Two Boys in Wyoming
A TALE OF ADVENTURE
BY EDWARD S. ELLIS
AUTHOR OF "DEERFOOT SERIES," "LOG CABIN SERIES," ETC.
PHILADELPHIA HENRY T. COATES & CO. 1898
Northwest Series, No. 3
I. Jack and Fred
II. Riding Northward
III. On Guard
IV. Visitors of the Night
V. "Now for the Ranch"
VI. At the Ranch
VII. The First Game
VIII. Look Before You Leap
IX. Night in the Mountains
X. The Signal-Fires
XI. A King of the Forest
XII. The Tug of War
XIII. A Strange Occurrence
XVI. Watching and Watched
XVII. Into and Out of the Canyon
XVIII. The Quest of the Cowman
XIX. Into the Cavern
XX. A Climb for Liberty
XXI. How It All Ended
List of Illustrations
"They had come a goodly distance since morning."
"On the projecting ledge stood a noble buck."
"He was sweeping down upon them like a cyclone."
"He was looking in the direction of the break in the canyon."
TWO BOYS IN WYOMING.
JACK AND FRED.
You should have seen those youths, for it gives me pleasure to say that two manlier, more plucky and upright boys it would be hard to find anywhere in this broad land of ours. I have set out to tell you about their remarkable adventures in the grandest section of the West, and, before doing so, it is necessary for you to know something concerning the lads themselves.
Jack Dudley was in his seventeenth year. His father was a prosperous merchant, who intended his only son for the legal profession. Jack was bright and studious, and a leader in his class at the Orphion Academy; and this leadership was not confined to his studies, for he was a fine athlete and an ardent lover of outdoor sports. If you witnessed the game between the eleven of the Orphion Academy and the Oakdale Football Club, which decided the championship by a single point in favor of the former, you were thrilled by the sight of the half-back, who, at a critical point in the contest, burst through the group which thronged about him, and, with a clear field in front, made a superb run of fifty yards, never pausing until he stooped behind the goal-posts and made a touchdown. Then, amid the cheers of the delighted thousands, he walked back on the field, and while one of the players lay down on the ground, with the spheroid delicately poised before his face, the same youth who made the touchdown smote the ball mightily with his sturdy right foot and sent it sailing between the goal-posts as accurately as an arrow launched from a bow.
That exploit, as I have said, won the championship for the Orphions, and the boy who did it was Jack Dudley. In the latter half of the game, almost precisely the same opening presented itself again for the great half-back, but he had no more than fairly started when he met an obstruction in his path. The gritty opponent tackled him like a tiger, and down they went, rolling over in the dirt, with a fierce violence that made more than one timid spectator fear that both were seriously injured. As if that were not enough, the converging players pounced upon them. There was a mass of struggling, writhing youths, with Jack underneath, and all piling on top of him. The last arrival, seeing little chance for effective work, took a running leap, and, landing on the apex of the pyramid, whirling about while in the air so as to alight on his back, kicked up his feet and strove to made himself as heavy as he could.
The only object this young man seemed to have was to batter down the score of players and flatten out Jack Dudley, far below at the bottom; but when, with the help of the referee, the mass was disentangled, and Jack, with his mop-like hair, his soiled uniform, and his grimy face, struggled to his feet and pantingly waited for the signal from his captain, he was just as good as ever. It takes a great deal to hurt a rugged youth, who has no bad habits and is in sturdy training.
The active lad who had downed Jack when going at full speed, and nipped in the bud his brilliant attempt, was Fred Greenwood, only a few months younger. He was full-back for the Oakdales and their best player. Furthermore, he was the closest friend of Jack Dudley. In the game it was war to the knife between them, but in the very crisis of the terrific struggle neither had a harsh thought or a spark of jealousy of the other. Fred led the cheering of the opposing eleven when Jack kicked such a beautiful goal, but gritted his teeth and muttered:
"You did well, my fine fellow, but just try it again—that's all!"
And Jack did try it again, as I have explained, and, tackling him low, Fred downed him. While the two were apparently suffocating under the mountain, Fred spat out a mouthful of dirt and said:
"I got you that time, Jack."
"It has that look, but——"
Jack meant to finish his sentence, but at that moment the mountain on top sagged forward and jammed his head so deeply into the earth that his voice was too muffled to be clear. Besides, it was not really important that the sentence should be rounded out, since other matters engaged his attention. The two friends went through the game without a scratch, except that Jack's face was skinned along the right cheek, one eye was blackened, both legs were bruised, and half his body was black and blue, and it was hard work for him to walk for a week afterward. The condition of Fred, and indeed of nearly every member of the two elevens, was much the same.
But what of it? Does a football-player mind a little thing like that? Rather is he not proud of his scars and bruises, which attest his skill and devotion to his own club? And then Jack had the proud exultation of knowing that it was he who really won the championship for his side. As for Fred, it is true he was disappointed over the loss of the deciding game, but it was by an exceedingly narrow margin; and he and his fellow-players, as they had their hair cut so as to make them resemble civilized beings, said, with flashing eyes and a significant shake of the head:
"Wait till next year, and things will be different."
Fred Greenwood was the son of a physician of large practice, whose expectation was that his son would follow the same profession, though the plans of the parents were in a somewhat hazy shape, owing to the youth of the boy. As I have already said, he and Jack Dudley had been comrades or chums almost from infancy. They were strong, active, clear-brained lads, who had not yet learned to smoke cigarettes or cigars, and gave no cause to fear that they would ever do so. It is not necessary to state that neither knew the taste of beer or alcoholic drinks, nor did they wish to learn. They understood too well the baleful effects of such indulgences to be in danger of ruining their bodies and souls, as too many other youths are doing at this very time.
Doctor Greenwood had been the family physician of the Dudleys for many years. The heads of the families were college mates at Harvard, and continued their intimacy after the marriage of each, so that it was quite natural that their sons should become fond of each other. The fathers were sensible men, and so long as their boys' fondness for athletic sports did not interfere with their studies the gentlemen encouraged them, and, when possible, were present at the contests between the representatives of the schools.
When Jack Dudley was presented with a shotgun and allowed to make an excursion down the Jersey coast Fred was his companion, and the two had rare sport in shooting duck and wild fowl. They became quite expert for boys, and before the hunting season set in did considerable fishing in the surrounding waters, and both learned to be skilful swimmers and boatmen.
Mr. Dudley was wealthier than his professional friend, though the large practice of the physician placed him in comfortable circumstances. In one of his many business transactions Mr. Dudley found that he had to choose between losing a considerable sum of money and accepting a half-ownership in a ranch in the new State of Wyoming. There seemed little choice between the two horns of the dilemma, for he saw no prospect of ever getting any money out of the Western land, but he accepted the ownership, the other half of which was divided among three gentlemen, one of whom lived in Cheyenne, and the others in Chicago.
It is perhaps worth noting that although the fathers of Jack and Fred were great admirers of athletics, and, as I have said, encouraged the devotion to them shown by their sons, yet neither was inclined that way in his youth.
"I never expected to own a foot of ground west of the Mississippi," remarked Mr. Dudley, when making a call upon the doctor, "and here, before I fairly knew it, I have become a half-owner in a ranch away out in Wyoming."
"Eventually it may prove worth something," suggested Doctor Greenwood, "for that section has enormous capabilities, and a tide of emigration has been moving that way for years."
"It will take a long time to fill up that country with people. Meanwhile I'll sell out cheap, doctor, if you feel like investing."
The physician laughed and thought the joke was on his friend. He said he would think the matter over, which was another way of saying he would do nothing more than think of it.
Jack and Fred were present at this interview, and listened with keen attention to the discussion of the Western purchase. By and by Fred gave his chum a significant look, and, excusing themselves to their parents, they passed out of the room and up stairs to the sleeping-quarters of Fred. The door was carefully closed behind them, and, drawing their chairs close together, they talked in low tones, as if some dreadful penalty would follow a discovery of what was passing between them. Had any one been able to see the two attractive countenances, he would not have had to be told that the same thought was in the mind of each.
"I tell you, Jack," said Fred, with impressive solemnity, "it would be a shame; it will never do; we must not allow it."
"Why you heard your father say that he never expected to go out to Wyoming to look at that ranch he has bought."
"I could have told you that much, without waiting for him to say it. It will be just like him to give it away for a song."
"And who knows but that it contains valuable gold or silver mines? I have heard of treasures being bought in that way."
"That may be," was the thoughtful response of Jack, "though I believe most of Wyoming—that is the valleys and plains—is a grazing country."
"I don't know much about the country, but I have read enough to learn that the greatest discoveries of gold and silver have been in places where no one expected to find them. What I am getting at, Jack, is that your father should make up his mind not to part with his interest in the ranch till he knows all about it."
"How is he to learn, when he won't go near it? Of course he can write to the people out there, but likely they will not tell him the truth."
"He must send some one whom he can trust, and let him investigate."
