"What's your notion, my lad?" he said, turning to Chris.
"I'm afraid to say anything about it," said Chris modestly.
"Why?" cried Ned.
"Because it seems now that I have thought it out quite extravagant and strange."
"It can't be worse than mine," cried Ned bitterly. "Come, out with it. Play fair. I don't see why I should be laughed at, and you get off scot free."
"Don't you make yourself uncomfortable about that, squire," said Griggs dryly. "I'll mind and rub him wrong way if there's nothing in it. Now then, my lad, let's have it."
Chris was silent a minute, and then said—
"One word first. My poor pony came down into the valley where I fell, but you don't think the Indians could bring their beasts down that way, do you?"
"I'm sure they couldn't," said Griggs, working the cleaning-rod up and down one of the barrels.
"I feel sure too," said Chris. "But do you think they could get them out again that way—I mean, out through the head of the valley?"
"And I'm sure of that," said Griggs. "They couldn't unless they taught 'em how to fly."
"Why, of course not," said Ned scornfully. "You know it too. Why do you ask?"
"Only because I wanted to make sure," replied Chris, "and because it has something to do with my plan."
Griggs left off pumping and squirting water, laid the barrel across his knees with his hands resting upon the former, and gazed thoughtfully in the boy's face, while Ned seemed influenced by his companion's manner and sat perfectly silent.
"You know I went to watch for the coming of the Indians?"
"Yes," said Griggs.
"And I passed by that rough jagged pillar of rock which was of a great height, in the middle of that very narrow part of the gulch. I mean where the rocks close in on both sides and overhang so that it seems dangerous to walk under them for fear they should fall."
"Oh yes, I remember it well."
"So do I," said Ned, quietly now, for he was evidently greatly interested.
"I looked at it intently, so that I got to know the place thoroughly. I can recollect all the loose stones piled-up along the sides and overhanging so that very little would make them block up the rift."
"To be sure," said Griggs, going on with his cleaning again. "I know the spot. You might make a strong fort there in no time so as to defend the valley."
"Yes, yes, of course," said Ned impatiently; "but go on."
"I think I'd better leave off now," said Chris apologetically; "it seems so stupid."
"Never mind; let's have it," cried Griggs.
"Well, this is what I thought," continued Chris, "that if we could go up there some day and hide along the heights with our ponies and mules, and wait till the enemy came by to get into the valley, and then tumble all the rocks and stones down—"
"One minute," said Griggs. "You mean that very, very narrow bit where there's hardly room for two mules to pass?"
"Yes, that's it; where the rocks high up nearly meet."
"Yes, I know," cried Ned excitedly.
"Well, since I've been thinking about all this," said Chris, speaking more freely, "it seemed—"
"One moment again," cried Griggs, "it's this side of the gully down which the enemy came."
"Oh yes, some hundreds of yards."
"To be sure!"
"I say, Griggs, don't keep interrupting so," cried Ned impatiently.
"Right! Go on, lad."
"I fancied," cried Chris, "if we could hide and wait till the enemy had all ridden into the bottom of the valley, we might tumble down stones and rocks from up above till the spaces beside that middle stone were all blocked up, and we might keep on till it was made so bad that no horse could be got over."
"To be sure, nor mule neither. That's for certain if we worked hard enough, and of course we would. Oh, yes; I could make such a bank there with a bar or a wooden lever as no pony could climb, or man either, if you come to that. Why, Chris, my lad, that'll do."
"You don't think it wild and foolish?" said the boy, flushing.
"I think it's grand."
"I do, really, my lad. There's only one thing that I can see against it."
"Ah, here it comes," cried Ned excitedly; "I knew he'd be sure and sit upon it."
"Of course," said Griggs, laughing, "or step upon it to see if it'll bear our weight."
"What's wrong, then?"
"Only this," said Griggs slowly. "How are you going to get your birds into the trap?"
"Ha, ha!" laughed Ned. "To be sure. There you are, Chris: how are you going to get your birds into the trap?"
Chris laughed too, but very gently.
"I've been thinking of all that," he said, "and I don't quite see yet. I could manage it easily enough if there was a way out that we could climb. Then we could retreat before them some time, and they'd follow us in; and as soon as they had all ridden in the door of the trap could be closed."
"Who's going to shut the trap?" said Ned, laughing. "Why, Chris, you're making a bull."
"Oh no, I'm not. One or two would be enough to lead the Indians in; the others could shut the trap."
"And what about the live bait that led the Indians in?" said Ned.
"They'd make for the way to get out, and climb up here."
"Well, you are a Paddy," cried Ned, laughing heartily. "You're going to lead the enemy in, and show them the way out again. Can't you see that if they followed the two who acted as bait they'd come out too?"
"Yes," said Chris coolly, "but that wouldn't matter."
"What! Why, you're all in a fog, and can't see your way," cried Ned.
"We're not afraid of the Indians, and we could keep them off easily enough if we wanted to before we got back to our horses and rode away."
"But the enemy would follow," cried Ned, grinning.
"Well, suppose they did?" cried Chris; "they'd be on foot. They could climb out of the trap, but their ponies couldn't."
Griggs laughed now, and Ned looked uncomfortable.
"Oh! I see," he drawled, very slowly. "I didn't think of that."
"Hah!" ejaculated Griggs, who looked very thoughtful. "Yes, that might be done. I don't know of any such place, Chris, unless we could find one somewhere up above the terraces."
"I've looked," said Chris, shaking his head. "If there was a way up there it would be splendid, because we could put big stones ready, or loosen some of the steps so that we could break them away after we'd climbed up; but I can't find anything. The cliff hangs over so."
"Was that why you were poking about so up there this morning?" said Ned.
"Well, you might have told me."
"Yes, I might," said Chris, smiling, "but it would have been a pity."
"It would have spoiled your chance to have a laugh at me and call me a Paddy."
"Hah!" said Griggs again, as Ned frowned and looked annoyed. "And you couldn't find any way up there on to the top?"
"No," said Chris rather sadly. "It would have been so easy then."
"Yes, we could have worked it then, my lad. One would have been enough. I could have carried out a nice game there, and led 'em on."
"And what about their arrows?" said Ned.
"Oh, I should have had to chance them. Kept out of reach, or dodged them. I could have led 'em right in so that they wouldn't have heard the stones being lowered down, and got right away over the top and shut the door after me, while when they saw that they couldn't follow, and went back, they'd have found themselves shut-in."
"But—there's—no way out over the top terrace," said Ned mockingly.
"Well, I know there isn't," said Griggs coolly. "I've looked well myself three times over, because I was afraid that the enemy might find a way down some time, and take us by surprise."
"It would have been so easy then," sighed Chris; "but I don't despair. We might find a way, after all, if we had a good search."
"To be sure we might," replied Griggs, "and I think I know where."
"You do?" cried the boys together.
"'M, yes, I think so," said Griggs quietly.
"Where?" cried Chris. "You don't mean up at the head of the valley, where I came down?"
"Nay! That wouldn't do, even if there was a place. Be too far off. You want a spot where one could slip up quickly and shut the way after you so as to stop the enemy from following."
"Yes," said Chris, shaking his head; "and that we shall never find."
"No," cried Ned, almost triumphantly. "Your plan's no better than mine, old chap."
"I don't know so much about that, squire," said Griggs, screwing up his face. "Seems to me that we can find such a way out if we try."
"Where?" cried Ned.
"Over yonder, squire," was the reply, as the American nodded his head in the direction of the terraces and openings opposite to where they sat talking.
"Ah!" cried Chris excitedly. "Yes, there must, now one thinks of it, be a way down there. Some of the Indians must have got down a part of the way to send their arrows at me when I was seeing to my poor mustang."
"To be sure! Right!" cried Griggs. "I never thought of that before. Then we've been sleeping here with the door open, only the enemy were afraid to come."
"Then you think we could find a way up there?" said Chris, shading his eyes and looking across the valley at the perpendicular sunlit cliff full of window or door openings similar to those from which they gazed.
"I'm beginning to think we could, my lad. What do you say to going across and having a search?"
"Yes; let's go at once," cried Chris.
"Aren't you too stiff?"
"Stiff? No. Come along!"
At that moment Ned, who had been staring hard at the opposite terraces, suddenly caught Griggs by the arm, gripping it sharply.
"What's the matter?"
"Keep quiet! Don't move," said the boy in a whisper, though no one could have heard from the spot at which he looked. "There's something moving about on that top terrace across yonder."
"A bear?" said Chris eagerly.
"Perhaps. No; it's standing up now."
"Well, bears do that sometimes."
"It's so far-off, I can't quite make out," said Ned excitedly. "Ah! There's another—and another. Why, there are six or seven crawling about yonder."
