That which had seemed long and wearisome the day before looked easy now, and they were not long in reaching the slope leading to the first ascent, where the party paused to look back along the depression to where the animals were browsing contentedly enough, and the remains of the camp-fire sent up a tiny column of thin blue smoke. The ranges of open cells were on their right, terrace above terrace, all looking so grey and peaceful, with tree, shrub, and tuft of green flourishing in the various cracks, that it was difficult to connect the place with the horrors their search had unveiled.
"It looks from here," said Bourne, "like the home of so many human bees who had built their peaceful city against the sides of the cliffs. Do you think we shall find that similar horrors were perpetrated over yonder?"
"If the opposite cells were occupied at the same time I'm afraid there is no doubt about it. We'll find out the ascent to those terraces, if we can, to-morrow or next day. I wish we could come upon one of the chambers just as it was occupied by its owner."
"I dessay we could find a lot of things here on this side," said Griggs quietly to the boys, who generally kept with him for companion, "but it would be an unked job with shovel and sieve to clear out one of those cells."
"A what job?" said Chris.
"Unked, my lad. That's what a Somersetshire chap I once knew used to call anything dismal and melancholy. This is going to be an unked job this morning, I can tell you, for if it wasn't for the feeling of curiosity to know all about these people I should be ready to pitch it over."
"Well, do," said Chris, "and leave it to Ned and me."
"'Tisn't a fit job for boys," said Griggs.
"It isn't a fit job for anybody," said Ned, "but we'd do it because it's learned and wonderful. Oh, I think it's very fine."
"P'r'aps it is," said Griggs coolly, "but you're not going to take the job out of my hands, and so I tell you. Just hark at him, Chris; he has got the idea in his head that he's going to discover swords with golden sheaths, and belts thick with precious stones; helmets with plumes of feathers, and rich and costly armour."
"Not such a noodle," said Ned, whose cheeks had turned very red, for though not so extravagant as the American painted, he was fain to own to himself that he had some such ideas in connection with the dusky warriors who had stormed the place.
"I got thinking a deal of it though last night after I lay down," said Griggs, who did not care to carry his taunts any further after seeing the colour of Ned's face, "and I was precious glad that I didn't go down with only a few matches for light. I got dreaming about it afterwards."
"What, about the old fighting men? The dead?"
"No. About what might be there all alive."
"What!" cried Chris. "Not about snakes?"
"But I did, my lad; and I kept on waking up and then going to sleep and dreaming the same thing again. I never saw such big ones alive as I saw creeping along the bottom of that great square hole, getting into the corners and squirming up one till they nearly stood upon their tails, and then fell over sidewise with a crack that sent the dust flying."
"Horrid!" said Chris.
"Yes. They're not nice things to dream about—snakes—because of the waking up."
"Yes, I know," cried Chris eagerly. "You fancy that you really have them about you, and feel as if you can't believe it was only a dream."
"You never felt like that?" cried Griggs.
"Yes, I have, more than once."
"Well, that's strange, because it's just how I felt over and over again last night, and it quite set me against the job."
"But now it is morning and we're all awake and rested you don't think it's likely that there are any rattlers down in that hole?"
"I do think it's very likely, my lad," said the American gravely. "Give one a rocky place out in the desert where the hot sun shines, and there's no one to interfere with them, and you're pretty sure to find some of those gentlemen. I wonder we haven't seen more."
"I don't like the idea of your going down, Griggs," said Chris.
"Forward there," cried the doctor from below, as he finished a long look at the edge of the cliff, sweeping it with his glass and wondering whether they could reach the tableland in which the depression stood like a chasm split in a blue, rocky desert, "Yes," he said sharply, changing the course of his thoughts, "we must explore the other side of this great chasm, but let's finish one side first."
He was content to let Chris take the lead, and his friends smilingly gave way, humouring him, as they called it to themselves, Bourne good-temperedly taking it all as a matter of course, and feeling in nowise jealous on behalf of his own son. Wilton had on one occasion said something about favouritism, but Bourne had only laughed.
"Oh, let the boys alone," he said, "and let them settle the supremacy between them. That will be all right. Chris is as honest and frank as the day. You must have seen that."
"Why, that the boy's generous at heart. He bullies Ned horribly sometimes, and then afterwards he seems to repent and behaves like a lamb, while Ned turns dog."
So it was that in this matter of the exploration Chris led with his companion, and Griggs followed next, as if he were their henchman, while the three friends came last.
The ascents were made with spirit till all stood in the chamber at the back of which the opening led into the side of the square pit, and here, while the doctor thoughtfully turned over and examined some of the remains still left, Griggs lit the lanthorn he had brought, and Ned tied one end of a hide-rope to it, ready for the lowering down, while Chris had stepped through the hole and stood on the broad ledge at the foot of the rough projections in the stone wall that acted as steps.
"It must have been awful," he said aloud suddenly, as he stood peering up through the twilight at the remains of the piled-up stones at the top.
"What must have been awful?" asked Wilton, stepping out to his side.
"Why, that fight when the Indians climbed up these steps, with the other people raining down big stones on their heads."
"Think it was so?" said Wilton quietly.
"I feel sure of it. My word! Never mind about them being horribly savage—how brave they must have been! Why, I felt regularly shaky at having to get up yonder with no enemy to face."
"Yes, it's an ugly place," said Wilton; "but what about enemies down below? Can you see anything?"
"No," said Chris, gazing down. "It's as black as black. I say, though, if there are any enemies down there they're poisonous."
"What do you think possibly can be down there—one of the fierce cats of the country?"
"No," said Chris, smiling queerly. "Rattlers."
"If there are any we shall see them when the lanthorn's swung down. Why, it will be a good bit of sport for you to have a shot at them."
"The horrible beasts!" said Wilton.
"We're ready when you are," said Griggs from the chamber. "The light's burning quite brightly."
"Bring it here, then.—I say, Mr Wilton, there isn't room for all of us on this bit of a landing. Will you go up to the top and be ready to fire?"
"No," said Wilton shortly. "I'll leave it to you and Ned."
He stepped back to join his friends in the chamber, and then, seeing how they were occupied, he stepped out on to the remains of the terrace, to stand there examining the openings in the cliff-face opposite.
"That's right, Griggs, swing it down gently," said Chris. "You, Ned, unsling your gun, and the first rattler you see give him a charge of small shot."
Ned fixed himself against the wall with his left arm round one of the projections, cocked his piece, and stood ready with the muzzle pointed downward, gazing the while into the darkness far below, now beginning to be illumined by the swinging lanthorn, as Griggs paid out the rope and sent it lower and lower.
"You can see the heap of stuff—ashes, lying in a slope now," cried Chris, who was watching intently. "Look, there's one of those—you know what—looking almost white and shining.—Isn't that something moving, Griggs?"
"Can't see anything yet but that pile of stuff that went down. I say, it's not so very deep, after all."
"Thirty feet at least," said Chris decisively.—"There, I'm sure of that. I saw something move right over in that—"
"Corner," he was going to say, but the word was smothered by the sharp echoing report of Ned's piece, whose flash seemed brighter than the light of the lanthorn, which glowed like a dull star now disappearing in a passing cloud of smoke.
"A rattler?" cried Chris.
"I'm not sure, but I saw something gliding along, and I fired."
"Good boy! Quite right! Sharp's the word. But I say, what a smother you've made. Get in another cartridge."
Click! went Ned's piece as he closed the breech.
"If that was a rattler," said Griggs coolly, "seems as if it was just as well that I didn't go down last night."
"And this morning too," said Chris. "Why, there may be quite a nest of the brutes down there."
"P'r'aps so. But if there is it must have made some of them sneeze when all that dust went down with a rush yesterday."
Just then Wilton leaned in at the window-opening of the cell where the doctor and Bourne were examining a carefully-smoothed, elliptical, cell-like stone with a hole through the thickest part as if for holding a wooden handle.
"What have you found?" he said.
"A stone battle-axe, without doubt."
"Ah, it does look like it. You must save that. You have your glasses with you?"
"Yes," said the doctor. "Want them?"
"Please. I want to look round."
The doctor slipped the strap of the case over his head and passed it to his friend.
"Give a look at the mules and ponies," he said. "If there's anything wrong they'll seem uneasy."
"Snake in the grass, eh?"
"All right.—I say, you within there, what have you shot?"
"Don't know yet," replied Chris. "Ned thought he saw a thumping great rattler."
"It's too thick with smoke to see yet, but it's clearing fast."
Wilton, who displayed more and more his disgust with the task his friends had set themselves, took the glass and began sweeping the sides of the depression, noting the cracks and gullies running up the cliff-face opposite in amongst the cell-like openings, all wonderfully clear and bright in the morning air, while Bourne and the doctor, encouraged by the discovery of the relic of the stone age, went on turning over the ashes in the next cell.
Meantime the party at the side of the square pit waited impatiently for the smoke to rise and float out beneath the overhanging portion of the cliff above the top range of cells, Griggs giving the lanthorn a wave now and then, sending it flying, pendulum-like, as far as he could reach without bringing it in contact with the smoothly-cut wall.
"Not much chance for anybody or anything to get out of here again if he was at the bottom, lads. It's a regular trap," he said.
"Yes, but take care, or you'll be breaking the lanthorn," said Chris warningly.
"Nay, I won't do that, my lad," replied Griggs quietly. "But I say, squire, did you aim at its head or its tail?"