"That does seem to be a sensible plan," remarked Jack, as if the thought had not been in his mind from the first.
"A sensible plan!" repeated the enthusiastic Fred, "it is the only plan; nothing else can make it sure that he is not being swindled out of a big fortune."
Jack was silent a moment, while he looked steadily into the brown eyes of his chum, who half-smilingly met the scrutiny. Then the whole scheme burst forth.
"And whom can your father trust before us? He must see that the best thing he can do is to send us out there to make a full investigation. We won't charge him anything like what he would have to pay other folks."
"Of course not; only our travelling expenses and supplies."
"What do you mean by supplies?"
"Say a Winchester rifle and a revolver apiece, with the proper ammunition; what sort of supplies did you think I meant?"
"I thought it was food, while we were out hunting."
Jack turned up his nose.
"If we can't keep ourselves supplied with food, when we are in a country that has the finest game in the world, we deserve to starve."
"My sentiments exactly;" and as if the coincidence required something in the nature of a compact, the boys shook hands over it.
"What a splendid treat it would be for us to spend some weeks out in Wyoming!" exclaimed Jack Dudley, his eyes sparkling and his cheeks glowing; "it looks as if it were providential that father got hold of that ranch."
"There can't be any doubt about it; but how much more providential it will be if we are sent to learn all that should be learned about it! I wonder if that can be brought about?"
Enough has been told for the reader to understand the plot formed by these two youths. There could be no question of the grand treat it would prove to both, provided their parents could be persuaded to take the same view of the matter; there was the rub.
Jack crossed his legs and thoughtfully scratched his head. Unconsciously Fred did the same.
"It's a tougher problem than we ever attacked in Euclid," remarked the younger. Then a bright thought struck him.
"Don't I look a little pale, Jack?"
"You look as if a month's vacation in the autumn would be acceptable; but the fact is, Fred, I never saw you look better than you do this minute."
"I am afraid I can't work that on father. He's too good a doctor for me to worry him about my health."
"How about me?"
Fred shook his head.
"You look as strong as an oak knot, and you are, too; no, we can't make them think we are in need of a month in Wyoming. We shall have to try another tack. Now, there is no doubt that if we spend the month of September putting in extra work on our studies, we can stand the following month in laying off. We shall come back with new vigor and appetite, and soon catch up with our class."
"There isn't a particle of doubt about that, but it still remains that we must convince our fathers that it will be a wise course to send us away from home. We can't do it by looking pale and weak, for we can't look pale and weak. We must fix on something else or it's no go."
"Why not fall back on what we first talked about?"
"Make your father think it will be a prudent thing for him to send you out there to look after his property."
"Suppose I should convince him on that point, how about you?"
"You will need some one to look after you, and I'm just the fellow."
"We are both satisfied in our own minds; in fact we were from the first; but our fathers are very hard-headed men."
Now, a couple of boys may be very shrewd, but it often happens that their parents are a good deal shrewder, a fact which my young readers will do well to remember.
Unsuspected by Jack Dudley and Fred Greenwood, their parents read on the instant the momentous problem which assumed form in the brains of their sons. When the younger signalled to his chum to follow him out of the room, the two gentlemen understood what it meant as clearly as if they overheard all the conversation that followed. Waiting until they were beyond hearing, Doctor Greenwood looked at his friend and remarked, with a smile:
"They are hit hard."
"No doubt of it; their hearts are set on making a visit to the ranch, and it would be singular if it were otherwise. We can feel for them, for we were once boys."
"Yes, John, and it's longer ago than we like to recall. What do you think of it?"
"You know we have always agreed that many parents injure their children by undue indulgence."
"True, and we have been indulgent to ours, but not improperly so. A great deal depends upon the children themselves. Jack and Fred are obedient, studious, and have good principles. If we should say 'No' to this scheme of theirs they would be disappointed, almost beyond what we can understand, but neither would protest or sulk. They would study just as hard as ever. It is that which appeals to us. If they were sullen and dissatisfied we wouldn't care; but, John, you and I have each been blessed with model sons, and they are entitled to privileges which it would not be safe to grant to other boys. I confess I feel like sending both out to Wyoming for an outing."
"Of course it would spoil the enjoyment of Jack unless he could take Fred with him, but what excuse shall we make, Doc?"
How reluctant a father is to appear weak and too conciliatory toward his child! These two men had virtually decided to grant the fervent wish of their sons, but it must be done in a common-sense way. They could not say "Boys, since you have set your hearts on this we grant it," but they must fix upon some scheme that would made it seem a necessity that they should go thither.
And now observe how ludicrously similar their thoughts were to those that were agitating their offspring up stairs.
"I have been thinking," observed the physician, "of suggesting to them that they are in need of an extension of their vacation; but what a farce it would be! School opens next Monday, and they are the types of rugged health, strength and activity. If I undertook to make such a proposition I couldn't keep my face straight, and I am sure both would burst out laughing."
"I know I should, if I were present."
"Parents must not make dunces of themselves before their children," was the philosophical remark of the physician; "some other plan must be adopted."
Mr. Dudley leaned forward in his chair and slapped the shoulder of the physician, his face aglow.
"I have it, Doc!"
"Let me hear it, for I admit that I am cornered."
"I will take the ground that, since I have become part owner of this large tract of land, my first duty is to learn the truth about it. I can write to parties out there, but they are all strangers to me, and there is no saying how much reliance can be placed on their reports. What is necessary is an agent who will make an intelligent and honest report; and surely we can trust our own sons to do that."
"But, John," remarked the doctor, with his pleasant smile, "there are scores of people right here at home who will do that for you. Suppose Jack reminds you of the fact?"
"If he hasn't any more sense than to make such a suggestion, then, by gracious! I'll punish him by sending some one else."
"Little fear of Jack saying anything of that nature. Even if he undertook to do so, Fred would place his hand over his mouth. But, John, let's understand the matter before we say anything to them. Your plan of sending out Jack to inspect the property is a good one. It sounds business-like, and must strike them that way; so that difficulty is removed. You and I don't know anything about the region, nor the best time for hunting game, but it is fair to believe that the month of October will be suitable. Suppose we keep them in school throughout September, and then give them a month's leave of absence, to examine and report upon your property. If all goes well, they are to appear here, ready to resume their studies on the first Monday in November."
"I can suggest no improvement upon that. No doubt the young rascals are up-stairs, plotting how to bring us round to their way of thinking. Suppose you call them down, Doc. Shall you or I unfold our brilliant scheme?"
"You, by all means, since the property is yours."
The physician opened the door of his office and called "Fred!" There was instant response, "Yes, sir." "I would like to see you and Jack for a few minutes in the office."
"Yes, sir; we are coming."
And a minute later they arrived, handsome, glowing and expectant.
"Mr. Dudley has something to say to you, Jack."
Both boys turned their faces expectantly toward the gentleman named, who crossed his legs, cleared his throat and looked very grave.
"My son, Doctor Greenwood and I have been discussing that property of mine in the new State of Wyoming. We have agreed that I ought to learn something about it before selling my interest in the same. To secure such reliable information it is necessary to send some one thither whom we know to be truthful and honest. The doctor thinks, and I agree with him, that the right one to go is you, Jack—that is, if you have no objections."
The parent paused for a reply, and Jack, as if the matter was too important to be disposed of hastily, answered:
"I don't think of any objections just now, father."
"Very well; I am glad to hear it. If any occur to you, you will let me know, so that I can engage some one else."
"I'll let you know at once, if I think of any."
"Very well. Our plan is that you and Fred shall resume your studies next Monday, and keep right at them to the close of the month. On the first of October you will start for Wyoming——"
"I am surprised, my son, that you should interrupt me with that question. Do you suppose I would allow you to spend a month in that wild region without a companion to look after you? No, sir! Fred goes with you. I entrust you to his care, and expect him to bring you back in time to resume your studies on the first Monday in November. It is very kind in the doctor to consent to the arrangement. I hope you appreciate it, sir."
"I thank him very much," said Jack, looking toward the physician, who just then drew his hand across his mouth to suppress the smile that was tugging at the corners.
"Of course," continued Mr. Dudley, still with the manner of a philosopher, "in visiting such a section, inhabited by large and fierce game, you must take every precaution. I shall furnish each of you with a repeating Winchester, a revolver, and such other articles as may be necessary. We will now excuse you, with the understanding that if any objections occur to either, you will let us know at once, so that you may continue your studies, while I engage other parties to attend to this business."
"I'll think it over," replied Jack, tremulous with delight.
And then he and his chum withdrew and went up-stairs again to the room of Fred Greenwood, who hastily closed the door. The next instant they were hugging each other, and dancing about as if their senses had forsaken them; and indeed it may be said that for a brief while such was the fact.
"Fred," said the happy Jack, when there was a lull in the excitement, "we must fix upon a name for ourselves."
"I thought our parents attended to that a good many years ago."
"You know what I mean; we need some title that will distinguish us from all other young gentlemen of our acquaintance. How does 'W. R.' strike you?"