"Then they're not likely to be bears," said Griggs. "Where's your glass?"
"Up in the lookout. I'll go and fetch it."
"Yes, and be smart," cried Griggs. Then, as the boy hurried away to climb up to the watching place—"I won't give any alarm yet till we're quite sure. But if it's the enemy they've some game on there, and there's going to be more sharp shooting. Chris, my lad, there's no doubt about it now. There's a way down from the top of the cliff to that top terrace yonder, and that means there must be a way up to it from below. Your plan's cutting two ways. It's giving us a way to get clear of the enemy, and showing us that we've been in greater danger than we thought for. Now see what you can make out. Your eyes are younger than mine."
"Yes, but yours are better trained to see long distances," replied Chris, as he shaded his eyes and had a good long look, the American changing his position and doing the same.
"I can only see two," said Chris at last, "and I think they're men."
"I can see three," said Griggs, "and I'm not going to say I think, for I'm sure they're Indians."
Chris's first thought was of his mustang.
"What about the mules and ponies?" he said excitedly.
"I don't think their arrows could reach them," said Griggs thoughtfully; "but the brutes mean some mischief, and the sooner we begin to teach them that they are trespassing the better. Can you help me to take a shot at them? Or are you too stiff?"
"I can manage," said Chris, and following the American they encountered Ned returning from the lookout.
"Indians," he cried. "I've looked. They're after the ponies and mules again."
"Have you given the alarm?" cried Chris anxiously.
"No; I came on with the glass. Do you want to use it, Griggs?"
"No," was the reply. "I'm going to shoot, and that will give all the alarm we want."
They proceeded to the second terrace, where the movements of the Indians grew clearer, and going down behind a stone the American took a long and careful aim before firing.
"Missed him," he said angrily.
The word had hardly left his lips before Chris drew his trigger, and the next moment Ned followed his example.
The reports brought the rest of the party of defenders into the cell from which the firing had been directed.
"Well," said the doctor, "what is it?"
He took the binocular upon hearing the explanation, but after holding it to his eyes for a few moments returned it to Griggs.
"Is it a mistake?" he said.
Griggs laid his cheek to his rifle, and fired again, to stand gazing across the valley for some moments before he replied—
"No, sir; no mistake, and that Indian knows it."
"You hit one?"
"Yes, and there were three more just appeared, but, as far as I could make out, they have all gone now."
There was a little more excitement and watching, but nothing was made out for some minutes. Then the doctor, who had seized the glass and been sweeping the opposite side of the valley in search of danger, exclaimed—
"They've gone. Look, Bourne." He passed the glass to the gentleman addressed. "Across the right, there, over the edge of the cliff."
"Yes, I see; a large party of them cantering away."
At that moment Griggs, who had raised the sight of his rifle, fired again after a rapid glance.
"Man and horse down," cried Bourne.
"Why did you fire again when they were in full retreat?"
"To give them a lesson not to come and interfere with us, sir," said Griggs shortly. "It's too dangerous to trifle with them, sir, and they're getting more daring."
"Yes, I know," said the doctor, "and I wish we could get away from this place; but I dare not stir, for the enemy would follow us and hang on to our skirts, go which way you chose."
"Young Chris had an idea about our getting away, sir," said the man, giving the boy a wink.
"An idea. I should have thought he had only one, and that was connected with getting well again. Well, what is it, Chris?"
The boy explained, his face feeling like fire the while, and his father listened to the end.
"Well," he said at last, "that sounds perfectly reasonable and good. And you think we could, or you could, or whoever undertook the task, could get to the terraces yonder and escape—if there proves to be a way up there?"
"Yes, father," said Chris, flushing with excitement now. "I feel sure there is a way there."
"And you, Griggs—what do you say?"
"I feel sure of it, sir; but whether we could reach it from down below here or not is another thing."
"The only way is to prove it," said the doctor.
"Now, at once, sir?" cried Griggs.
"Well, yes," said the doctor thoughtfully; "why not?"
He asked the question in a tone of voice that needed no answer, and then turned to Chris.
"We'll go and examine the place, then, for the Indians must be gone."
"Oh yes," said Griggs, "they're gone, sure enough. But it would be as well for say two to stop here on the terrace and be ready to fire if the enemy should appear again."
This was soon arranged, Wilton and Bourne undertaking the task, while, after a good look round to make sure that no watching eyes were scrutinising their movements, the little party of four started for the other side of the depression, Chris being so insistent that he felt really well enough to be one, that the doctor shrank from leaving him behind.
The task did not prove very difficult, for they had their previous experience to help them, and they were not long after reaching the foot of the cliff before finding a way up to the lowest terrace, and grasping the fact that the incident that had taken place in the part they had occupied had been repeated here. Whether before or after it was impossible to say, but they found all the traces of a desperate fight, and the defence of a brave people who had held out in cell after cell to the very end.
Then the way up to the next terrace was hunted out and found half buried in stones and dust, and hidden still further by the growth of ages. Here again were the traces of the massacre, and after a hurried examination of these, half-way along the second terrace Griggs came to a sudden stop and cocked his rifle, an act immediately imitated by the rest.
"Danger?" whispered the doctor.
"Don't know yet," was the reply, "but we're somewhere near the cells where those fellows were using their bows the other day, and where I saw them a little while ago."
He ceased speaking, and pointed downwards.
"What can you see?" whispered Chris.
"Trail. Moccasin-covered feet," was the answer.
The two boys would have passed that which was pointed out unseen, for the impressions in the dust were very faint to them, but plain enough to the experienced hunter, who advanced cautiously now to the opening into the cell opposite which they were now standing, and looking in, pointed out fresh footprints and, what was more, an opening at the back of the cell which, save in position, proved to be a way into just such a square cell-like place as that which had puzzled them on their own side.
"No one here," said Griggs, "but it's not long since there was."
"Are you going on at once?" said the doctor.
"Oh yes; let's know the worst, or the best," replied Griggs; "but one seems to know all there is to know, and it's what we wanted. Here's the way up to the next range of cells, and when we get up there we shall find the enemy's trail, and that will lead right up to the cliff, without a doubt."
"Yes, there's proof enough that if the enemy had been enterprising and gifted with brains they could have easily found their way down into the valley by a fresh way."
"Let's go on, sir," said Griggs. "They've never been lower than this; that's evident. We're the first who have come up that lower way, and it seems to me, Chris, that we've learned all we wanted. That was to find a way to the top that a fellow could get up in a hurry. Yes—look here. It's all clear enough; and once he's got up he's got nothing to do but break away a step or two, and no one can follow."
Griggs was quite right. Just as it was on the other side of the valley, the square pit could be ascended by means of projecting stones, and upon these being scaled the party stood upon the flint terrace and in its range of cells, beyond which there was a step-like path going up a narrow rift, leading right to the level tableland.
They all ascended, and taking care not to expose themselves, were able to sweep the great level for miles, but without seeing the slightest sign of an enemy.
"It's all right, sir," said Griggs, as soon as they had finished their inspection. "Here's what we want to carry out young Chris's plan."
"Well, it does make it possible," said the doctor thoughtfully, "but very risky for the man who is hunted by the enemy."
"Oh dear no, sir. It only wants a man to be pretty smart. I don't see much difficulty in it."
"No, father," said Chris; "I feel sure that I could do it."
"Nay, don't want everything, youngster," cried Griggs merrily; "let some one else have a chance. This job seems to be about my fit, and I propose that the doctor here picks me out, unless squire here chooses himself as the one to do it."
"Oh no," cried Ned; "I couldn't do it. I mean, I shan't go. I don't think I could do it."
"It's a grown man's job," said the doctor firmly, "one that either Griggs or I will undertake. There, come down, and let's carefully hide the way by which we came up. The enemy may come here again to get a shot at us, and if they do we must not give them a chance for growing suspicious."
"If they come, sir," said Griggs. "I don't think they will—at all events to-day. What they'll try in the night no one can say. But now then, Chris, my lad, you and your mustang have got to make yourselves fit for everything. We can do nothing till you're both quite well, and the sooner that time comes the sooner we shall be strong enough to act."
CHAPTER FORTY NINE.
GRIGGS IS STUBBORN.
The days glided by, with the stiffness in Chris Lee's limbs growing less painful, and the pony recovering fast, for the clear mountain air seemed to act like a cure for wounds. Every day that came showed the injured animal in better condition. Its efforts to move no longer made Chris wince and forget his own pains in those he felt at seeing the mustang suffer.
