Despite his apparent calmness it took a few moments for the father to gain sufficient self-control to speak clearly. Seated in the chair, he looked into the embers of the fire on the hearth, compressed his lips and breathed hard. His two friends had also seated themselves, for it seemed to them it was easier to master their agitation thus than while upon their feet.
"What have I to tell, but my everlasting woe and shame? The lieutenant and I have been working for several days by ourselves on a new lead. I had noticed nothing unusual in his manner nor indeed in that of my child. At lunch time to-day he complained to me of not feeling like work, and told me not to expect him back this afternoon. I would have returned with him, had not the indications of the new lead been so good. And actually he invited me to do no more work until to-morrow, though why he should have done it, when it would have spoiled their whole scheme, is more than I can explain.
"It was part of his plan to deceive you."
"I don't see how it could do that, for there was no need of his inviting me,—but let it go. It came about that I worked later than usual, so that it was dark when I got home. I was surprised to see no light and to find no fire or Nellie. I thought nothing of that, however, for who would have believed it possible that there could be anything wrong? I supposed she was with some of the folks and being tired I sat down in my chair and fell asleep.
"When I awoke, the room was cold, silent and as dark as a wolf's mouth. I felt impatient and decided to give her a scolding for being so neglectful. I groped around until I found a match, intending to start a fire. I had just lit the lamp and set it down on the table, when I caught sight of a folded piece of paper with my name in her handwriting on the outside. It gave me a queer feeling and my hands trembled when I unfolded and read it.
"I don't clearly remember the next few minutes. The room seemed to be spinning around, and I think I had to sit down to keep from falling, but what saved me from collapse was my anger. I have been consumed with indignation once or twice in my life, but was never so furious, so uncontrollable, so utterly savage as I was after reading that note. If I could have found Russell, I would have throttled him. It may sound strange, but I hardly once thought of Nellie; it was he, the villain, whom I yearned to get my hands on."
"Of course," said Ruggles, "that's the way you oughter feel."
"I don't know what possessed me to do so, but I rushed out and made straight for his cabin, as if I would find him there. Of course that too was empty, and then I came here. Fool that I have been!" exclaimed the parent, leaping to his feet and striding up and down the room; "not to see all this, but," he added pathetically, "I believed that Nellie loved me."
The flaming wrath of the two melted into pity for the stricken father. Parson Brush laid his hand on his shoulder and compelled him to resume his seat. Then he spoke with the tenderness of a woman:
"That child does love you more than she loves her own life, but she is blinded by her infatuation for that smooth-tongued scoundrel. It is the nature of her sex to feel and act thus; but, as I said, it does not mean that her love for you is less—"
"Don't talk of her love for me," fiercely interrupted the parent; "we only judge of a person by his actions."
"But you and I have made mistakes—"
"Nothing like this; why did she not ask me? why did he not tell me that he wished to marry her?—that is if he does," added the father, as if determined to make his own cup as bitter as possible.
"He did not ask you, because he knew you would refuse; for from the first time he entered this community, he was determined to have her."
"How do you know that?"
"Because Ruggles and I read him; we did what no one else did,—we measured the man. Am I right, Wade?"
The miner nodded his head.
"Every word is as true as gospel; we noticed his sly looks at her, that first night you and him entered the Heavenly Bower and she was there. We couldn't make any mistake about it."
"And you didn't warn me! You two are as bad as he, because you kept the secret when you ought to have put me on my guard, so that I might have strangled him at the first advance he made."
Sympathy for the man prevented his listeners taking offence at the words which, from any one else, would have brought serious consequences. The parson said soothingly:
"If you were not so wrought up, captain, you would not be so unreasonable; suppose Wade and I had gone to you with the statement that the man who, according to your own words, had saved your life but a short time before in the mountains, was a villain, who contemplated robbing you of your child; what would you have done?"
"Thanked you and been on my guard."
"You would have done nothing of the kind; you would have cursed us and told us to mind our own business."
"No matter what I would have done, it was your duty to tell me, regardless of the consequences to yourselves. I might have resented it, but my eyes would have been opened and this blow saved me."
"Nothing could have opened your eyes, for you were blind," said the parson, who felt that though the man was intensely agitated, he ought to hear some plain truths; "even had you suspected there was ground for our fears, you would have gone to Lieutenant Russell and demanded an explanation. He would have denied it, and you would have believed him with the result that he would have been put on his guard and would have deceived you the more completely."
"Likewise, as aforesaid," added Ruggles, "the villain would have come to us and made us give our grounds for our charges. What ridic'lous fools we would have been, when all we could answer was that we thought he looked as if he meant to run away with your darter."
"There may be some justice in what you say," replied the captain more composedly; "It was I who was blind, but I can't understand it. Never until I read that piece of paper, did I suspect the truth."
"Howsumever, the parson and me haven't been idle; we often talked it over and fixed on a line that we thought would work better than going to you. We showed the leftenant that we was onto his game; I give him a scowl now and then, as it fell convenient, that said 'Beware!' We, that is the parson and me, made up our minds to watch close, and, at the first sign that was dead sure, we'd fall onto him like a couple of mountains."
"And why didn't you?"
"He fooled us as he did you. We was talkin' over matters the very minute you busted into the door and was satisfied that he had larned he was playin' with fire and had concluded to drop it. We was as big fools as you."
It was the parson who now broke in.
"Why do we sit here, lamenting that which cannot be helped? Do you mean to give up, captain, and let her go? Will you settle down to toil in the diggings, giving her no further thought, while this pretty-faced lieutenant is chuckling over the clever manner by which he fooled you as well as us—"
"No!" fairly shouted the roused parent; "I will follow them to the ends of the earth! They shall not find a foot of ground that will protect them! She has never seen me angry, but she shall now!"
"We are with you," coolly responded Brush, "but only on one condition."
"That this account is to be settled with him alone; you musn't speak so much as a cross word to Nellie; she will shed many a bitter tear of sorrow; she will drain the cup to its dregs; he, the cause of it all, is to be brought to judgment. When do you wish to take up the pursuit?"
"And we are with you."
There was something wonderful in the way Parson Brush kept control of himself. Externally he was as calm as when standing in front of the adamantine blackboard, giving instruction to Nellie Dawson, while down deep in his heart, raged a tempest such as rouses into life the darkest passions that can nerve a man to wrong doing. Believing it necessary to stir the father to action, he had done it by well chosen words, that could not have been more effective.
For weeks and months the shadow had brooded over him. Sometimes it seemed to lift and dissolve into unsubstantiality, only to come back more baleful than before. And the moment when he had about persuaded himself that it was but a figment of the imagination, it had sprung into being and crushed him. But he was now stern, remorseless, resolute, implacable.
It was much the same with Wade Ruggles. He strove desperately to gain the remarkable control of his feelings, displayed by his comrade, and partly succeeded. But there was a restless fidgeting which caused him to move aimlessly about the room and showed itself now and then in a slight tremulousness of the voice and hands, but his eyes wore that steely glitter, which those at his side had noticed when the rumble and grumble told that the battle was on.
Captain Dawson went from one extreme to the other. Crazed, tumultuous in his fury, and at first like a baffled tiger, he moderated his voice and manner until his companions wondered at his self-poise.
"They have started for Sacramento and are now well advanced over the trail," he remarked without any evidence of excitement.
"When do you imagine they set out?" asked Brush.
"Probably about the middle of the afternoon; possibly earlier."
"Then," said Ruggles, "they have a good six hours' start. They haven't lost any time and must be fifteen or twenty miles away."
"The trail is easy traveling for twice that distance, as I recollect it," observed the captain; "after that it grows rougher and they will not be able to go so fast."
"This must have been arranged several days ago, though it is only guesswork on our part. Of course she has taken considerable clothing with her."
"I did not look into her room," said the captain; "there's no use; it is enough to know they made their preparations and started, accompanied by that dog Timon."
No time was wasted. They knew they would encounter cold weather, for the autumn had fairly set in, and some portions of the trail carried them to an elevation where it was chilly in midsummer. Each took a thick blanket. The captain donned his military coat, with the empty sleeve pinned to the breast, caught up his saddle and trappings, his Winchester and revolver, and buckled the cartridge belt around his waist. Then he was ready. Neither of the others took coat or vest. The blanket flung around the shoulders was all that was likely to be needed, in addition to the heavy flannel shirt worn summer and winter.
Thus equipped, the three stood outside the cabin, with the moon high in the sky, a gentle wind sweeping up the canyon and loose masses of clouds drifting in front of the orb of night. Here and there a light twinkled from a shanty and the hum of voices sounded faintly in their ears. Further off, at the extreme end of the settlement, stood the Heavenly Bower, with the yellow rays streaming from its two windows. They could picture the group gathered there, as it had gathered night after night during the past years, full of jest and story, and with never a thought of the tragedy that had already begun.
"Shall we tell them?" asked Ruggles.
"No," answered Brush; "some of them might wish to go with us."
"And it might be well to take them," suggested Captain Dawson.
"We are enough," was the grim response of the parson.