"'W. R.'? What does that mean?"
"The 'Wyoming Rangers;' that sounds rather high-toned."
Fred shook his head.
"We are not going West to reduce the aboriginal population; I hope we shall have no trouble with the red men. When we get among the people who have always lived there, such a title will make us ridiculous, for it smacks of conceit; it assumes too much."
"Suppose you suggest something?"
"Let's call ourselves the 'V. W. W.'; that surely will be appropriate."
"What do those letters mean?"
"The 'Verdant Wanderers of Wyoming;' that is precisely what we shall be."
Jack Dudley laughed, and at first protested, but finally agreed to accept the title as fitting and appropriate, and it was so ordered.
And so it came about that on a sharp, crisp day early in the month of October, two sturdy youths left the Union Pacific train at Fort Steele, which is situated in a broad depression between two divisions of the Wind River Mountains, themselves forming a part of the vast Rocky Mountain chain, which, under different names, stretches along the western portion of the two continents from the Arctic Ocean on the north to the extreme southern end of South America.
Like the sensible youths they were, Jack Dudley and Fred Greenwood had made the fullest preparation possible for the experience which was destined to prove tenfold more eventful than either anticipated. Mr. Dudley, in accordance with his promise, had presented each with a fine repeating Winchester rifle, an excellent revolver, an abundant supply of cartridges, and various knick-knacks which the hunter is sure to find are more in the nature of necessities than luxuries.
They had tough corduroy suits, a material which, as everyone knows, wears like leather, though it is unpopular in the West because of its unpleasant odor when wet. From the knees downward the lower part of the legs were protected by strong leathern leggings, and the shoes were made for wear rather than display. The coats were rather short and gathered at the waists by a belt, while beneath the garment it was intended to wear the cartridge-belt. The revolver rested in a sheath, instead of being thrust into a trouser's-pocket at the hip, while their hats suggested the sombrero pattern, so popular among cowboys and cattlemen. The brim was broad and stiff, so that it was not liable to bother their vision when the wind was blowing, and it could be depended upon to protect the eyes and face from the sun and rain. Their whole outfit, in short, was strong, comfortable and serviceable.
The two were generously furnished with money, while Mr. Dudley arranged with a banker at Laramie City to furnish the boys with whatever funds they might need through accident or robbery. They were going into a region where there were many lawless characters, and everything was done to provide against all possible contingencies.
Their extra clothing and articles were contained in a couple of valises, which were put off the train upon the lonely platform at Fort Steele. But while this marked the farthest distance they could travel by rail, a long ride still confronted them before reaching the ranch, which was almost half-way between the railroad and the Big Horn Mountains to the northeast. Several streams had to be crossed, the country in many places was rough, and there was no stage line to help them. All this, however, had been discounted before the boys left the city of Chicago, and what they encountered was only what was expected, and only that for which they were prepared.
Word having been sent in advance of their expected arrival, the first act of the youths was to look around for the man or men who were to meet and conduct them to the ranch. A few people were moving about the long, low platform, several in the uniform of United States infantry and cavalry, while a couple of Indians in blankets, untidy and sullen, surveyed them with scowls. Few passengers were in the habit of leaving the train at this point, so that some curiosity on the part of the loungers was natural. Perhaps the agent at the station suspected them of being runaways whose heads had been turned by stories of wild adventure, and who had set out to annihilate the aborigines of the West; but if such a fancy came to the man, it must have vanished when he noticed their intelligent appearance and the completeness of their outfit. Boys who start on such whimsical careers are never rightly prepared, and have no conception of the absurdity of their schemes until it is forced upon them by sad and woeful experience.
"Are you looking for any one?" asked the agent; respectfully.
"Yes, sir," replied Jack Dudley; "we are on our way to a ranch which lies to the eastward of Camp Brown, not far from Wind River."
"May I ask your errand thither?"
"My father is part owner of the ranch, and we wish to visit it for a few weeks."
"Ah, you are the young men that Hank Hazletine was asking about yesterday. He has charge of Bowman's ranch."
"That's the place. What has become of Mr. Hazletine?"
"I think he is over at the fort, and will soon be here. He brought a couple of horses for you to ride. Ah, here he comes now."
The boys saw the man at the same moment. He was walking rapidly from the direction of the fort, and looking curiously at the youths, who surveyed him with interest as he approached. He was full-bearded, tall, and as straight as an arrow, dressed in cowboy costume, and the picture of rugged strength and activity. His manner was that of a man who, having made a mistake as to the hour of the arrival of the train, was doing his best to make up for lost time.
Stepping upon the long, low platform, he walked toward the lads, his Winchester in his left hand, while he extended his right in salutation.
"Howdy?" he said, heartily, as he took the hand of Fred Greenwood, who advanced several paces to meet him. "I reckon you're the younkers I'm waiting for."
"If you are Hank Hazletine, you are the man."
"That's the name I gin'rally go by; which one of you is Jack Dudley?"
"I am," replied that young gentleman.
"Then t'other one is Fred Greenwood, eh?" he asked, turning toward the younger.
"You have our names right."
"Glad to know it; I got your letter and looked for you yesterday; have been loafing 'round here since then."
"We were not sure of the exact time of our arrival and missed it by twenty-four hours," said Jack; "I hope it caused you no inconvenience."
"Not at all—not at all. Wal, I s'pose you're ready to start for the ranch, younkers?"
"We are at your disposal; we have quite a long ride before us."
"We have; it'll take us two or three days to git there, if all goes well."
"Suppose all doesn't go well?" remarked Fred.
"We shall be longer on the road; and if it goes too bad we'll never git there; but I ain't looking for anything like that. Where's your baggage?"
Jack pointed to the two plump valises lying on the platform, near the little building.
"That and what we have on us and in our hands make up our worldly possessions."
"That's good," said Hazletine. "I was afeard you might bring a load of trunks, which we'd had a purty time getting to the ranch; but there won't be any trouble in managing them; I'll be right back."
He turned away, and soon reappeared, mounted on a fine, wiry pony, and leading on either side a tough little animal, saddled and bridled and ready for the boys.
"There ain't any better animals in Wyoming or Colorado," he explained; "they can travel fast and fur a long time. We'll strap on that stuff and be off."
There was no trouble in securing the baggage to the rear of the saddles, when Jack and Fred swung themselves upon the backs of the ponies, adjusted their Winchesters across the saddles in front, following the suggestions of Hazletine, and announced themselves ready to set out on the long ride northward. The animals struck into an easy canter, and a few minutes later all signs of civilization were left behind them.
The boys were in buoyant spirits. There was just enough coolness in the air to make the exercise invigorating. Here and there a few snowy flecks dotted the blue sky, but the sun shone with undimmed splendor, the warmth slightly increasing as the orb climbed the heavens. To the northward the undulating plain was unbroken by hill or stream, so far as the eye could note, while to the eastward the prospect was similar, though they knew that the North Platte curved over in that direction, and, after winding around the upper end of the Laramie Mountains, joined the main stream far over in Nebraska.
To the westward the prospect was romantic and awe-inspiring. The Wind River range towered far up in the sky in rugged grandeur, following a course almost parallel with their own, though gradually trending more to the left, in the direction of Yellowstone Park. The snow-crowned peaks looked like vast banks of clouds in the sky, while the craggy portions below the frost-line were mellowed by the distance and softly tinted in the clear, crystalline atmosphere. The mountains formed a grand background to the picture which more closely environed them.
As the three galloped easily forward they kept nearly abreast, with the ranchman between them. He was in a pleasant mood, and seemed to have formed a fancy for the youths, who felt a natural admiration for the big, muscular veteran of the plains and mountains.
"Yes," said he, in answer to their inquiries; "I've spent all my life as a cattleman, cowboy, hunter or trapper. I left the States with my parents, when a small younker, with an emigrant train fur Californy. Over in Utah, when crawling through the mountains, and believing the worst of the bus'ness was over, the Injins come down on us one rainy night and wiped out nearly all. My father, mother and an older brother was killed, and I don't understand how I got off with my scalp, but I did, with half a dozen others."
"Did you go on to California?"
"No; I've never been in that country, which I s'pose you'll think strange; but I was on my way there, when I met the great scout Kit Carson and several hunters. They took me along with 'em, and the next twenty years of my life was spent in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Since then I've ranged from the Panhandle to Montana, most of the time in the cattle bus'ness."
"At what are you engaged just now?" inquired Jack.
"The same—that is, the cattle bus'ness. You may know that after thousands of the critters have spent the summer in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, they drive 'em north into Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, to git their finishing touches. The grazing is so much better than in the south that in a few months they're ready for the market, and are either killed and their carcasses shipped to the East, or they are took there by train in as fine condition as anybody could ask. You obsarve that the grass under our feet is powerful good."
The boys replied that it seemed to be.
"Wal, there's hundreds of thousands of acres better than this; there's thirty thousand of 'em in Bowman's ranch, where we're going, and it's the best kind of grazing land."