Every one was busy, for the keeping watch regularly took up a good deal of time. Then shooting had to be attended to, so as to keep up a good supply of fresh meat, till the birds upon which the party depended grew shy of coming to the spring, and two or three anxious discussions had been held about supplies for the future, the result of which was that a decision had been arrived at, for a departure to be made as soon as possible.
Chris was quite strong enough—so he declared—and at last every hour seemed to make an improvement in the mustang.
"It's all nonsense, Ned," cried Chris, "for them to think they are staying on account of us.—Hullo, Griggs! Were you listening?"
"Nay; I was close here, and your chatter came rattling into my ears like peas. We're not waiting for you now. How did your pony go this morning?"
"Splendid. Just halted a little on the bad leg; but it's better than it was yesterday."
"Did you canter this morning?"
"Canter? We went at a good swinging gallop."
"And what about you?"
"Oh, I'm only a little stiff still. Here, I want for us to be off. We shall get strong more quickly journeying over the plains or climbing in and out among the mountains. I don't like to bother my father any more, but what does he say?"
"He says we're to start to-morrow at daybreak."
"Hurrah!" cried Chris.
"But we shan't, my lad."
"Because I've seen Indians again."
"Oh! You're always seeing Indians again. Here it has been—one day and you declared that they were gone; then the very next day you've seen them again."
"Well, they showed themselves to me; I didn't want them," said Griggs dryly. "They're an artful lot. Never been away at all, I believe. We couldn't see 'em, but if we'd made a start they'd have been close upon our heels directly."
"Ah, you'll have to trap them, Chris," said Ned maliciously.
"Look here; if you say that again we shall quarrel."
"Hear that, Griggs?"
"Oh yes, I hear. Serve you right. Why don't you drop all that teasing? If you can't show us a better way you had better hold your tongue."
"Very well; I can do that," said Ned haughtily.
"There, that's enough," cried Chris. "Don't be so petty, Ned. We've got something else to think about besides teasing and bantering."
"That's right," cried Griggs. "Look here, lads. I've just been trying that place again. I started from the mouth of the valley, and ran in and out among the rocks and trees, got to the foot of the way up quickly, and then acted just as if I had the Indians after me. I've no doubt about it now. Once I could get them after me, I could lead them a pretty race, and dodge in and out till I reached the path up to the terrace over the way, scuttle up, and let down stones enough to stop them from coming after me, so that I don't believe they could clear the way for a week."
"Then you are ready to try at any time?"
"Any time the doctor likes."
"But what about the arrows?" said Ned.
"I'm not afraid of them hitting me, my lad," said Griggs confidently. "Being shot at by fellows with bows and arrows sounds bad enough, but there's not much risk here."
"I don't know about that," said Chris anxiously.
"Don't you? Well, I do. I should be running fast and dodging in and out among the rocks and trees. That would make it hard shooting for a man standing still, wouldn't it?"
"Yes; of course," said Chris, with a dubious look all the same.
"But the enemy won't be standing still," continued Griggs. "They'll be galloping after me as hard as they can come, not that it will be very fast, for mounted men can't get along very well among rocks and trees. What's more, they can't shoot straight with their ponies cantering. I don't believe there's a bit of risk for me. I shall be all right. What I'm afraid of is that when I come along through the narrows with the whole herd full pelt after me, some of the mules and ponies will squeal or neigh, and make the enemy suspicious. If they do hear anything, we're done."
"But our animals will be well back in that hollow," said Chris.
"Yes, my lad; but I want them to be planted farther back still. There's a bit I've been looking out quite a quarter of a mile farther off, and I'm going to propose it to the doctor as being safest."
"I'm afraid father will say that the ponies ought to be close at hand."
"Yes, that's right, if it can be done; but it would go hard with us all if the Indians gave up the bait of the trap and turned upon those who set it. We mustn't run risks if there's a way of doing things more safely."
"Well, you must talk it over with father," said Chris. "Let's see; we're going to have another look at the place this afternoon, aren't we?"
"We were," replied the American; "but we're not going now."
"Too many redskins about, as I told you."
"There are always too many redskins about," cried Chris impatiently. "I wish we could charge them boldly, and send them flying over the plains."
"Never to come back again," said Ned sharply.
"Yes, that would be very nice, my lads," replied Griggs; "but it will not do to be impatient."
"Impatient!" cried Ned. "We've been patient enough."
"Not quite, my lads. Don't you see that we're playing a very ticklish game? The plan is to get out of this valley ourselves, where we are regularly locked in, and to put the redskins in our place, locking them in. It would be rather remarkable if it wasn't a ticklish job."
Just then the doctor came into the shelter where the boys had been talking, bringing with him Wilton, who had been shooting, or rather, trying to shoot, for he had had no success; and they too were talking earnestly about ways and means.
"Oh, here you are, Griggs," cried the doctor. "Had a good turn at scouting?"
"And all seems favourable for our attempt to-morrow?"
"No, sir. The Indians have shifted their quarters, and they're in about as awkward a position as they could contrive for our purpose."
"Then what do you propose?"
"Nothing, sir, but wait."
"But we really cannot wait any longer, Griggs. Provisions failing too fast. We must get away from here to some good hunting-ground. Do the Indians seem to be camping, or only on the move?"
"They seem to me to be hatching up some dodge or another," replied Griggs. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if we saw them over the way there—just one or two, scouting; and if we do I should be for a stand at arms all night, for it might mean an attack after dark."
The doctor stood at the opening, looking across the valley, as if impressed by the American's words and expecting moment by moment to see one of the Indians creeping along the edge of the cliff.
Then he began to walk up and down slowly, evidently deep in thought.
At last he started, as he suddenly became aware of the fact that every one present was watching him keenly waiting for him to speak.
"There," he said, "I've made up my mind. It is very evident that we may wait here till our stores are exhausted, and be as far off the opportunity we seek as ever. The Indians can wait; we cannot, and they seem to know it. I believe they feel that if they are patient their opportunity will come. I have felt something of the kind, but I am convinced now that it will not, and that we must chance something and make it."
"Going to give up young Chris's plan?" said Griggs slowly.
"No; I'm going to put it in force at once. We start to-night."
A thrill of excitement ran through Chris, and his heart began to beat. Then he was listening, so to speak, with all his might.
"We shall make no particular movement till after dark," continued the doctor, "only go on as usual apparently, in case there are eyes watching us, as is most likely to be the case."
Griggs nodded his head.
"But all the same we can be making our preparations. The barrels can be filled with water, and every one's bottle. Provisions can be packed in our wallets; in fact, everything held ready for a start. Finally, just at dusk the animals can be driven in for food and water, and—"
The doctor stopped, and looked full in the American's eyes.
"Not allowed to go off again?"
"Exactly," replied the doctor. "But before any more is said, Griggs, I want to offer you the opportunity to draw back."
"What for?" said Griggs sharply.
"Because it is a very risky thing to do. You propose offering yourself for a mark to the Indians' arrows, and—"
"Not a bit of it, sir. I'm going to take care they don't hit me."
"Yes, yes, but you know what I mean."
"Right; I do, neighbour, and it's very handsome of you to offer me the chance to back out. But I'm not going to. I've made up my mind that it's about twice as risky to hold back, for sure as the United States are the finest in the world, if we stop here much longer these cunning savages will give us a surprise which will end in their losing a lot of men through shot-holes in different parts of their persons; but those who escape being hurt will have the satisfaction of taking possession of all the traps of half-a-dozen folk who came to look for gold, but found only a place to lay their bones alongside of some other folks who got into trouble here ages and ages ago."
"Then you mean to hold to your plan?"
"I mean to do a bit to carry out young Chris's plan, and shut up the redskins for a week or two, perhaps a month, while we get right away."
"There is a horrible side to it, Griggs."
"Would be if we let them get the better of us, sir."
"You mean the shutting up the enemy here to starve?" said Bourne.
"Tchah!" ejaculated Griggs, so sharply that the boys started. "Serve 'em right if they did, sir. What business have they to want our scalps? But we shouldn't shut them up to starve. They'd have weeks of work before they could get their horses out but without horses they'd be out in a week. Starve? Nonsense! They'd have the water; they can make fires, and cook their horses. It takes a deal to starve a redskin. But there, I don't want to make speeches. It's all settled, gentlemen. But you've got to tell the lookout what's coming off."
"I'm going up to have a few words there at once," said the doctor. "Now, every one understands that he is to be ready, without showing any watchful Indian scout that there is something on the way."
No one spoke, but the looks directed at the doctor gave answers enough, and the afternoon was spent in preparation for what all felt might prove the most momentous adventure of their lives.
WORKING THE ORACLE.