Like so many phantoms, the men moved toward the further end of the settlement. Opposite the last shanty a man assumed form in the gloom. He had just emerged from his dwelling and stopped abruptly at sight of the trio of shadows gliding past.
"What's up, pards?" he called.
"Nothing," was the curt answer of the captain, who was leading and did not change his pace.
"You needn't be so huffy about it," growled the other, standing still and puffing his pipe until they vanished.
"That was Vose Adams," remarked the captain over his shoulder; "he'll tell the rest what he saw and it will be known to everybody in the morning."
The little party was carefully descending the side of the canyon, with now and then a partial stumble, until they reached the bottom of the broad valley where the grass grew luxuriantly nearly the whole year. It was nutritious and succulent and afforded the best of pasturage for the few horses and mules belonging to the miners.
Captain Dawson and Lieutenant Russell had ridden up the trail, each mounted on a fine steed, which had brought them from Sacramento. When the saddles and bridles were removed, the animals were turned loose in the rich pasturage, which extended for miles over the bottom of the canyon. There, too, grazed the pony of Nellie Dawson, the horses of Ruggles and Bidwell and the three mules owned by Landlord Ortigies and Vose Adams. The latter were left to themselves, except when needed for the periodical journeys to Sacramento. The little drove constituted all the possessions of New Constantinople in that line. Consequently, if any more of the miners wished to join in the pursuit, they would have to do so on foot or on mule back,—a fact which was likely to deter most of them.
In the early days of the settlement, before the descent of that terrible blizzard, fully a dozen mules and horses were grazing in the gorge, subject to the call of their owners, who, however, did not expect to need them, unless they decided to remove to some other site. But one morning every hoof had vanished and was never seen again. The prints of moccasins, here and there in the soft earth, left no doubt of the cause of their disappearance. Perhaps this event had something to do with the permanence of New Constantinople, since the means of a comfortable departure with goods, chattels, tools and mining implements went off with the animals.
After that the miners made no further investments in quadrupeds, except to the extent of three or four mules, needed by Vose Adams, though he was forced to make one journey to Sacramento on foot. Thus matters stood until the addition of the horses. There was always danger of their being stolen, but as the weeks and months passed, without the occurrence of anything of that nature, the matter was forgotten.
The three men were so familiar with the surroundings that they made their way to the bottom of the canyon with as much readiness as if the sun were shining. Pausing beside the narrow, winding stream, which at that season was no more than a brook, they stood for several minutes peering here and there in the gloom, for the animals indispensable for a successful pursuit of the eloping ones.
"There's no saying how long it will take to find them," remarked the captain impatiently; "it may be they have been grazing a mile away."
"Have you any signal which your animal understands?"
"Yes, but it is doubtful if he will obey it."
Captain Dawson placed his fingers between his lips and emitted a peculiar tremulous whistle, repeating it three times with much distinctness. Then all stood silent and listening.
"He may be asleep. Once he was prompt to obey me, but he has been turned loose so long that there is little likelihood of his heeding it."
"Try it again and a little stronger," suggested Ruggles.
The captain repeated the call until it seemed certain the animal must hear it, but all the same, the result was nothing.
It was exasperating for the hounds thus to be held in leash when the game was speeding from them, with the scent warm, but there was no help for it.
"We are wasting time," said Dawson; "while you two go up the gorge, I will take the other direction; look sharp for the animals that are probably lying down; they are cunning and will not relish being disturbed; if you find them whistle, and I'll do the same."
They separated, the captain following one course and his friends the other.
"It'll be a bad go," remarked Ruggles, "if we don't find the horses, for we won't have any show against them on their animals."
"Little indeed and yet it will not hold us back."
"No, indeed!" replied Ruggles with a concentration of passion that made the words seem to hiss between his teeth.
Since the stream was so insignificant, Wade Ruggles leaped across and went up the canyon on the other side, his course being parallel with his friend's. A hundred yards further and he made a discovery.
"Helloa, Brush, here they are!"
The parson bounded over the brook and hurried to his side, but a disappointment followed. The three mules having cropped their fill had lain down for the night but the horses were not in sight.
The parson expressed his disappointment in vigorous language, when, instead of the horses, the hybrids proved to be the only animals near them.
"I am afraid this proves one thing," he said.
"What is that?"
"I have had a dread all along that the Indians would run off the horses, but it seems to me that if they had done so, they would have taken the mules."
"It strikes me as more likely that the leftenant took the horses, so as to prevent our follering him and the gal."
"That sounds reasonable," said the parson thoughtfully; "the plan is so simple that it must have occurred to him. The mules are too slow to be of any use to us, and it may be as well that we shall have to go afoot."
"How do you figure that out?"
"They will conclude that, if we haven't any horses, we won't follow them; they will, therefore, take their time and travel so slow, that we'll have the chance to swoop down on them when they are not expecting it."
"I s'pose there's what you call philosophy in that, but it doesn't hit me very favorable. We'll see what the cap thinks—helloa!"
Clearly and distinctly through the still air came the signal by which Captain Dawson was to announce his discovery of the animals. The call scattered all thoughts of making the journey on foot, and, wheeling about, the two started off at a rapid pace to join their friend. At the same moment the call sounded again, and they answered it to let it be known they understood the situation. In a brief time they came upon Captain Dawson impatiently awaiting them. There was no need for him to tell them he had been successful in his search, for he was standing beside the three horses, which were quickly saddled and bridled. A minute later the men vaulted upon their backs and the captain said crisply:
"Now we are off!"
Each seemed to be inspired by the spirit of adventure. They sat erect in the saddles, drew in a deep inhalation of the keen night air, and moved off with their horses on a brisk walk, which almost immediately became a canter. For a mile, the trail through Dead Man's Gulch was nearly as hard and even as a country highway. The width of the canyon varied from a few rods to a quarter of a mile, with the mountain ridges on either hand towering far up into cloudland, the tallest peaks crowned with snow which the sun never dissolved.
The tiny stream wound like a silvery serpent through the stretch of green, succulent grass, narrowing gorge and obtruding rock and boulder. Now and then the path led across the water, which was so shallow that it only plashed about the fetlocks of the horses. Captain Dawson, in his impetuosity, kept a few paces in front of the other two, as if he were the leader. When the space increased too much he reined up his animal and waited until his friends joined him. They were grim, resolute and for most of the time had little to say to one another, though, as may be supposed, their thoughts were of anything but a pleasant nature.
So long as the moon held her place near the zenith, the canyon was suffused and flooded with its soft radiance, but the rifts of clouds drifting before its face rendered the light at times treacherous and uncertain. The horses had rested so long, and had had such extensive browsing on the rich pasturage, that they were in fine condition, and the gallop seemed more grateful to them than an ordinary walking gait. The air was cool and the fine trail, at this portion of the journey, made all the conditions favorable. After a time however, the ascent and descent would appear, the ground would become rough and the best the animals could do would be to walk.
When Parson Brush remarked that Lieutenant Russell had proved himself an idiot when he left these horses behind for his pursuers to use, the captain and Ruggles agreed with him.
"I don't understand it," said Brush; "he must have expected we would be hot after him, within the very hour we learned of what he had done, or can it be that he and she concluded we would say, 'Depart in peace?' If so, the young man shall have a terrible awakening."
"It seems to me," said Ruggles, "that it is more likely he believed that with the start he would gain, it didn't matter whether we follered or not, feelin' sure that he could keep out of reach and get to Sacramento so fur ahead of us, that he needn't give us a thought."
"I am not very familiar with the trail," remarked the captain, "for, as you know, I have passed over it only twice; first, nearly five years ago, when I went to the war, and a few months since when I came back."
"But you and Russell did not lose your way," said the parson.
"That was because we did our traveling by day. We tried it once at night, but came within a hair of tumbling over a precipice a thousand feet deep. This will be easy enough, so long as we have the sun to help us."
"You probably know as much about the trail as Wade and I, for neither of us has been over it often. Consequently, when we travel by night, we shall have to go it blind, or rather shall do so after awhile, since all is plain sailing now."
"I ain't so sure of that," observed Ruggles doubtfully; "we must have come a mile already and ought to have made a turn by this time."
Captain Dawson checked his horse and peered ahead.
"Can it be we are off the track? We have come nearer two miles than one—ah!"
Just then the moon emerged from the obscuring clouds and their field of vision so broadened that they saw themselves face to face with an impassable barrier. The canyon closed directly in front of them like an immense gate of stone. It was impossible to advance a hundred feet further.
"Well, I'm blessed if this isn't a pretty situation!" exclaimed the captain.
"We have passed the opening, but we haven't far to return, and you know that a bad beginning brings a good ending."
"Humph! I would rather chance it on a good beginning."