"I aimed at the part I saw moving," said Ned. "Can you see it yet?"
"Nay. Can you?"
"I'm afraid you shot at nothing," said Griggs, with a laugh, "and you haven't killed it."
"I'm sure I saw something moving," cried Ned indignantly.
"Where is it, then? It's clear enough to see now."
"Gone down into a hole, perhaps."
"Or crawled down its own throat perhaps."
"I know," said Chris merrily; "Ned never misses anything. The poor brute has swallowed its own tail, formed itself into a ring, and bowled out like a hoop."
"Of course," cried Ned, raising his piece to his shoulder, as the light now penetrated well into one of the opposite corners, and without a word of warning he fired again.
"What did you do that for?" cried Chris excitedly.
"To put that reptile out of its misery," said Ned.
"To fill the place with smoke again," cried Chris indignantly. "It's all fancy."
"Precious noisy fancy," said Griggs dryly. "My word, he must be a thumper! Talk about smoke, he is kicking up a dust."
Chris was silent as he stood listening to the struggles of what was evidently a large serpent, while it writhed violently below them, beating about and lashing the pile of remains that had crumbled down from the cell, and sending up quite a cloud to mingle with that of vapour which rose, smelling pungently of hydrogen, towards the overhanging blocks of stone roofing in the square pit.
"I guess I'm quite satisfied now that I didn't go down," said Griggs coolly; "but there don't seem to be more'n one, or we should hear them travelling about."
"This one makes noise enough for a dozen," said Chris.—"I say, Ned, I beg pardon. You don't want me to go on my knees, do you?"
"No," replied the boy calmly, as he made the breech of his double gun snap to very loudly; "only I wouldn't be quite so cocksure that you know everything, next time."
"Thy servant humbles himself to the dust," said Chris, in Eastern style.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," said Griggs dryly; "certainly not till that gentleman below has done kicking it up. Say, how big should you say this one is?"
"Oh, I don't know. It sounds as if it might be twenty feet long."
"Yes; but if it is as long as that it wouldn't be a rattler."
"No; only a thumper," cried Ned, laughing. "Hark, it's quieting down now. Shall I give it another dose as soon as it is still?"
"No; save all the ammunition you can, my lad. It has had enough to finish it off. How strange it is that anything long should take such a time to die."
They stood there patiently listening to the movements below, the lashing about gradually ceasing, to give place to a gliding, rustling sound as if the injured creature was travelling rapidly about endeavouring to escape. The dust began to settle as the smoke floated away, but twice over arose again as after a spell of silence there was the sound of a fall.
"He was trying to get up in the corner yonder," said Griggs.
"How horrible if it comes up one of these angles," said Ned, drawing his breath sharply.
"No fear," cried Griggs. "Snakes can only raise themselves up for a certain distance, and then they fall over. I've watched them often."
"I say, he's getting quieter now," said Chris.
This was plain to all, for the rustling died out, began again more faintly, died out again, there was the sound of a pat or two as if given spasmodically by the reptile's tail, and then all was quite still, while the dust had cleared away so that the watchers could see by the lanthorn's light the inert body of a very large rattlesnake.
"Why, it's not half so big as I expected," cried Chris.
"The biggest I ever saw," said Griggs quietly.
"But it made such a tremendous noise," cried Chris. "I expected to see one double that size. I say, hadn't Ned better give him another charge?"
"No; one of you go up to the top and drop a good-sized stone down upon him. We shall see whether there's life enough in him to be dangerous."
"Hold my rifle, Chris, and I'll go," cried Ned eagerly, and the next minute he was scaling the side, and on reaching the top he walked to where he was nearly over the reptile, where he picked up a couple of stones of the size of a man's fist and pitched one down, with the result that the snake began to writhe violently again, but only for a very brief time, before once more lying perfectly inert.
"No more mischief in that fellow," said Griggs. "I may as well go down now."
"What about the others?" said Chris.
"There are sure to be some more."
"Nay; rattlers are not above showing fight. If there had been any more we should have seen or heard them. I shall chance it now."
"I don't like your going down yet," said Chris anxiously. "I'll have a shot at him now."
"Nay, nay; we may want our cartridges for something more useful than a rattler that has had as much as it wants to kill it."
"I'll drop another stone on him," said Ned. "One of those big ones."
"Ah, do," said Griggs. "Take good aim, and drop it right on his head. Can you see?"
"Oh, yes, I can see quite plainly."
Ned raised one of the heaviest stones near him, and after a gentle swing let it go, to fall with a sharp crack upon other stones, making the snake twine again and writhe round the block, to hold on tightly.
"Why, he has pinned it down," cried Chris. "Good aim."
As he spoke the snake untwined itself and straightened out, to lie perfectly still.
"That's done for him," cried Griggs, "and if there had been any more that would have sent them squirming out of their holes. Here, you come down, squire. I'm going to knot two lariats together and pass them over one of these steps. I want you to help hold on."
Ned descended, the rope was given a couple of turns round the lowest projection, and held by the two boys; the lanthorn was lowered down to stand on the heap of dust below, and the end of the rope by which it was lowered also held by Chris, while upon drawing his keen hunting-knife and taking it in his teeth, Griggs just said, "Hold tight," took hold of the lowered rope, and slid lightly down, to stand below the watchers on the heap.
"Mind the snake, Griggs," cried Chris.
"Tell him he'd better mind," was the reply, as the American raised the lanthorn and, knife in hand, approached the reptile cautiously, and then the lookers-on saw him stoop lower and lower till he was near enough for his purpose, when there was a quick movement, a flash of light reflected from the knife-blade, and Griggs rose again.
"You've pinned him down with that last stone, squire. Head's off, and he'll do no more mischief. Now then, I'm going to look for your weapons o' war."
The boys could see the bottom of the square place clear enough now, as the lanthorn began to move about; but there was little to see. Upon this side lay the heap of ashes specked with a few fragments of bone which glistened feebly in the light, but beyond the heap which ran tongue-like from the side out to the centre, there was nothing to be seen but stones—heavy stones such as remained like the broken-down portions of the breastwork about the edges of the excavations at the top.
"Can't see no treasures," said Griggs gruffly; and directly after, "There aren't a single shield—no spears—no swords—no breast-plates— no rifles."
"Dear me!" said Chris sarcastically. "I wonder at that. How many revolvers can you see?"
"Nary one," said Griggs coolly. "No gauntlets, no backpieces."
Then there was a pause, before the searcher straightened himself up and said decisively—
"How disappointing," cried Ned. "But what about all those stones?"
"To be sure. You don't call them nothing?" cried Chris.
"No; there's plenty of them, my lads, and plenty of something else underneath them, I'll be bound, if any one thought it worth while to clear out this cellar."
"But what do you think now, Griggs?" cried Chris eagerly.
"Same as I did before, my lad. I shouldn't like to guess, but you may feel sure that many a savage came to his end here and lies covered in by these stones. The people who defended this place from up yonder must have showered the stones down when they were attacked. There, it's of no use for me to stop down here. Are you two going to haul me up, or am I to climb?"
"We'll try and haul you up," said Chris. "Stop a moment while I take the rifles and stand them up against the wall inside."
"Hold hard a moment," said Griggs. "You'd better go and fetch the doctor. He might like to come down and see before I send up the lanthorn."
"I'll call him," said Chris, and he turned to pass through the opening, but was met by his father, who was crossing the stone chamber adjoining.
"Here, quick," cried the doctor; "come out of this place! Where's Griggs?"
"Here am I, neighbour. Nothing to be found, only what fell in from where you stand. But there's hundreds upon hundreds of stones, and those who were beaten down must have been buried by what hit them."
"Yes, I suppose so," said the doctor anxiously; "but we've something else to think of now."
"Don't say the mules have stampeded, sir?" cried Griggs anxiously.
"No; they're grazing peacefully enough at present, but there's something worse."
"Then give a pull with the lads at that rope, sir, and let me get out of this. One minute; the lanthorn first."
The doctor raised the lanthorn, and his first act was to blow it out before joining at the rope and hauling the searcher to the platform.
"What is it, sir?" cried Griggs anxiously.
"Come and see," was the reply.
The doctor made his way through the hole and crossed the chamber into which it opened, before entering the next, closely followed by the boys and Griggs, who caught up their rifles as they passed them, dragging the ropes as they went.
As they entered the second chamber it was to see the doctor join Bourne at the window-opening, while beyond them stood Wilton sheltering himself behind a patch of bushy growth hanging from above, as he stood watching something intently through the doctor's double glass.
"See any more, Wilton?" said the doctor anxiously.
"Scores," was the reply, given without the speaker turning his head. "You can see for yourself; they're collecting together on the very edge of the cliff away there, and at first they stood gazing down into the depression."
"Do you think they saw you?" said the doctor hoarsely.
"Oh no, I feel sure that they did not at first, and I have kept in shelter since; but they have caught sight of something else."
"What?" cried Griggs.
"Ah! You there?" said Wilton sharply. "You had better come and have a look through this glass; you may be able to tell what race they are."
"Perhaps," said Griggs shortly; "but what is it they can see?"
"The ponies and mules."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes; there was one of the men, a chief apparently, pointing down at them. I could see it plainly through the glass."
"Indians, Ned," whispered Chris. "They must have been following us all this time, and we're in for it now."
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT.
Not a word was said then for some minutes, during which the glass was passed from one to the other, and long, excited looks taken at the strong body of bronze, half-nude warriors seated upon their ponies close to the edge of the flat-topped range of cliffs, some four or five hundred feet above the bottom of the depression.
