door, that's plumb certain. He didn't turn himself into air and escape through the cracks."
"Hold hard!" exclaimed Gideon. "I was forgettin'. The shed was strong as a prison when you an' me built it. But it ain't just the same as 'fore you quitted fer Europe. Young Rube Carter got mussin' around, usin' it as a kennel fer his bear cub. Amazin' fond of animals, that boy is; same as you was yourself at his age, Kiddie. Say, you didn't happen ter let out a bear cub, time you shoved Broken Feather inside, did yer?"
"No," Kiddie chuckled. "There was no bear there, only the rancid stink of one. Nearly knocked me down. Don't wonder at Broken Feather wanting to quit."
"Then I guess Rube let th' beast out early this mornin', while we was at the gulch."
Gideon led the way beyond the corner of the shed and pointed to a well-concealed trap-door in the lower timbers.
"Thar y'are," he went on. "That's sure the way he got out. Clear as print, ain't it?"
"Yes," Kiddie nodded, contemplating the moist ground, which the sun had not yet reached. "There are his footprints, covering the boy's smaller ones. Rube's footmarks were already crushed by the bear's pads, and he didn't turn back to bolt the door as the Indian did. Quite a baby cub it seems. But it will soon need a heavier chain than the one it has now."
"Eh? How d'you know Rube led it out by a chain an' not a rope?"
Kiddie glanced downward.
"Bear trod on it and left an impression," he indicated, as he strode to the trap-door. "The links are thin and small, hardly strong enough to hold in a collie dog, let alone a growing young grizzly."
"Grizzly?" repeated Gideon. "But you've not seen th' critter. Might be a brown bear, or a cinnamon."
"Never knew any but grizzlies to breed about here," explained Kiddie, moving the loose door along its grooves. "And I presume Rube caught it himself. Yes," he continued, "this is where the fellow got out. What perplexes me, however, is why Rube thought it necessary to have a second door at all."
"Padlock was too high for him to reach," returned Gideon, "an' Rube didn't notion t' have truck with keyholes, winter nights, when he c'd shove the cub's grub in by a trap he c'd slide open in the dark."
"Well, there's no great harm done, anyway," smiled Kiddie. "Your mare and the corral ponies are safe; none of your men are wounded. As for Broken Feather—we couldn't have kept him a prisoner, you know. We have no warrant for his arrest."
"Isa Blagg, the sheriff, is here, right now," Gideon told him. "Isa c'd have arrested him, legal, I guess."
"Even so," resumed Kiddie, "you would soon have had another raid. The Redskins would have been here like a shot to liberate their chief and to retaliate on you for having foiled them in One Tree Gulch."
"Sure," acknowledged the Old Man, leading the way to the stable. "An' even as matters stand, I'm figurin' as Broken Feather 'll notion ter have revenge on you fer puttin' the lasso on him. He'll try ter git level with you somehow, Kiddie, sure's a steel trap. You've made him your enemy—a dangerous enemy—an' he ain't no tenderfoot in villainy. He's cunnin' as a coyote, he's unscrup'lous, an' he's clever. Real clever, he is."
Kiddie's glance was roving over the land in search of the fugitive. He was not seriously concerned at the disappearance of the Indian chief; nevertheless, his pride was hurt and he did not conceal his annoyance that his prisoner had escaped so easily.
"Yes," he responded to the Old Man's remarks. "I'd already discovered that he's not an ordinary lazy and small-minded Redskin. There's something unusual about him which I don't quite understand. He's a chief, wearing a chief's war bonnet, with heaps of feathers in it to show the great things he has done; yet he's hardly more than a boy. He's a full-blooded Sioux, yet he has many of the ways and habits of the white man. When I slowed down on Laramie Plain and went back to slacken the lariat about his arms, I spoke to him in his own tongue. He answered in clean-cut English. 'Thank you, stranger,' he said, looking me full in the face as if summing me up. 'That is very much better. And, since you are so considerate, perhaps you will allow me to smoke a cigarette.' Naturally I decided that he was going to do without that smoke. His six-shooter, whether loaded or empty, was too close for me to let him have his hands free to draw it."
"Not but what you'd have been in front of him with your own," wisely commented Gid. "He's alert, he's slick; but not the same as you are, Kiddie."
"You appear to have had experience of him, Gid. Has he molested you before this morning?"
"Not exactly." The stable door was now open and Gideon was patting his restored Arab. "Not exactly. I've heard about him. He's the son of your old-time enemy, Eye-of-the-Moon. He's a man of tremendous ambition. Thinks a heap of hisself. Notions ter become the boss war chief of the hull Sioux nation, same as Sitting Bull. Ever since his earliest youth he's held that ambition in front of him, devotin' himself to attainin' it; aimin' at excellin' in horsemanship, in military exercises, and in the knowledge of strategy. 'Fore he'd gotten outer his childhood, he'd reco'nized that the white man has many advantages over the red, an' he'd made up his mind t' acquire intimate knowledge of the ways of civilization, addin' a college eddication to the trainin' of a nat'rally sly an' crafty Injun. I'm told he attended one of the big American universities. Guess that's how he come ter speak what you calls clean-cut English. But Isa Blagg c'n tell you a heap more about Broken Feather 'n I can. Here's Isa comin' along, with Abe. They'll be glad ter see you."
While Abe and Isa were heartily welcoming the unexpected return of Kiddie, and plying him with a multitude of questions, young Rube Carter watched them from the doorway of the bunk house.
Rube was painfully bashful of this newly-arrived stranger, whom he regarded merely as a traveller passing along the Salt Lake Trail. Yet he was curiously fascinated by the man who owned such a beautiful horse and who knew his way so unerringly about Birkenshaw's camp.
The more he watched, the more the boy was perplexed.
By all appearances the stranger was a person of very great importance; and yet there were Gideon, Mr. Blagg, and Abe Harum talking and laughing with him familiarly, as if he were their intimate friend and they his equals!
Presently all four of them glanced towards the doorway where the boy was standing. Abe Harum left the little group and strode forward in advance.
"Rube," he called, "you gotter come along right now an' be interdooced ter Lord St. Olave. He's just pinin' ter know you."
"Lord Saint Olave?" repeated Rube. "Gee! that's a mouthful! A lord, is he? I was guessin' he couldn't be no real frontier scout, spite of his outfit. Say, what'm I ter call him? Have I gotter say 'your highness,' or 'your ex'lency,' or what?"
"No, nothin' ceremonious," Abe assured him. "You drop in a 'sir' now an' again, like; an' you takes off your hat when he puts out his hand. Come along!"
He drew the boy forward. Kiddie advanced. Rube took off his hat and dropped it.
"This is Rube," said Abe, and to the boy he added: "This is the Right Hon'rable the Earl of St. Olave—better known along this yer trail as Kiddie—Kiddie of Birkenshaw's—Kiddie of the Camp."
Rube drew back in astonishment.
"Kiddie?" he cried. "Oh, that's diff'rent; that's a whole lot diff'rent. Why didn't yer put me wise at first? I know th' name of Kiddie. Ought to. I've heard it often 'nough. Real proud ter see you, sir," he added, taking Kiddie's outstretched hand.