"I believe it extends to the Wind River Mountains," said Jack.
"It takes in a part of the foot-hills; there are plenty of streams there, and some of the finest grass in the world."
Jack Dudley did not forget the real object of the coming of himself and companion to this section, and he could not gather the information too soon.
"How does Bowman's ranch compare with others in Central Wyoming?"
"You may ride over the whole State without finding a better. If you doubt it, look at the country for yourself."
"We don't doubt anything you tell us," said Fred Greenwood. "I suppose you know that Mr. Dudley, the father of my friend, owns half the ranch?"
"I've heerd that."
"He didn't intend to buy it, but matters so shaped themselves that he couldn't help doing so. Before selling it, he sent us to take a look at it and find out whether it is all that was claimed. We have come to do that, but, at the same time, are eager to have some hunting among the mountains."
"You won't have any trouble about that. As I was saying, we're close to the mountains, and when you're ready I'll go with you, and promise that you'll have something to talk about as long as you live."
The eyes of the boys sparkled as they looked across at each other, and Jack said:
"Nothing could delight us more. We need a veteran like yourself, and are happy to know you can serve us."
"How many months can you stay in Wyoming?"
"How many months?" laughed Jack. "We are under promise to be back at school in New York on the first of November."
"Whew! I wish the time was longer."
"So do we; but we had a hard enough task to get the month, so we must make the best use of it."
"Wal, we can crowd a good 'eal into two or three weeks, and I won't let you go to sleep in the daytime—I'll promise you that."
Hazletine produced a brierwood pipe and pressed some tobacco in the bowl. Although the motion of their ponies caused quite a brisk breeze, he lighted a match and communicated the flame to the tobacco without checking the speed of his animal. Then he glanced admiringly to the right and left, at his companions.
"You're a couple of as fine-looking younkers as I've seed in a long time; but you're almost as tall as me, and it seems to me you orter be through with school."
"We expect to stay in school another year and then spend four in college, after which several years will be needed to get ready for some profession."
"Great Jiminy!" exclaimed the astonished ranchman; "you must be powerful dumb, or else there's more to larn than I ever dreamed of."
"Well," said Jack, with a laugh at the simplicity of the fellow, "there are plenty of boys a great deal smarter then we, but the smartest of them can spend their whole lives in study and not learn a hundredth part of what is to be learned."
Hank puffed his pipe slowly and looked seriously at the youth for a minute without speaking. Then he said, as if partly speaking to himself:
"I s'pose that's so; a chap can go on larning forever, and then die without knowing half of it. I never had much chance at eddycation, but managed to pick up 'nough to read and write a letter and to do a little figgering, but that's all."
"That is what you may call your book education; but how much more you know of the rivers, the mountains, the climate, the soil, the game, the Indians, and everything relating to the western half of our country! In that respect we are but as babes compared with you."
"I s'pose that's so, too," replied the hunter, evidently impressed by the fact that these youths were destined, if their lives were spared, to become excellent scholars. He was so thoughtful that they did not interrupt his meditations, and for a considerable while the three rode in silence.
It need not be said that Jack and Fred kept their wits about them and took note of everything in their field of vision. The season had been an unusually favorable one for Wyoming, the rains having been all that was required to make the grass succulent, nourishing and abundant. They could have turned their ponies loose at any point, after leaving the railway behind them, and the animals would have been able to crop their fill. It was the same over hundreds of square miles, a fact which readily explains why many portions of Wyoming rank as the best grazing country in the world.
It was not yet noon when they rode down a slight declivity to a stream several rods in width. The water was so clear that the bottom could be plainly seen from their saddles, the depth being no more than two or three feet. The ponies paused to drink, and, as they emerged on the other side and started up the gentle slope, Hazletine suggested that for a time at least they should be held down to a walk.
One anxiety began to impress itself upon the minds of Jack and Fred. They were not only hungrier than they had been for months, but that hunger was increasing at an alarming rate. Neither had brought any lunch with them, and they wondered how food was to be obtained. Jack almost fainted at the awful suspicion that perhaps their friend intended to break them in by making the two or three days' journey to the ranch without eating anything at all!
"I suppose it would be no trouble for him," was the lugubrious thought of the youth, "but it will be the death of us!"
Happily this dread proved unfounded. The sun had hardly crossed the meridian when both lads were thrilled by the declaration of Hazletine:
"Wal, if you younkers are as hungry as me, we'll have a bite."
They were in the middle of the undulating plain, with no wood or water in sight; but that was a small matter. In a twinkling all three were out of their saddles, and the guide unstrapped a large bundle from its fastening to the saddle of his pony. This, being unwrapped, disclosed a goodly portion of cooked and tender steak and plenty of well-baked brown bread. Furthermore, there were a couple of bottles of milk—enough for two meals at least.
These having been placed on the grass, the bits were removed from the mouths of their horses, who were allowed to graze while their masters were partaking of one of the most enjoyable meals they had ever eaten.
"If I'd expected to be alone," explained Hazletine, "I wouldn't have brought this stuff with me, but we may not see a maverick or any game all the way home. I wouldn't mind it, but I don't s'pose you are used to it."
"I should say not," replied Jack, as well as he could, while his mouth was filled with bread, meat and milk; "I'm hungry enough to eat a mule."
"And I feel as if I could chew his saddle," added Fred, laboring under the same difficulty in speaking clearly. "If our appetites keep up at this rate, there will be a shrinkage among the cattle in Wyoming before we go home."
"What do you mean by a maverick?" asked Jack of their guide.
"It's an unbranded cow or calf that don't b'long to nobody, and consequently it don't make no difference whether nobody or somebody brands or kills it."
The rhetoric of this sentence may not have been faultless, but its meaning was clear to the boys. They ate until they wished no more, and were vastly relieved to note that something was left for another meal.
"That'll see us through till morning," said Jack, "but how about to-morrow and the next day?"
"If we don't see anything to kill, we must wait till we git to the ranch."
"You'll have to tie me in the saddle, for I shan't be able to sit up."
The smile on the face of the guide raised the hope that he was not in earnest in making this dreadful announcement, but neither Jack nor Fred were quite easy in mind.
The halt was less than an hour, when the three were in the saddle again. Hazletine, instead of pressing directly toward the ranch that was their destination, bore to the left, thus approaching the Wind River range.
"There's a little settlement off to the right," he said, "of the name of Sweetwater; we could reach it by night, but it takes us a good many miles out of our path, and there's nothing to be gained by losing the time."
"Are you following a straight course to the ranch?"
"Pretty near; but I'm edging to the left, toward the foot-hills, 'cause there's better camping-ground over there."
This was satisfactory, and the youths were not the ones to question a decision of so experienced a guide and mountaineer. Besides, they had hope that one reason for the slight change of course was that it increased the chance of obtaining game. For the present, the question of food supply was the most absorbing one that demanded attention. Other matters could wait, but a sturdy, growing lad finds his appetite something whose cravings can be soothed only by the one method that nature intended.
The beautiful weather continued unchanged throughout the afternoon. As the sun declined in the sky there was a perceptible coolness in the air, but the exercise of riding removed all necessity for using their blankets.
Although the party had been edging toward the foot-hills for hours, it seemed to the boys that they were as far off as ever. They had covered many miles, but those who have travelled in the West know the deceptive character of the crystalline atmosphere, so far as distances are concerned. However, as twilight began closing in they reached a small grove of trees, which was the destination of the guide from the first. It was there he meant to camp for the night, and he could not have selected a better place had he spent a week in looking for it.
The grove covered less than an acre, the trees standing well apart, and wholly free from brush and undergrowth. Thus even the horses could pass back and forth freely. Over this shaded space the dark-green grass grew luxuriantly, with a soft juiciness of texture which made it the ideal food for cattle and horses. In the middle of the grove bubbled a spring of clear cold water, whose winding course could be traced far out on the plain by the fringe of deeper green which accompanied it.
Saddles and bridles were removed, and the ponies turned free to crop the grass until they were filled, when they would lie down for the night. The blankets were spread on the ground near the spring, and then, at the suggestion of Hazletine, all three joined in gathering dried branches and limbs with which to start a fire. It was now cool enough to make the warmth welcome, while the flame would add to the cheerfulness of the occasion.
Jack and Fred had never ridden so far at one stretch, and when they reclined on their blankets to watch Hank start the fire they were thoroughly tired out; but it seemed to them their hunger was more ravenous than ever. Each forbore to speak of it, but the deliberation of their friend in preparing the meal was almost intolerable.
The first night spent by the boys in camping out in the wilds of Wyoming was one that can never be forgotten. When the meal was finished and the last vestige of food eaten, the three stretched out where they could feel the grateful warmth of the fire that had been kindled against the trunk of a large oak. Hank had again lighted his pipe, and deeply interested Jack and Fred by his reminiscences of a life that had been filled to overflowing with strange experience and adventure. They listened, unconscious of the passage of the hours, until he abruptly asked:
"What time is it?"