The Indians were evidently looking down at something in front of the ranges of openings which formed the old-world city, and it took no thinking, after the party were once confident that they were not seen, to decide what it was that took the attention of the roving tribe.
It was Chris who repeated Wilton's words.
"They're watching the mules and ponies," he said. "I saw one fellow point at them when I had the glass to my eyes."
"And that is as good as saying that they are watching us," said Ned sadly.
"Oh no," cried the doctor. "They can see some beasts grazing in this verdant bottom; they can't tell at this distance that they are not wild."
"Why, father," said Chris, "they have been hunting us for long enough."
"My dear boy, do you suppose that there is only one roving band of Indians in all these thousands of square miles of wild country?"
"I—I—don't know, father," was the reply.
"Then you may take it as highly probable that these are not the Indians we saw before."
"But they know that the mules and ponies are tame."
"How, when they are nearly half-a-mile away? There is neither bridle nor saddle to be seen."
"Oh no, of course not," said Chris, brightening up. "Then, after having a good look at them, the band will ride right away."
"That is doubtful," said the doctor gravely.
"Why, they can't get down there."
"No, but they can make a long detour and get down to the gulch, and then make their way into the depression and capture us all, men and boys, ponies and mules."
"Oh!" ejaculated Chris. Then quickly, "How long will it take them to get round?"
"I wish I knew, my boy," said the doctor sadly. "We ought to have explored the gulch and seen how it was connected with the tableland yonder. But there, it is of no use to regret the past; we must think about the present."
"Yes," grunted Griggs, and his voice roused the doctor into action.
"What do you say, Griggs?" he cried. "My idea is to wait till the enemy—I suppose we must look upon them as the enemy—have gone out of sight, and that we then load up and retreat as fast as we can."
"Too late," said Griggs gruffly; "we may come right upon them."
"Yes, if they make their way to the mouth of the gulch. They may be content with seeing that there is a herd of strange animals here, and then ride away."
"Some folk might," said Griggs quietly, "but not Indians."
"Then what do you think will be best?"
"Drive the animals up to the other end of the place, and then take possession of a couple of the rooms here in the face of the rocks, stop up the shaft, and keep the enemy at bay with our rifles."
The doctor frowned.
"It may be a false alarm," he said.
"Yes, may be," said Griggs; "but I don't believe it is, sir. Don't you go and think that I want to fight. Nothing of the kind, but I'm afraid we shall have to. Why, we could keep all that lot at bay for any length of time."
"But it would be desperate work."
"Yes, sir, they'd make us desperate; but it would be their own doing. We could bring up our provisions into the chamber nearest the water, and command it with our rifles so that they couldn't get to it. They've only got to leave us alone and there'd be no desperate work."
"But they may be friendly Indians."
"I never heard of any out in these wilds, sir," said Griggs grimly.
"But they might be friendly," said Bourne eagerly.
"So much the better, sir. Then there'd be no harm done. I'd trust the Indians up north so long as they were not on the warpath, but I shouldn't like to trust any of these."
"Then you'd prepare for the worst?"
"That's the only way to deal with these people, sir," said the American sternly. "If they see that we're weak they'll take our mules and ponies, and perhaps our lives—at once. If they take our animals and leave us alone they've taken our lives all the same, for we could never reach civilisation again without our beasts."
"No," said the doctor firmly. "I should have liked to retreat if we could."
"We couldn't do it," said Wilton sharply, as he took his eyes from the glass. "There would not be time, and if we could get away they'd follow our trail and take us at a disadvantage, for certain."
"Yes," said the doctor; "there is no other chance. As you suggest, Griggs, if they find us strong they will fear us. We must decide at once which of the cells we will hold, and get our stores there as quickly as possible."
"That is already settled, sir," said the American coolly. "We must hold the place where we can reach the water, and the lowest floor here is the one."
"You are confident, then, that they couldn't get at us from above?"
"Quite, sir. The attack, if it comes, will be from below, as it was made once before."
Chris and Ned exchanged glances as they recalled all that they had seen and the result to the defenders, and a blank look of despair settled in their countenances.
As it happened the doctor was watching them keenly at the time, his breast full of anxiety for the lads about to be brought face to face with such grave peril, and he spoke out cheerfully as if in answer to the thoughts he had just read in their faces.
"Yes," he said, "but you forget. Those people had to defend themselves with stones. We have the best of modern firearms, and can deal out death and destruction to our enemies from a distance while we are sheltered and quite beyond their reach. Well, Wilton, what do you make out?"
"They are all gathered closely together, pretty well a hundred strong," was the reply, "and one man—the chief, I suppose—is haranguing the rest. He keeps on gesticulating and pointing down at the mules, and then waving his hands in different directions as if to show which way they ought to go."
"Well," said the doctor, "we must not stir until they move off. They evidently have not seen us, and they may after all believe the animals to be wild."
"Yes, sir; and it's no use to show ourselves till we are obliged. We'll drive the beasts right up the valley here as soon as the coast's clear, and then keep in hiding and try what a shot or two from where they don't show will act. If we bring down a man and a horse or two they may turn back in a state of superstitious panic. It's a good deal to hope for, but it might turn out so."
"At any rate it's the best plan," said the doctor. "So be ready to act as soon as the enemy disappears, and then we must pray for time."
Indian palavers are long and tedious, and the chief addressing the tribe talked for long enough, and was succeeded, so Wilton reported, by others, during all which time the watchers kept carefully out of sight and waited in a state of suspense that was almost unbearable.
"At last!" cried the doctor, as the body of horsemen began to move off. "Watch them carefully, Wilton, and see if you can make out how they are armed."
"That's plain enough," said the member of the party addressed; "they nearly all have long spears."
"That means bows and arrows as well, I should say," cried Griggs. "Indians who carry spears have not learned to use rifles, as a rule. Hah! There they go, riding straight back from the edge. I shouldn't wonder if they have a long distance to go, right back over a plain, before they can get round the mountains. They must come by the same gulch as we did, and perhaps they've got to find it first."
"Think so?" said Bourne, putting the question that was on Chris's lips. "They may be thoroughly acquainted with all this place."
"It's just as likely that they've never looked down into it before," said Griggs. "They belong to a roving band, and the country here is very big."
"Ah, there goes the last of them," cried Wilton, closing and shutting up the glasses.
"Give them a few minutes' law," cried the doctor, "just to make sure that they have gone. Then down to the camp as quickly as possible, load up, and bring everything up to the foot of the slope, unload, and I'll drive the poor brutes up to the other end while you folks get the stores under cover."
"But suppose the enemy come while you are away doing the driving?" cried Chris excitedly.
"We'll suppose nothing of the sort, my boy," said the doctor sternly. Then with a pleasant smile, "If they do come while I'm away you'll all have to cover me with your rifles while I fight my way back. Now then, time's up. Down with you, and away."
As soon as they could get clear of the ruins there was a rush made for the camp, the grazing animals being driven before them to where the stores were heaped, and going quietly enough, associating the sacks and barrels with feeding-time, though fated to be neglected!
The stores once reached, hot and nervous work began, in which Chris had no share, his duty being to mount his mustang and act the part of scout.
His instructions were very few; he knew what to do. That was to ride back to the gulch, and select a good spot, one which combined two advantages, commanding a far-reaching view down the wild approach, while affording good cover and concealment for him.
He started at once, riding off and giving two good long earnest looks at the busy party placing their loads on the mules' backs.
Then a turn amongst the rocks hid him from sight, and the boy felt his heart sink, in spite of the way in which he braced himself up for his task, for the gulch looked more and more dark and forbidding as he rode on, the sides closed in closer, it seemed, than they had been when he came, and as he strained his eyes forward along the trackless way, bush after bush and rock after rock in the distance sent his heart, as it were, with a bound to his throat, so nearly did his imagination make these objects approach the aspect of savage Indians riding slowly towards him.
But a second glance generally resolved them into what they were, fancy paintings, and he bit his lips fiercely with annoyance as he called himself coward and one quite unfit for such a task.
He had ridden onward for some time before he found a post that seemed in any way suitable, for the gulch turned and doubled and zigzagged here and there in a way that gave him sadly shortened views, and he was at last about to turn back to the best place he had passed, bad as it was, when he recognised a corner in front as being formed by a rock that he remembered seeing for long enough on their approach, one that never seemed to get any nearer, and to his joy when he now reached it he found everything he desired—command of the gulch for quite a mile, plenty of cover to hide him and his pony from the view of those who came along, and, what was very acceptable then, a tiny basin of pure cold water in which his mustang gladly plunged its muzzle for a long, deep drink.
Then with a sigh of relief the scout took up his position to watch for the coming danger, knowing as he did that he had only to draw back a few yards for the great elbow-like rock to cover his retreat so that he could hurry away with the warning of danger and give all time to seek the cells that they were to defend.
"They ought to have loaded up by now," he said to himself, "and all has turned out splendidly, while perhaps after all the Indians may never find this deep, dark gulch. It was only by accident that we did."
Chris had just comforted himself with this notion when a horrible thought assailed him. It was this—
All the way he came he had been keeping up a good lookout in front for the approaching danger, and had never once thought of looking up to right or left for some narrow side valley or gash by which the danger might suddenly descend into the narrow way.