"What d'you know 'bout him, boy?" inquired Isa Blagg.
"Heaps, sheriff," returned Rube. "Best horseman on all the Salt Lake Trail, best rifle shot, best swimmer an' trapper—best all round scout this side the Rocky Mountains; never told a lie, never said a bad word, never done anythin' he was ashamed of."
Kiddie laughed outright.
"Who's been feeding you up with all that silly rot, Rube?" he asked. "If that's the reputation you judge me by I shall have a jolly hard task to live up to it."
"'Tain't a whole lot wide o' the truth, for all that, Kiddie," interposed the Boss. "But never heed it fer the present. Come right in an' have suthin' ter eat. We're all hungry."
Kiddie walked with young Rube, with a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"No, you mustn't think I'm all that, Rube," he said. "I've made many a false step, fallen into many a mistake I ought to have avoided. Only this morning, you know, I made the mistake of shoving Broken Feather into the lean-to without looking if there was a loophole for his escape."
"My fault as much as yours, sir," said Rube. "I oughter ha' fastened the trap-door."
"Well, anyhow," resumed Kiddie, "you and I are going to be good friends. You see, we have a good deal in common. You've spent your boyhood in this camp, so did I mine. Your father was an English gentleman, so was mine. Your mother is a Pawnee Indian, so was mine."
"It's a proud day fer me, sir, your comin' back here, an' me walkin' alongside o' you," faltered Rube. "An' if you're shapin' ter stay here for a while, I shall learn a lot. You c'n teach me heaps about trappin' the wild critters, an' livin' in the woods, an' scoutin'; about horses, too, an' buffaloes an' Injuns."
He paused, surprised at the length of his speech.
"Yes," nodded Kiddie. "We'll go on the trail together. We'll go trapping and fishing and shooting. You shall be my boy scout."
"But thar's one thing as I'm hankerin' to learn more'n all else, sir," Rube went on boldly. "You was sayin' right now as my father was a English gentleman. Well, 'tain't possible fer me to be that, seein' as I was born here in th' United States; but I guess thar's such a thing as a 'Merican gentleman, an' maybe you'd teach me how ter be one o' them."
Kiddie was silent for some moments as they crossed the clearing in front of the cabin. But at length he said—
"Rather a tall order, Rube, my lad. And it's not just like teaching you to master a bucking broncho or to trap beaver. It's a longer process. But at least it's an experiment worth attempting, and we'll try it together."
"That big bay pony of yours don't feel anyways at home in the stall where I've put him," said Rube, as they went up the veranda steps. "I've given him a drink an' a feed, an' I've put his saddle an' bridle in the best bedroom, where they won't take no harm. I'm sorry t' say, sir, as thar's a scratch of a bullet on the saddle. Leather's some torn; but I reckon mother c'n fix it up; same's she done my moccasins when I tore 'em in the bush, trackin' a lynx."
"The saddle is of no consequence if Regent is all right," Kiddie assured him. "Regent is the name of the bay. He's an English hunter; doesn't know anything about the work of a prairie pony."
Rube's mother had done her best to provide a good meal for the hungry men. They lingered at the table, all listening in wonder to what Kiddie told them of England and of the cities of Europe and Asia. He had been for a journey round the world, and had much to tell of his travels in foreign lands. Gradually as he talked, he dropped the precise English manner of speech and reverted to the homely phrases and drawling intonation of the West. And so they ceased to think of him as Lord St. Olave, regarding him without restraint as their familiar and unaltered Kiddie.
Towards tea time he took out his watch. Gideon Birkenshaw noticed that it was a very ordinary one, with a gun metal case, held by a leather thong.
"H'm!" the Old Man muttered. "I was expectin', Kiddie, as you'd be wearin' a real gold timepiece with a heavy gold chain. But that article you're handlin' ain't wuth more'n my own, as I've wore for twenty year. An' you ain't got no di'mond rings on yer fingers. But what d'ye want ter look at the time for, anyhow?"
"I'm going to ride back as far as Fort Laramie," Kiddie answered. "My outfit will be coming along the trail in a day or two, and I'm warned that it would be well to get a squad of cowboys together to guard it across the plain."
"Anythin' valu'ble as you're afraid of gettin' stole?" asked Isa Blagg. "Couldn't it be brought along safe in one o' Gid's farm carts?"
"Not quite," he answered. "There's too much of it. There's three mule wagons full, and there's a bunch of English horses. There's new sporting rifles and beaver traps, there's trunks full of clothing and personal fixings, material for building and furnishing a new cabin, to say nothing of money and other valuable property. But it's the horses I'm anxious about, Isa. If Laramie Plain is what it used to be, there's Indians and road agents hanging around who wouldn't think twice about helping themselves if the outfit isn't well protected."
"Best be on the safe side, anyhow," cautioned Gideon.
"And so," continued Kiddie, "I'm going to see Nick Undrell and get him to undertake the job."
"What?" cried Isa Blagg. "Nick Undrell? Gee! The last man along the hull trail ter trust with a job like that."
"Why, what's the matter with Nick?" Kiddie asked in surprise. "He used to be a steady, honest man, and an excellent scout—a friend of Buckskin Jack's, and that's good enough for me."
"Ah," interposed Abe Harum. "But Nick's a altered man since them days. He's what y'might call degenerated; a bit too fonder fire-water an' playin' poker. Ain't above takin' a hand in the road agency business, either."
"Meaning that he's a drunkard, a gambler, and a highwayman," nodded Kiddie. "Well, I'll go along and see him, anyhow."
"No need," said Abe. "He's here in this yer camp, right now, with the boys that hev just rounded up an' corralled Gid's stolen ponies; only he ain't figurin' ter meet you as knowed him only as a honest man. He ain't a whole lot proud of hisself, these times, ain't Nick Undrell."
Kiddie reached for his hat, strode across the veranda, and turned towards the corral. He looked exceedingly tall and handsome as he went out.
"It's all right," he announced on his return, a quarter of an hour later. "Nick's going to muster a gang of his pals, and they'll act as armed escort. It seems that the word of the coming of my outfit has already been passed along the trail, and that even the Indians have gotten wind of it."
"Kiddie," said Isa Blagg, "you're makin' a all-fired mistake. Nick Undrell has jus' canoodled you. That's about th' size of it. I knows Nick 's well as any one, an' I wouldn't trust him with a cent. Time after time in my capacity of sheriff of the Sweetwater district I've had him up before me—once fer stealin' a hoss, once fer robbin' the mail, once fer shootin' a man in a gamblin' saloon. He's just a desperado, Kiddie, an' I wouldn't have no truck with him."
"Of course, I shall be there myself," Kiddie explained. "Young Rube and I will be there."
"Git!" exclaimed the sheriff. "What's one man agin a hull gang o' scoundrels? You'll sure come a cropper, Kiddie; take my word. As fer the boy, why, takin' him along o' you's only a added responsibility, a added danger."
Warnings such as these had very little effect upon Kiddie. Indeed, they only spurred him with a firmer resolve to the undertaking.
Three mornings later he started for Laramie, well armed, mounted on one of Birkenshaw's prairie ponies, and accompanied by Rube Carter.