Each youth looked at his watch, and, to his astonishment, saw that it was nearly half-past ten. They had supposed that it was fully two hours earlier.
"One of the rules that must always be follered," said the guide, "when hunting or away from home, is that all the party mustn't sleep at the same time."
"Then one has to stand watch?"
"It looks that way. Now, we'll divide the time atween us, each taking a part, so that it won't come heavy on any one."
"That will suit us," Fred hastened to say, while Jack nodded his head.
"All right. You, Jack, will keep watch till twelve—that is midnight; then you'll rouse t'other younker, and he'll stand guard till two; then he'll give me a kick, and I'll run things till daylight."
"What are we likely to see?" asked Jack, who naturally desired to learn all the points concerning his new duties.
"How should I know?" asked Hank, with a grin. "There may be wild animals, sich as grizzlies, cinnamon or black bears; there may be wolves, or dog Injins looking for a chance to steal our ponies."
"Why do you call them 'dog Indians?'"
"A dog Injin is a tramp 'mong the other tribes; he don't live much with any of 'em, but sneaks round the country, looking for a chance to steal something, and it don't matter what it is."
"Suppose I catch sight of one of the animals you name, or a dog Indian—what shall I do?"
"Shoot him quicker'n lightning."
This was a startling order, but the guide was in earnest.
"Are you afeard to do it?" he asked, half contemptuously.
"No; I'll shoot the instant it is necessary, but I don't fancy the idea of picking off an Indian without warning."
"If you give him warning you won't pick him off. If you're so squeamish, you might argufy the matter with him."
"Leave that to me; I'm on duty now; go to sleep."
Without another word the guide wrapped his blanket about him and stretched out in front of the fire, with his feet toward it. Judging from his heavy breathing, it was barely five minutes before he became unconscious.
"It strikes me this is rushing things," remarked Jack to Fred, as the two sat beside each other. "Last night the 'V. W. W.' were in the sleeper of the Union Pacific; to-night they are looking out for a chance to shoot Indians."
"I don't believe there's any likelihood of finding it. I suspect that Hank is having some sport at our expense. If there was any danger he would stay awake himself, instead of trusting two tenderfeet like us."
"It may be, but we are in a wild country, where danger is likely to come at any time, and we may have our hands full. It seems to me that it would have been better to let the fire go out, and not attract attention."
"He's running this affair; he wouldn't have had so much wood gathered if he didn't mean to keep the blaze going."
With this Fred rose to his feet and flung an armful of wood on the flames, which brightened up until their reflection was thrown against the branches overhead and well out toward the edge of the grove. A faint whinny proved that the horses had been disturbed by the increase in the illumination.
Before lying down, Fred looked at his chum.
"I wonder, Jack, whether there's any risk of your falling asleep?"
"There would be if I remained seated on the ground, but I shall not do that."
"It will be dangerous to walk back and forth, where the fire shows you plainly."
"My plan is to move out in the grove, where the firelight will not strike me, and stand close to the trunk of one of the trees. I have heard of folks sleeping on their feet, but there's no fear of my doing it. Since I am to call you in less than two hours, Fred, you would better get sleep while you can."
The younger lad bade his friend good-night and imitated the action of Hank Hazletine, wrapping his blanket around himself and lying down near the fire. He was not quite so prompt in sinking into slumber, but it was not long before Jack Dudley was the only one of the little party in command of his senses.
Jack, like his companions, felt the need of sleep, but the fact that he had but a brief while to remain awake, and the consciousness that the safety of others, as well as his own, rested upon himself, made him very alert. He believed he could sit or recline on the ground and retain his wits, but, fortunately, he had too much prudence to run that risk. Sleep is so insidious a foe that we can never recall the moment when it overmasters us, nor can we fight it off when in a prone or easy posture.
He adhered to the plan he had formed. Winchester in hand, he moved away from the fire until, by interposing the large trunk of a tree between himself and the light, he was invisible from that direction. He stood erect, taking care not to lean against the trunk for partial support, and concentrated his faculties into those of listening and looking.
The stillness was profound. From the distant mountains to the westward came a low, soft, almost inaudible murmur, such as one hears when many miles from the calm ocean, and which has been called the voice of silence itself. In the stillness he heard the faint crackle of one of the embers as it fell apart, and, though the night wind scarcely stirred the leaves over his head, he caught the rustle. The fact that there was nothing from the direction of the ponies showed they had ceased to crop the grass and were lying down. The safety of the camp was in his hands. If he forgot his duty, it might be fatal to all.
The sense of this responsibility and the newness of his position made Jack Dudley more wakeful than he could have been under any other circumstances. To these causes, also, was due a suspicious nervousness which made him see danger where it did not exist. The rustling of a falling leaf caused him to start and glance furtively to one side, and at a soft stir of the leaves under a breath of wind, or a slight movement of the sleeping ponies, he started and grasped his rifle with closer grip.
All this was natural; but there came a moment, not far from midnight, when there remained no doubt that some person or animal was moving stealthily through the grove, near where he was standing. It will be remembered that his position was such that the trunk of the large oak acted as an impenetrable screen between him and the camp-fire, which was burning so vigorously that its rays penetrated to a greater or less degree beyond him. Thus he could see anything moving within the circle of illumination, while he was as invisible to the keenest-eyed warrior as if the night was without a ray of light.
The first warning was through the sense of hearing. He had been deceived so many times that he suspected his fancy was playing with him again, but the faint tip, tip continued until such explanation was amiss.
"It is an Indian or a wild beast," was his belief.
The next minute he knew that, whatever it was, its position was between him and the outer edge of the grove. Since the ponies were on the opposite side of the fire, Jack was nearer the intruder than either they or his friends, sleeping by the camp-fire. Recalling that his place was the most favorable possible, he remained as motionless as the tree-trunk behind him, and to which he stood close enough to touch by moving his foot a few inches backward.
The situation being thus, it followed that if the man or beast continued its advance it must come into sight, while Jack himself was invisible. He therefore held his Winchester ready for instant use and waited.
He was standing in this expectant attitude when a remarkable thing took place. The fire, having remained unreplenished for some time, had subsided to a considerable extent, when one of the embers fell apart and caused such a displacement of the burning wood that the light flared up and penetrated with its former vigor beyond the tree which sheltered the sentinel.
Jack was as immovable as a statue, his weapon grasped in both hands, when this sudden brightening occurred. He was peering out among the dark trees, in the effort to identify the danger, when he saw the unmistakable figure of an Indian, hardly twenty feet away.
The buck had entered the grove with the silence of a shadow, and was making his way to the camp-fire, when betrayed in this singular manner to the watcher. In the reflection of the firelight, his naturally hideous countenance was repulsive to the last degree. The features were irregular, with prominent cheek-bones, a huge nose, and a retreating chin. Ugly as nature had made him, he had intensified it himself by daubing black, red and white paint in splashes over the front of his countenance. His coarse, black hair dangled loosely about his shoulders, and a single stained eagle's feather protruded from the crown. It was gathered back of the neck by a thong of some sort, so as to prevent the hair getting in his eyes when there was such imminent need for their use.
The chest was bare to the waist, and was also fantastically painted. In the girdle which encircled his waist was thrust a knife, whose handle protruded, while the leggings and moccasins were gayly ornamented and fringed. He held a formidable rifle in his right hand, in a trailing position, and was leaning well forward, with his body bent, as he drew near the camp with that stoical patience which the American race shows in the most trying crises. If necessary, he would continue this cautious advance for hours without showing haste, for it is often that his people circumvent and overthrow an enemy by their incomparable caution and care.
One peculiar feature of the unexpected flaring-up of the light was that its strongest force impinged directly upon the painted face of the Indian, which was seen as plainly by Jack Dudley as if the sun were shining. The youth felt that he could not forget that countenance if he saw it a hundred years afterward.
Had Jack followed the instruction of their guide he would have leveled his Winchester and shot the Indian dead in his tracks. The fellow was stealing into camp in such a manner that there could be no doubt the least crime he meant to commit was to steal. No ranchman or hunter would hesitate a moment, under the circumstances, to give him his eternal quietus.
But Jack Dudley could not do such a thing. To him it was an awful act to shoot a person, even though a savage, and his conscience would never permit him to do so until there was no choice left to him. He would much prefer to frighten away this intruder than to kill him.
The youth was so confident of his command of the situation that he would have felt hardly a thrill of alarm, but for the fear that the redskin belonged to a party near at hand who had sent him forward as a scout. Manifestly the right course for the sentinel was to discharge his gun, thus scaring the Indian and awaking Hazletine; but, while debating the question with himself, he became aware that the hostile was advancing.
The fellow did this with such marvellous cunning that Jack perceived no movement of his legs or feet. The latter were partly shrouded in shadow, but the Indian himself suggested a statue set up among the trees. Nevertheless he was inching toward the camp-fire, and was already a couple of yards nearer Jack than when the latter first noticed him.