The evening drew near at last, with everything made ready that was possible. The water and provisions near at hand; saddles and bridles examined; and according to his custom, Chris was about to go out into the valley and see to his pony, examining the wounds and giving him something a little extra in the way of food, when Griggs came and joined him.
"Don't start," he said, "but go on just as usual."
"Something wrong?" said Chris, doing exactly what he had been told not to do.
"Call it something wrong if you like," said Griggs, laughing; "but it's only what I expected. I've been up at the lookout with your father, and we made out two Indians crawling to the top of the cliff over there, just like a couple of big red slugs on a wet night."
"Then they're watching us?" panted Chris.
"Just as they always have been, my lad, and looking out to try and turn us into pin-cushions for their arrows, if we'd only go out far enough, which we wouldn't do on any consideration."
"But this will quite upset our plans for to-night," said Chris.
"Oh no. We shall go on; for this looks promising, my lad. They've always been watching us more or less."
"Then they've seen us hunting for a hiding-place for the ponies and mules?"
"Yes, of course."
"And climbing about among the rocks at the narrows?"
"To be sure they have."
"Then what's the good of our going on?"
"Everything is the good. They've seen everything we've done, but they couldn't think with our brains, could they, my lad?"
"But what could they think of our hunting about as we did?"
"Well, seeing that I made a point of shooting a bird or two each time we were planning out our places and all we meant to do, I should say that they thought we were providing for the pot. Now then, come and have a turn at your pony, and spend a good deal of time looking at his hurts. You'd better ask me some questions about them, and lift up his hoofs and point at them."
"Yes, I see," said Chris.
"P'r'aps I shall act a bit too for our friends' benefit, so don't be surprised. Then we shall end up by driving all the beasts in for the night close up under the shelter of our fire."
"Shall we be saluted with any arrows, do you think?"
"No," said Griggs; "I don't think so. We've rather sickened them of that. They know there are rifles, and good shots, up at the top yonder, and I dare say some of them have been hit. Now, come along."
The pair strolled out towards where the animals were grazing, and went through the bit of performance arranged, Chris marvelling the while at the perfect coolness displayed by his companion, who was on the brink of a most daring adventure, the very thought of which sent the blood dancing through the boy's veins and made the palms of his hands turn wet.
The shades of night were approaching as, after a long examination of Chris's pony, the animals were headed towards the camp, and driven slowly in towards where they were regularly watered every night; and so well had all the preparations been timed that it was too dark for any scouts on the opposite side to see that after the watering, every beast was hobbled and held in readiness for the start that was to be made.
And now the business preparatory to the start was set about eagerly. The mules were laden with the much-reduced loads. Skeeter had his, but his bell was muffled so that it would be perfectly silent, and the water-barrels were hung in position across the back of their regular bearer.
There was plenty of time, and the doctor's principal efforts were directed towards arresting hurry, for he had to allow for the Indian scouts to make their way back to the camp from which they came.
"If they have gone back," he said, in a low voice, as the adventurous party sat together talking in a low tone, each with his weapons ready.
"Yes," said Wilton, "if they have gone back. Suppose they have chosen this of all nights for an attack!"
"They'll find that we are quite ready for them; that's all," said Griggs coolly.
"But it is possible," said Bourne sadly.
"So's everything else, sir," replied the American. "But don't you think it's a pity to begin fancying what might happen?"
"Perhaps so," said Bourne. "I beg pardon; I'm afraid I do anticipate a good deal. Well, boys," he added, turning to where the pair sat together whispering, "how do you feel about to-night's work?"
"Horrid, father," whispered Ned, as if he felt that Indians might be listening.
"And you, Chris?" continued Bourne.
"I feel as if I shall be glad when it's to-morrow and we know the worst."
"Or the best, my boy," said the doctor cheerily. "There, I think we might start now. The moon has set, and we have a long dark night before us for our work. What do you say, Griggs? Ready?"
"And willing, sir. I go first, don't I?"
"Yes, with Chris as advance-guard. You know the signal if the Indians are coming on to an attack—one shot each, and then you stand fast to give us time to start the train back before coming to your support."
"Yes, sir; it's all cut deep into me, but I don't think we shall have any trouble there."
"I hope not," said the doctor.
Within half-an-hour from these words being spoken the little baggage-train was in motion, dimly-seen beneath the band of stars overhead. These stood out strongly marked against the edge of the black cliffs on either side towering up and seeming to the excited imagination of the two lads double their real height, and overhanging more and more as the valley sides gradually closed in towards the mouth of the gulch.
Chris suffered from a peculiar sense of excitement and dread of attack, as he and Griggs rode cautiously on through the darkness, each with his rifle cocked and resting upon his knee, straining his eyes the while for the first sign of danger. And it was during this ride that the boy began to wonder whether the eyesight of the Indians was much better than their own, for he soon found that once more he was obliged to leave out any attempt at guidance and trust entirely to his pony.
"Think the enemy can see better than we do?" he ventured to say, during a temporary halt to make out if possible what had caused a sudden rushing sound through the bushes in front.
"They're made differently to what we are if they can," whispered the American dryly. "I'm leaving everything to my nag, and you'd better do the same."
"That's what I've been doing," said Chris. "You don't think that was an Indian, then?"
"No; only some little animal that we started. It sounded loud because everything's so still, and we expect that everything means danger. Keep close behind me now."
Chris had no occasion to trouble himself, for his mustang kept its nose very near to its companion's tail, and they went on and on through the darkness, till Griggs suddenly drew rein.
"Here we are," he whispered. "It's narrow enough, and it oughtn't to take many minutes to stop this gap so that no horse could get through, while in an hour it might be made so that it would take a week to make it passable. Come along, and mind we don't miss the gully."
He led on again slowly, pausing at intervals to listen and make sure, for it seemed to be darker than ever, in spite of their growing accustomed to the gloom.
Once more Griggs stopped short, and Chris's heart began to beat more heavily than ever during the few minutes' silence that ensued.
"I'm done," whispered Griggs at last.
"What do you mean? What's the matter?" asked Chris.
"The gully ought to be somewhere about here, but for the life of me I can't make out where it is, and we must wait till morning."
Chris laughed softly.
"I don't see anything to grin at," grumbled Griggs. "I don't believe any Indian could find his way along here."
"I was laughing because I could find the place."
"How?" asked Griggs sharply.
"By coming first. My pony knows his way here."
"Come in front," said Griggs shortly, and Chris moved forward, gave the pony his head once more, and the clever little animal paced steadily on for about a hundred yards, and then turned off to its left and began to ascend.
"Hah! Who wouldn't be a pony!" said Griggs, as Chris drew rein. "Then all we have to do now is to wait till they come up."
It did not seem long before the doctor joined them, and then the whole train filed up the side gully. Steadily ascending the way ran up towards the tableland, where the grassy patch in a hollow had been selected off the track, and here the halt was made, the beasts beginning to graze at once after they had been hobbled, both ponies and mules, and seeming quite at home as soon as they were left to themselves.
"It's a risk indeed," said the doctor. "If the Indians should happen to ride in this direction, where should we be?"
"Shooting at them would be the best thing," said Wilton.
"It's a thousand to one against their finding the beasts here," said Griggs, "even if they did happen to come. But we've got to chance it, sir. Everything's gone right so far, and let's hope we shall keep on the same track."
"I hope so," replied the doctor. "Then now we have nothing to do but get back to the narrow gateway."
"The sooner the better, sir, for the night's wearing away fast."
"But ought we, after all, to leave one of us in charge of the beasts here?"
"No, sir," said Griggs sharply. "You'll want all your strength after I've passed, to tumble down the rocks. The more the better. It mustn't be half done."
"No," said the doctor gravely. "The entrance must be well blocked. All ready?"
"Yes," came in a whisper.
"Back, then, at once. Griggs will lead, and all keep in touch, and observe perfect silence."
The distance seemed to have doubled before they got to the descent, and this slope to be three times as long, as they tramped slowly down into the gulch, where the doctor called a halt once more.
But all was still, and blacker than ever, as Griggs with Chris at his side turned off to the right, to lead the party slowly onward towards the narrows, where all stood at last, hot and weary.
"Everything seems to have stretched out," said Griggs, in a whisper. "I thought we were never going to get here." Then to the doctor, "We'd better wait till day begins to break before you climb up the sides, eh?"
"No," said the doctor; "that might mean failure. Every one must be in his place before the darkness fails us."
"Yes, I suppose you're right, sir; but make sure as soon as there's light enough that every one is well hidden. Birds will not enter a trap if they see anything strange."
"Nor Indians neither," said the doctor quietly. "We shall see to that."
"And you'll let them get well out of hearing before you begin to stop the gap?"
"Of course," said the doctor.