Much to the boy's disappointment, he was very silent during the long ride. But his eyes and ears were constantly busy, and occasionally he pointed things out to Rube's notice—the flight of a covey of sagehens, the track of a herd of buffalo, the ashes of an old camp fire.
Once, after fording Red Pine Creek, Kiddie dropped a glove, apparently by accident, and dismounted to pick it up. Rube did not observe that, on remounting, his companion held a black feather between his fingers.
When they rode into Laramie, they found the cavalcade halted before Brierley's saloon, all ready to start. Nick Undrell rode up to Kiddie, respectfully touching the wide brim of his hat.
"All s'rene, sir," he announced. "I got a gang o' picked boys distributed among the baggage. Seen any signs as you come along'?"
"Only this." Kiddie held forth the feather he had found. "What d'ye make of it?"
"Um, a black crow's wing feather, I guess," said Nick. "I see it's a broken feather. Where'd you pick it up?"
"Alongside of Red Pine Creek," said Kiddie, "with a pebble atop ter keep it in place. Quill end pointed south-east—direction of White Bull Ridge."
"Any hoof prints around? Thar was rain last night."
"No; just the touch of a moccasined foot in the moist sand, edge of the grass."
"We'll start right now, then," Nick decided. "I've gotten all the bills and doc'ments. You'll sign 'em when the goods is duly delivered. You'll be ridin' in front, I guess? You'll take the boy along? Say, if you scents trouble ahead, jes' hustle him back ter make me wise. Savee?"
Kiddie rode well in advance of the leading wagon, with Rube at his side. He was now more than ever silent and watchful. Between Horse Shoe Bend and Hot Springs, where they were among the foothills and narrow valleys, his gaze was fixed steadily forward over his pony's restlessly twitching ears. He moved his rifle crosswise in front of him. Without averting his gaze, he said to the boy—
"Just drop back, Rube, and tell Nick ter close up the ranks."
Still riding forward at an easy pace, he gave no sign that he had seen anything unusual. The row of dark objects showing along the upper edge of a projecting rock might well have been mistaken for so many birds preening themselves in the sunlight, only that his keen eight had caught the movement of a pony's tail and the half-hidden plumes of an Indian's head-dress. He dropped the loop of his bridle reins over the pommel and slowly gripped his gun with a finger on the trigger.
Instantly, the Redskin's head was raised. Kiddie fired at it. There was a wild, barbaric yell, and from both sides of the ravine Indians dashed forth from their ambush, riding downward to the attack.
BROKEN FEATHER'S WAY
When he had fired that first shot, and while the Redskins were still riding out from their ambush to rally on the level trail and charge down in a compact body upon his outfit, Kiddie turned his pony and galloped back under a hail of arrows. Most of them fell short; very few flew past him, and only one touched him, doing no harm.
"That's right, Nick," he called, as he drew rein beside the leading mule wagon.
"There's a whole crowd of em' comin' out from behind the rock," cried Rube Carter, going up to him. "I'm goin' ter git 'neath this yer wagon an' fire at 'em through one o' th' wheels."
"You ain't goin' ter handle any gun," frowned Kiddie. "You're goin' ter hang back in the rear an' keep an eye on the hosses. Quit!"
Nick Undrell, following his instructions, had promptly brought the three wagons into position, extending them obliquely across the level trail, one to the rear of the other, so that each should have its broadside presented like a redoubt towards the oncoming enemy, the mule teams being swung round into cover on the sheltered side.
Kiddie's horses in the background were similarly protected from the line of fire, unless, indeed, the Indians should succeed in getting through on either flank, which was not at all probable.
Six picked marksmen were concealed under the canvas covers of each of the wagons, and every man from behind his particular loophole commanded a wide section of the valley and of the hillside.
The Indians, seeing that the outfit had come to a halt, as if in submission, delayed their advance while they closed into massed formation to sweep down upon their unresisting victims in one grand overwhelming rush. They could see only the three drivers, who had now jumped down to attend to their mules, and four riders, one of whom was a mere boy.
Clearly, they considered the prairie schooners and their precious contents already their own, as well as the horses bunched in the rear. They could not have divined that, apart from the guns carried by the horsemen, there were eighteen repeating rifles levelled against them from under the cover of three innocent-looking carts.
Kiddie dismounted, dropped his bridle rein over his pony's head, and took up a position behind the foot-board of the foremost wagon, from which he could look forward along the trail, with a rest for his elbows in levelling his gun. There was a neat little stack of cartridges in their clips within his easy reach.
"Don't reckon as I touched Broken Feather when I fired that first shot along there," he remarked to Nick Undrell, who was posted near him.
"That ain't Broken Feather hisself as you's looking at," said Nick, squinting along the barrel of his Winchester, "though I allows he's wearin' the chief's dinky head-dress. No, sir, that's Murm'rin' Water, the boss medicine man. You won't easily reco'nize Broken Feather by his body coverin'. You'll be a whole lot wiser'n I think you, if you kin single him out in that crowd. Hullo! Now for it!"
Nick pressed his trigger. The Redskins were charging.
"Let go, boys!" he cried, as a shower of arrows and ill-aimed bullets peppered against the off sides of the wagons and kicked up spurts of dust on the trail.
Simultaneously the hidden men in the three carts opened fire. There was a loud burst of rifle shots, and then a continuous stream, broken only at momentary intervals as the magazines were refilled and again refilled.
The Indians, taken wholly aback by this unexpected reception of point-blank fire, swerved in confusion. Many of them tumbled from their rearing, plunging, staggering ponies. Many of the ponies fell; many raced back riderless. There was a wild screech as the crowd stopped in their broken charge, unwilling to face the deadly barrier of bullets.
"Cease fire!" cried Kiddie, lowering his rifle. "Cease fire, Nick. We've checked 'em, sure. Don't you see? Order your men ter quit shootin'."
"Not yet," objected Nick, still using his gun. "We ain't finished yet, no more'n they. See the rooster in the fur cap—him ridin' the piebald mustang? He ain't done shootin' yet. He's figurin' ter pick you off. Bin at it all the time. Snakes! Why, it's Broken Feather hisself! Stand back! Leave him ter me, sir. Git back an' see ter them hosses—and the boy."
As he spoke Nick again pressed his trigger. Kiddie saw the mustang rear on its hind legs, pawing the air as it pivoted round, and then fall over with a heavy thud. But its rider leapt clear, flung himself flat behind his fallen pony, and continued to shoot.
"Jim's hit!" cried a voice from the wagon. "He's hit bad."
"Alf'll look after him," called Nick, thrusting a new clip of cartridges into his gun. "Th' rest o' you keep on shootin'. Keep a watch on the side slopes. Some of 'em's liable ter sneak past."
Some of the dismounted Indians now tried to work round to the flanks, crawling like snakes through the grass and taking shelter behind bush and boulder. But the sharp-eyed frontiersmen quickly detected them, and none got through.
Kiddie saw this new danger, however, and, taking Nick's advice, he leapt on his waiting pony and rode back to the rear, to assure himself that Rube and the horses were safe.
Rube was faithfully at his post, minding the horses and watching the back trail, but fretting sorely at being kept away from the excitement of the fighting.