Ruggles was the first to wheel and strike his horse into a gallop, which he did with the remark that he knew where the right passage was located. His companions were almost beside him. The canyon was of that peculiar conformation that, while it terminated directly in front, it contained an abrupt angle between where the party had halted and the mining settlement. At that point it was so wide that the little stream, which might have served for a guide, was lost sight of. Had they followed the brook, they would not have gone astray. The only inconvenience was the slight delay, which in their restless mood tried their spirits to the utmost. Captain Dawson muttered to himself and urged his horse so angrily that he again placed himself in advance. His mood was no more savage than that of his companions, but he chafed at everything which caused delay, no matter how trifling, in the pursuit.
Fearing that he might go wrong, Ruggles spurred up beside him. The distance passed was less than any one expected it to be, when Ruggles called out:
"Here we are!"
The exclamation was caused by the hoofs of their horses plashing in the water. They seemed to share the impatience of their riders; "all we have to do now is to keep to the stream; obsarve its turn."
Its course was almost at right angles to that which they had been following. The animals were cantering easily, when suddenly a deeper gloom than usual overspread the valley like a pall. This came from a heavy bank of clouds sweeping before the moon. The steeds were drawn down to a walk, but the obscurity was not dense enough to shut out the chasm-like opening, where the mountains seemed to part, riven by some terrific convulsion ages before. The enormous walls drew back the door as if to invite them to enter and press the pursuit of the couple that were fleeing from a just and righteous wrath.
The width of the canyon had now dwindled to a few yards, and the stream expanding and shallow, occupied so much of the space that the horses were continually splashing through it, but the rise and fall of the trail was so slight that the gallop might have continued with little danger of mishap.
The formation of the party was in "Indian file," with Captain Dawson leading, Ruggles next and Brush bringing up the rear. All three animals were walking, for the light of the moon was variable and often faint, while the danger of a mis-step was ever present, and was likely to bring a fatal ending of the pursuit almost before it had fairly begun. Occasionally the gloom in the narrow gorge was so deep that they distinguished one another's figures indistinctly, but the animals were left mostly to themselves. They seemed to know what was expected of them and showed no hesitation. It was impossible for them to go wrong, for it was much the same as if crossing a bridge, with its protecting barrier on either hand. The horse of the captain showed his self-confidence once or twice by a faint whinney and a break from the walk into a trot, but his rider checked him.
"Not yet; heaven knows that I am as anxious to push on as you, but we have already made one blunder and we can't afford another; when the time comes that it is safe to trot you shall do so and perhaps run."
"Hush!" called Brush from the rear; "I hear a curious sound."
"What does it seem to be?"
"It is impossible to tell; let's stop for a moment."
As the three animals stood motionless, the strange noise was audible. It was a deep, hollow roar rapidly increasing in volume and intensity, and resembled the warning of a tornado or cyclone advancing through the forest. The animals, as is the case at such times, were nervous and frightened. They elevated their heads, pricked their ears, snuffed the air and the animal of the parson trembled with terror.
The three believed that something in the nature of a cyclone was approaching, or it might be a cloudburst several miles away, whose deluge had swollen the stream into a rushing torrent that would overwhelm them where they stood, caught inextricably in a trap.
The terrifying roar, however, was neither in front nor at the rear, but above them,—over their heads! From the first warning to the end was but a few seconds. The sound increased with appalling power and every eye was instinctively turned upward.
In the dim obscurity they saw a dark mass of rock, weighing hundreds of tons, descending like a prodigious meteor, hurled from the heavens. It had been loosened on the mountain crest a half mile above, and was plunging downward with inconceivable momentum. Striking some obstruction, it rebounded like a rubber ball against the opposite side of the gorge, then recoiled, still diving downward, oscillating like a pendulum from wall to wall, whirling with increasing speed until it crashed to the bottom of the gorge with a shock so terrific that the earth and mountain trembled.
Landing in the stream, the water was flung like bird shot right and left, stinging the faces of the men fifty feet distant. They sat awed and silent until Ruggles spoke:
"Now if that stone had hit one of us on the head it would have hurt."
"Probably it would," replied the captain, who had difficulty in quieting his horse; "at any rate, I hope no more of them will fall till we are out of the way."
"I wonder whether that could have been done on purpose," remarked the parson.
"No," said Ruggles; "the leftenant couldn't know anything about our being purty near the right spot to catch it."
"I alluded to Indians,—not to him."
But Ruggles and the captain did not deem such a thing credible. A whole tribe of red men could not have loosened so enormous a mass of stone, while, if poised as delicately as it must have been, they would have known nothing of the fact. Sometimes an immense oak, sound and apparently as firm as any in the forest around it, suddenly plunges downward and crashes to the earth, from no imaginable cause. So, vast masses of rock on the mountain side which have held their places for centuries, seem to leap from their foundations and tear their way with resistless force into the valley below. This was probably one of those accidental displacements, liable to occur at any hour of the day or night, which had come so startlingly near crushing the three men to death.
Captain Dawson drew a match from his pocket and scraping it along his thigh, held it to the face of his watch.
"Just midnight and we are not more than half a dozen miles from home."
"And how far do you suppose they are?" asked the parson.
"Probably five times as much, if not more."
"But they will not travel at night, and by sunrise we ought to be considerably nearer to them than now."
"You can't be certain about that. Lieutenant Russell knows me too well to loiter on the road; he has a good horse and the pony of Nellie is a tough animal; both will be urged to the utmost; for they must be sure the pursuit will be a hard one."
The discomforting fact in the situation was that if the fugitives, as they may be considered, pushed their flight with vigor, there was no reason why they should not prevent any lessening of the distance between them and their pursuers, and since they would naturally fear pursuit, it was to be expected that they would use all haste. The hope was that on account of Nellie, the animals would not keep up the flight for so many hours out of the twenty-four, as the pursuers would maintain it.
The trail steadily ascended and became so rough and uneven that the horses frequently stumbled. This made their progress slow and compelled the three men, despite themselves, to feel the prudence of resting until daylight, but not one of them wished to do so, since the night pursuit was the only phase of the business which brought with it the belief that they were really lessening the distance separating them from the two in advance.
Eager as the couple were to get through the mountains and reach Sacramento, where for the first time they could feel safe from their pursuers, the young officer was too wise to incur the risk of breaking down their horses, for such a mishap would be a most serious one indeed, and fraught with fatal consequences.
There was little fear of the pursuers going astray. Captain Dawson had an extraordinary memory for places, as he repeatedly proved by recalling some landmark that he had noticed on his previous trip. Furthermore, the gorge was so narrow that in a certain sense, it may be said, they were fenced in, and would have found it hard to wander to the right or left, had they made the effort.
After an hour of steady climbing they reached an altitude which brought with it a sharp change of temperature. The air became so chilly that Ruggles and Brush flung their blankets about their shoulders and found the protection added to their comfort. The horses, too, began to show the effects of their severe exertion. Their long rest had rendered them somewhat "soft," though the hardening would be rapid. After a few days' work they would not mind such exertion as that to which they were now forced.
When a sort of amphitheatre was reached, it was decided to draw rein for a brief while, out of sympathy for their panting animals.
"I thought if we failed to find our horses," remarked the parson, "we wouldn't find it hard to keep up the pursuit on foot; I have changed my mind."
He looked back over the sloping trail, which speedily vanished in the gloom and the eyes of the other two were turned in the same direction. At the moment of doing so, the animals again became frightened, so that, despite their fatigue, it was hard to restrain them.
"There's something down there," remarked the captain slipping from his saddle; "Wade, you are the nearest, can you see anything?"
Ruggles was out of the saddle in an instant, Winchester in hand.
"I catched sight of something," he said in an undertone; "look after my horse, while I find out what it is."
"Have a care," cautioned the parson; "it may be an Indian."
"That's what I think it is," replied Ruggles, who instantly started down the trail rifle in hand, his posture a crouching one and his senses strung to the highest point.
He passed from view almost on the instant, and his companions listened with intense anxiety for what was to follow. Suddenly the sharp crack of their friend's rifle rang out in the solemn stillness, the report echoing again and again through the gorge, with an effect that was startling even to such experienced men. It was the only sound that came to them, and, while they were wondering what it meant, Ruggles reappeared among them with the noiselessness of a shadow.
"It was a bear," he explained; "I think he scented the animals and was follering on the lookout for a chance at 'em."
"Did you kill him?"
"Don't think I did; he must have heard me comin' and was scared; he went down the trail faster than I could; when I seen that I couldn't catch him, I let fly without taking much aim. Maybe I hit him; leastways, he traveled so much faster that I give it up and come back."
The party lingered for half an hour more, but as the horses showed no further fear, they concluded that bruin had taken to heart the lesson he received and would bother them no further.
The mountains still towered on every hand. The stream had long since disappeared among the rocks and the gorge had become narrower. Generally it was no more than a dozen feet in width, occasionally expanding to two or three times that extent. The moon had moved over so far that only its faint reflection against the dark walls and masses of rock availed the horsemen. The sky seemed to contain an increasing number of clouds and there were indications of a storm, which might not break for a day or two, and as likely as not would not break at all.
The traveling, despite its difficulty, was comparatively safe. The trail did not lead along the sides of precipices, with a climbing wall on one side and a continuous descent on the other, but it was solid and extended across from one ridge to the other. Because of this fact the three pushed their animals hard, knowing that it would not be long before they would have to be favored.