"That's all right, then," said Griggs. "So now, as you are going to divide into two parties, each to take a side, I'll say good-bye and stop below."
"One word more, then," said the doctor, grasping the American's hand. "Let's repeat our plans so that there may be no misunderstanding."
"That's right, sir. I'll say my lesson. As soon as it's daybreak I shall move down the gully right on in the direction where I believe the Indians are encamped, and as soon as I think I'm near enough I'm going to begin shooting wherever I see a chance and picking up my birds, till the Indians hear me and come out to see what's the matter. Then we suppose they'll mount, the whole herd of them, and come after me."
"Mounted men against one on foot," said the doctor, with a sigh.
"I don't suppose they'll catch me," said Griggs coolly. "Well, naturally enough when I see the enemy after me I begin to run."
"But suppose they don't all come, Griggs?" said Chris.
"Shan't suppose anything of the kind, and don't you talk so loudly," growled the American. "They've all got to be there, according to my notions, and come crowding after me. I run as I never ran before, straight for the narrow way here, dash through, making for the old camp, and they tear away to cut me off before I can get under cover of our marksmen. But all at once I dodge in among the stones and begin to climb up to the terraces, get up to the top step-way in the square pit, and loosen out the stones there, after blocking the place below. One of these two bits of work is bound to keep those who have dismounted to climb after me from climbing any farther, and when I begin to fire at them pretty sharply they'll turn back at once, get to their horses, and join their mates, to have a palaver and come to the conclusion that it isn't safe to stop in the valley, because they'll be expecting every moment for fire to be opened by us. Then they'll ride back without another shot being fired at them, for the simple reason that I'm hurrying round to join your people here by the top way and the gully. I shan't lose any time, and if I'm lucky I may get here soon enough to join you in giving the enemy a few bullets when they come riding back to find their way stopped."
"As it ought to be," said the doctor dubiously.
"As it has got to be," said Griggs sharply. "Got to be—got to be, and must be!" he cried.
"If all goes well," said Bourne.
"If all goes well, sir," said Griggs, "and if we all do our parts like men, it will. Good-bye!"
CHAPTER FIFTY ONE.
LOOSENING THE STONES.
"Stop, Griggs!" cried Chris in a hoarse whisper, for he dared not shout; but it seemed as if their brave companion had not heard. One minute he was talking with them, the next he was gone, and had hardly made a sound.
"Hah!" sighed the doctor. "Now it has come to the point I feel as if we have let the gallant fellow go straight to his death."
"Lee!" cried Bourne in a voice of anguish. "Don't say that!"
"I have said it," said the doctor bitterly; "and now it is too late I feel that it is true. The whole business looks black, and as desperate as our mad search out here for the old golden city."
He ceased speaking, and Chris gripped Ned by the arm, for he shared his father's feeling of despair.
The silence was broken by Bourne.
"It is too late to look back," he said gravely. "We have made the venture, and must carry it out like men."
"Of course," cried Wilton firmly. "Come, doctor, you are captain. I don't call this square of you to put us all out of heart. This is making the worst of it, with a vengeance."
"Yes, it is—it is," said the doctor quickly. "You must forgive me. Every man has his weak moments, and this was one of mine. I felt as if I had sacrificed the poor fellow to this desperate attempt to escape."
"Yes, father," cried Chris bitterly. "It was my idea, and you ought to have let me go with him."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Wilton.
"What are you laughing at?" cried Chris fiercely.
"You—your words came in with such a droll ring in them. But there, we ought not to be talking now, but getting up into our hiding-places—eh, doctor?"
"Yes," was the sharp reply, "at once. You, Wilton, Bourne, and Ned. You, Chris, with me. Have you got the crowbar, my boy?"
"You others have the tent-pitchers, and I the short pole. Take your places at once; lie right down among the bushes till you hear my whistle, and then up and send the big stones down with all your might."
No more was said, for not one present had the heart to speak. To Chris it was just as if he had said "Good-bye" to the American, who had gone straight to his death.
"And he has gone thinking me queer and ungrateful," the boy said to himself, "for not insisting upon going with him."
And even while stumbling up and up among the stones and bushes in the darkness to the spot which he was to occupy with his father, the boy could think of nothing else but the brave fellow going slowly along the lower part of the gulch in the black darkness, to wait until the morning came before starting boldly off into the open to meet the Indians.
"It will mean arrows," thought Chris. "He'll be shot down somewhere out yonder, for it's a mad trick, and can't do him any good, nor yet us. Oh, I do wish I wasn't such an idiot! So proud I was in my miserable conceit of having thought out a way to trap the Indians, and a nice mess I've made—sent the best friend I ever had to certain death."
"What are you thinking about, Chris?" said the doctor at that moment.
"Thinking about, father?" faltered the boy.
"Yes; you have turned so quiet."
"I was thinking about poor Griggs, father, and feeling afraid that he'll never come back."
"Then don't think any more of such things. We none of us know. Wait and see. Now then, how long shall we have to wait before we see our brave fellow come along hunted by the enemy?"
"Don't ask me, father."
"Why not? How far are we off the morning?"
"No; I think not. I dare say we shall be having the day break within one hour, then the exciting time will begin."
"Do you think we shall see Griggs again?"
"Oh yes, of course. He's a fleet runner, and I shouldn't be a bit surprised to see him come tearing along with a band of mounted Indians at his back."
"Do you really think so, father, or is this only to encourage me?"
"Both, my boy. Come, keep a good heart. I shall be glad when the day comes—shan't you?"
"Yes, father. But do you think the ponies and mules will stray away?"
"I hope not, my boy. Oh no, it's not likely. Cheer up; we shall do it, never fear."
Chris heaved a big sigh.
"Why, hullo, my boy! Do you call this cheering up?" said the doctor.
"Yes, father. That was only the melancholy being driven off," said Chris with a forced laugh. "I'm going to be cheerful enough, and shoot straight when the Indians come. I'm sorry for them, but I must, for everybody's sake."
"Yes, to be sure, for everybody's sake. Feel better?"
"That's right. I was low-spirited, too, a little while ago, for I felt doubtful of success. I don't now. Yours was a splendid idea, and unless something unfortunate occurs we shall succeed."
"I hope we shall," thought Chris, but he felt doleful in the extreme, and the idea would force itself upon him that he had sent his old friend to a cruel death.
At last the various objects around seemed to grow plain as the grey dawn began to lighten the sky; but the place looked terrible in the ghastly light. There beneath them was what looked like a black chasm, the one they were to fill up with stones from the jagged shelves upon which they crouched nearly a hundred feet higher, while higher still, right up for another three hundred feet or more, to where the saw-like edge was marked clearly against the ever-lightening sky, wherever the boy's eyes rested there were masses of stone which looked as if a touch would set them in motion and start others to come thundering down, sweeping all before them into a vast heap which would fill up the chasm, even as high as the rocks amongst which his party was hidden.
The time had come for hiding, and Chris and his father were soon lying down behind some stunted bushes through which they could peer right along the bottom of the gulch far away towards where the side gully ran up in the direction of the tableland in which the great valley with its rock city was cut.
Thoughts began to come fast now through Chris's brain, and the first were in connection with the mules and ponies they had left to graze up to the right of the gully. Would they stay there peacefully browsing on the green shoots of the shrubs that were abundant, or come wandering down to reach their old pasture? The question was open to many doubtful answers which did not come, and they had to give way to thoughts connected with Griggs, who, the boy felt, must by this time be astir with his gun.
And with what result?
None for a long, long time, during which the sun as it rose had chased away the horrors that had lingered in the gulch, to display all its wondrous glories of light and shade with trickling falls and clumps of dripping lace-like fern.
Everything was so beautiful in the sunshine that Chris found himself wondering how it could have been so dismal in the gloom.
He turned to look across to where his friends were hidden, but they were concealed too well; nothing was visible but the great blocks of stone waiting to be levered to the edge of the shelf and sent thundering down; so turning his eyes from there, the lad gazed along the gulch again in the direction of the side gully and the open land beyond, where in all probability Griggs was now wandering in his fictitious search for game.
Two hours of patient waiting since sunrise, which had given place to painful excitement. Doubt was busy, too, in every brain, for it began to seem as if something had gone wrong, and the intense desire was attacking Chris to get down from his hiding-place and go in search of his friend.
But the orders were to lie still in hiding until the doctor gave the signal with his whistle, and knowing full well that the slightest suggestion of an ambush meant ruin to the plan, Chris forced himself to lie motionless, gazing with aching eyeballs along the gulch for the sight of the figure that as the time went on seemed as if it would never appear.