"All right," nodded Kiddie, riding up to him. "Drive the horses back there, to the shelter of the ravine, where the stream comes down. Give them a drink. They'll be glad of it. And—stop there with them. I'll give you a sign when I want you to bring them along."
It seemed to Rube then that Kiddie wanted to get him out of the way, and he wondered at Kiddie's reasons for keeping him from participating in the battle.
Young though he was, and he was only fourteen, Rube considered himself quite capable of handling a gun and looking after himself. And he wasn't a coward. Why could he not be allowed even to look on from a safe shelter?
Kiddie's reasons, nevertheless, were good. He was thinking less of the boy, whom he implicitly trusted, than of his horses, and of a new peril which at this moment seemed to threaten the whole of his company.
Just as he had halted beside Rube he had turned his glance back along the narrow valley. Far off in the blue distance he had seen a thin film of dust rising; or was it smoke? He was not certain at first, but when Rube had gone he looked again in the same direction, and he said to himself in his old drawling Western way—
"'Tain't smoke. Guess it's just dust. An' it's travellin' this ways along the trail. But a cloud of dust same as that must ha' bin turned up by more'n one gallopin' pony. Dozens an' dozens, more like. Guess it's Injuns—a second detachment of Broken Feather's forces—rustlin' along with th' idea of nippin' us in 'tween two fires. A cute idea; but I don't notion that it's goin' ter come off. They're just a bit too late; didn't calculate on our comin' along so quick, I guess."
The fighting had slackened considerably when Kiddie returned to his loophole at the front of the leading wagon. Nick Undrell was still there. He was rigidly looking along the sights of his rifle, hesitating to fire.
"You're aimin' at a dead pony, Nick," Kiddie pointed out.
"I ain't doin' nothin' so fullish," returned Nick. "It's the skunk lyin' doggo behind it that I'm interested in. Broken Feather's thar, sure; and he ain't dead; he ain't even wounded. He's 'bout as much alive an' alert 's ever he was in his nat'ral. But his ammunition's all spent, an' he's jus' waitin' his chance ter quit. He knows I've got th' bead on him. Soon's I shift my gun, he'll do a vamoose, slick, an' his braves along of him."
"Then shift your gun," commanded Kiddie. "Quit shootin' an let's git outer this. Thar's a reinforcement of Injuns comin' down along the trail."
"Eh?" Nick quietly rested his gun on the footboard and drew stealthily back from it. "You watch him, then. When he's gone we'll make a move."
Kiddie watched, and witnessed a curious happening which gave him a vivid insight into the character of the young Sioux chief.
Within a minute after Nick had stepped back out of sight Broken Feather crawled swiftly out from the protecting barrier of the dead mustang and took cover behind a boulder.
Quite near to the same boulder a wounded Indian was vainly trying to mount his pony. The pony was restive and evidently frightened. The Indian, failing to mount, took hold of the pony's long, trailing halter and allowed the animal to drag him away.
Just at this point Broken Feather darted out from behind the boulder, making straight for the pony and the wounded brave.
Kiddie, still watching, naturally supposed that the chief was about to help the wounded man to mount, as any civilized soldier would have done. But this was not Broken Feather's way. Seizing the bight of the halter, he snatched it from the other's grip, while at the same time he struck the wounded Indian a fierce blow with his closed fist, full in the face, which sent him reeling to the ground.
Without a backward glance of pity or excuse, Broken Feather himself leapt to the pony's back, urged the animal to a gallop, and sped off, rallying his remaining warriors to a precipitate retreat.
"Coward and cur!" murmured Kiddie between his teeth. And calling a hurried command to Nick Undrell, he strode out to give help to the wounded Indian, carrying him on his shoulder to one of the wagons.
The Indian's nose was broken. Kiddie fixed it into shape with sticking plaster. He also extracted a bullet from the man's back and bandaged the wound.
"We'll leave him lyin' here on the trail," he decided. "His pards 'll look after him and the others that are wounded, when they come along. They'll soon know what's happened when they scout around. Guess they'll not be eager t' follow us up."
"Well, this outfit o' yourn hasn't suffered anyways serious," observed Nick Undrell, when all was ready for a new start. "I've had a look round, an', barrin' a few splinters took off the wagons, an' some holes pierced in the canvas covers, we've not taken a whole lot of harm. Jim Thurston here's th' only one as got badly hit. That broken bone in his arm 'll take a consid'rable time ter git well. It'll be weeks 'fore Jim kin ride again in the Pony Express."
Kiddie was giving a professional bandaging to Thurston's wound.
"You a rider in the Pony Express business, then, Jim?" he asked.
"Bin at it fer a couple of years," Jim answered. "That's what I'm worrying about. I'm figurin' as they'll fire me, slick, fer takin' on a job like this. 'Tain't in th' agreement that I sh'd go foolin' around after hostile Injuns in my off time. I shall be sacked, sure. An' me with a wife an' family, too."
"No need to worry, Jim," Kiddie assured the man. "You'll not get the sack, and your wife and family won't suffer any. You got hurt in my service, and I will see you through. As for the Pony Express ridin', I will even take on the job myself for a spell, until you're better. Does that comfort you any?"
Thurston shook his head and smiled.
"You couldn't do it," he said. "You, a English gentleman—a titled lord, I'm told. You couldn't do it. You gotter be some horseman 'fore you kin ride in the Pony Express. You gotter be brought up to it. 'Tain't no fancy amatoor job."
"Here, Jim, old pard," interposed Nick Undrell. "You'd best dry up. You dunno who you'se talkin' to, sure. His lordship rid in the Pony Express 'fore ever you shoved your toes in stirrups. He was the slickest Express rider along the whole trail. Thar wasn't a skilfuller horseman than Kiddie between Saint Joseph an' Sacramento. Couldn't do it, says you! Well, I should smile!"
"Kiddie, d'ye say? Kiddie? Gee! You never told me that! Course I knows the name o' Kiddie—same's I knows the name of the President of th' United States. Seems I bin makin' a fool o' myself, eh? Reckon it's up ter me t' apologize fer mistakin' him for a English lord; though some crooked-tongued skunk sure told me he was such. Kiddie, eh? Gee!"
"Say, Kiddie, was you plumb serious when you said you'd take Jim's turn in the Pony Express?" questioned Rube Carter, riding again at Kiddie's side.
"Sure," Kiddie smiled in answer. "I'm just hankerin' to be at the old job again, ridin' at top speed with the mail bags, same as I used ter do. Same as your father did. Your father lost his life in the business, you know. Was attacked by Injuns. And Eye-of-the-Moon—Broken Feather's father—went off with his scalp."
Rube was silent for a while.
"Didn't know 'bout the scalpin'," he said presently. "Didn't know as it were Eye-of-the-Moon as done it. Then, in that case, Broken Feather's father killed my father?"
"That's so. Guess you've got no occasion ter be anyways friendly with Broken Feather."
"Pity you allowed him t' escape," said Rube.
"Well, you see, Rube, it wouldn't have been gentlemanly to shoot at a man who was not armed," explained Kiddie, "and he was as good as unarmed when he had spent his last cartridge. You've got to be a gentleman, even when fighting a savage enemy. Yes," he went on, "I shall take a turn with the Express, if they'll let me; and I still have my licence. As for poor Jim Thurston, we will leave him at Lavender Ranch. Isa's sister, Martha Blagg, will look after him."