The thought was so terrible that he turned cold and looked back, half-expecting to see a group of the bronze warriors in his rear; and then his too busy imagination pictured more, the whole band in fact riding down by the gash in the rocks that he ought to have seen, and stealthily coming on to surprise those whom it had been his duty to save.
For some minutes his fancy gained ground to such an extent that the boy was completely unnerved. And no wonder, for the gloom of the great gulch with its perpendicular sides towering up to a vast height, the solitary grandeur, the silence, and the oppression wrought by the tremendous nature of his task, began to be more than his young nature could bear.
For some little time he sank into a state of despair. To use his own words, in which he thought of his brain power as something mechanical that had been wound up, his head seemed as if it would not "go."
In fact, to use a homely phrase, he was so prostrated by the thought that, in spite of his care and the stern duties of the task that he had been set to do, he had passed some side opening by which the Indians might come down and attack the unarmed camp, that he wanted "shaking up" to bring him to himself.
He had that very shaking up literally, for all at once his pony stretched out its neck, spread its legs widely, and gave itself a violent shake, one which threatened to dislodge the saddle before the beast subsided, and Chris settled himself again in his seat.
"It's all fancy," he said to himself; "I must have seen such a gorge or ravine if there had been one. The Indians must come along here in front. Mounted men can't ride down precipitous slopes."
With this thought to comfort him the boy sat watching the open part in front from his cover, perfectly satisfied that the only portions of him visible to a coming enemy were his face and hat, while to add to his protection, in case any of the Indians' advance-guard should suddenly ride into sight, Chris dismounted, cut a few tufts of heather-like brush, and stuck them at random through the band of his soft felt covering.
"There," he said in a satisfied way, as he replaced his hat, "that will look at a distance as if it were growing. I've a good mind to rub my face with mud."
Whether he would have so disfigured himself is doubtful, but certainly he could not, for there was no mud, nothing but a little beautifully clean sand in the bottom of the rock-pool into which the falling water splashed.
So Chris sat there thinking and straining his eyes along the narrow gulch, seeing no Indians, but the bright light on the tops of the rocky sides, while the gulch itself, always gloomy, now began to darken as if it were being gradually filled up with a flood of black velvet in a liquid state.
The pony dropped its head more and more; not to browse, for the bit held him a prisoner from that, but because it was an easy position, and in the silence Chris listened to the heavy breathing of the animal and felt the action of its sides as they rose and sank.
"They ought to have got all the stores into the cells by this time," thought Chris. "I wish I could have helped. It seems so lazy just sitting here. But of course it makes them feel safer. But what a horrible nuisance it is for Indians to be coming to disturb us. I hope it won't come to a fight. How horrible to have to shoot them!—Much more horrible for them to shoot us."
Chris's thoughts became less active, and then concentrated themselves upon the extremity of his eye scope, where he believed that he saw a mounted man standing where there was nothing before.
"Pooh! Only a rock," muttered the boy, after a long and careful inspection. "But how fast it's getting dark. I shan't be able to see any enemy soon, and what am I to do then, for I shan't be able to see anything at all? Why, nothing was said about that," he thought, "not a word. I didn't think about being in such a position, and I'm sure father didn't, or he would have spoken. Now, what would he say to me, I wonder? Something about using my own discretion and acting for the best. Now, what would be the best?"
Chris set his teeth and thought hard so as to decide what would be the proper thing to do.
"Why, it's all simple enough," he said to himself at last. "I'm posted here to give them warning when the Indians are coming. Well, if it's too dark for me to see them coming I can't give any notice, and if I can't do what I'm sent here for I should be better back at the camp."
He looked along the gloomy gulch to see that the light was gone from the crags that shut-in the narrow way, while the bottom of the gulch was black with shadow, so dark that any one approaching would have been perfectly invisible.
"Yes," he said to himself, "it's of no use for me to stay here. I can't see anything, and if the savages rode up it would be too late to try to give warning. I'll go back."
But he did not stir, only sat thinking in a fresh groove.
"Father won't think me cowardly, will he?"
That was a horrible idea, one which made the boy's cheeks burn for a minute, until his common-sense told him that no such injustice could fall to his lot.
"Of course not," he argued. "I was sent here to do my best. I've done my best, and now I can do no more. I say, how black it is," he said half-aloud, and then he felt blank, faced as he was by another difficulty—how was he going to get back along the trackless path encumbered with stones and with rifts and tufts of very thorny bushes here and there?
It was a poser.
There was a dull streak of sky overhead, in which a star here and there could be seen blinking and looking pale.
"I can't see beyond the pony's head," thought Chris. "Why, it's madness to try and ride along a place like this; but it's horrible to think of sitting here all night, and one couldn't go to sleep. I'm so hungry too, and—Oh, I say, who'd ever have thought of this? What a mess I'm in!"
There was nothing approaching despair in the boy's feelings then, neither was there anything akin to fear, unless it was a dread of being suddenly pounced upon by the Indians now.
This thought had quite a comic side to it, and he laughed softly.
"They'd be precious clever—ten times as clever as they're said to be, with their wonderful sight and hearing—if they did pounce upon me now. Why, look at that."
It was rather an absurd order which he gave himself, as he stretched out his right-hand at the level of his eye, for to all intents and purposes there was no hand to look at, while as to his pony's ears, he certainly knew that they were somewhere in front, but that was all.
"Oh, I say," he sighed, "I am in a mess, and no mistake! If I'd had any gumption in this thick old head I should have slipped a damper cake in my pocket. But who was going to think of eating at a time like that? Perhaps Ned would," he added, with a soft chuckle; and the idea was so mirthful that he shook a little, but only to grow serious directly.
"There," he said, "I've done my duty, I'm sure, and though I'm in such a hobble things have turned out capitally, and they've had plenty of time to get our cliff castle fortified and stored. That's splendid, and I won't fidget about the Indians, for they can't come till to-morrow, and perhaps they'll never come at all. But I say, this is coming to search for the old gold city! I believe I'd rather have stopped at the plantation killing blight and scratching the scale insects off the peach-twigs. Here, I say, old chap!"
He addressed this to the pony, but there was no suggestion of his address having been heard, so obeying a sudden impulse he dropped out of the saddle, readjusted the sling of his rifle, and then tightened the saddle-girths before going to the pony's head, to feel the head-stall all over, and stroke and pat the little cob-like animal's neck, ending by passing its ears through his hand, and then passing the back against the velvety muzzle, with the result that his companion whinnied with satisfaction.
"Now, old chap," he said, "we've got to get home, and I may as well be honest. I can't guide you, and I'll let you have your head all the way, and make you up a nice mash of meal in one of the buckets when we get there for a reward. Think you can do it?"
"Yes," said the boy, after a pause; "silence gives consent, as I once read somewhere. Now, which shall I do, ride or lead you? I shall ride, for if I lead you it will be all a sham, and I shall only be getting you into difficulties. So there: I'll trust you. Take your time. Want any water?"
The boy pulled the little animal's head towards where he believed the water to be, but it did not stretch out its neck, so he mounted again.
"Now then," he said, "back to camp."
The pony started at once, but Chris drew rein.
"No, no; that won't do. That's right, turn round. We don't want to go any farther to-night. Now then, steady. Don't fall and pitch me over your head. The way's right on, and you can't go off right or left. Ck! That's right. When you feel in doubt about a stone or hole or a bush, stop short and I'll get down and feel about for you.—Well done!"
This last was in admiration, for without the slightest hesitation the pony had set off, pacing steadily back along the way they had come, but with its head very low-down, as Chris realised by the steady draw that had been given at the reins.
"Talk about eyes," muttered Chris, "why, they're microscopes. I say, though, I mustn't go to sleep. I believe I could without falling off. It wouldn't be fair, though, for I ought to let him hear my voice now and then."
All the same Chris was perfectly silent, and spent his time gazing hard upward at the long jagged ribbon of black purple, now gemmed with brilliant stars, which spread along overhead. From time to time he looked forward to try and make out obstacles in front, but he could see nothing; there was naught to do but listen to the pony's footsteps and think of what they were doing at camp and what they would be saying about his non-return.
"Father won't go to sleep to-night," said Chris, with a sigh of satisfaction caused by the idea. "He'll be awake and listening for my pony's steps, and—Oh, how far must it be?
"A good many yards less than it was a minute ago, and it's getting a shorter distance with every step my mustang takes."
And onward they went, cheerfully enough, through the black darkness at the bottom of the gulch, the pony never failing, never setting hoof in hole nor stumbling over stone or bush. It stopped for a moment now and then to turn aside or to make sure of some difficulty which needed an outstretched neck, a touch with the muzzle, or a sigh; but otherwise it travelled on slowly but surely through the earlier part of the night, while Chris thought till he could think no longer, and began to ride with his shoulders up, his chin in his chest, and a tendency to bow right down upon his mount's neck. But he never did that once, only clung with a dreamy feeling of safety, with his knees against the saddle-flaps and his feet fast in the stirrups.
"I must not go to sleep," he muttered once; but he did all the same, instinctively tightening his hold by means of his abnormally-strained muscles the while.
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE.
AMONG THE HORNETS.
It had been a day of severe exertion mentally and bodily, during which the boy's nature had done its best; but the time came at last when it could do no more, and he rode on at that steady walk, sleeping profoundly, so deeply that he did not know when the mustang suddenly stopped short as if in doubt, and stood with ears pointed forward sniffing at the stones beneath its hoofs, wrested them to the right and again to the left, as if there was some taint in the air. Then the doubt increased, and it bore to the right, stopped, bore to the left again, sniffed more loudly, lowered its head and sniffed again, uttered a low sigh, and resumed its steady walk, on and on, for how long Chris never knew, but hours had passed and he was back again in the square hole which Griggs termed a trap, listening to what he said about the stones which covered the bottom while he made the soft glow of the lanthorn play before his eyes.