Another hour, the most hopeless of all, the most wearisome and full of pain, for with the sun getting higher the rays were reflected from the rock-face till the place grew unbearably hot, with the consequence that thirst began to parch the watcher's throat. He was growing faint, too, for want of food, and though he had an ample supply in his wallet he did not dare to begin eating for fear that something might happen, some sudden call be made upon his energies.
"If I could only get up and move about," thought Chris.
But he glanced round, and no one else was stirring, while his father crouched there so severe and stern of aspect that for the moment Chris forgot his own troubles and thought of those of others.
"Father's feeling it all horribly," thought the boy. "But poor old Griggs! We ought never to have let him go."
What was that?
Chris strained his ears and gazed upward wildly, for high in front, nearly four hundred feet above the bottom of the gully, there was the sound of galloping horses.
The boy shook himself and stared, asking himself if he were mad or dreaming. For the rocks up there were more than perpendicular, they leaned right over, and it was absurd to think that horses were galloping there.
They could not be. They were not, for they were on the other side of the gulch now, higher still.
"It's the heat," said Chris with a sigh. "I'm giddy, I suppose."
The warning word came from his father, and a thrill of excitement ran through the boy as he felt that it was no fancy but the echoing of galloping horses to which he was listening, while the next minute as the reverberation grew louder, a spasm, half joy, half fear, ran through him as, like a flash, the familiar figure of the American glanced in the sunshine, disappeared in the shade, and came into sight again, with head down, fists doubled and held close to his breast, as he came running rapidly along the bottom of the gulch.
The next minute he had reached the narrow chasm above which Chris and his friends lay waiting, disappeared, and the inclination that nearly carried Chris away was to spring up, shout words of encouragement, and then clamber to where he could follow the swift runner with his eyes till he went out of sight at some turn of the gulch on his way to the valley.
But the orders were to lie close till the whistle rang out, and like the rest, who were influenced by the same feeling, Chris crouched lower to gaze right away in the old direction, listening with straining nerves to the ever-nearing echoing beat of horses' hoofs, till about a couple of hundred yards away a mounted Indian, bow and arrow in one hand, rein in the other, bounded into sight, urging on his pony with voice and hand.
"Will he know that it is a trap?" thought Chris, and he fully expected to see the man draw rein, send an arrow amongst the hiding party, and gallop off. But even as the thought ran through the lad's brain the savage reached the narrow gap and dashed through.
By this time two more were close behind, a party of four some fifty yards in the rear, all galloping hard, eager to overtake the fugitive, while as they passed through at full gallop the echoes of the hoofs increased, for a mob of about thirty came into sight, all tearing along as in a race, and passed through the gap. "Right into the trap!" thought Chris, whose pulses literally bounded with the excitement of the scene that had passed beneath his feet.
"We've got them!" he panted. "Now, father, the stones!"
But it was beneath his breath that the words came, and his face flushed and his eyes dilated, for as the echoing of the horses' hoofs began to die out behind it grew louder in front, and another troop of the enemy came into sight, tearing along after their leaders, to dash through the gap in ones and twos, trailing along till the last had disappeared.
"That must be all," panted Chris to himself; but he was wrong; the echoes of the rocky walls had not ceased, though greatly softened down, for two dozen more of the savages came tearing along like a rearguard to pass through, and even then more were to come, for a couple raced up, shouting at and beating the flanks of their ponies angrily, as if in fear of being left quite behind.
"The last!" thought Chris, now wild with excitement, for the reverberations had ceased in front, were dying out behind, and then all was still for a few moments, before out of the utter silence came the soft piping sound of a whistle.
"Hurrah!" cried Chris, for he felt that he must get rid of the breath that literally burned in his chest as he sprang up.
Then crash, splinter, and shiver came from below as the doctor forced the first block to the edge of the shelf where the opening was most narrow.
This was almost accompanied by another shivering crash, repeated both from the walls of the gulch like so much smothered thunder.
"Now for it!" panted Chris, as he caught sight of Ned bending down to roll a great block far too big for him over and over. But the one he was himself handling was as big, and Ned, who was not ten yards away from him, laughed mockingly as he got his block to the edge first and sent it down with a crash.
But the noise made by the one sent after it by Chris formed as it were an echo, and he stood for a few moments gazing down in wonder, for huge pieces had been forced off the shelf by Wilton and Bourne, to lie gathered so closely together that already the way was blocked sufficiently to make it impossible for any horse to pass unless at a flying leap, for which there was neither take-off nor landing at the end.
"Don't shout. Don't cheer," panted the doctor. "Work steadily and well, and we shall soon have them fast."
"I hope there are no more to come and have us," panted Wilton as he slaved away, making Chris and Ned both glance excitedly away through the gulch towards where the gully struck off.
But the enemy seemed to be all within the trap, and the stones were forced down till nearly all available on the shelves had been sent thundering down, and both parties climbed some fifty feet higher before they continued the work, beginning with the highest blocks that were loose, and having the satisfaction of seeing the heaviest block there, which took two or three to move it, go roaring down, sweeping with it others nearly as big.
They worked for fully half-an-hour, to look down at last in wonder to see the great success of their work, the gap being piled high, and, leaving horses out of the question, forming a barrier that it would be hard work for an active man to climb.
"Stop now," said the doctor, and all gladly rested, to stand wiping the perspiration from their streaming faces. "No horses can possibly pass by here."
"Mind! Quick! Down with you!" shouted Wilton, and as he spoke an arrow struck against the rocky wall close to his head and glanced off, to fly far away along the gulch.
CHAPTER FIFTY TWO.
THE PROGRESS OF THE PLAN.
"A narrow escape," said Bourne, and another arrow passed over without injury to any one present, for the simple reason that all had obeyed the warning and dropped behind the nearest cover.
"Be on the alert," cried the doctor from the other side. "That means they are coming back."
"And Griggs was to have been with us by this time to help in the fight. Father, this looks bad."
The doctor met his son's eyes, and then turned to look in the direction from which their companion would be bound to arrive if he had managed to escape over the terraces to make for the gully.
"Don't judge rashly, my boy," said the doctor. "He has had very little time yet.—Are you all ready for the enemy?"
"Yes," came back quickly enough; but there was no enemy visible.
"Could you see who sent that arrow, Wilton?"
"No, but there are two ponies grazing up yonder. I fancy they must belong to the last Indians we saw come by."
"It looks like it, as only two shots have come. But we shall have the whole body coming back soon."
"Close upon a hundred," said Wilton, "and we are five."
"Yes, five, in a strong fortress, with modern weapons against instruments of barbarism; and what is more, we have dealt the enemy such a blow as will take them long enough to get over."
"But I wish we were all together, father, instead of being divided. Wouldn't it be better if we tried to get to them?"
"No," said the doctor quietly. "We are quite right here for the present, and perhaps we shall have our side strengthened soon by the coming of friend Griggs."
"Ah!" sighed Chris, "if he only would!"
Another arrow struck the rocks close to where Bourne and his friends were watchfully scanning the gulch between them and the old camp, and directly after a shot was fired, making every one start to look where the little grey puff of smoke arose, and Wilton was calmly reloading his rifle.
"I marked that fellow down," he said coolly.
"Did you hit?" said the doctor.
"I think so. He has altered his position, and is lying flat."
"Don't fire! A friend!" came in a familiar voice from behind them, and the boys gave a cheer, which was answered by Griggs, who now appeared, coming at a trot along the gulch from the direction of the gully, and began to climb up on the doctor's side.
"I did hope to be in time," he said, as he reached Chris and lay down, breathing hard. "Not done much, I hope?"
"You are in time," cried Chris, catching at the American's hand, to have his own pressed firmly.
"We've been in great anxiety about you, Griggs," cried the doctor, pressing his friend's other hand.
"You'd have felt worse than that, sir, if you'd seen my wig," said the American, with a chuckle. "They came so near catching me that my hair began to rise at the thought of being cut shorter than ever it was cut before, and made into an ornament. They nearly had me before I got to the first terrace. You know I—There's a chap yonder going to send an arrow at us, Chris, lad. You'd better shoot."
Chris followed the direction indicated by the American's pointing finger, saw where a big Indian was drawing his bow, showing only his face and arms round a corner, and drew trigger, with the result that he struck the stone and sent splinters flying, and after them the Indian, evidently hurt badly, for he held his left arm with his right-hand.
"Go on, Griggs," said Chris, reloading. "You were saying, 'You know I—' and then you stopped."
"To be sure," said Griggs, whose breath was still coming in gasps, as he lay on his chest with his rifle ready now for a shot. "I was going to say, You know I can run fast."
"Yes, yes," cried Chris eagerly. "Go on."