Kiddie of Birkenshaw's had always been well loved at Lavender, and he was warmly welcomed when his outfit halted at the gate. At his request Martha willingly undertook to nurse the wounded man until he should be well enough to return to his own home.
"My!" she exclaimed, at sight of the three heavily-loaded wagons. "My! Whatever are you goin' ter do with all that furniture? Goin' ter set up housekeepin' on your own account? Whatever have ye' gotten in all them Saratoga trunks?"
"All sorts of fixin's an' fancies," Kiddie told her. "Among other things, if you're hankerin' to know, thar's a heap of dress material that I brought all the way from London fer Martha Blagg. Likewise a dinky pair of shoes with silver buckles, and heels on 'em that'll make you inches taller'n you are now. I reckoned you'd rather have the cloth an' linen an' stuff than English hens or ducks an' sich farm truck, that wasn't just convenient ter bring along. I notioned ter bring you a couple of milch cows—pretty as antelopes, they was—but I couldn't manage 'em. Hosses is diff'rent. The brown mare with the white blaze up her face is fer Isa. Guess we may's well take her to the stable right now. He'll find her when he comes home. I'll send along the other fixings when I unpack."
He was in no great hurry to "unpack." When his outfit arrived at the camp, the main contents of the wagons were unloaded and stowed away under shelter, and the English horses were corralled. Only the materials for the building of his new cabin were left in the open at the edge of the trail.
These were the walls and partitions, doors, floors, and roof, already built in portable sections of stout American timber, needing merely to be erected and clamped in place on a substantial foundation.
He planned to erect the cabin on a long-chosen site apart from Gideon Birkenshaw's homestead, but near enough to be neighbourly.
The spot he had decided upon was a level plateau among the pine trees between the beaver pond and Grizzly Notch, where he had years ago killed his first bear. It was so close to the Sweetwater that in the mornings he could rise from his cot and dive from the brink of the cliff into the clear running creek.
There was some timber to be felled and the foundation to be dug and new paths to be made through the woodland glades, and it would take some weeks of hard work before the cabin could be occupied. But he had made all his plans and measurements in anticipation; nothing had been neglected.
Long before he had decided finally to return to the wilds—long ago, in the irksome social life of London—he had dreamt of this possible cabin hidden in the peaceful seclusion of the forest, where he could study the ways of the birds and beasts, where he could live the life of a lonely scout and trapper, hunting or fishing for his own food, cooking his own meals, doing everything for himself without the help of servants. And now his dream was coming true.
BLAZING THE TRAIL
The day after the arrival of his outfit was a Sunday, and he did no unnecessary work. But on the Sunday afternoon he saddled one of the prairie ponies and rode along the trail to Fort Laramie. Here he presented his licence to the agent of the Pony Express Company and asked to be engaged in the place of Jim Thurston, until Jim was able to resume his job.
Kiddie's name was prominent in the records, his reputation as an Express rider was not forgotten, and his request was readily granted.
"You'll start on Jim's western section five o'clock in the mornin'," the agent intimated. "Thar's a dispatch—a very important Gov'ment dispatch—comin' along. I'm givin' you the responsibility of carryin' it to Drifting Smoke Crossing, where you'll transfer the mails to Roger Picknoll. You'll find relay ponies waitin' as per usual at the stages along the trail. And, say, you gotter be some keerful."
"D'you mean more'n ordinary careful?" he asked. "Isn't an Express rider always careful?"
"You've hit it," nodded the agent. "I sure means more'n or'nary keerful. Not only because of the dispatch. Nobody excep' the Gov'ment keers a red cent 'bout that docyment. But thar's a gang o' road agents—robbers an' horse thieves—at work along thar. They're liable t' interfere with any rider, no matter who or what he may be, on the chance of findin' valu'bles about him. Attacked a innercent, peaceful traveller only last week, they did; robbed him, took his pony, an' left him lyin' gagged an' bound an' senseless."
"Any idea who they are?" Kiddie inquired. "What's their partic'lar way of workin'?"
"By all accounts they got a many ways," said the agent. "I dunno just which report ter believe. One says they've the habit of disguisin' theirselves as Red Injuns, another holds as they goes foolin' around as or'nary cowboys, but wearin' face masks; an' another as they travels in a faked-up conveyance that strangers might mistake for a stage coach. But all agree that they're just desp'rate chara'ters all round. As to who they are, well, I dunno no more'n you. All I knows is that one o' the wust of the hull gang's a man named Nick Undrell."
"Nick Undrell?" Kiddie repeated the name as if it were new to him. "Well, I guess Nick won't interfere with me any. Good evenin', boss. I shall be here on time. Don't worry."
He stabled his pony in the town, and, as the night was fine and it was not yet late, he strolled out on foot for a walk along the Little Laramie River. At a distance of about a mile he entered a pine wood, made his way among the trees, and at length halted in front of a cunningly hidden shanty. He stood listening and watching. He heard the rattle of dice. There was a screened light in the window, but it was hurriedly extinguished when he knocked.
After a long delay the door was cautiously opened by a man wearing a mask. A strong smell of tobacco smoke and spirits came from within.
"Nick Undrell is here," said Kiddie, looking into the muzzle of a revolver held close to his face. "I heard his voice. Put aside that gun and tell him to come to the door. Tell him it's Lord Saint Olave."
The masked man within the doorway scrutinized the unexpected and evidently unwelcome visitor, at whom he still held his menacing revolver.
"Tell him it's Lord Saint Olave," Kiddie repeated in a level, insistent voice.
At mention of this name the man slowly lowered his gun and drew back a step, opening the door a trifle wider.
"Lord Saint Olave?" he muttered in surprise. "Lord Saint Olave—here—at this time o' night! Wantin' ter see——" He removed the black cloth mask that had hidden his face—"Wantin' ter see me?"
"Yes, Nick. That's why I'm here," returned Kiddie. "I want to see you kind of private. You've no occasion t' be alarmed. I'm not in the vigilance service, you know. Thought I'd just saunter along and have a jaw with you, that's all."
"Come right in, sir," said Nick, now holding the door wide open. "I got a few friends here; but they was jus' quittin' when you knocked."
Kiddie followed him within the darkness. The light in the room was then turned up, and he saw four evil-looking men busily pulling off their masks, putting away their pistols, and sweeping their playing cards, dice-box, and a "pool" of coins and greenbacks from the table.
"The four o' you kin quit, soon's you likes," said Nick Undrell. "His lordship an' me we've got a private pow-wow on hand, an' we don't want no listeners mussin' around."
The men emptied their glasses, stood up, hitched their belts, and went slowly past him and out at the door.
Kiddie knew them by sight. They had all been of Nick's gang in the defence of the mule wagons. One still had a patch of sticking-plaster across his cheek which Kiddie himself had put there over an arrow wound. When they were gone outside he turned to Nick.
"Any partic'lar reason why you and your convivial guests should hide your countenances behind masks?" he inquired in a casual tone, glancing about with curious calculation.