"I don't know whether we are wise to keep this up as we are doing," said the captain, "but I know there are few places where we can travel in the darkness and I feel like making the most of them."
"It is only a question of what the horses are able to stand," replied Brush; "it is easy enough for us to ride, but a very different thing for them to carry us. We must guard against their breaking down."
"I will look out for that, but it is strange that when we were making ready to start we forgot one important matter."
"What was that?"
"We did not bring a mouthful of food."
"We shall have little trouble in shooting what game we need."
"Perhaps not and perhaps we shall. The lieutenant and I found on our way from Sacramento that, although game appeared to be plenty, it had an exasperating habit of keeping out of range when we particularly needed it. Delay will be necessary to get food, and the reports of our guns are likely to give warning, just when it is dangerous."
"It was a bad slip," assented the parson; "for there was plenty of meat and bread at home; but we shall have to stop now and then to rest our animals and to allow them to feed and we can utilize such intervals by getting something for ourselves in the same line."
"It isn't that, so much as the risk of apprising the two of their danger. In addition, it will be strange if we get through the mountains without a fight with the Indians. According to my recollection, we shall strike a region to-morrow or on the next day, where there will be the mischief to pay."
Two miles more of laborious work and another halt. For the first time Parson Brush showed excitement.
"Do you know," he said, "that some one is following us? There may be several, but I am sure of one at least and he is on a horse."
A CLOSE CALL
Few situations are more trying than that of being followed at night by what we suspect is an enemy. The furtive glances to the rear show the foe too indistinctly for us to recognize him, and the imagination pictures the swift, stealthy attack and the treacherous blow against which it is impossible to guard.
There was little of this dread, however, in the case of our friends, for they felt strong enough to take care of themselves. Moreover, all three formed an instant suspicion of the identity of the man.
It was Felix Brush at the rear who first heard the faint footfalls, and, peering into the gloom, saw the outlines of a man and beast a few rods distant, coming steadily up the trail in the same direction with himself. A few minutes later the halt was made and all eyes were turned toward the point whence the man was approaching. He must have noticed the stoppage, but he came straight on until he joined the group.
"Howdy, pards," was his greeting.
"I thought it was you, Vose," said the captain, sharply; "what do you mean by following us?"
"What right have you to get in front of me? Don't I have to make a trip to Sacramento three or four times each year?"
"But you are not accustomed to start in the night time."
"And I never knowed it was your custom to leave New Constantinople in the middle of the night; leastways I never knowed you to do it afore."
"We have important business," added the captain brusquely, uncertain as yet whether he ought to be displeased or angered by the intrusion of Adams.
"So have I."
"What is it?"
"I don't understand you; explain yourself."
"There ain't one of you three that knows the way through the mountains, and if you undertook it alone, it would take you three months to reach Sacramento."
This was a new and striking view of the situation, but the parson said:
"Each of us has been over it before."
"Sartinly, but one trip nor half a dozen ain't enough. You lost your way the first hour in Dead Man's Gulch; if you hadn't done so, it would have took me a blamed sight longer to find you; there are half a dozen other places in the mountains ten times worse than the one where you flew the track. Howsumever, if you don't want me, I'll go back."
And Vose Adams, as if his dignity had received a mortal hurt, began turning his mule around.
"Hold on," interposed Captain Dawson; "you have put things in their true light; we are very glad to have you with us."
"That makes it all right," was the cheery response of the good natured Vose; "I never like to push myself where I ain't wanted, but as you seem glad to see me, after having the thing explained, we won't say nothing more about it. Howsumever, I may add that I obsarved you started in such a hurry that I thought it warn't likely you fetched any vittles with you, so I made up a lunch and brought it with me, being as you may not always have time to spare to shoot game."
The chilliness of Vose Adams' greeting changed to the warmest welcome. He had shown more thoughtfulness than any of them, and his knowledge of the perilous route through the mountains was beyond value. Indeed, it looked as if it was to prove the deciding factor in the problem.
"Do you know our business, Vose?" asked the captain.
"I knowed it the minute I seen you sneaking off like shadows toward the trail. I hurried to my cabin, got a lot of cold meat and bread together and then hunted up Hercules, my boss mule. He isn't very handsome, but he has a fine voice and has been through these mountains so many times that he knows the right road as well as me. I knowed you would travel fast and didn't expect to overhaul you afore morning, but you went past the right turn and that give me a chance to catch up sooner."
"But how was it you suspected our errand?" persisted the captain.
"How could I help it? What else could it be? I seen the miss and the leftenant start for Sacramento, and being as you took the same course it was plain that you was going there too, if you didn't overtake 'em first."
"You saw them start!" thundered the father of Nellie Dawson; "why didn't you hurry off to me with the news?"
"Why should I hurry off to you with the news?" coolly asked Vose Adams; "it wasn't the first time I had seen the two ride in that direction; sometimes she was with you, or with the parson or Ruggles, and once or twice with me. Would you have thought there was anything wrong if you had seen them?"
"No, I suppose not," replied the captain, seeing the injustice of his words; "but I have been so wrought up by what has occurred that I can hardly think clearly. I ask your pardon for my hasty words."
"You needn't do that, for I see how bad you feel and I'm sorry for you."
"When was it they left?"
"Early this afternoon."
"There was no one with them of course?"
"Nobody except that big dog they call Timon; he was frolicking 'round the horses, as if he enjoyed it as much as them."
Every atom of news was painful, and yet the afflicted father could not restrain himself from asking questions of no importance.
"About what hour do you think it was when they left?"
"It must have been near two o'clock when the leftenant fetched up his horse and the pony belonging to the young lady. She must have been expectin' him, for she come right out of the house, without keeping him waitin' a minute. He helped her into the saddle, while they talked and laughed as happy as could be."
This was wormwood and gall to the parent, but he did not spare himself.
"Did you overhear anything said by them?"
"I wouldn't have considered it proper to listen, even if they hadn't been so far off I couldn't catch a word that passed atween 'em."
"Was there anything in their actions to show they intended to take a longer ride than usual?"
"I don't see how there could be," replied the puzzled Adams, while Parson Brush, understanding what the distraught captain meant, explained:
"Was there anything in their appearance which suggested that they meant to take anything more than an ordinary gallop?"
"I didn't think of it at the time, but I can see now there was. Each of them had what seemed to be extra clothing and perhaps they had food, though I couldn't make sure of that. You know there has been something in the sky that looked like a coming storm, and I thought it was on that account that the clothing was took along. Then, as the leftenant had knocked off work, it might be he was not feeling very well."
"The scoundrel made that very excuse for leaving me," bitterly commented Captain Dawson, "but he wouldn't have taken the clothing as part of the same design for there was no need of anything of the kind. They laid their plans carefully and everything joined to make it as easy as possible."
"Your thoughts were precisely what ours would have been," said the parson, drawn toward the messenger unjustly accused by the captain in the tumult of his grief;" if we had seen the two start, we should have believed it was for one of the usual gallops which the young lady is so fond of taking; but, Vose, if we would have certainly gone astray in the mountains, without your guidance, how will it be with them, when she has never been over the trail and he has ridden over it but once?"
"They are sure to have a tough time of it which will make it all the harder for us."
"How is that?"
"Some good luck may lead them right; more than likely, howsumever, they'll get all wrong; therefore, if we stick to the path we may pass 'em a half dozen times. You see it's the blamed onsartinty of the whole bus'ness."
"I would not question your wisdom on such matters, Vose, but when I remember that each of them is riding a horse, and that the two must leave traces behind them, I cannot apprehend that we shall go very far astray in our pursuit. The most likely trouble as it seems to me is that they will travel so fast that it will be almost impossible to overtake them."
"If they can manage to keep to the trail, it is going to be hard work to come up with them. You haven't forgot that when I'm pushing through the mountains I sometimes have to hunt a new trail altogether."
"That is due to the trouble with Indians?"
"Precisely; sometimes it's a long, roundabout course that I have to take, which may keep me off the main course for a couple of days, or it may be for only a part of the day, but Injins is something that you must count on every time."
"And they are as likely to meet them as we?"
"More so, 'cause they're just ahead of you. Oh, it was the biggest piece of tomfoolery ever heard of for them to start on such a journey, but what are you to expect of two young persons dead in love with each other?"
This was not the kind of talk that was pleasing to the father, and he became morosely silent. It was equally repugnant to Ruggles and the parson to hear Nellie Dawson referred to as being in love with the execrated officer. Ruggles was grim and mute, and the parson deftly drew the conversation in another direction.
"I would like to ask you, Vose, how it was that Lieutenant Russell did not take the other horses with him, so as to make it impossible for anything in the nature of pursuit?"
"There might be two reasons; he may have thought it would be mean to hit you below the belt like that; he was too honorable—"
"It warn't anything like that," fiercely interrupted Ruggles.
"Then it must have been that if he had took all the animals with him, even though they was a considerable way down the gulch, the thing would have been noticed by others, who would have wanted to know what it meant."