"I did," said Griggs, "as hard as I could; but a galloping horse is too much for me, and I won't back myself against one again."
"But you got into safety," cried Chris.
"Only just. I believe I saved myself by about one inch and a half. That was enough, though, to let me shut and lock the door we had got ready."
"Did you fire?" asked the doctor.
"Fire? Never had time, sir. But there, I managed to shut up, I hope, so that the brutes couldn't follow me, and then I hurried on to join you. Tut, tut, what a cracker that is! I didn't hurry a bit. It was a regular crawl to the gully. Think me long?"
"Horribly," cried Chris.
"No wonder, my lad. It was a horrible crawl, for I was regularly done. I felt what the Amurricans call real bad. But now tell me, did the whole band come by here?"
"As far as we can tell," replied the doctor.
"That's right. I never had time to look back, but it seemed to me as if the whole Indian nation was after my scalp on horseback. They didn't get it, did they, Chris?"
"Get it? No, of course not."
"I'm glad of that; but it felt precious cold two or three times. But now tell me—you've begun shooting—are the enemy coming on?"
"I believe we have only been attacked by a couple of stragglers—two who passed through the narrow gap here last."
"And you've filled the gap well up?"
"Oh yes. No horse could get by here."
"That's right! Then the big lot haven't found out yet that they're trapped?"
"Certainly not," said the doctor.
"Then there's going to be a big fight when they do find it out," said Griggs quietly. "I don't want them to come yet till my hand grows a bit steady, for, kill and slay or no, we've got to bring down all we can."
"I suppose so," said the doctor gravely. "It's their lives or ours."
"Yes. They'll be real mad; and we've got to give them a lesson—one that will make them shy of trying bows and arrows against rifles.—Yes, getting all right again now," continued the speaker, in answer to eager inquiries from the other side of the gap.
"That's right," said Bourne. "Lee."
"What do you think of making for the ponies and mules now, before the Indians find that they're trapped?"
"May I tell him, sir?" said Griggs sharply.
"Yes, say what you think," cried the doctor.
"Look here, Mr Bourne," said Griggs quickly; "the doctor thinks the same as I do—that it would be mad, giving ourselves up to be massacred. We've got to hold this barricade for our lives, and shoot down every man who tries to climb it. There must be no misses this time. Do you hear, boys? You're fighting for your fathers' lives as well as your own. It's no time to be sorry for the poor Indians now. Shoot your best, and leave them to be sorry for themselves.—By the way, Chris, my lad, can you give me a drink out of your water-bottle? I'm pretty well dried-up. I had to fling mine away so as to run lighter, and it was getting so close that I was very nearly sending my rifle and cartridges off as well. But I managed to bring them home.—Hah!" he continued, after a long draught from the bottle Chris handed to him. "What fine stuff water is. I think we've found out that, Squire Bourne, even if we haven't found the gold."
"Hush! Listen!" cried the doctor, and he held up his hand.
For there was a peculiar reverberation from the rocks farther on towards the rock city—a sound that thrilled the listeners through and through.
"Yes, that's them coming, sir," said Griggs coolly. "They're only riding gently, though, and it doesn't seem as if they know what's happened to them yet. We shall see them along that curve soon. Now, doctor, will you give your orders about how we are to shoot?"
"Slowly and steadily," replied the doctor, "and always at the leading men. Listen, Wilton; we three will fire one by one while you all hold your hands to be ready to keep on while we reload, so that they will not be able to advance without seeing their men constantly falling. There must be no excitement, always a careful, steady aim."
"When shall we begin?" asked Wilton.
"As soon as the first man rides out into the open yonder."
"Then it's time to begin at once, sir," said Wilton sharply, "for here they come."
"Yes," said the doctor firmly. "Keep well in cover, every one. Wait till I give the word. I want the leaders to see that the way is barred against their retreat."
"They're beginning to see it already," said Griggs, as about twenty of the Indians rode round the curve into sight, and their quick eyes grasped the fact at once that something had happened at the gap since they passed by.
"Look out! 'Ware arrows," said Griggs, in a low, deep growl. "Tell 'em, doctor, that they needn't mind those plaything toys so long as they keep well under cover."
"We can hear what you say," said Bourne, and an anxious half-minute passed, before there was a sudden yell, sounding wild and harsh, to echo and re-echo from the mighty walls on either side, while as it went reverberating on from side to side, to die away in the distance, there was another shout, and close upon it the whizz of a flight of arrows, and then a tinkling, splintering sound as they struck against the stones, to snap or glance off, the air just about the barrier seeming for a moment full of the glistening barbed wands.
"Fire!" said the doctor loudly, and crack—crack—crack with measured slowness the rifles of all three rang out, to raise a fresh set of echoes, and as these were still repeating themselves another and a fiercer yell rang out, for three of the mounted men had gone down and their horses had dashed forward, charging right at the barrier, snorting and tossing their manes, but only to turn back, startled by the heap of rocks piled-up before them, and returned at a fierce gallop, to confuse the crowd they had left, when the rifles from the other side flashed out fire and white puffs of smoke, and three more of the enemy went down, to free their startled and plunging ponies from their riders' reins.
A yell more fierce than ever arose from the little crowd of Indians, whose mounts began to partake of the excitement imparted by the ponies that had begun to tear to and fro in the narrow gulch, while after discharging another innocuous flight of arrows against the barrier of stones, about a dozen of the savages came on, yelling and belabouring their mounts, driving them nearly frantic as they urged them forward.
The riders were evidently imbued with a mad belief that their half-wild steeds would surmount the barrier by leaps and climbing, as after a short wild career they were forced right at the rugged mass of stones. Fully half breasted it, some to fall, others to wrench themselves round, while others again flung their riders, to gallop back snorting with excitement, as they returned to dash into the halting mob they had left and add fresh confusion there.
They were exciting moments at the barrier. One Indian pitched upon his head to lie senseless, but three more regained their feet, tore their knives from their belts, and placing them between their teeth to leave their hands free, began to climb up the slope of rough jagged stones to take vengeance upon the whites who had dared to oppose their attack. But not one of them reached the top of the hurled-down masses of rock, which were, after all, not half-way up to where the little party crouched, patient, cool, and watchful, as they obeyed their leader's orders not to waste a shot.
The result of the desperate attack was that one man stopped short, tottered, and fell back, to roll over to the bottom and then begin to crawl slowly back, leaving his comrades motionless where they had fallen.
There was a few moments' pause as the one man crept painfully back, and then about a dozen of the Indians dismounted and joined in driving the frantic ponies that were galloping about through an opening made for them by the waiting band.
This done the party remounted, and set up another furious yell to frighten the defenders from their posts.
Needless to say, this was as vain as the next and larger flight of arrows, which splintered amongst the stones or glanced off to fly far overhead.
There was no firing now by the defenders, for the need was not urgent. "Let them exhaust themselves," cried the doctor, "and find out that their efforts are vain."
Still there was no lack of bravery amongst the savages, who, some twenty strong, being as many as could act in the narrow gully, charged home again, directly after sending in their arrows, and accompanying the beating of their ponies' hoofs with yell after yell.
This time there was no waiting on the part of the defenders, who began firing as soon as the advance commenced, with the result that several Indians dropped, to encumber the way and unsettle the serried band of plunging steeds, while the rest, on breasting the rocks, recoiled, and in a state of panic turned, regardless of yells and blows, to gallop back after the fashion of their kind, crowding together till they reached their fellows once again, to stand shivering, snorting, and stamping, but leaving two struggling in the bottom of the gulch in company with six of their riders, wounded or dead.
"That ought to settle them," said Wilton, who knelt carefully wiping his rifle.
"I hope so," said Bourne. "I'm tired of this murderous work."
"'Tis bad, sir," said Griggs, from the other side; "but it rests with the redskins."
"Do you think they will give up now, Griggs?" said the doctor.
"No, sir; I don't," was the reply.
"Oh, Griggs, you're making the worst of it," cried Chris.
"No, my lad, I'm not. It's of no use for me to talk nonsense. I know too much of Indian nature. All they're thinking of now is how to get at us, and have revenge for what we have done."
"Then you think they will attack again?"
"Sure to, sir," replied Griggs; "but perhaps not with a rush. If they don't, they'll wait till it's dark, and then leave their horses behind and come on with their knives."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Chris. "That will be bad for us."
"Horrid," said Griggs coolly. "It seems—Hallo! They're coming on again. Give 'em a volley, sir, this time."
"Yes," cried the doctor eagerly, as he saw at a glance that the Indians were gathering for another rush. "Hold your fire," he cried loudly, "till they are three parts of the way here, and then all together. I'll give the word."