Nick Undrell did not answer this very pertinent question, and his visitor did not press him, but resumed, still casually—
"Can't say as this is quite a palatial residence for an industrious man that's called successful. You used ter make good money at one time, Nick, when you worked along with Buckskin Jack; had a consid'rable bankin' account, too. This all you've got ter show for it?"
"Yep. All I possess in the world, barrin' my pony, is contained in this yer shanty."
"What you done with that profitable ranch you had, back of Devil's Gate?"
"Lost it," Nick answered, as if a range of a hundred fertile acres with its herd of horses were a trifling article that had dropped through an unsuspected hole in his pocket. "Lost it."
"Just so," nodded Kiddie. "Gambled it away, I guess; staked the whole property on the turn-up of a miserable queen of spades, and lost the lot."
"As a matter of fact," Nick smiled grimly, "it were th' ace of hearts as done me in. An' the skunk as won it offen me wasn't a white man, neither, but a greasy Injun. So now you know."
"Ah, Nick, you sure ain't the man you was in Buck's time; gamblin', drinkin', hidin' your guilty face behind a mask, afraid when a harmless visitor knocks at your door. What d'you suppose Buck would have thought of you? What d'you expect me myself to think?"
"Dunno," said Nick ashamedly. "Th' ain't many men along this yer trail like Buckskin Jack an' you, Kiddie. Thar's nobody ter lend a guidin' hand to a man that's anyways weak. If I'd had you or Buck ter blaze the trail for me I reckon I'd never have lost my way, same's I have done. Savvy?"
"You c'd git back to the right trail even yet if you'd only go straight," urged Kiddie.
Nick shrugged his broad shoulders.
"Say, what you got in the bag?" he inquired abruptly.
Kiddie had opened his haversack and taken from it a small canvas wallet, which he laid on the table in front of him. He also produced a very beautiful gold cigarette case.
"Have a smoke, Nick," he invited, opening the case and displaying a compact double row of very fine Turkish cigarettes with gold tips. "These are a special brand. I never smoke myself; just carry these ter give away. Take!"
Nick Undrell glanced at them and shook his head.
"Them's just toy smokes," he objected. "Gimme some sensible, strong pipe terbacco an' I'll thank you; but I got no use fer aristocratic playthings like them. What you got in th' bag?"
Kiddie afterwards had an important reason for remembering Nick Undrell's contempt for cigarettes. Slipping the gold case into his breast pocket, he now took up the canvas wallet and opened it to take out a substantial bundle of American bank notes.
"I've to pay you and your boys for the great help you gave me in guarding my outfit along the trail," he explained, speaking now in his character of Lord St. Olave. "I don't forget that you risked your lives and were in danger of losing them. I want to reward you all accordingly."
"No occasion ter hurry 'bout the payment," said Nick, assuming an air of indifference. "Next week'll be time enough." He glanced down at the bundle of greenbacks and gave a little gasp of envious surprise. "Say," he observed, "you got consid'rable confidence in folk's honesty to carry a heap o' dollars like that along o' you."
Kiddie met the man's cunningly covetous glance as he passed the whole bundle across to him.
"Guess that's considerably more'n you an' your gang of road-agents found on the harmless traveller you robbed on the trail last week and left gagged and bound," he said pointedly.
Nick clutched the notes and drew back. His hand went to his hip.
Kiddie seemed to have anticipated this movement, and he was quite ready for it.
"Keep your hand away from your gun," he said quietly. "I'm covering you with mine, and I'm quicker than you. Listen! You see, I know about that affair. I was hoping that you'd be able to tell me you'd no hand in it. But now I know by your behaviour that you're guilty, that you were the ringleader of the despicable gang. I'm not accusin' you. I repeat that I'm not in the vigilance service; I'm not a policeman. I may tell you, however, that I knew your evil reputation before I engaged you to take charge of my outfit. I trusted you, Nick, and you did not betray my trust. You acted straight—you and your men alike—and every cent of the amount I've just handed to you is well deserved and honestly earned."
"You trusted me—you trusted the lot of us—knowin' we was low-down roosters that wouldn't think twice of killin' a man for the sake of his goods? That wasn't just wise, Kiddie. We might ha' bin springin' a trap on you. Why, the traveller you referred to—him as were left senseless on the trail—hadn't more'n the value of ten dollars on him all told. He'd only a nickel watch, his knife, a pistol as wouldn't shoot, an' a broken-winded cayuse that was hardly worth taking away. And you gave us the chance to make off with the whole of your valu'ble outfit! It wasn't wise. It wasn't safe."
"Then you guessed it was of value?" Kiddie questioned.
"Value? Well, I didn't on'y guess; I knew. We'd gotten word of it days an' days 'fore it came along. So had the Redskins. But we didn't cotton to the Injuns gettin' in front of us, see? We didn't have th' ambition of seein' Broken Feather collar the boodle."
"Eh?" Kiddie looked across with level, penetrating eyes. "In front of you? Then you admit that you had plans of your own?"
Nick Undrell was filling his pipe, ramming the tobacco in with nervous vigour.
"Don't make too sure, Lord Saint Olave," he retorted calmly. "Speakin' fer myself, I were ready to guard your property with me life, for the sake of who you are—the son of Buckskin Jack. An' when you comes up, trustin' me right down to the dust, an' requestin' me ter make up a armed escort, well, I reckon I was plumb on the job, an' didn't look fer no extravagant reward like this." He indicated the bundle of bank notes.
"But there were other plans," insisted Kiddie. "You'd planned to rob me on your own account. Don't deny it. Be candid. I'm wantin' to understand your position and your character."
Nick stared at him, but could not bear for long the searching expression in Kiddie's clear eyes. He lowered his own.
"Thar's no bluffing a player like you, Kiddie," he said. "You've called my hand. I gotter show up. You's correct. Thar was sure another plan. But we wasn't figurin' t' attack you on the trail, same as th' Injuns did—an' failed. We wasn't figurin' ter do no shootin'. Even allowin' as we'd attacked the wagons an' killed the drivers an' young Rube an'—an' you, it wouldn't ha' bin easy fer us t' carry away the goods. We couldn't have unloaded all them Saratoga trunks an' all that household furniture on the open prairie without bein' dropped on. Your hosses, too, we couldn't ha' hidden 'em. We couldn't alter their coats or their shape or action. They'd sure been observed an' admired all along the back trail from Leavenworth to Laramie. Everybody would ha' known 'em. No, it wasn't good enough."
"And so," rejoined Kiddie with a smile, "you decided to make a virtue of necessity, eh?"
Nick had lighted his pipe, and he took several thoughtful puffs at it before he answered.
"We decided ter delay operations. D'ye savee?"
"Yes, I see," nodded Kiddie. "You decided to wait until I had done the unpacking for you—until I'd got the valuables nice and handy for the robbery in the lonesome cabin that I'm building for myself in the woods."
"That's about the size of it," acknowledged Nick. "An' now you're warned."
"Forewarned and forearmed," returned Kiddie. "I shall be prepared, you may be sure. And you can expect a hot reception. A very hot reception, indeed."
Nick strode up to him, and tapped him on the shoulder with the wet stem of his pipe.