Then all at once the dream gave place to the real, and Chris was half-conscious.
It took some moments before he realised that he was gripping a saddle with stiffening knees and riding forward, and he couldn't tell why. At last, though, a mist seemed to fade away from his thinking powers, and he knew what it all meant. He was riding, and he had been to sleep.
But why? What for?
The answer to those questions came in due course, and he sighed with weariness.
"Oh dear," he muttered, "I wonder how far it is now. Nearly as far as before," he thought, for he couldn't have been asleep more than a minute.
Then for another minute he was confused upon looking at the soft faint glow of the lanthorn held by Griggs in the trap.
"What nonsense!" he said peevishly. "How muddled my head is. But that's a light over there. Why!—I say!—Oh!"
His whole feelings changed as he uttered those interjections, and the tones of his voice were as if the words were positive, comparative, and superlative.
"We must be close to the valley," he thought. "The Indians can't have come, and father has had a camp-fire kept up as a guide for me, and I'll be bound to say there'll be something cooking, because he'll think of how hungry I shall be.
"There's a good old dad," he said to himself, beginning to feel bright and happy now, and as invigorated as if he had partaken of refreshment.
"Well, I am glad, and I am hungry, and I'll say so too. I don't care if old Ned sneers when I say I am, and tells me that I'm worse than he is. Oh, hooray! You good old mustang! You're the best pony that ever lived, and I love you as much as a fellow can love a nag. Just think of you bringing me straight back all through that black gulch—me asleep too! There, old chap," he continued, patting the little animal's neck, "I won't forget your mash. You shall have it before I eat a morsel. I wouldn't take a hundred pounds for you if any one offered it; but nobody will, and I don't want it if he did.
"Yes," he continued, as the pony paced steadily on, "they've got a good fire, and it must be very near now. Sniff, sniff. Why, it's meat roasting. My! It does smell good! Shall I coo-ee and let them know I'm so close? No, I'll ride right up into the light and surprise them. Father will be wide awake watching for me, and old Ned'll be snoring, I know. He might have sat up too. I should have done so for him, because I should have felt uneasy about what had happened. Sniff! Sniff! I wonder what they've got! It smells like mutton. How did they manage to get it? Not one of those mountain-sheep?"
A shrill low whinny from right ahead where the fire was burning brightly now and casting shadows from the trees and bushes, and also bringing into sight a tall figure seated as it were in the air, till Chris recognised the fact that it was a mounted man.
"Father waiting to ride out and meet me," thought Chris, as a thrill ran through him, caused by the answering whinny of his mustang.
The next moment, as the boy was about to urge it forward right into the light, there was a hoarse yell, more shadows appeared in the bright glow, and Chris stopped to seize his neglected rein, and drag his pony's head round, urging it with hand and voice to bound away along the returning track, for in the bright light of the fire the boy had fully awakened to the fact that he had been riding straight for an Indian encampment, right in amongst the enemies he had been trying so hard to avoid.
AN UNCONSCIOUS DOUBLE.
It was all Chris could do in his excitement and alarm to keep from crying aloud to his pony to go faster and faster, though after a few strides it seemed as if the rider's fear was communicated, and it was tearing over the rocky ground with all its might, making the stones fly as they were smitten in the furious gallop. But fortunately not a word escaped between the boy's firmly-set teeth.
Settling himself well down in the saddle, he felt that his only chance of saving himself from being a prisoner, perhaps from a horrible death, was to trust entirely to his pony, leave it free to go as it willed.
Of the character of his pursuers there was no doubt. They were Indians, the regular savage Indians of the plains, whose cruelties to settlers were the theme of many a horrible story told at camp-fire and in solitary shanty. Chris knew of their deeds well enough, but it had never entered his mind that the time would come when he would be tearing through the darkness over the rugged stones of a rocky gulch, flying for his life with an ever-increasing pack baying and yelling at his heels.
For during the first minute or two he had been chased by three or four; after that the numbers, as betrayed by their yells, rapidly increased, till as they secured their pegged-out horses and sprang upon their backs, fully fifty must have joined in the chase.
They were well mounted, too, upon the tough, wiry horses of the plains, quite at home on the roughest of ground, and at first as Chris tore on they seemed to be gaining upon him fast; but their savage yells, however much they alarmed, had another effect upon Chris's mustang, making the gallant little beast toss its long mane, raise its long, plume-like tail till it floated out behind, and stretching out neck and legs, its length growing closer to the track, it tore away like a greyhound, avoiding obstacles as if by some occult force, and making the air whistle by the fugitive's ears.
Chris could ride well. Many a leading race he had indulged in against Ned on the open prairie-like land long before this expedition, while since then the tedium of their journey had often been lightened by a mad gallop, as much enjoyed by the steeds as by those they bore swiftly along over the level sands; but the boy had never ridden before as he rode now. For he seemed to form part and parcel of the wiry little mustang, as he leaned over towards its straining neck to pat and caress and now and then twine the thick hairs of the mane about the fingers of his right-hand, the left that still held the rein allowing it to flap lower against the neck, while each pat and caress was responded to by a snort.
That seemed no time for thinking, but Chris thought hard—harder than he had ever thought before. He was not afraid, for there was a strange feeling of excitement, a wild thrill of exhilaration, accompanying the race, which made him long once more to shout aloud. For himself he thought nothing, but his thoughts were of his father, and the agony and despair he would suffer if it so happened that his boy was captured and slain; and by degrees these thoughts impressed him so that his desires became centred in one, and that was, to gallop away from the savage pack, leaving them far behind, and riding on and on till he could rejoin his father in triumph and tell him that he was safe.
There were moments in that wild race when Chris's excitement grew into fierce exultation, when the stones were flying, the pony's hot breath floating back to his cheeks, and the yelling of the savages began to grow faint; and then again moments when the mustang's efforts seemed to flag and the yells of the Indians increasing in loudness came nearer and nearer, till the boy had hard work to keep from wrenching himself round in the saddle to try and pierce the black darkness to gaze defiantly at the fierce starting eyeballs and gleaming teeth of those who were hunting him for his blood.
These changes came again and again as the mustang tore along, now leaving the yells behind, now slackening or seeming to slacken, till the Indians' whoops were very near, ringing behind and even passing the fugitive, to run echoing from side to side multiplying the burst of cries.
Then all at once the chase settled down into a wilder gallop, as a feeling of terror influenced the boy.
"We must be getting nearer the stone in the middle of the gulch where I hid," thought Chris, "and he'll run full into it."
But the next moment he felt that they could not be half-way yet, and his ears began to sing in the darkness as the yells of the Indians sounded louder and louder, while the echoes given back by the closing-in walls were deafening.
Nearer and nearer they sounded—those savage yells—and once more Chris leaned forward to caress the mustang's neck.
"Oh, go on, old lad," he whispered; "faster, faster, or they'll have us." And then the whisper, unheard in the turmoil of yell and echo, became a cry of agony embodied in the simple homely words which told of the boy's suffering and the despair now gripping him by the heart, for out of the black darkness came a fresh burst of yells that were horrible in their intensity, and full of triumph in their tones, as if those who shouted were certain of their quarry. Chris's heart sank low indeed, for the end seemed to have come. Involuntarily now both hands clutched and clung to the pony's shaggy mane.
For just as it seemed to the fugitive that the foremost horses were upon him and their riders' hands were outstretched to tear him from his saddle, the mustang made a sudden swerve and what seemed to be a slip.
But it did not go down, recovering itself in an instant, but only to drop from a furious gallop into a laboured canter which became directly after a painful walk, while Chris felt as if he had received a blow which had stupefied him, deadening his hearing so that he only heard the clatter of horses' hoofs and the yelling of the riders as if from a distance, growing fainter and fainter till they died away.
"What's the matter? Am I hurt?" panted the boy, as, passing the rein over his wrist, he clapped his hands to his temples, sitting upright and swaying with his pony's movements the while.
The only answer was the hoarse panting of the pony as, evidently striving hard, it kept on at the walk, full of effort, and Chris began to grasp the fact that in the swerve made by the plucky little steed the Indians had swept by at full gallop, while, unnoticed in the darkness, the pony had turned up the side gorge which his master had passed in coming and passed again upon his return, being fast asleep, when the mustang had stopped to sniff and hesitate, and finally chosen the way which led them right into the Indians' camp.
"Why, they've missed us," exclaimed Chris, whose heart began now to beat wildly in the fresh excitement of the moment. For his head was still confused, and he was trying hard to make out how it was that the Indians had managed to pass him earlier in the evening, even now being too much puzzled to make out the mistake that had occurred.
For in the great darkness of the narrow gorge they were ascending the boy's brain seemed to participate. He could not grasp that by this narrow descent the Indians had gained the gulch directly after he had passed to take up his position as scout. In short, all he had room for in his head then was the one great thought, that for the present, thanks to the pony, he had escaped, and for the minor piece of easily-grasped knowledge that the panting beast was toiling—literally climbing up a very steep and narrow rift in the side of the cliff; where he was going and what was to be the end, he could not tell.