Had he approached from the other side the youth never would have discovered his danger; but now he had his eye on the enemy, and meant to keep it there until the crisis was over. It was perhaps ten minutes later that the buck was within six feet of the youth, who, noiselessly bringing his Winchester to a level, took one step toward him and asked:
"Well, my friend, what do you want?"
VISITORS OF THE NIGHT.
It takes a good deal to startle an American Indian, but if there ever was a frightened red man it was the one who heard himself thus addressed, and, glancing like a flash to his right, saw Jack Dudley step forward, with a Winchester rifle leveled at him.
In the language of the West, the youth "had the drop" on the intruder, and he knew it. Had he attempted to raise his own weapon, or to draw his knife and assail the youth, that instant the trigger of the rifle would have been pressed and the career of the buck would have ended then and there, and he knew that, too; but the fact that the gun was not fired, and that a direct question was addressed to him, told the Indian that his master was less merciless than he would have been had their situations been reversed.
The camp-fire was still burning brightly, and the reflection showed on the painted visage. Jack, having stepped forward into the circle of light, was also plainly discerned by the Indian, who, turning his black, serpent-like eyes upon him, said, without a tremor in his voice:
"Me good Injin; me friend of white man; me no hurt him."
"It doesn't look as if you would; but what is your business? Why do you steal into our camp like a thief of the night?"
"Me hungry—want somethin' eat."
This was too transparent a subterfuge to deceive one even so unaccustomed to life in these solitudes as Jack Dudley. An Indian wandering through a country so well stocked with game as this portion of the new State of Wyoming never suffers for food; and, were such a thing possible, the present means was the last that he would adopt to procure it.
"If you want something to eat, why did you not come forward openly and ask for it?"
The fellow did not seem fully to grasp the question, but he repeated:
Jack recalled that there was not a mouthful of food in camp. Had there been, he probably would have invited the visitor to walk to the fire and partake. It was fortunate for the youth that their larder was empty, for had the two started among the trees in the direction of the camp, the opportunity for which the Indian was doubtless waiting would have been secured. There would have been an interval in the brief walk when the advantage would have been shifted to him, and he would have seized it with the quickness of lightning.
The manifest duty of Jack was to shout to Hank Hazletine and bring him to the spot. He would read the truth on the instant and do the right thing; but the situation, as the reader will admit, was peculiar, and the motive which prevented the youth from adopting this line of action was creditable to him. He believed that the moment the guide appeared he would shoot the intruder, and that was too frightful an issue for Jack to contemplate. He did not want this warrior's life, and would not take it except to save his own or that of his friends.
Jack believed that enough had been gained in thoroughly frightening the Indian, and the thing desired now was to get rid of him with the least possible delay. He did not think he would intrude again, even if he had companions within call.
"We have no food; we can give you nothing; you must go elsewhere."
"Then me go;" and, as if the business was concluded, the buck turned about and began walking toward the edge of the grove. Yielding to a whim which he did not fully understand, Jack Dudley followed him with the warning words:
"If you stop, or turn about, or make a move to shoot, I will kill you."
It is probable that the savage contemplated some movement of the kind, but he must have known the fatal risk involved. Quick as he was, he could not whirl about and bring his gun to a level before the young man would pull the trigger of the Winchester, which was held pointed toward him. He knew that so long as he obeyed orders he would be unharmed, and he would have been a zany had he hesitated to do so.
He did not hesitate, but with a deliberate step that was not lacking in a certain dignity he walked slowly between the trees, with his captor only a few paces behind and keeping pace with him.
Almost on the edge of the grove Jack Dudley made an interesting discovery. A pony, smaller than the one he had ridden from Fort Steele, stood motionless in the shadow, awaiting the return of his master. He was not tethered or tied, for he was too well-trained to make that necessary. He showed his fine training further by merely pricking his ears and elevating his head upon the approach of his master and companion. A whinny or neigh might have betrayed both.
The two were now so far removed from the glow of the camp-fire that they could see each other only dimly. There was no moon in the sky, though the stars were shining brightly. The Indian, from the force of circumstances, was compelled to hold his disadvantageous position, inasmuch as he had to move out from among the trees, while Jack remained within their shadows.
Realizing that this was a critical moment, he stood motionless, with his weapon still at a dead level.
"My gun is aimed at your heart," he said, "and I am watching every movement you make. Go in peace, and you shall not be harmed, but on your first attempt to injure me you die."
The words, perhaps, were unnecessary, for it may be said that the action of the youth was more eloquent. Be that as it may, the redskin showed a commendable promptness in all that he did. He vaulted lightly upon the bare back of his pony, whose bridle consisted of but a single thong, and turned the head of the brute outward. He did not speak, for it was not required. The pony knew what was wanted; and, with his nose pointed out on the prairie, he emerged from among the trees into the open, with the warrior astride.
Even in that trying moment Jack Dudley was surprised at one fact—that was the wonderful silence of the animal. It would seem that his hoofs should have given out sounds that could have been heard for a considerable distance in the stillness of the night, but it was as if he were treading on velvet. The noise was so faint that it was easy to understand how he had come to the spot without betraying himself to the intently listening sentinel. No wonder that the Indian ponies sometimes display a sagacity fully equal, in some respects, to that of their masters.
The Indian showed in another direction his perception of the situation. Had he been leaving the presence of one of his own race, or of a veteran white scout, he would have thrown himself forward on the back of his animal and ridden off on a dead run, for, despite the unexpected mercy shown him, he would have expected treachery at the last minute; but he had seen his master and knew that he was a young tenderfoot, inspired by a chivalrous honor which is the exception in that section of the country. He would not shoot until good cause was given, and therefore he took care not to give such cause.
As if in harmony with the spirit of his rider, the pony walked away in a direct line, until the figure of himself and master disappeared in the gloom. When he could see him no more, Jack lowered his gun, and stooping down, pressed his ear against the earth. He could hear the soft hoof-beats of the horse growing fainter and fainter, until at the end of a minute or two the impressive silence once more held reign. Then the youth arose to his feet.
"I suppose Hank will tell me I did wrong," he mused, "but my conscience does not; it would be a woeful memory to carry with me that on my first night in Wyoming I took the life of a human being. Perhaps it will be as well that Hank should not know it; I will think it over."
Now, while Jack Dudley had conducted himself in some respects like a veteran, yet he had shown a dangerous short-sightedness in another direction. It will be noted that he had busied himself wholly with the single intruder, and at the moment of losing sight of him the young man was a comparatively long distance from the camp-fire. Had it been that there were two or more hostiles stealing into camp, they could not have asked a better opportunity, for it was left wholly unguarded. A single warrior would have had no trouble in creeping undiscovered to a point from which he could have sent a bullet through the unconscious forms of Hank Hazletine and Fred Greenwood. This probability never occurred to Jack until he started on his return to the fire, from whose immediate vicinity he should never have allowed himself to have been tempted.
Even then his strange remissness would not have impressed itself upon him but for a startling discovery. The fire was beginning to smoulder once more, but enough of its glare penetrated the wood for him to note the black, column-like trunks of the trees between it and him. With his gaze upon the central point, he saw a figure moving in the path of light and coming toward him. It looked as if stamped in ink against the yellow background, and, like the former intruder, was advancing without noise.
An awful fear thrilled Jack Dudley as he abruptly halted and partly raised his Winchester.
"While I have been busy with one Indian, another has entered the camp and slain Fred and Hank! He is now after me! There will be no hesitation this time in my shooting!"
Before he could secure anything like an aim, the other stepped behind one of the trunks on his right. Jack waited for him to reappear, ready to fire, but unwilling to do so until the truth was established.
While waiting thus, a low, faint, tremulous whistle reached his ears. It was the most welcome of all sounds, and raised him from the depths of woe to blissful happiness, for it was the familiar signal of Fred Greenwood that had been employed many times in their hunting excursions nearer home.
Instead of an enemy, it was his chum and dearest friend who was approaching him. Jack instantly answered the guarded hail, and the next minute the two came together.
"How is it you are awake?" was the first question of Jack.
"Because it is time for me to awake; it was agreed that I should go on duty at a little after twelve, and it must be near one o'clock."
"But what awoke you?"
"Nonsense! Haven't you and I travelled together long enough to know that when you go to sleep with your mind fixed on a certain time to awake you are sure not to miss it by more than a few minutes?"
"You are right; I had forgotten that. How was it you knew where to look for me?"
"I didn't. I've been prowling around camp for fifteen minutes, groping here and there and signaling to you, without the first inkling of where you were. I didn't want to awake Hank, and therefore was as careful as I could be. I began to suspect you had sat down somewhere and fallen asleep."
"I have had enough to keep the most drowsy person awake."
And thereupon Jack gave the particulars of all that had occurred while he was acting as sentinel. It need not be said that Fred Greenwood was astonished, for the manner of their guide before lying down convinced them that no danger of any nature threatened them.
"Do you think I acted right, Fred?"