"Look 'ee here, Lord Saint Olave," he said steadily; "you ain't read my c'ara'ter true; not yet. You got a lot to learn 'fore you knows me proper. I ain't the low-down cur as you takes me for—not by a long chalk. I ain't beyond gettin' back on the right trail, if yer only gives me time. Your comin' back here to the wilds has made a kinder diff'rence t' me—a heap of diff'rence. D'ye savee?"
"I'm glad to hear it, Nick, my boy," said Kiddie. "And I quite understand. You mean that because I'm back here to blaze a trail for you, you'll give up gambling, you'll give up hard drinking, and you'll never again molest harmless travellers or do thieving of any sort. Do you promise all this, Nick? Eh? Straight, now, do you promise it? I know you'll keep your word, once you give it. You're a desperado, but I don't think you would break your word."
Nick Undrell pulled himself together.
"It's a steep proposition," he murmured. "But I guess I ain't no coward. Yes, Kiddie," he answered resolutely. "I promise; I promise faithful. You're blazin' the trail for me, an' I'm shapin' ter foller it true."
JIM THURSTON'S SUBSTITUTE
At half-past four on the following morning, Kiddie stood alone on the trail with his saddled pony, waiting in the darkness outside the depot of the Express in Fort Laramie, and listening for the thumping sound of hoofs which should tell him that the westward bound mail was approaching.
He was earlier than it was necessary he should be, but he was aware from long past experience that when there was an especially important dispatch among the mails, the riders taking up their successive relays tried to gain a few minutes on their time.
And this was what now happened, for he had been waiting less than a quarter of an hour when he heard the expected sound from afar. Shortly afterwards the incoming rider dismounted at his side, breathing heavily after a ride of two hundred and forty miles.
"You've saved seventeen minutes on schedule time, pardner," Kiddie told him. "Guess I shall improve on that, if my ponies are all up to the mark an' ready at their stations."
He seized the two satchels, transferred them to his own saddle, mounted, and with a wave of the hand started off to the westward.
Not a moment had been wasted in making the change, and his trained pony broke at once into a full gallop which would be continued while the trail was level until the next station was reached, some thirty miles away, where a fresh pony would be awaiting him.
His first relay station was at Hot Springs, and it took him less than a minute to change mounts. He rode eight different ponies on this trip, and each of them satisfied him. Their pace depended upon the nature of the ground.
Where the trail was good, as across Laramie Plain, and could be taken at the gallop, the speed was something like twenty-five miles an hour, but where the way was rugged, as among the Porcupine Mountains, fifteen, or even ten miles in an hour was considered good going.
When Kiddie reached the station at Sweetwater Bridge he had gained by six minutes. Gideon Birkenshaw had come down from the homestead to greet him, and the fresh pony was held by young Rube Carter. Kiddie's Highland deerhound, Sheila, was also on the trail. As he dismounted, she raised herself on her hind feet and put her paws on his shoulders to lick his chin.
"Down, Sheila, down!" commanded Kiddie, drawing away from her. "I'm on duty. I've not come home to you."
Sheila walked majestically apart from him.
"Amazin' wise, that animal is," said Gideon, taking the bridle of the tired pony, and watching Kiddie leap to the saddle of the fresh one. "Built same's a racehorse, she is. Them long legs of hers, they'd cover a heap o' ground, eh? What kinder work did she do in her own country, Kiddie? Huntin'?"
"Yes, deer hunting," Kiddie answered. "She could race any stag—outdistance any horse. Has a pedigree as long's your arm, Gid. She's quite an aristocrat."
"Splendidest dog I ever see in my life," commented Rube, patting the hound's shaggy head. He seized her collar and held her in a firm grip while Kiddie started. She strained against him as her master went farther and farther away.
Rider and pony were quickly out of sight in a fold of the trail, but again they appeared on the farther rise. Sheila pulled harder now, but Rube dug his heels in the ground, and dragged her back.
"No, you ain't goin' ter foller him," he protested.
But with a sudden strong wrench the hound broke away, and bounded off along the trail, sending Rube flying backward into the bushes. Rube scrambled to his feet.
"Look! look, Boss!" he cried, excitedly. "Gee! did y'ever see a critter run like that? My! jus' look! Kiddie may well say she c'd outdistance any hoss. D'you reckon a railroad train c'd go faster'n that, Gideon!"
"Dunno," said Gideon, watching the animal racing at full stretch through a cloud of dust. "I ain't just certain 'bout that railroad train; but I sure never seen a critter go along quicker'n that hound's goin' now. Why, she'll overtake Kiddie inside of half an hour, for all his long start of her!"
Kiddie, indeed, had not gone half a dozen miles before the deerhound was galloping at his pony's heels. The pony's ears were twitching nervously, and there was a change in the measure of its headlong stride. Kiddie felt instinctively that he was being closely followed, yet there were no hungry wolves about at this time of year.
An impatient yelping bark reached him. He glanced round over his shoulder. The dog soon came level with him.
"Go back—back, Sheila!" he called.
But Sheila only slackened her pace, and dropped behind, where he could neither see nor hear her.
At a bend in the trail, where it entered a deep gully, overshadowed by trees, Kiddie looked round to assure himself that the hound had obeyed him. To his surprise he saw her still following him closely. He drew rein, dropping from a swift gallop to an easy canter. Still Sheila was close behind. Kiddie began to scold her, but, as this had no effect, he pulled up to a halt, and dismounted.
"Now, do as you're told, Sheila," he said, half gravely, half coaxingly. "Go back home, you're not to come with me. I'm going too far. Go home, now; there's a good girl."
The hound seemed to understand, for she turned away a few steps and then looked at him pleadingly, standing with her jaws open, and her long dripping tongue working like a piston over her white fangs.
Suddenly she lifted her head, and looked sharply into the shadow of the trees. Her ears were raised as if she had heard some strange, suspicious sound.
Kiddie, preparing to re-mount, listened also. He heard the breaking of a twig far in among the thickly-growing trees. At the same instant something like the buzz-z of a mosquito passed by his ear. An arrow flashed across the trail between him and the dog, striking against a stout tree trunk on the farther side. Then a second arrow, aimed higher, rattled among the upper branches.
Now, Kiddie had his mail bags to think of. He had already lost several precious moments dealing with the hound, and he could not afford to waste time in trying to discover what possible enemy was lurking in the woods with the evident purpose of taking his life.
Drawing his revolver, he fired two shots in the direction from which the arrows had come. Then he turned to Sheila.
"Seek him, Sheila—seek him! After him—quick!" he ordered, pointing out the way; and as the deerhound plunged into the woodland he snatched up the nearer arrow, ran to his pony, and, re-mounting, renewed his broken journey.
At Three Crossings, which was his next relay station, he showed the arrow to the man who met him with the fresh pony.
"Say, Hoskin, how's that?" he questioned. "Some skunk hidin' in the timber this side of Medicine Creek, figured ter do me in with it. Poisoned, ain't it?"
Hoskin took the weapon and critically examined its barbed point.
"Yep," he nodded meaningly, handing it back. "It's sure poisoned. A scratch with it would kill you right away. Got any partic'lar enemy among them Injuns hangin' out along your way? What about the lot as was at Birkenshaw's t'other morning? You was thar, I hear. What about Broken Feather?"
"Broken Feather could hardly know that I'm takin' this trip with the Pony Express," Kiddie demurred.