After a time the efforts of the pony grew less; it ceased to drag itself up as if forcing its hoofs into the crevices of the rock to climb foot by foot. The way was still steep, and the darkness so thick that for a time Chris could make out nothing of the sides; but in time the strip of purply-black sky gemmed with stars became wider, the edges not so ragged, and all at once it struck the boy that they were not climbing over stones, for the sound of the hoofs was deadened.
This lasted for a time, during which Chris began to breathe more easily as he looked about him and questioned himself as to where he was, while little by little the facts came to fit themselves together like the pieces of a puzzle which now seemed very simple, so that it only needed a fresh act on the part of the mustang to make all clear.
Fully a couple of hours must have passed since the wild hunt in which he had been the quarry; but there it all was now, as the pony stopped suddenly, lowered its head, and began to crop steadily with the sounds so familiar to the hearer, at the soft grass down to which Chris now sprang, to stand looking about him.
"Of course," he said. "We must have climbed up here to what father called the tableland, and somewhere farther on, I suppose, we should come to the edge of the cliff and look down into the valley with the openings facing one.
"But not now," he said, with a shudder, as he thought of the perpendicular character of the cliff-faces.
"Yes, that's all clear now; the Indians must have come along here while I was going along the gulch, and soon after I had passed they got down and turned the other way, making for the valley, and getting in perhaps before my people had secured all the stores and things. Oh, what have I done?" he cried bitterly. "Failed—horribly failed! Now how am I to find out what has happened since? Has there been a terrible fight? Can I go down now and see?
"No—no—no," came three dreary answers. "Part of the Indians may be down there by the built-up cliffs; the others will be coming back soon; and what could I do in this darkness, with it far darker in the valley?
"If I only knew what has happened since!" he said, with a groan full of despair, as, dropping down upon the soft turf, half-sitting, half-kneeling, he gazed in the direction where he supposed the great hollow to be, listened to the crop—crop—crop of the grazing beast, and wondered how long it would be before the daylight came.
It was long—a long and weary time, for there was no sleepy sensation now. Chris had had his first taste of a very real danger. He could not hide from himself the knowledge that he had been quite near the end of all his bright, hopeful aspirations. The chase after him had been so savage that he had no faith in being made a well-treated prisoner. The Indians had been too ready and too fierce in their onslaught to show mercy, and there was a sickening feeling at his heart respecting what might have happened during his long absence. Perhaps they had attacked his friends directly after reaching the valley, and if so they had probably received such a lesson as explained their savage demonstration upon seeing him.
"It will all be made clear," thought the boy, "as soon as the day comes." But all the same he did not feel at all confident about what he asserted, neither did he feel at all happy about himself.
"How am I to get back to the valley?" he said. "I suppose it would be easy enough to go down that steep slope into the gulch, but I should be sure to find some of the savages waiting for me there, and even if there were none I don't suppose they all came after me. There were sure to be some left in their camp.
"What can I do?" he muttered. "There is no other way into the valley, and what can I do alone?"
He had seated himself in the darkness to watch the stars slowly seeming to pass from east to west, and as he said half-aloud those words about being alone he slowly fingered the revolver-holster on one side of his belt and the hunting-knife in its sheath, which done, he pulled at the strap which slung his rifle, and getting it round to the front he rested it upon his knees, and began mechanically to examine the breech as if to make sure that he had cartridges in each barrel.
They were there safe enough, and he closed the breech and was about to drag the piece into its regular place again; but something struck him which made him get the rifle back into position, re-open the breech, and take out one of the cartridges, before opening his pouch and exchanging it for another.
A curious sensation ran through the boy's frame as he did this. He felt uncomfortable and as if he were about to do some wrong thing, for the cartridge he withdrew was filled with number six shot such as he would use for killing small birds that they could use for their meals, while the one he inserted in its place contained a long conical bullet, and he knew he was not putting that ready in case he should encounter a bear.
He would not own it to himself—he dreaded to think about it—but all the while he could not help feeling that it must be a duty to defend his own life, and certainly was one to try and protect his father and his friends.
But Chris Lee was uncomfortable all the same, and tried hard to keep all such thoughts back, as he once more began to watch the stars, and listened to the crop, crop of the pony, which seemed to be revelling in the soft, dew-wet grass, whose pleasant odour rose to his nostrils as the animal kept on uttering the familiar blowing sound to drive away insects before nibbling off tufts and grinding them between its fine teeth.
"Poor fellow," he said softly; "he saved my life."
And then he remarked to himself upon its being strange that the mustang did not go far away from him, but evidently preferred grazing round and round as if it were pleasanter to keep close to its companion, man.
It was a long, long time, during which, without once feeling the want of rest, Chris still watched the stars, before he uttered a sigh of relief, for they were certainly growing paler and there was a faint suggestion of light just where, he reflected, the east would lie. Moreover, he was where he had hoped he might find himself, and that was not far from opposite the piece of terraced cliff where he hoped that his friends might be.
He went at once to the pony and led it with him, now moving very cautiously for fear of danger, towards the edge of the cliff, in the hope that as it grew lighter some one might catch sight of him and wave him a signal that he might take as a piece of advice.
But it was still dark below, and he knew the folly of expecting to see any one looking up to where he stood, feeling in his heart that it was far more likely that they might be lying in wait for his return far away towards the entrance of the gully, ready to cover his retreat if he made an attempt to rush in.
"But I can't," he said to himself dolefully. "It's impossible to get down there."
He wanted to get close to the edge of the cliff, to stand above the ranges of cells facing those they had explored; but it was still too dark, for he knew not what rifts or precipitous places might score the tableland upon which he stood; and the day was coming so slowly, while he grew more impatient minute by minute.
There were moments when he thought it would be unwise to expose himself on the top, for if there were Indians in the depression looking sharply about, according to their nature, he would be showing where they could stand a better chance of hunting him down in the full light of day. But if they did attempt such a thing he began wondering whether it would be possible to lead them a long chase, gradually working round till he could make a dash for the gulch and so join his friends.
He could not help feeling that there was little likelihood of this, and then his attention was taken up by the strengthening of the light away to his right, and he started with surprise to see that, from a different point of view of course, he could look upon the very spot where Wilton had caught sight of the Indians gazing down into the valley before drawing back and taking evidently a long round to reach the narrow ravine which had afforded him an outlet of escape.
It was growing light now fast, as he stood holding his pony's rein, and he began to follow the track that the Indians must have taken from the head of the depression, now full in view, bearing round to his right until they reached the ravine up which he had come. He tried to make out where that might be, but it was darker there, and for some time, eager as he was to locate the spot for reasons connected with using it again as a means of escape, though in a reverse way, it was some time before he could make out where the gradual descent from the tableland began.
But the reason was very simple. It was dim there, the eastern light not touching that part, and for another reason he was not looking far enough away from the edge of the cliffs by about a couple of miles. But as the day broadened the way of escape was revealed in a manner which took his breath away, for there, clearly seen in the pale morning light, was the head of a long line of mounted men, the first half-dozen in full view, the others diminishing in height slowly as they ascended the slope, three-quarters, half, a quarter length, so that the last man's head alone was visible, and growing slowly as it seemed to be rising from the earth.
"After us, old chap," cried Chris bitterly, to his pony. "Now then, are you rested? It's going to be another ride for life.
"Which way?" he almost groaned, the next moment, as he looked wildly round. "Oh, why did we come to hunt for this wretched gold?"
CHAPTER FORTY ONE.
It seemed to Chris as if any attempt at hiding would be folly, for if he could see the enemy where the light was not so clear he felt certain that the Indians must have seen him and the pony at once, standing up plainly against the brightening sky.
"I don't know what to do," he said to himself, as he sprang upon the pony's back, and felt better directly. For as the sturdy little animal began to move springily along, fresh vigour seemed to run through the boy's nerves, and he looked sharply round again.
"There must be some way for us to escape," he cried aloud, "and they shall have a long gallop before they catch us."
He paused for a few moments to look down into the valley and across at the towering up rows of broken openings on the other side of the depression, feeling the while that to stay anywhere near the edge of the precipice was only to hasten his surrender, for the distance from the edge to the level bottom of the valley seemed terrible, so giddy and full of horror for him who fell, that Chris literally wrenched his eyes away, to sweep the horizon till he had made up his mind which was the most open and level part of the tableland to select for the wild gallop to come.
"I did hope to have seen some one over yonder," he muttered bitterly, "but I suppose they are asleep and don't know what danger I am in. There, off with you, old lad," he cried aloud, shaking the rein. "No, no—steady; it's going to be a long ride, and you mustn't be pumped out for hours to come. That's better; a nice gentle canter. Well done! How light and easy you do go."
It was as if the beautiful little animal understood its rider's words. It certainly did his caresses, for it snorted loudly, tossed up its head, and then bending it down with neck finely arched, it progressed in bound after bound as if it were a joy to be cantering along that high level ground in the pure elastic air.
Chris gave his mount another pat or two upon the neck, and then settling himself in his saddle he turned his head to watch the Indians.
In an instant he had learned that not only could they see him but they had grasped his intention as to the way in which he sought to escape. For directly after, three of them had darted out of the line and gone off at full speed, opening out the while, with the evident intention of cutting off their victim.
Chris was ready, and after riding a little way so as to give the enemy time, he suddenly bore upon his rein and changed his course.
But as soon as this was seen, three more of the Indians started off to turn him away from the open country in that direction.