"No doubt you have struck the right reason. Had the start been in the night time, he would have made sure that not even the mules were left for us. But, Vose," added the parson gravely, "we would be much better pleased if when you referred to the lieutenant, you said nothing about 'honor.'"
"Oh, I am as much down on him as any of you," airily responded Vose; "and, if I git the chance to draw bead on him, I'll do it quicker'n lightning. Fact is, the hope of having that same heavenly privilege was as strong a rope in pulling me up the trail after you as was the wish to keep you folks from gettin' lost. But, pards, Hercules is rested and I guess likely your animals are the same, so let's be moving."
Although Captain Dawson had been silent during the last few minutes, he did not allow a word to escape him. He knew Vose Adams was talkative at times, due perhaps to his enjoyment of company, after being forced to spend weeks without exchanging a word with any one of his kind, but there was no overestimating his value, because of his knowledge of the long, dangerous route through the mountains. When, therefore, the party were about to move on, the captain said:
"Vose, from this time forward you are the guide; the place for you is at the head; you will oblige me by taking the lead."
Vose accepted the post of honor, which was also the one of peril, for it is the man in his position whose life hangs in the balance when Indians are concerned. But there was no hesitancy on his part, though he was well aware of the additional risks he incurred.
"There's one good thing I can tell you," he said, just before they started.
They looked inquiringly at him and he explained:
"The hardest part of the climbing is over,—that is for the time," he hastened to add, seeing that he was not understood; "you'll have plenty more of it before we see Sacramento, but I mean that we have struck the highest part of the trail, and it will be a good while before there's any more climbing to do."
"That is good news," said Ruggles heartily, "for it has been mighty tough on the animals; I 'spose too, the trail is smoother."
"I am sorry to say it's rougher."
Ruggles muttered impatiently, but the four took up the task, Adams in the lead, with the rest stringing after him in Indian file. The declaration of Vose was verified sooner than was expected. While the mule was so sure-footed that he seemed to meet with no difficulty, it was excessively trying to the horses, who stumbled and recovered themselves so often that Captain Dawson began to fear one or more of them would go lame. Still in his anxiety to get forward, he repressed his fears, hoping that there would be some improvement and cheering himself with the belief that since all had gone well for so long, it would continue on the same line.
* * * * *
Once, however, his horse made such an abrupt stumble that the captain narrowly saved himself from being unseated. On the impulse of the moment he called to Adams in advance:
"Vose, I am afraid this won't do!"
The leader did not look around and acted as if he had not heard him.
"I say, Vose, isn't it better that we should wait till our horses can see the way?"
Since the leader took no notice of this demand, the captain concluded his fears were groundless and said no more.
"If he thinks it safe for us to keep on, I shall not oppose."
But Captain Dawson might have opposed, had he known the truth, for, strange as it may seem, Vose Adams did not hear the words addressed to him, because he was asleep on the back of his mule Hercules, as he had been many a time while riding over the lonely trail. In truth, there was some foundation for his declaration that he could sleep more soundly on the back of his animal than while wrapped up in his blanket in some fissure among the rocks. Fortunately for him, however, these naps were of short duration, and, while indulging in them, he relied upon his animal, which had acquired a wonderful quickness in detecting danger. The slightest lagging in his gait, a halt, a turning to one side or a whinny was sufficient to bring back on the instant the wandering senses of the rider. In the present instance his slumber was not interrupted until Hercules, seeing exactly where he was, dropped his walk to a lagging gait.
On the very second Vose Adams opened his eyes. So naturally that no one suspected anything, he checked his animal and looked around.
"Pards, we've reached a ticklish spot, and it's for you to say whether we shall wait for daylight afore trying it."
"What is its nature?" asked the captain, as he and the two behind him also reined up their animals.
"The trail winds through these peaks in front, and instead of being like that we've been riding over all along, keeps close to the side of the mountain. On the right is the solid rock, and on the left it slopes down for I don't know how many hundred feet, afore it strikes bottom. Once started down that slide, you'll never stop till you hit the rocks below like that mass of stone that tumbled over in front of you."
"How wide is the path?" asked the parson.
"There's more than a mile where it isn't wide enough for two of us to ride abreast, and there are plenty of places where a horse has got to step mighty careful to save himself. Hercules knows how to do it, for he larned long ago, but I have my doubts about your hosses."
"It might have been better after all if we had brought the mules," said the captain.
"Not a bit of it, for Hercules is the only one that knows how to git over such places."
"How do the others manage it?"
"They've never tried it in the night time; that's what I'm talking 'bout."
Adams's description enabled the others to recall the place. It was all that had been pictured and they might well pause before assuming the fearful risk. One reason for wishing to press forward was the knowledge that at the termination of the dangerous stretch, the trail was so smooth and even that for a long distance it would be easy to keep their animals at a gallop, while still further the peril appeared again.
Captain Dawson once more struck a match and looked at his watch.
"Half-past three; in two hours it will begin to grow light; if no accident happens we shall be at the end of the ugly piece of ground by that time, where the traveling is good. It is a pity to lose the opportunity, but I will leave it to you, parson and Ruggles; what do you say?"
"Our horses have been pushed pretty hard, but they are in good condition. I hate to remain idle."
"Then you favor going ahead?"
"And you, Ruggles?"
"I feel the same way."
"That settles it; lead on, Vose."
"I'm just as well suited, but keep your wits about you," was the warning of the leader, whose mule instantly responded, stretching his neck forward and downward and occasionally snuffing the ground, as if he depended on his sense of smell more than that of hearing.
The task was a nerve-wrenching one, and more than once each of the three regretted their haste in not waiting for daylight; but, having started, there was no turning back. To attempt to wheel about, in order to retrace their steps, was more perilous than to push on, while to stand still was hardly less dangerous.
The moonlight gave such slight help that the four depended almost wholly upon the instinct of their animals. Hercules never faltered, but advanced with the slow, plodding, undeviating certainty of those of his kind who thread their way through the treacherous passes of the Alps. Once his hind hoof struck a stone which went bounding down the precipice on his left, until at the end of what seemed several minutes, it lay still at the bottom. Neither animal nor rider showed the least fear, for in truth both were accustomed to little slips like that.
"I'm blessed if this isn't the most ticklish business that I ever attempted," muttered Captain Dawson; "I never had anything like it in the army; it reminds me of scouting between the lines, when you expect every second a bullet from a sharpshooter—"
At that instant his horse stepped on a round, loose stone which turned so quickly that before he could recover himself the hoof followed the stone over the edge of the precipice. The horse snorted and struggled desperately, and the brave rider felt an electric shock thrill through him from head to foot, for there was one moment when he believed nothing could save them from the most frightful of deaths.
The left hind leg had gone over the rocky shelf, which at that point was very narrow, and the hoof was furiously beating vacancy in the despairing effort to find something upon which to rest itself. His body sagged downward and the rider held his breath.
"Steady, my boy!" he called, and with rare presence of mind allowed the rein to lie free so as not to disconcert the steed.
The tremendous struggle of the intelligent animal prevailed and with a snort he recovered his balance and all four feet stood upon firm support.
"That was a close call," observed the parson, whose heart was in his mouth, while the brief fight for life was going on.
"It was so close that it couldn't have been any closer," coolly commented the captain, fully himself again.
At this moment, the cheery voice of Adams called:
"There's only about a hundred yards more of this, but we've now struck the worst part of the whole trail."
"If it is any worse than what we have just passed, it won't do to try it," replied Captain Dawson, with the memory of his recent thrilling experience still vivid with him.
"We can do it, but we must foller a different plan."
"What is that?"
"We must lead our animals. There are plenty of places where you can get off your horses with more comfort, but we can't stand here doing nothing. Get to the ground the best way you know how."
It was clear that the advice of the guide would have to be followed, and all four set about the task with the cool daring shown from the first. Since each man was to lead his animal, it was necessary to dismount in front, instead of slipping over the tail, as would have been easier. The beasts showed striking sagacity in this delicate task. The trail was so narrow that to dismount to the left, on the side of the dizzying precipice, made it impossible for a man to keep his poise, while to descend on the right, directly beside the body of the animal was almost certain to crowd him over into the gorge. Each, therefore, lowered himself with infinite care over the right shoulder of his steed, so well forward, that the horse by turning his head to the left afforded just enough room for the trick to be done. Every one dismounted in safety, each drawing a breath of relief when the exquisitely delicate task was accomplished.
Looking around in the gloom, Vose Adams saw that his friends stood on the ground.
"Are you all ready?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Brush from the rear.
"Hold the bridle so gentle that you can let go if your animal slips off: if he has to go over the precipice, there's no need of your follering him."
Each man took his Winchester in hand, and loosely grasping the bridle rein, began stealing forward, the captain's loss compelling him to make his single arm answer for both purposes. The advance was necessarily slow, for it was made with the utmost care. The path could not have been more dangerous than for the brief stretch between them and the broad, safe support beyond.