"Um!" Hoskin shook his head. "I ain't so sure 'bout that, Kiddie," he said. "He has spies planted all along the trail. He knows 'most everything. You'd best be keerful."
Late on that same day. Rube Carter was crossing the trail, carrying a load of material for Kiddie's building operations, when he saw Sheila limping towards him over the bridge. He dropped his load, strode up to her, and was putting his arms about her neck in welcome when he noticed that there was blood on her chin and throat. He searched for an open wound, but found none.
"Looks as if you'd bin gettin' back to yer old business of huntin' stags," he said. "Wait, though," he added, seeing a nasty tear in the skin over her shoulder. "Stags don't carry no knives along of 'em, an' if that ain't a knife stab on your shoulder, then I sure ain't fit t' be called a scout."
Rube was very much perplexed concerning Sheila's condition. It appeared to him that, after all, she had not overtaken her master; that notwithstanding Kiddie's confidence in her running powers, she had proved that a Highland deerhound was not the equal in speed of a well-trained prairie pony.
Rube blamed himself for having allowed her to break away from him. He was glad, however, that she was not lost, and that her injury was not serious. But where had she been? What had she been doing?
He at once began to exercise his scoutcraft in the endeavour to puzzle out the mystery.
The blood marks on her chin and throat might very well be accounted for on the supposition that, instead of following her master, she had gone aside from the trail to give chase to some large animal—a mountain goat or a big-horn antelope, and that she had attacked and perhaps killed it, as she had been trained to do when out deer-stalking in her native Highlands of Scotland.
She might very easily have been wounded in the encounter by a backward prod of an antelope's sharp horn; even as she might have got the stains about her mouth in licking the bleeding wound.
But, unfortunately for this simple theory, the wound in the hound's shoulder was not of a kind to suggest the stab of a goat's horn or of an antelope's sharp-pointed antler. It was clearly and unmistakably the cut of a knife; not round, but thin and straight, and it was too far forward and too high over her shoulder for her to turn her head and get at it with her tongue.
Moreover, some of the bristles that had been cut by the knife remained there loose among the congealing blood, showing that it had not been licked. Rube's obvious conclusion was that it was not an animal, but a man she had attacked; that she had bitten him severely, and that he had used his knife in defending himself. But who that man might be, or why the hound should attack him, Rube could not even conjecture.
It was a dark night, and Rube was sound asleep in his bunk, when Kiddie changed ponies at Sweetwater Bridge on his eastward-bound trip; but Kiddie made time to ask Abe Harum if Sheila had returned.
Abe told him that she was then in her kennel, but added nothing about her condition. On the following day, however, when he returned home for a spell of rest, it was Rube who met him on the trail.
"Seems Abe told you as the hound had come back," began Rube. "It was my fault she followed you. I couldn't hardly help lettin' her loose. Thar was no holdin' her in. She got up t' you, then? How long was she gettin' abreast o' you? I guess you hadn't gotten far, eh? Gee! how she did cover the ground!"
"Why," Kiddie answered, "she was alongside o' me inside of six miles from here. Good going, wasn't it?"
"Sure," agreed Rube. "But she didn't come back so quick, Kiddie, nothin' like it. Did yer know she'd a cut on her shoulder?"
"Eh—a cut?" Kiddie started in vexed surprise. "Is it bad?"
"Oh, no," Rube assured him, "makes her limp some. But I've doctored th' wound, an' it's gettin' along all right. Come an' have a squint at it."
He brought the dog out, giving no expression to his own theory. Kiddie examined the wound.
"Cut of a knife," he decided immediately.
"Thar was blood on her mouth," said Rube. "I washed it. 'Twasn't her own blood."
"Then they sure got to close grips," concluded Kiddie, "and I guess he got as much as he gave. She'd make for his throat, but I'm figurin' that he'd put up an arm to protect himself. His left arm, most like, as he'd use his right for the knife. We gotter keep our eyes open for a man with a lame left arm, Rube."
"Didn't yer see him, Kiddie?" Rube questioned.
"Then how d'you know anythin' about it? How d'you know it was a man as done it? How d'you know she didn't kill him outright, same's she'd kill a stag? An' why did she go for him, anyway?"
"She went for him because I sent her into the forest after him," Kiddie explained. "The scoundrel shot a poisoned arrow at me. And, having myself no time to spare, I left the business to the dog, see?"
"An arrow!" exclaimed Rube, "a poisoned arrow! Well, 'twas sure a Injun done it. Any one else 'ud have used a gun."
"Might have been a white man, for all that," resumed Kiddie. "An arrow's a silent weapon, and if it's poisoned, as this one certainly was, then a mere scratch would be fatal; whereas the victim might recover from a bullet wound. Whoever it was, however, Sheila must sure have left the mark of her fangs on him."
"How d'you know she didn't kill him?" Rube persisted. "How d'you know he ain't lyin' there dead, right now?"
"Because," Kiddie rejoined, "on my return trip—knowing exactly where the thing happened—I went into the forest and searched. I found spots of blood. I found signs of the struggle; that was all. There wasn't any dead body lyin' around."
"P'raps th' other Redskins carried his body away," conjectured Rube.
"But he was alone," pursued Kiddie. "I'm plumb sure there was nobody with him."
"See the marks of his moccasins?"
"No. He wore nailed boots, which left scratches on the root of a cotton wood tree."
"Boots, eh? A Injun would have wore moccasins that wouldn't leave no scratch, even on the soft bark of a tree root. Y'see, a white man might wear moccasins, same's I do; but I never knew a Redskin shove his hoofs inter hob-nailed boots. Wait, Kiddie, wait! I've gotten a idea."
"Let's hear it, then, Rube. I'm glad to find that you're exercising your powers of reasoning. What's your idea?"
"This," declared Rube, with a knowing headshake. "I was figurin' that the low-down scoundrel as fired that poisoned arrow might be—well, might be Nick Undrell. I never told you before, Kiddie, but that day when your outfit was attacked by the Injuns, I heard one of Nick's chums say ter him—time you was ridin' alone in advance of the wagons—that now was the chance if Nick had a mind ter put a bullet inter you an' vamoose wi' the boodle."
"Yes," smiled Kiddie, "and your idea is that because one of his chums said such a thing as that, Nick went miles and miles out of his way to hide himself in Medicine Creek Forest and try to do the trick by putting a poisoned arrow into me, eh? And what d'you reckon might have been his motive?"
"Dunno," answered Rube. "Never thought of that."
"Because," pursued Kiddie, "if it was robbery, an experienced frontiersman like Nick Undrell wouldn't calculate on finding much boodle on a Pony Express rider. He'd find it a heap more profitable to do the robbery right here where all my valuables are. Besides, Nick is too slick a hand with the pistol to have any truck with an Injun's bow and arrows. No, Rube, my boy, your idea isn't worth a whole lot, come to analyze it. Even if I suspected Nick Undrell of shooting that arrow, the fact remains that when I started on that ride I left him in Fort Laramie, that he had no relays of ponies, as I had, waiting ready along the trail, and that he couldn't anyhow have got to Medicine Creek in front of me. It wasn't humanly possible. Any other solution ter suggest, Rube?"