Again Chris changed, each time increasing his speed; but in this, and in the efforts which followed, the Indians grasped his ideas, and they galloped out to cut him off, till after trial following trial the fugitive found that his efforts to escape in that way could only result in tiring out his mustang, and so cleverly had the enemy manoeuvred that they had cast, as it were, a line round him, a semicircle whose chord was the edge of the depression, towards which when it pleased them and they felt certain, they could press him back, gradually contracting their line till he was completely in their power.
Chris drew rein to sit watching the enemy for a few minutes, and breathing his mount while he decided as to what he must do.
The decision was soon arrived at. There was the open country with Indians dotted at intervals ready to close in, but all the same that was the only way of escape, for fully twenty sat like statues upon their horses across the open part which gradually contracted to form the jaws of the ravine down which he would have liked to turn.
"I must do it," thought the boy, and his mind was made up. The open country must be reached, and he prepared for action by taking his revolver out of the holster and holding it ready for a shot; then gathering up his reins and pointing his pony's head for the very centre of the line which hemmed him in, he went off at a canter straight for the open, picking out one man as his guide.
The result was exactly what he expected, for as he increased his pace the Indians to his right and left came galloping, evidently meaning to reach him just as he gained their line.
Chris urged his pony on at full gallop, and there was a race, the enemy sweeping over the short level grass, concentrating themselves as it were upon their quarry, and beginning to yell and shout as they tore along. But Chris's movement was only a feint, and the next minute he had wheeled round, changing his direction to one parallel with the edge of the cliff, tearing along so that two out of three of the Indians dashed past him, while as he neared the other, who was right in his way, he raised his revolver, waited till he was as close as he was likely to get, and then at intervals fired three shots, the little bullets whizzing through the clear morning air, and the last, to the boy's surprise and delight, finding its billet with a faint ping.
He had only expected to startle and perhaps make his enemy turn tail, but to his utter astonishment the last man's pony stopped short, sending the rider over its head, and Chris tore on, with the intention of passing through the line.
It was a furious race now, for at intervals quite a dozen of the enemy were trailing along now to cut him off, and victory was bound to be to the most swift. But the enemy were clever enough not to trust to the result of this race, for several hundreds of yards out another line of horsemen was tearing over the plain, whirling their bows and spears over their heads and using them mercilessly upon the flanks of their steeds.
It was a good race, during which Chris's mustang proved its speed, going over the grass ventre a terre, as the French call it, and, to his delight, the boy was able to pass round the farthest horseman, who strove vainly to head him, as he made now for the open plain.
The effort was vain, for the second line was closing-in at full gallop, and seeing the hopelessness of repeating his first feint, Chris now urged his pony on again parallel with the edge of the cliff, with some idea of riding round the end of the great depression so as to get to the far side, and then, trusting to the speed of his brave little mount, escaping there.
But it was of no use. At first he began to feel hopeful, for he was going fast and getting well on towards the head of the valley, which after a gallop he finally reached. The open country beyond was before him, he was bending down again to reach forward and pat the pony's neck, shouting cheering words to it the while, when he suddenly became aware of the fact that right in front, and coming from quite a different direction, there was another party of the enemy, which no sooner caught sight of the chase than they increased their pace, spreading out into a line the while.
Chris began to draw rein, slowly checking his pony's gallop to a canter, and then easing it down to a walk, for he had been gradually edged more and more towards the rim of the great depression, till there was not more than a hundred yards between him and the precipitous descent, which presented an effectual barrier to all escape there.
"They're too much for me," panted the boy breathlessly, and quite innocent of this naive way of expressing himself, for it never occurred to him how pitifully small his chances of escape had been in pitting himself, a mere lad, against nearly a hundred of the active warriors of the plain.
"But I'm not done yet," he muttered, as he pressed his pony's sides and cantered on towards where in one spot the smooth level gave place to a rugged patch where the ground was broken up and strewed with stones right to the edge of the precipice for about a hundred yards, before it became smooth and level again.
As near as he could guess he was leaving behind the spot where the Indians had been first seen; but that was only a passing thought. He was, as he had said, not done yet, and in those stones he saw shelter for himself and his mount while he made a stand for a time in the hope that aid of some kind might come, or some turn of the tide occur in his favour.
Full of this idea, he cantered on, and reached the rugged patch of broken ground, his sinking spirits rising as he drew near and found that it would give more shelter than he had hoped for, since no horseman could charge through it; in fact, as he reached the spot he was obliged to let the pony pick its way in and out among pieces of rock eight or ten feet high which looked as if they had been turned up, while among them there were shallow, shady rifts, and in one case quite a gash going deeply down and cutting right through the edge of the depression, being evidently the work of water that at some period or other in the world's history had run over the edge of the precipice in a cascade.
But Chris was in no humour then for calculating the causes of this appearance, this roughening of the level plain. He did wonder that he had not noticed it from below, but there was no occasion for wonder, since the stones stood too far back from the edge to be visible to people four or five hundred feet below. He only saw in the chaotic patch a place of sanctuary, and rode right in, to draw rein with his back to one of the largest blocks of stone, while others were between him and the advancing enemy.
It was the merest chance, but a long search could not have discovered a better spot for the boy's temporary protection, and calling up the little knowledge he had picked up of the Indians' nature and habits, he set his teeth as he let the rein fall upon his mount's neck, passed the sling of his rifle over his head, and drew round and opened his cartridge-pouch.
"Stand still, old chap," he said, and for the moment he thought of dismounting, resting the barrel of his piece across the saddle, and firing from there; but the thought came that at any moment he might have to seize the opportunity to gallop off, while the minute expended in changing his position and mounting might make all the difference between escape and capture.
So he sat fast and waited, watching the approach of the Indians, who did not ride in at once, but treated him, after their experience of seeing one of their companions go down, as a dangerous enemy, one to be taken unawares, or after being rendered helpless, while for his part Chris sat firm as a rock, feeling fear, of course, but strung up by the sensation of being suddenly called upon to fight for his life.
But he felt that it would not be long before the enemy took action, while there were moments when his heart seemed to sink with the heaviness of despair, as he fully realised how little he could do against so many.
He was not kept waiting long after the Indians had closed up, for they stopped about a hundred yards away and then started off as if about to turn their horses in an elliptical course, starting off and riding round, each man as he passed the lad at a distance of some fifty yards uttering a piercing war-whoop, with the evident intention of alarming their victim, who however sat waiting patiently and apparently not alarmed in the least.
These shouts were given as the whole body passed round and within range, and lasted till every man had shouted his defiant cry, while the lad sat fast holding his fire. But at the second career something else was evidently on the way, and if possible Chris set his teeth harder, for as one man went by at a canter he leaned over towards his left, raised the bow he held quickly with an arrow fitted on the string, and loosed it with a twang!
It was aimed pretty straight, and loosed off just as the man was clearing one of the blocks of stone, against whose side the arrow glanced and then whizzed by Chris's head and flew over the edge of the precipice, to disappear in the depths below.
Chris drew a deep sigh and raised his rifle, for it seemed to him that it was nearing the time when he must use it.
For the Indians were riding on in the ellipse, and another man fitted an arrow to his bowstring, and as he rode by loosed it off.
A far better shot. There was no striking against rock for it to glance off, for the next moment it struck with a heavy thud in the pommel of Chris's saddle, and quivered there till the lad snapped it off.
A loud yell rose from the cantering Indians as they saw the success of the shot, and as one of the next rode by he sent his arrow whizzing by the boy's head, making him start nervously and raise his rifle to his shoulder; but nearly a minute elapsed before he fired and lowered his piece to thrust in a fresh cartridge, sitting half-hidden by the smoke, which screened him from his enemies at the same time that it hindered him from seeing the effect of his shot.
As the smoke rose it was only to show the party cantering by at an easy pace and looking as if they were engaged in some trial of skill, and in spite of the peril in which he was placed Chris's thoughts played a strange prank, suggesting to him the old fable of the boys and the frogs.
"What is sport to you is death to us!" he muttered bitterly, and aiming more carefully now, well in advance of one of the Indians, he drew trigger and wrenched himself on one side to avoid the smoke and watch the effect.
The act worked in a two-edged way, for another arrow darted by him with a buzz like that of an angry hornet, at the same time that a yell arose, for he saw the man at whom he had fired trying to scramble up from the earth and falling again, while his horse after throwing its rider had reared up, to stand pawing the air frantically for some moments, before coming down on all fours, and then tearing off at full gallop as hard as it could set hoof to ground.
There was a furious yell of rage at this, and a feeling of satisfaction thrilled through the boy's frame as his busy fingers opened and closed the breech of his rifle. But the triumph was only short-lived.
Whizz—thud, another arrow was loosed off from the string, striking the pony low-down in the chest. The poor animal uttered a groan that was almost human in its tones, as it plunged and wrenched itself round, to stand biting at the place where the arrow stuck out, snapping it in two, and nearly unseating its rider, as well as robbing him of the power to fire again, for his side was now towards the foe. Worse still, the pony's change of front presented the whole flank to the enemy, who responded with a yell of triumph by sending in a couple more arrows, both of which hit.
In an instant the poor brute was erect upon its hind-legs, overbalancing itself and falling backward, Chris saving himself by throwing himself sidewise, while as he scrambled up, holding on tightly to his rifle, he turned to fire, fully expecting that the Indians would dash in; but the muzzle of the presented rifle was too formidable for them—they knew its power, and they kept on cantering along, yelling with delight.
Meanwhile the pony was kicking wildly and tearing at the turf as it lay upon its side.