"Most certainly you did. Hank and the like of him out in this country talk about shooting down an Indian as if he were not a human being, but they have souls like the rest of us, and we have no more right to take the life of one of them than I have to take yours. I am sure I should have done just as you did."
"I am glad to hear you say that. I wonder whether, if we stayed out here a few years, our feelings would change?"
"No; for the principle of right and wrong cannot change. Do you remember what that old settler told us on the train, a couple of days ago?"
"I do not recall it."
"He said that at a little town in Montana they had a great moral question under debate for a long time without being able to decide it. It was whether it was wicked for the men to go out hunting for Indians on Sunday. It was all right on week days, but most of the folks seemed to think it was a violation of the sanctity of the day to indulge in the sport on the Sabbath. But, Jack, you are tired and in need of sleep. I'll take charge of matters until two o'clock."
"I wonder whether anything will happen to you? It does not seem likely, for I must have given that fellow such a scare that he will not show himself again."
"But you mustn't reason on the basis that he is the only red man in Wyoming. However, I shall do my best. Good-night."
Thus summarily dismissed, Jack returned to the camp-fire in quest of the slumber which he needed. Fred had thrown additional wood on the blaze, and that accounted for the increase in illumination. Hank Hazletine did not seem to have stirred since lying down. He breathed heavily, and doubtless was gaining the rest which men of his habits and training know how to acquire under the most unfavorable circumstances. The youth wrapped his blanket about his figure, for he was now sensible that the air was colder than at any time since leaving the railway station. He was nervous over the recollection of his experience, though it would have been deemed of slight importance to one who had spent his life in the West. The feeling soon passed off, however, and he joined the veteran in the land of dreams.
And thus the burden of responsibility was shifted to the shoulders of Fred Greenwood, the junior by a few months of Jack Dudley. No one could have been more deeply impressed with his responsibility than Fred. He knew that a hostile red man had entered the grove while two of the party were asleep, and, but for the watchfulness of the sentinel, might have slain all three.
"I don't know much about Indians," reflected Fred, "but I have been told that they are a revengeful people. That fellow must be angered because he was outwitted by Jack, and it will be just like him to steal back for the purpose of revenge. It won't do for me to wink both eyes at the same time."
This was a wise resolution, and the youth took every precaution against committing what was likely to be a fatal mistake. Although his sleep was broken, and he could have consumed several hours additional with enjoyment, he was never more wide-awake. The temptation was strong to sit down on the ground with his back against a tree, but he foresaw the consequences. The man who yields only for a few minutes to the creeping drowsiness is gone.
Fred was more circumspect, even, than his chum. Instead of taking his position beside the trunk of one of the trees, he walked silently around in a circle, keeping the camp-fire as a centre. By this means he not only kept his senses keyed to a high point, but made his espionage nearer perfect than his friend had done.
That the night was not to pass without a stirring experience to the younger lad was soon evident. As nearly as he could guess, without consulting his watch, it was about one o'clock, when he became aware that some person or animal was astir in the grove. He heard the faint footfalls on the ground, though for a time he was unable to catch so much as a shadowy glimpse of the intruder.
"I believe it is that Indian, who has come back to square accounts with Jack for getting the better of him. The wisest thing for me to do is to not allow him to see me."
This was wise; and, to prevent such a disaster, Fred adopted the precise tactics that had been used by his friend. He stationed himself beside a friendly trunk, which so interposed between himself and the fire that he was invisible, no matter from what direction approached. Standing thus, he peered into the surrounding gloom and listened with all the intensity of which he was capable.
Suddenly he caught a glimpse of the intruder. The relief was unspeakable when he saw that it was not an Indian, but some kind of a wild animal. It was but a short distance off, and between him and the outer edge of the grove.
There being no one to replenish the fire, the light had grown dimmer, but a quick, shadowy flitting told Fred the brute was moving briskly about, only a few paces from where the lad was straining his vision to learn its nature.
"We might as well wind up this business," reflected Fred, as, with his hand on the trigger of his Winchester, he started abruptly in the direction of the stranger. The latter was quick to perceive him and whisked away. The lad followed, breaking into a trot despite the intervening trees. The beast continued fleeing, for nothing so disconcerts an animal as the threatening approach of a foe.
It was but a few paces to the edge of the timber, when the brute leaped out into full view in the star-gleam.
One glance was sufficient for the youth to recognize it as an immense wolf, which had probably been drawn to the spot by the odor of the meat that composed the dinner of the party. Fifty feet off the wolf stopped, turned partly about, and looked back at his pursuer, as if to learn whether he intended to follow him farther.
Fred did not, but the opportunity was too good to be lost. The aim was inviting, and, bringing his rifle to his shoulder, he sighted as best he could and pulled the trigger. He could not have done better had the sun been shining. The bullet passed directly through the skull of the wolf, which uttered a sharp yelp, leaped several feet into the air, and, doubling up like a jack-knife, fell upon his side, where, after several convulsive struggles, he lay still.
Naturally enough, the boy was elated over his success, for the shot was certainly an excellent one.
"There!" he said. "Jack frightened off the Indians, and I think I have given the wild animals a good lesson. At any rate, you won't bother us any more."
He supposed that the report of the gun would awaken Hazletine and bring him to the spot to learn the explanation, but nothing of that nature followed. If the report disturbed him, he merely opened and closed his eyes, and continued to slumber, after the manner of one who appreciates the value of rest.
In truth, it was always a matter of wonderment to the boys that their veteran guide adopted the course he followed that night. That actual danger impended was proven by the incidents already narrated, and yet he entrusted the safety of one of the boys, as well as his own life, to another, who, until then, had never been in a similar position. Why he did so would be hard to explain, but he never admitted that his course was a mistake. Sometimes, as is well known, a boy is taught to swim by flinging him into deep water, where he must choose between keeping afloat and drowning; and it may be the guide believed that, by tossing his young friends into the midst of danger at the very beginning of their experience as Western hunters, they would acquire the needed skill the more quickly.
"NOW FOR THE RANCH."
One of the singular features connected with the experience of our young friends during the first night they spent in Wyoming was that all the danger which threatened them came from one Indian and from one lupus. After Jack Dudley had expelled the prowling buck, the intruder took good care to remain away. Neither he nor any of his companions troubled the campers further. The presumption, therefore, was that this solitary specimen was a "dog Indian," or vagrant, wandering over the country on his own account. Such fellows, as already explained, claim no kinship with any tribe, but are, like the tramps of civilized society, agents for themselves alone.
Had the season been winter, with the snow deep on the ground, the trouble from the wolves would have been more serious. Those gaunt creatures, when goaded by hunger, become exceedingly daring, and do not hesitate to attack even armed bodies of men; but it was autumn time, when the ravenous brutes, who seem always to be hungry, find the least difficulty in procuring food, and they remained true to their cowardly disposition and refrained from everything in the nature of true courage.
The curious fact, as we have remarked, was that, as in the case of the Indian, only a single wolf intruded upon the little company. The animals generally travel in droves, and when one is seen it is quite safe to count upon a dozen, or a score, or even more. It is possible that the victim of Fred Greenwood's Winchester was also a sort of tramp, prospecting for his own benefit. It is more likely, however, that he was what might be considered a scout or advance agent of others. His pack was probably waiting among the foot-hills for him to return with his report. If so, the report is now considerably overdue.
Fred was a model sentinel for the remaining hours that he continued on duty. He continued circling about the camp-fire, silent, stealthy, peering here and there, and listening for the first evidence of danger. Nothing of the kind was seen or heard, and he finally came back to the smouldering fire and looked at the face of his watch.
Could it be possible? It lacked a few minutes of three o'clock. According to agreement, he should have called Hazletine an hour before.
"I don't suppose he will object," said Fred, aloud; "I'm sure I shouldn't, if allowed to sleep an hour beyond my time——"
"I ain't doing any kicking, am I?"
Looking around, he saw the guide had flung aside his blanket and was sitting erect, with a quizzical expression on his face.
"What made you fire your gun 'bout two hours ago?" he asked.
"Did you hear me?"
"How'd I know if I hadn't heard it?" was the pertinent question.
"A wolf was sneaking among the trees. I followed him out to the edge of the timber and let him have it between the eyes."
"Did you hurt him?"
"Since he flopped over and died, I have reason to believe he was hurt."
"Good! That's the style—always to shoot. Never waste your ammunition. You didn't kill any Injins?"
"I saw none at all."
Hank looked at the unconscious figure of Jack Dudley.
"Wonder how it was with him?"
"He did not fire his gun at anything."
Fred did not wish to tell his friend about that alarming visit earlier in the evening. That was Jack's concern.
"But he may have seed something. Howsumever, we can wait till morning. Wal, younker, if you've no 'bjection you can lay down and snooze till morning. I go on duty now."
There was vast comfort in this knowledge. It relieved the youth from the last remnant of anxiety, and he lost no time in abandoning himself to slumber. The man who was now acting as sentinel was a past master at the art, and there need be no misgiving while he was on duty. Thus it came about that neither Jack Dudley nor Fred Greenwood opened his eyes until the sun was shining into the grove.