Several times the trail so narrowed that each trembled through fear of not being able to keep his balance, while it seemed absolutely impossible for a horse to do so; but one of the strange facts connected with that intelligent animal is that, despite his greater bulk, he is generally able to follow wherever his master leads. So it was that when a miner carefully turned his head, he saw his steed following slowly but unfalteringly in his footsteps.
It was soon perceived that this perilous stretch did not take a straight course, but assumed the form of an immense, partial circle. When half way around, the plodders came in sight of a huge rent in the distant mountain wall, through which the sky showed nearly from the zenith to the horizon. In this immense V-shaped space shone the moon nearly at its full, and without a rift or fleck of cloud in front of its face.
A flood of light streamed through and between the encompassing peaks, tinging the men and animals with its fleecy veil, as if some of the snow from the crests had been sprinkled over them. On their left, the craggy wall sloped almost vertically downward, the projecting masses of rock displaying the same, fairy-like covering, ending in a vast, yawning pit of night and blackness, into whose awful depth the human eye could not penetrate.
On the right, the mass of stone, rock and boulder, rugged, broken and tumbled together, as if flung about by giants in sport, towered beyond the vision's reach, the caverns, abysses and hollows made the blacker and more impenetrable by the moonlight glinting against the protruding masses.
It was as if a party of Titans had run their chisels along the flinty face of the mountain from the rear, gouging out the stone, with less and less persistency, until they reached the spot where the men and animals were creeping forward, when the dulled tools scarcely made an impression sufficient to support the hesitating feet.
Captain Dawson was but a few paces to the rear of Vose Adams's mule, whose surety of step he admired and tried to imitate.
"Training seems able to accomplish anything," reflected the captain; "I remember how Lieutenant Russell and I stopped on the further edge of this infernal place when we reached it one forenoon and spent several hours trying to find a safer path. It kept us in a tremor until we were across. Had any one told me that on the next journey I should try it in the night, I would have believed him crazy, but," he grimly added, "I would have thought the same, if I had been told that a necessity like this would compel us to do so."
The bridle rein was looped over his elbow, which extended behind him, the same hand grasping his rifle, so that he advanced partly sideways over the treacherous trail. He attempted to do nothing but look after his own footsteps. Sometimes, when it was a little harder to pull the rein, he slackened his pace. It would not do to hurry the animal, since a slight disturbance might cause him to loose his footing. The horse knew what was required of him and would do it better by being left wholly to himself.
It was because of this concentration of his mind upon the one thing that the captain failed to perceive that the mule in his front had stopped walking, until the rim of his slouched hat touched the tail of the motionless animal.
"Helloa, Vose, what's the matter?"
The guide said something, but kept his face turned away, and his words, instead of being in the nature of an answer, were addressed to some one who confronted him. Adams was of slight stature, so that, although he stood erect, it was easy for the captain to look over his head and see what was beyond. That which was thus revealed was another horseman leading his animal and coming toward them. He was advancing in the same manner as the miners, that is by leading his horse, and, meeting our friends thus face to face, it was impossible for either party to pass: one or the other must give way and retreat.
A startling feature of this meeting was that the individual who thus confronted them was an Indian of gigantic stature. He was more than six feet in height and of massive proportions. He belonged to what were known as the "mountain Indians," who were brave and of irrestrainable ferocity. They were the most dangerous people met by the miners in the early days on the Pacific slope.
Equity demanded that this particular specimen should back his horse over the few yards to the point where the trail broadened, for the task was possible of accomplishment, while the white men were unable to force their animals in safety for one-half of the distance behind them. Moreover, it was evident that this Indian had deliberately started over the trail, with the knowledge of the four white men approaching, so that a meeting was inevitable. He courted an encounter with them and was in a murderous mood.
Vose Adams knew all this and recognized the warrior as one of the dreaded Indians, with whom he was better acquainted than were his friends. He had had several scrimmages with them on his trips through the mountains, and held them in such wholesome fear that he contrived to avoid a direct conflict. The diminutive miner overflowed with pluck, but in a hand to hand encounter, must be only a child in the grasp of the aboriginal giant. The present situation, however, was peculiar.
There can be no doubt that this savage sought the meeting with the party, for on no other supposition can his acts be explained. He must have reasoned that on the narrow ledge his enemies would have to meet him one by one and engage him single handed. He was like a chamois that had lived all its life in these wild solitudes and was surer-footed than any white man. What a triumph it would be (and was it unreasonable to expect it?) for him to slay the insignificant pale face immediately in his front, shove his mule over the precipice, and then serve the remaining three in same fashion!
"Get out of this!" were the words which Vose Adams addressed to the Indian, directly after the question of Captain Dawson to himself, and when the enemies were within six feet of each other; "there isn't room for both of us; you knew that before you started; one of us has got to give way and I'll be hanged if I do!"
Inasmuch as the red man did not understand a word of English, it is not to be supposed that he grasped the whole meaning of this command, but the situation must have made it evident that he had been ordered to back his horse and to open a way for the white men, and inasmuch as he had come upon the trail for the express purpose of bringing about this encounter, it seems hardly necessary to say that he failed to obey the order. Instead, he repeated some words in his own language, which it is not unlikely were of the same import as those addressed to him, for he resolutely maintained his place.
"I tell you," added Vose, raising his voice, as if that could help make his meaning clear; "if you don't do as I say, somebody is going to get hurt!"
The warrior, who was carrying a rifle, stooped and gently let it fall beside him. At the same moment he let go of the thong which served as a bridle. Thus both hands were free and he crouched down with his hideous face thrust forward and took a slow, half-step toward Adams.
The coarse black hair dangling loosely about his shoulders, the broad frightful countenance, which, however, was devoid of paint, the glittering, basilisk-like eyes, the sinewy half-bent finger, with the right fingers closed like a vise around the handle of the knife at his waist, while gently drawing it forth, the catlike advance,—all these made him so terrible an enemy that the bravest man might well doubt the result of a meeting with him.
And yet the closest scrutiny of Vose Adams would not have discovered any tremor in his frame, or so much as a blanching of his face. He fully comprehended the nature of the peril that impended, but with the cool readiness of a veteran, he had fixed upon his line of action, in the same moment that he read the purpose of his formidable enemy.
The preliminary actions of the guide were similar to that of the warrior. The bridle rein dropped from his hand, and, slightly stooping, he let his Winchester fall to the ground beside him. Then his knife flashed out and he was ready.
Since only the mule was between Captain Dawson and the combatants, he observed all this and interpreted its meaning.
"Vose, what do you mean to do?" he sharply asked.
"Have a little dispute with the fellow," replied Adams, without removing his gaze from the face of the savage.
"You mustn't do it."
"It sorter looks as if it can't be helped, captain."
"I shall prevent it."
The captain had laid down his rifle and drawn his revolver, in the use of which he was an expert. While thus engaged, he stooped down, so that the interposing body of the mule, prevented the Indian from observing what he was doing. When his weapon was ready and just as he uttered his last word, he straightened up like a flash. Adams being of short stature and in a stooping posture, gave him just the chance he needed. His single arm was extended with the quickness of lightning and he fired. The bullet bored its way through the bronzed skull of the Indian, who, with an ear-splitting screech, flung his arms aloft, leaped several feet from the ground, toppled sideways over the edge of the trail and went tumbling, rolling and doubling down the precipice far beyond sight, into the almost fathomless abyss below.
"That's what I call a low down trick!" was the disgusted exclamation of Adams, looking round with a reproachful expression.
"Do you refer to the Indian?" asked the captain.
"No; to you; I had just got ready for him and had everything fixed when you interfered."
"Vose, you are a fool," was the comment of his friend.
"That fellow was twice as big as you and you hadn't an earthly chance in a fight with him."
"Do you 'spose that is the first time I ever met a mountain Injin?"
"You never fought one of that size in this spot."
"What difference does the spot make?"
"I want you to understand," said the captain with assumed gravity, "that I didn't interfere out of any regard for you."
"What the mischief are you driving at?" demanded the puzzled guide.
"Under ordinary circumstances, I would have stood by and watched the flurry, only wishing that the best man might win. That means, of course, that you would have been the loser. But we need some one to guide us through the mountains; you haven't done it yet; when your work is over you may go and live on wild Indians for all I care."
Vose quickly regained his good nature. He returned his knife to its resting place, picked up his rifle, grasped the bridle rein and gently pulled.
"Come, Hercules; I don't know whether they appreciate us or not; steady now!"
"What are you going to do with that horse in front of you?" asked the captain.
"Hang it! if I didn't forget about him; back with you!" he commanded with a gesture, moving toward the animal, who showed the intelligence of his kind, by retrograding carefully until he reached the broad safe place so anxiously sought by the others. There he wheeled and trotted off, speedily disappearing from sight.
"Vose, you might have traded Hercules for him."
"Not much! I wouldn't give that mule for a drove of horses that have belonged to these mountain Injins."
"What's the matter with them? Aren't they as good as ours?"