Chris did not attempt to fire, but obeyed the impulse of trying to get his mount to rise again, with the full intent of flinging himself upon its back and galloping in desperation through the enemy.
Two arrows whizzed by him, for his motion, consequent upon the pony's struggles and his efforts to avoid the poor brute's hoofs, was so rapid that he formed a bad butt for a galloping horseman, and so escaped for the moment.
"Up—up, old chap!" he shouted, as he caught hold of the rein, and in obedience to the familiar voice the brave little beast made a desperate effort, and gained its feet, uttering an almost human shriek. Then with a bound it threw up its head, nearly snatching the rein from its master's hand, plunging and kicking wildly.
"Keep still—wo-ho!—quiet!" cried Chris; but in vain, and doubtless fortunately for himself, for he was dragged here and there by the frantic steed, quite ignorant of the direction the pony's struggles led him, but always just out of the course of arrow after arrow, some of which flew wide, while others nearly grazed him, but not one hit.
The thought that dominated all others now in Chris's mind was that he must let go. He had nearly been down twice; then he had stumbled over one of the stones which lay thickly here and there; the pony's hoof grazed his side as, mad with rage and pain, it tore away from him, giving a sudden snatch in its effort to get free from the rein Chris had twisted round his hand.
For the moment the boy felt that his shoulder was dislocated; then he knew that he had lost his foothold and was being dragged over the ground; and the very next moment, as a terrific yell smote his ears, it seemed to be cut off short and to sound distant, for he was falling through the air, to strike somewhere heavily, roll over and feel that he was gliding down amidst stones and loosened earth. Then he was checked again, hanging as it were for a moment before commencing another slide shorter than the last, for he was brought up with a sharp shock against a stone, to which he clung, just as he heard a dull crash somewhere beneath him, and the sound of hoofs tearing at stones, which kept on clattering down in an avalanche, to keep up a loud, heavy, rattling noise, but all far below.
In spite of the horrible excitement and confusion, Chris's brain was clear enough. His left arm felt useless, and his shoulder throbbed, but he was quite conscious that his head was not injured, and perfectly well aware that he had stuck to the rein till the unfortunate pony had dragged him to the edge of the precipice at the head of the valley, and then, mad with pain, gone over, to be lying somewhere below.
But not dead yet, for every now and then the sound of the poor beast's hoofs came up, striking at loose stones and sending more and more clattering down into the valley.
And then for a few moments the boy turned sick, and loosing his hold of his gun, which lay half under him, he clung with all his might to the stone which had checked his further downward progress; for the new thought which had attacked him was that if he did not hold fast he would fall—fall—down the dizzy height into the black darkness of the end.
As he lay there clinging with all his might he was conscious of a wild gabble of voices in an unknown tongue, somewhere above him, and then as if out of a mist a stone fell, struck that to which he clung, and glanced off, to be heard no more. But another small stone came rattling down, in company with some earth, and opening his eyes he found himself staring upward at the edge of the cliff and the narrow, earthy and stony cleft down which he had fallen, recognising it even then as the probable bed of the torrent, that had at some time or other flowed over the riven cliff to plunge into the depths below.
The loud talking right above cleared away the last of the giddy feeling of faintness, but only for him to be face to face with a fresh horror, for all at once another arrow whizzed by, but yards away, and looking up he could see the head of an Indian whose eyes glistened in the sunshine as he peered down as if to look for the effect of the arrow he had dispatched.
Then another head appeared, and the talking increased. Men were shouting, and apparently the shouts were orders, and more heads appeared. Stones and earth crumbled down too, and another arrow whizzed by and struck somewhere near; but it did not seem to come straight down, while another sent directly after evidently came from away to his right.
"They can't reach over far enough to get a good aim at me," thought Chris then, with a strange sense of resignation to the inevitable making him feel calm and patient in his utter helplessness. He could hear the pony strike out again and the stones the poor beast dislodged go clattering down, and then there was a peculiar rushing sound, and small broken pieces and earth began to fall near him, making him strain his eyes once more to see whence they came.
He knew the next moment, for a shout reached his ears, coming from above, and the legs of an Indian passed into sight, then the whole of his body, as more stones crumbled down, and as the boy watched he made out plainly enough that one of his enemies had lowered himself down, crept sidewise, and had just reached a ledge far above him and a little on one side, where he was busy settling himself in a sitting position before drawing his bow from his back and proceeding to fit an arrow to the string.
The look of triumph in the man's painted face was clear enough in the bright morning air. His teeth glistened as he smiled, and Chris clung still not daring to move, but ready to smile as the thought occurred even then, Why shouldn't I let go and fall, so as to disappoint this malicious savage of his attempt to slay?
But it was all like a terrible waking dream to Chris, who lay there conscious of the fact that several of the man's comrades were peering over the edge of the cliff watching his efforts and now waiting to see the successful shot.
It seemed a long time after the nock of the arrow was fitted to the sinew string before, setting his feet against a stone and his back firmly against the perpendicular at the back of the shelf he had gained, the Indian fixed his eyes on his victim and deliberately drew the arrow to the head.
But the effort made in a very critical position caused one foot to slip a little, and slackening the string, the savage shifted his foot, and as soon as he had satisfied himself that he was not likely to slip and plunge headlong down into the valley, he drew the arrow to the head again.
But once more, as with starting eyes Chris watched for the loosing of the shaft, there was a check in the proceedings. For, after lying quite still for some minutes, the pony uttered a loud neigh and began to kick and paw at the stones amongst which he lay, sending a fresh avalanche down into the valley.
The Indian started like a wild beast at the sound, and his sharp eyes were turned to gaze downward as he reached out a little. But apparently satisfied that the sound was not the prelude to an attack, he once more settled himself down and—quickly now, in response to a shout from the Indians above him—drew his arrow to the head.
Chris tried to close his eyes, but his nerves and muscles were rigid as the bow twanged, and he noted that the arrow passed like a flash, high up above his head, as he saw the savage spring up standing on the ledge, clap his hand to his breast, and curving himself backward as his knees bent, fall outward and come down to strike the side of the cliff a couple of dozen yards away, level with the stone to which his intended victim clung. Then he bounded off to descend swiftly, drawing himself up like a ball, and pass out of sight, but only to fall with a sickening crash not far from where a little puff of smoke had darted out in the bottom of the valley, to be followed by a sharp crack which echoed from the cliffs and re-echoed twice, to mingle with a chorus of yells from the edge where a score of Indians stood peering over to try and see where their companion had struck.
CHAPTER FORTY TWO.
HOW TO TURN ROUND.
There was another puff of smoke, and another, followed by their cracks and echoes; a few moments' pause, and two more, with the result that every Indian on the ledge disappeared, two of them falling prone, to lie motionless, the others to hurry to where their companions held the reins that had been passed to them.
Chris saw nothing of this, but at every report coming from down in the depression his heart leaped, knowing as he did that the sharp cracks were the reports of rifles, and that these could only be fired by his friends.
From clinging there half stunned and perfectly inert, he felt a thrill of energy begin to move within him—a thrill which became a spasm as all at once he saw something moving that looked like an animal crawling over the edge of the cliff about fifty feet diagonally away from where he lay.
As the object passed from behind some intervening trees he could see plainly enough that it was an Indian grasping a bow, and the top of his quiver could be seen above his shoulder.
Chris was alert now, and grasped the fact that this was another of the enemy making his way down to a big patch of pensile growth which would afford him cover, from whence he could direct his arrows either at his watcher or at those who had fired upward from the valley.
"Could I?" he asked himself, with the desire for life once more throbbing strongly in his veins.
He began to prove his position. He had lain clinging with all his might to that stone ever since he had fallen, in the full belief that if he slackened his hold he would glide off into the depths and fall to the bottom; but as in his calmer frame of mind he began to test this, he found that loosening his desperate grasp made no difference, that where he lay was fairly level, and that he was safe enough so long as he could retain his nerve.
His left arm ached violently, but there was nothing the matter with his right, and to his great satisfaction his rifle was beside him, with pouch, pistol, and hunting-knife.
He began to examine his rifle-lock, and found all was right there, and that by moving a little he could place the stone between himself and his enemy so that he would not only have a breastwork over which to fire, but a protection to turn aside arrows sent for his destruction.
He turned cautiously aside, for he felt that cunning eyes might be watching him; but in spite of the caution he could not evade the quick glance of the watching enemy.
Chris grasped the fact, and quick as thought, as his rifle now rested upon the top of the stone, brought the sight to bear upon the Indian.
It was to save his life, he knew, for his enemy was as quick in his movements as he, with the result that a well-aimed arrow flashed across the intervening distance like a ray of light, which was quenched in the puff of white smoke which darted from the boy's rifle. Then simultaneously with the report there was a sharp click, and the tough reed-like piece of wood glanced away, diverted from the object at which it was aimed, while as Chris peered with starting eyes over the top of the stone which had saved him from a grievous wound, if not from death, he saw beneath the smoke which floated upwards another of the Indians rolling over three or four times before descending into the depths below with ever-gathering speed.
There was another chorus of yells from overhead, and though he could not see them, Chris felt assured that the enemy were raging about the top of the cliff, seeking to send arrows at him; and he had additional proof of this being a fact, for crack!—crack!—crack!—crack! four reports came from below, with what effect he could not tell, but it seemed certain that his friends had fired at the enemy, whose yelling ceased, a strange and terrible silence succeeding the cries.