Each had had a refreshing night, but it cannot be said that their awakening was of the most pleasant nature. The hunger that had been twice satisfied the day before was not to be compared to that which now got hold of them. With the insatiate craving was the knowledge that there was not a scrap of meat, a crumb of bread nor a drop of milk in camp.
"We can fill up on water," remarked Jack, after they had bathed faces and hands and quaffed their fill.
"But what good will that do? We might bubble over, but we should be just as hungry as ever."
"It seems to me that when a fellow is chock-full of anything he oughtn't to feel much hunger."
"I've often thought that, but you can't fool nature that way."
"If it gets any worse we can shoot the ponies and devour them."
"Why both of them?"
"Because it would take a whole one to satisfy me. I don't know how you feel, Jack, but if we are to have appetites like this I shall go in for buying a drove of cattle and spending the few weeks we have in these parts in eating."
The youths looked in each other's face and laughed. Truly they were ahungered, but could never quite lose their waggishness.
"I wonder what's become of Hank," suddenly exclaimed Fred, looking beside and behind them; "the fire is nearly burned out, and he is nowhere in sight. HALLOOH!"
The hail was uttered in a loud voice, and was responded to, but from a point a considerable distance out upon the prairie, in the direction of the foot-hills. The open nature of the wood permitted the boys to see quite clearly in that direction.
"Yonder he comes," said Jack.
"And, by gracious, he's carrying something on his shoulders. I wonder if it is that Indian you chatted with last night."
"Better than that. It's something to eat!"
Jack Dudley was right. The guide was laden with the carcass of some animal. Its bulk was proof that he possessed an accurate idea of the appetite of these young gentlemen.
"How careless in him to leave us thus alone," remarked Fred, with mock reproof.
"Do you wish he hadn't done so?"
"Don't name it!" exclaimed Fred, with a shudder; "he knew the only way of saving our lives. It wouldn't have done for him to postpone it another hour."
Hank Hazletine was never more welcome than when he entered the grove and let fall from his shoulders the carcass of a half-grown calf, plump, juicy, tender, and in the best of condition.
"I don't s'pose you care much 'bout it, but I feel like having something worth while for breakfast," he remarked, proceeding to prepare the coals, for he had dressed the veal before starting on his return.
"Well," said Fred, with assumed indifference, "I suspect that since you intend to partake of food yourself, we may as well join you for the sake of sociability."
Men like the old hunter are adepts at preparing a meal. The smouldering fire was in good condition for broiling, and when raked apart afforded a bed of live coals, over which generous slices were suspended on green twigs, cut from the nearest trees. It took but a few minutes to prepare the meat. Hank always carried with him a box of mixed pepper and salt, whose contents were sprinkled over the toothsome food, of which the three ate their fill.
"Are there any more of these animals left in the neighborhood?" asked Jack, when their appetites were fully satisfied.
"S'pose you go out on the edge of the timber and larn for yourselves."
The lads followed the suggestion. Looking off in the direction of the Wind River Mountains, it seemed to them that tens of thousands of cattle were browsing among the foot-hills and on the grassy plain, while many more must have been beyond sight. This was one of the choicest regions of Wyoming, so widely celebrated for its grazing facilities.
It was an impressive sight, and the boys, each of whom was provided with a good spy-glass, surveyed the scene for some minutes in wondering silence. The cattle were several miles distant, and seemed to be brown, undulating hummocks of dirt, kept in constant motion by some force beneath. On the outer fringe they were more scattered, but were constantly moving, as if the pasturage was so excellent that they were continually tempted to give up that which was good for that which looked better.
"Are they left wholly to themselves?" asked Fred, as the youths came back to where the guide was saddling his pony.
"No. There are always two or three men looking after them. I seed Bart Coinjock, one of our own cowboys, 'tending our animals, and he told me to take my ch'ice from the lot. You mustn't forgit that we're purty close to the Wind River Injin Reservation, where the Government has several tribes under charge."
This was news to the boys. Hazletine explained that a large tract of land to the northwest and close to the mountains had been set apart some years before by the United States Government for exclusive occupancy by several tribes of Indians. They owned the land, and no white man had the right to intrude upon them.
In the Southwest, where the Apaches were placed on reservations, there had been the most frightful trouble, for those Indians are the worst in North America. All our readers know how many times the fierce Geronimo and a few of his hostiles broke away from their reservation, and, riding swiftly through Arizona and New Mexico, spread desolation, woe and death in their path. Not until Geronimo and his worst bucks were run down in old Mexico and transported bodily to the East was the danger to the Southwest terminated.
Nothing of the kind has taken place in Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and other reservations further east, but there is always a certain number of malcontents on the reservations who cause trouble. They steal away unnoticed by the authorities, and engage in thieving, and, when the chances are favorable against detection, commit graver crimes.
"That Injin that come into the timber last night was a sort of dog Injin that had come down from the Wind River Reservation to find out what he could steal."
The boys looked at each other in astonishment. They had made no reference to the visitor in the hearing of the guide, and could not understand where he had gained his knowledge. He noticed their surprise, and smiled.
"I seed the tracks of his pony, as well as his own. It was as plain to me as the words of a printed book. Why didn't you shoot the chap?"
Thus appealed to, Jack told the story. Hazletine listened with an expression of amused contempt on his bearded face.
"You'll git over that afore you've been here long. I think I know who he was. Tell me how he looked."
Jack was able to give a good description of his visitor, and before it was finished the guide nodded his head several times.
"It was him, Motoza, one of the worst scamps west of the Mississippi."
"What do you suppose he was after?"
"He'll steal anything he can lay his hands on. If he'd found us all asleep he'd shot every one of us. That's the kind of a feller Motoza is. You played it well on him, catching him as you did, but you'd played it a hanged sight better if you'd put a bullet through him afore you asked any questions."
"What tribe does he belong to?"
"That's a queer part of it. Gin'rally it's easy to tell from the dress, paint and style of an Injin what his tribe or totem is, but there's nothing of the kind 'bout Motoza to guide you. I think he's a Sioux."
"I understood those red men live further to the eastward."
"So they do; but Motoza has wandered from his people. He was under Sitting Bull, and went with him into British America when it got too hot on this side of the line; but Sitting Bull come back, and Motoza follered. He tries to make b'leve he's a good Injin, and sometimes he is for months at a time on the reservation. Then the devil gits into him, and he's off somewhere."
While this conversation was going on the three had mounted their ponies and were galloping northward, this time trending to the right, so as to draw away from the mountains and follow an almost direct line to Bowman's ranch, their destination. The animals were so fresh and spirited that Hazletine said he was hopeful of sleeping that night in the ranch itself, as he called the low, flat building where he and several cowmen made their home when in that part of the country attending to their duties.
It would take hard riding, and would lead them into the night to accomplish the long journey, but the guide saw no reason why it should not be done. If a storm came up—and they break with amazing suddenness at times in that part of the world—or if any mishap befell their ponies, a stop would have to be made for the night before reaching the ranch.
Jack Dudley decided to ask a question that had been in his mind for some time.
"Hank, that Indian last night was in my power, and he knew it as well as I, but I spared his life and allowed him to ride away without a hair of his head harmed. Now, don't you think he will feel some gratitude for that?"
Hazletine threw back his head with uproarious laughter. He seemed to have heard the best joke of a twelvemonth.
"What give you that idee?" he asked, when he succeeded in mastering his exuberant mirth.
"Why, the event itself. I know that an Indian is revengeful by nature, but I have always believed that he was capable of gratitude for kindness."
"You've read that in story-books, but you never seed it in life. I won't be quite as rough as that," added the guide, in the same breath; "I have seen a redskin that didn't furgit that a man had saved him from dying or being shot, but such redskins are as scarce as hen's teeth. The rule is that they take all such kindnesses as signs of cowardice, and despise the one that shows 'em. Let me tell you something that I know," continued Hazletine, seriously. "Three years ago, when I was down in Arizona, Jim Huber was the owner of the ranch where I was working. He b'leved in treating Injins kindly. I've seen him give the 'Paches water to drink when they was thirsty, meat to eat, 'bacca to smoke, and even powder and ball for their guns. He kept that up right along, and when he was warned agin it, he said an Injin was human like the rest of us, and he was willing to take his chances. The 'Paches wouldn't furgit what he'd done fur 'em.
"Wal, they didn't. The fust thing we knowed, Geronimo and a dozen of his devils was off their reservation and coming down through them parts like a Kansas cyclone. It happened that me and the boys was several miles off when we heerd the news, and knowing that Huber was alone at the ranch, we rid like all mad fur the place. We got there too late to save him. The ranch was on fire, and he was mangled so we hardly knowed him. But he had died game, and killed two of the 'Paches afore he went under. The three laid aside one another, and the two Injins was the very ones that had set at his table, eat of his food, been given powder and ball, and been treated like brothers."