"They're too good; you can't tell what trick they'll sarve you; I was once riding through these very mountains, on the back of a horse that I picked up—it isn't necessary to say how—when his owner gave a signal and the critter was off like a thunderbolt. If I hadn't slipped from his back at the risk of breaking my neck, he would have carried me right into a camp of hostiles and you would have been without your invaluable guide on this trip."
"That is important information—if true—helloa! it is growing light off there in the east!"
"Yes,—day is breaking," added Vose.
The captain looked at his watch and found the time considerably past five o'clock. They had been longer on the road than any one supposed, and the coming of morning was a vast relief to all.
The party were now grouped together, for the trail was broad and safe. Parson Brush asked, as he pointed almost directly ahead:
"Isn't that a light off yonder?"
The guide gazed in that direction and replied:
"Yes, but it comes from a camp fire, which isn't more than a half mile away."
The men looked in one another's faces and the captain asked in a guarded voice, as if afraid of being overheard:
"Whose fire is it?"
"There's no saying with any sartinty, till we get closer, but I shouldn't be 'sprised if it belong to the folks you're looking for."
The same thought had come to each. There was a compression of lips, a flashing of eyes and an expression of resolution that boded ill for him who was the cause of it all.
In the early morning at this elevation, the air was raw and chilling. The wind which blew fitfully brought an icy touch from the peaks of the snow-clad Sierras. The party had ridden nearly all night, with only comparatively slight pauses, so that the men would have welcomed a good long rest but for the startling discovery just made.
Over the eastern cliffs the sky was rapidly assuming a rosy tinge. Day was breaking and soon the wild region would be flooded with sunshine. Already the gigantic masses of stone and rock were assuming grotesque form in the receding gloom. The dismal night was at an end.
The twinkling light which had caught the eye of Felix Brush appeared to be directly ahead and near the trail which they were traveling. This fact strengthened the belief that the fire had been kindled by the fugitives. The illumination paled as the sun climbed the sky, until it was absorbed by the overwhelming radiance that was everywhere.
The pursuers felt well rewarded for the energy they had displayed in the face of discouragement and danger. Valuable ground had been gained, and even now when they had supposed they were fully a dozen miles behind the fugitives, it looked as if they had really caught up to them, or at least were within hailing distance.
Every eye was fixed on the point which held so intense an interest for them. As the day grew, a thin, wavy column of smoke was observed ascending from the camp fire, which was partly hidden among a growth of scrub cedars, some distance to the right of the trail, whither it must have been difficult for the couple to force their horses.
"That leftenant ought to have knowed better than to do that," remarked Vose Adams, "his fire can be seen a long way off."
"What else could they do?" asked the captain.
"The rocks give all the cover he needs."
"But they could have no idea that we were so near," suggested the parson.
"It isn't that, but the leftenant had 'nough 'sperience with Injins on his way through here before to know he's liable to run agin them at any time. I never dared to do a thing like that on my trips."
"Let's push on," said the captain, who saw no reason for tarrying now that they had located the game.
The ground was so much more favorable that the animals were forced to a canter, though all were in need of rest. Little was said, and Captain Dawson spurred forward beside Adams, who as usual was leading.
Wade Ruggles and Parson Brush also rode abreast. They were far enough to the rear to exchange a few words without being overheard.
"From the way things look," said Brush; "we shall have to leave everything with the captain and he isn't likely to give us anything to do."
"He's mad clean through; I don't b'leve he'll wait to say a word, but the minute he can draw bead on the leftenant, he'll let fly."
"He is a fine marksman, but he may be in such a hurry that he'll miss."
"No fear of that; I wonder," added Ruggles, startled by a new thought, "whether Vose has any idee of stickin' in his oar."
"I must git a chance to warn him that we won't stand any nonsense like that! The best that we'll do is to promise him a chance for a crack after you and me miss."
"That won't be any chance at all," grimly remarked the parson.
"Wal, it's all he'll have and he mustn't forgit it. There's some things I won't stand and that's one of 'em."
"We can't do anything now, but we may have a chance to notify him. If the opportunity comes to me, he shall not remain ignorant."
They were now nearly opposite the camp and the two noticed with surprise that Adams and the captain were riding past it.
"What's that fur?" asked the puzzled Ruggles.
"That's to prevent them from fleeing toward Sacramento. When they find we are on the other side, they will have to turn back."
This was apparently the purpose of the men in advance, for they did not draw rein until a hundred yards beyond the camp. Suddenly the two halted, and half-facing around, waited until Brush and Ruggles joined them. The explanation of the guide showed that his plan had been rightly interpreted by Parson Brush.
THE CAMP FIRE
The trail, as has been stated, was broad and comparatively level. The slope of the mountain to the right was so moderate that it could be climbed by a horse almost as readily as by a man. Its face was covered with a growth of cedars, continuing half way to the summit, when it terminated, only bleak masses of rock, sprinkled with snow, whose volume increased with the elevation, being visible above and beyond.
When the four pursuers came together, their faces showed that they comprehended the serious business before them. It was seen that Captain Dawson was slightly pale, but those who had been with him in battle had observed the same peculiarity. Accompanied, as it was in this instance, by a peculiar steely glitter of his eyes, it meant that he was in a dangerous mood and the man who crossed his path did so at his peril.
It was evident that he and Vose Adams had reached an understanding during the few minutes that they were riding in advance. The words of Vose Adams were spoken for the benefit of Ruggles and the parson.
"You'll wait here till I take a look at things."
"What do you mean to do?" asked Brush.
"I'm going up the slope on foot to find out how the land lays."
"And when you find that out, what next?"
"He is to come back and report to me," interposed the captain.
There was a world of meaning in these words. It showed that the captain allowed Adams to lead only when acting as a guide. In all other matters, the retired officer assumed control. The opportunity of Vose to pick off the offending lieutenant promised to be better than that of any one else, since he would first see him, but he had been given to understand that he must immediately return and let the captain know the situation. Adams had promised this and he knew Dawson too well to dare to thwart him.
Brush and Ruggles could make no objection, keen though their disappointment was. They watched Adams, as he slipped off his mule, not deeming it worth while to utter the warning both had had in mind. It was the parson who said:
"I suppose we have nothing to do except to wait here till you come back?"
"It looks that way, but you must ask the captain."
"You won't be gone long?"
"I don't think so."
"Be careful, but there's no need of waiting," said the captain.
The three watched the guide until he disappeared from sight among the cedars, when the captain added:
"Vose told me that it was possible that camp fire had been started by Indians, but it seems to me there is little likelihood of that."
"Those people are so skilled in woodcraft that they would have been on the alert against our approach, for a brief survey of the trail for the last half hour would have revealed us to them."
"It may be," suggested the parson, "that with every reason to believe there is no danger of anything of the kind, for it must be rare that a white man passes along this trail, they did not keep a lookout."
The captain shook his head.
"From what I know of the American race, it is unlike them."
"What knowledge have we that they have not maintained such a lookout and discovered us as soon as we noticed the camp fire itself? They may have formed an ambuscade at some point further along the trail."
"It is a disturbing possibility and I would be alarmed, but for my confidence in Vose. He has been through this region so often and knows these wild people so thoroughly that he could not commit a blunder like that. It seems to me," added the captain a few minutes, later, "that he is absent a long time."
"It's tough," remarked Ruggles, "that things are fixed so we won't have a chance to take any hand in this bus'ness."
The captain looked inquiringly at him and he explained:
"You and Vose have set it up atween you."
"I have told you that if your help is needed, it will be welcome; I can add nothing to that."
"The captain is right," interposed the parson, "but at the same time, he can see what a disappointment it is for us."
"I admit that, but we are not out of the woods yet."
Before he could make clear the meaning of this remark, Vose Adams emerged from the cedars, and the three breathlessly awaited his coming. He broke into a trot and quickly descended the slope to where they stood. The expression of his face showed before he spoke that he brought unwelcome news.
"Confound it!" he exclaimed with a shake of his head, "they're not there!"
"Then they have gone on up the trail," said the captain inquiringly.
"No; they haven't been there; it isn't their camp."
"Whose is it?"
"Injins; there are five of 'em; they've just had their breakfast and are gettin' ready to make a start."
"Didn't they see you?"
"That isn't the way I do bus'ness," replied Vose rather loftily; "it's more'n likely, howsumever, they seen us all awhile ago when we was further down the trail. They're traveling eastward."
"How can you know that?" asked the parson.
"The Injin that took his dive off the trail 'bout the time the captain fired off his revolver, was going that way. He b'longed to the party and was sorter leading 'em; he was a chief or something of the kind."
"Where are their ponies?"
"They haven't any,—leastways he was the only one that had, which is why I said he was some kind of a chief. We shall hear from 'em agin."
"I mean after they find out about that little row."
"Why need they find out about it?"
"They can't help it; they'll miss their chief; they'll run across that horse of his and that'll give 'em the clue."
This unexpected discovery put a new face on matters. Five mountain Indians, the bravest and most implacable of their race, were almost within stone's throw of the party. But for the occurrence of a brief while before, they probably would have permitted the white men to continue their journey unmolested, since the strength of the two bands, all things considered, was about equal, but when the hostiles learned of the death of their leader, they would bend every effort toward securing revenge. They would dog the miners, watchful, alert and tireless in their attempts to cut them off from the possibility of ever repeating the deed.
"But that chief, as you seem to think he was," said Captain Dawson, "is gone as utterly as if the ground had opened and swallowed him. They will never have the chance to officiate at his funeral, so how are they to learn of the manner of his taking off?"
"It won't take 'em long," replied Adams; "his pony will hunt them out, now that he is left to himself; that'll tell 'em that something is up and they'll start an investigatin' committee. The footprints of our horses, the marks on the rocks, which you and me wouldn't notice, the fact that we met the chief on that narrer ledge and that he's turned up missing will soon lay bare the whole story, and as I remarked aforesaid, we shall hear from 'em agin."
"It looks like a case of the hunter hunting the tiger," said the parson, "and then awaking to the fact that the tiger is engaged in hunting him; it is plain to see that there's going to be a complication of matters, but I don't feel that it need make any difference to us."
"It won't!" replied the captain decisively; "we haven't put our hands to the plough with any intention of looking back. What's the next thing to do, Vose?"
"We've got to look after our animals."
"But there's no grass here for them."
"A little further and we'll strike a stream of water where we'll find some grass, though not much, but it's better than nothing."
Vaulting into the saddle, the guide after some pounding of his heels against the iron ribs of Hercules, forced him into a gallop, which the others imitated. The trail continued comparatively smooth, and, being slightly descending, the animals were not crowded as hard as it would seem. A mile of this brought them to the water, where they were turned loose. The stream gushed from the mountain side, and, flowing across the trail, was lost among the rocks to the left. The moisture thus diffused produced a moderate growth of tough, coarse grass, which the animals began plucking as soon as the bits were removed from their mouths. They secured little nutriment, but as the guide remarked, it was an improvement upon nothing. The men bathed their faces in the cold, clear water, took a refreshing draught, and then ate the lunch provided for them by the thoughtful Adams. Though they ate heartily, sufficient was kept to answer for another meal or two, if it should be thought wise to put themselves on an allowance.
They had just lighted their pipes, when Wade Ruggles uttered an exclamation. Without explaining the cause, he bounded to his feet and ran several rods to the westward, where he was seen to stoop and pick something from the ground. He examined it closely and then, as he turned about and came back more slowly it was perceived that he held a white handkerchief in his hand. His action caused the others to rise to his feet.
"What have you there?" asked Captain Dawson, suspecting its identity.
"I guess you have seen it before," replied Wade, handing the piece of fine, bordered linen to him. He turned it over with strange emotions, for he was quick to recognize it.
"Yes," he said, compressing his lips; "it is hers; she dropped it there—how long ago, Vose?"
The latter examined the handkerchief, as if looking for the answer to the question in its folds, but shook his head.
"Even a mountain Injin could not tell that."
The parson asked the privilege of examining the article. His heart was beating fast, though no one else was aware of it, for it was a present which he had made to Nellie Dawson on the preceding Christmas, having been brought by Vose Adams, with other articles, on his trip made several months before the presentation. There was the girl's name, written by himself in indelible ink, and in his neat, round hand. It was a bitter reflection that it had been in her possession, when she was in the company of the one whom she esteemed above all others.
"It may have been," reflected the parson, carefully keeping his thoughts to himself, "that, when she remembered from whom it came, she flung it aside to please him. Captain," he added, "since this was once mine, I presume you have no objection to my keeping it."
"You are welcome to it; I don't care for it," replied the parent.
"Thank you," and the parson carefully put it away to keep company with the letter of Nellie Dawson which broke her father's heart; "I observe that it is quite dry, which makes me believe it has not been exposed to the dew, and therefore could not have lain long on the ground."
"You can't tell anything by that," commented Vose; "the air is so dry up here, even with the snow and water around us, that there's no dew to amount to anything."
All seemed to prefer not to discuss the little incident that had produced so sombre an effect upon the party. Wade Ruggles was disposed to claim the handkerchief, inasmuch as it was he who found it, but he respected the feelings of the parson too much to make any protest.
The occurrence was of no special interest to the guide. He had said they were in danger from the Indians and he gave his thoughts to them. While the others kept their seats on the ground, he stood erect, and, shading his eyes with one hand, peered long and attentively over the trail behind them. The clump of cedars from amid which the thin column of vapor was slowly climbing into the sky and the narrow ledge which had been the scene of their stirring adventure were in view, though its winding course shut a portion from sight.
"I expected it!" suddenly exclaimed Vose.
The others followed the direction of his gaze and saw what had caused his words. The five Indians, whom Vose had discovered in camp, were picking their way along the ledge, with their faces turned from the white men, who were watching them. Despite the chilly air, caused by the elevation, not one of the warriors wore a blanket. Two had bows and arrows, three rifles, carried in a trailing fashion, and all were lithe, sinewy fellows, able to give a good account of themselves in any sort of fight.
A curious fact noted by all of our friends was that while these warriors were thus moving away, not one of them looked behind him. Their long black hair hung loosely about their shoulders, and in the clear air it was observable that three wore stained feathers in the luxuriant growth on their crowns.
"Is it possible that they have no suspicion of us?" asked the parson; "their action in not looking around would imply that."
"Don't fool yourself," was the reply of Adams; "they knowed of us afore we knowed anything of them."
"Why did they allow us to pass their camp undisturbed?"
"Things weren't in the right shape for 'em. There are only three guns among 'em, though them kind of Injins are as good with the bow as the rifle, and they made up their minds that if we let them alone, they wouldn't bother us."
"You said awhile ago that we should have trouble from them."
"And so we shall; when they reasoned like I was sayin', they didn't know anything about the little accident that happened to their chief; it's that which will make things lively."
"We can't see the point where that accident took place," said Captain Dawson.
"No; the trail curves too much, but we can foller it most of the way; they're likely to go right on without 'specting anything, but when they find the horse, it'll set 'em to looking round. After that, the band will begin to play."
While the party were watching the five Indians, the leader was seen to pass from view around the curve in the trail, followed by the next, until finally the fifth disappeared. All this time, not one of the warriors looked behind him. It was a singular line of action, and because of its singularity roused the suspicion of the spectators.
While three of the miners resumed their seats on the boulders and ground, Vose Adams kept his feet. Doubling each palm, so as to make a funnel of it, he held one to either eye and continued scrutinizing the point where he had last seen the hostiles. He suspected it was not the last of them. Instead of imitating him, his friends studied his wrinkled countenance.
The air in that elevated region was wonderfully clear, but it is hardly possible to believe the declaration which the guide made some minutes later. He insisted that, despite the great distance, one of the Indians, after passing from view, returned over his own trail and peeped around the bend in the rocks, and that the guide saw his black hair and gleaming snake-like eyes. The fact that Vose waited until the savage had withdrawn from sight, before making the astonishing declaration, threw some discredit on it, for it would have required a good telescope to do what he claimed to have done with the unassisted eye alone.
"You see I was looking for something of the kind," he explained, "or mebbe I wouldn't have obsarved him."
"Could you tell the color of his eyes?" asked the doubting Ruggles.
"They were as black as coal."
"It is safe to say that," remarked the parson, "inasmuch as I never met an Indian who had eyes of any other color."
"There are such," said Vose, "and I've seen 'em, though I'll own they're mighty scarce and I never knowed of any in this part of the world. Howsumever, I won't purtend that I could see the color of a man's eyes that fur, but I did see his hair, forehead and a part of his ugly face. He knowed we was behind him all the time, and this one wanted to find out what we was doing. When he larned that, they kept on along the ledge, but there's no saying how fur they'll go afore they find something's gone wrong."
Captain Dawson showed less interest in this by-play than the others. He was not concerned with what was behind them, so much as with what was in front. The belief was so strong with him that their persistent travel through the night had brought them close to the fugitives that he begrudged the time necessary for the animals to rest and eat.
Parson Brush felt that Adams was acting wisely in giving attention to the rear. It would be the height of folly to disregard these formidable warriors when they meant trouble. Brush rose to his feet and using his palms as did the guide, scanned the country behind them.
He saw nothing of any warrior peering around the rocks, but he did see something, which escaped even the keen vision of Vose Adams himself. Beyond the ledge and a little to the left, he observed a riderless horse, with head high in air, and gazing at something which the two white men could not see. The parson directed the attention of Vose to the animal.
"By gracious! it's the chief's horse," he exclaimed; "do you see that?"
The other two were now looking and all plainly saw a warrior advance into view, approaching the animal, which, instead of being frightened, seemed to recognize his friends, and remained motionless until the Indian came up and grasped the thong about his neck. Then the two passed from sight.
The identical thing prophesied by Vose Adams had occurred under the eyes of the four pursuers. The steed of the dead chieftain had been recovered, and it would not take the hostiles long to penetrate the mystery of the matter. Vose was wise in taking the course he did, and his companions were now inclined to believe his astonishing assertion that he saw one of the number when he peeped around the curving ledge and watched their actions.