"But suppose they come on, dismount, and attack afterwards," said Chris.
"You have the second barrels," said the doctor. "Be ready. Here they come."
For once more the savages were putting their regular tactics to the test, coming on yelling and waving their weapons, using them to frighten their foes as much as to madden their ponies into a furious gallop, and this right in the rear of another flight of arrows, half of which came from the Indians who remained behind for want of room.
To the boys this was the most exciting charge of all, for during the others they had something to do or see, as the firing was kept up almost from the first. Here they had to wait—only for moments, it is true, but moments which seemed like minutes, and during which they had no gathering smoke to hide the gleaming teeth, flashing eyes, and savage hate depicted in the red and painted faces coming swiftly on.
"Fire!" shouted the doctor, his voice sounding sharp and clear above the rattle, of hoofs, the yells of the savages, and the reverberations from the rocky sides of the gulch.
Every finger pressed the trigger at the same moment; there was a flash, six jets of grey smoke driven full in the faces of the on-coming ponies, and then one great crack, followed by a deafening roar, which combination checked the ponies as if by magic, making them rear up, dismounting several of their riders. Then they all tore back, leaving eight or nine Indians scrambling to their feet, to run after their steeds, others lying struggling among the stones, and, plain to see, two more tottering upon their ponies' backs, one falling forward to cling to his mount's neck, another to sink backward and drop off, and another to wrench himself round and shake his bow at the occupants of the barrier in impotent fury, before throwing up his hands and lying back clinging to his seat till his pony had plunged into the little crowd waiting their return.
"The most effective action yet," said the doctor hoarsely, as the reloading ended.
"Yes, sir, I think that's best," responded Griggs.
"But such a sickening slaughter of the poor ignorant wretches," cried Bourne bitterly.
"That's what I used to think when I was first up in the Rockies, sir," said Griggs coolly, "till I had been about a bit, and seen where the redskins up there had been amongst the settlers' ranches. Pleasant homes burned down, and men, women, and children lying where they had been murdered and cut about—people who had been living hopeful lives, hard workers whose only crime against the Indians was trying to get a living out of a few acres instead of by hunting and war. I used to feel just as you do, Mr Bourne; but I don't now."
"I know, I know," cried Ned's father passionately; "but they are so ignorant of our power."
"Yes, sir, but we're not of theirs," replied Griggs. "Now, doctor, they're drawing off. Had enough of it for one day, and it's time to be stirring."
"Not yet, sir. Here's my idea. They'll wait till it's dark, attack us then with knives and tomahawks, coming on silently, leaving their horses behind, and we shan't have a chance."
"Then what do you propose?" said the doctor.
"Just this, sir, if you can't see a better way. We three stop here, ready to have a shot at any Indian who shows himself, while Mr Bourne, young squire, and Chris go off to the mules and horses."
"No," cried Chris; "I'm not going to leave my father."
"Wait, my boy," said the doctor sternly.
"Hadn't done speaking, my lad," said Griggs, looking at the boy with a smile. "Here's the rest of it. Mr Bourne and Squire Ned get old Skeeter to the front; and set off at once as fast as the mules will go, which only means a walk."
"But where—where?" cried Bourne excitedly.
"Anywhere, sir, except into the soda-plains. The thing you've got to do is to put as many miles between you and here as you can manage in the next twenty-four hours."
"What, and desert you?" cried Bourne. "How are you going to manage to find us?"
"Oh, I'll find you by your trail when the time comes, sir," said Griggs, laughing. "Don't you be afraid of that. Don't even think about it, only of getting right away."
"I see," said the doctor, and he frowned down Chris, who was about to speak. "Now go on."
"There's not much more to say, sir. We shall stay here till dusk, giving the redskins a reminder now and then that we're on the alert; and at last, when we feel that they're coming on for the attack, into the saddles we jump, and steal off till we're out of hearing, and then crawl till we make sure of the trail of the mules, and then gallop."
"But the ponies will have gone with the mules," cried Chris excitedly.
"You'd better not let them," said Griggs, with a grim smile at the boy. "You've got to see the train started well on its way from the bottom of the gully, and then bring the horses here—all six, mind."
"Yes, I see," said Chris, brightening up, the sun seeming to come out on his gloomy, powder-smirched face. "But what about Ned's and Mr Bourne's ponies?"
"They'll have to be contented with mules. They've only got to walk, and there are several now with half loads. We shall want their ponies for spare mounts, so as to give the others a rest now and then, for when we leave here we shall have to make the best of our way."
"Oh!" cried Chris joyously. "I wish I were as clever as you are, Griggs."
"It's all right, my lad," said the American grimly; "don't be in a hurry. I've learned a bit about the Indians, and you've got that to begin with; by the time you get as old as I am you'll have picked up a deal more than I know, and you will not think much of me then. Now, doctor, what's your idea?"
"Yours, Griggs," cried the gentleman addressed. "It cannot be bettered. You hear, Bourne?"
"Yes, I hear," was the reply; "but about the Indians. You will not escape them; they'll follow your trail."
"A bit," said Griggs, "while they're hot and wild after finding out that we've tricked them and gone; but I seem to think that they won't tramp far and leave their mustangs shut up in the valley. They'll come back to get them out, and that will take them days, even if they do it then; while if they can catch us after giving us about a week's law, I shall feel disposed to forgive them."
"We need not discuss the matter further, eh, Wilton?" said the doctor, turning to the young man, who had crouched close by, watching the spot where the Indians had disappeared.
"No. It's all cut and dried," said the young man quietly. "Be off, Bourne; you're going to have the best of it."
"That father isn't," said Ned sharply. "I don't think it's fair. Let Chris go. I want to stop and fight."
"Nay, nay, nay," said Griggs, smiling; "don't be greedy, lad. You've killed quite as many redskins to-day as is good for you. Be satisfied. I dare say we can contrive a bit more fighting for you by and by."
"He may have all my share," said Chris, screwing up his face. "I hate it. It's horrible."
"Obey orders," said the doctor, smiling. "Bourne, will you get off at once?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"And you, boys. I don't think any eyes can reach us, for we get no more arrows now; but all the same, I would not show. Crawl down to the bottom; you will be safe from all observation there, and you can rise and walk as soon as you are past the first curve. Till we meet again."
"Till we meet again," said Bourne and Ned in a breath, and they began to crawl down the far side of the gulch from where they had made their defence.
"As for you, my boy," continued the doctor, "you will bring the ponies down, following the mules, and coming to a halt at that spring by the big needle-like stone. There's some browsing for them there."
"Am I to stay with them, father?" said Chris.
"Of course, my boy, to be ready for starting at a moment's notice."
"But if you have to fight again?"
"We three will do our best."
"But only three, father?"
"Only three, but three men fighting with a knowledge that if things go against them they have ponies waiting for them, ready for a retreat. Now, my boy. Duty. Be off. And mind, you'll take no notice of a few shots."
Chris made no reply. His rifle was already slung, and after one glance up the gulch towards the valley, without seeing a sign of the enemy, he began to back down the slope, creeping and crawling till it was safe to rise, and then hurrying after Bourne and Ned, overtaking them long before they could reach the entrance to the steep slope of the gully.
CHAPTER FIFTY THREE.
A BIT OF BLUE SKY.
The task of getting the mules together was simple enough, the irritable beasts making their usual objections, but following their old leader Skeeter quietly enough in spite of the bell not being in use; and in a short time they were trudging along with their loads down the steep slope till the gulch was reached, and Chris came after them with the ponies, to bring his charge to a halt.
"Like to change places, Ned?" he said archly.
"No; I'm going to do my part without that."
"Good-bye, Chris, my lad," said Bourne sadly. "I don't like going off and leaving you."
"And I don't like you to go, Mr Bourne," said Chris, holding out his hand, which was warmly grasped. "Take care of yourself, Ned."
"Yes; and you," said the boy sadly.
The next minute Chris was standing by his mustang's head, watching the mules file away.
"Look at that," said Chris, as he noted that his charge displayed no desire to follow the mules. "Why, if that old Skeeter isn't actually sneering at my ponies! He deserves to be kicked for his conceit."
Ned turned to wave his hand just before a bend in the gulch hid the mule-train from sight, and then Chris mounted and rode towards the pointed rock close to which the spring gurgled out of the rock. Here he took the precaution of drinking deeply himself before letting the ponies have their fill of the refreshing water, after which they began grazing in their quiet, inoffensive way, leaving their guardian to his thoughts, which were many and troubled.
In the full expectation of hearing shots, Chris spent plenty of time in listening; but no reports reached his ears, and he began thinking of the change from the wild excitement and risk of his position by the barrier a short time before, to the silence and grandeur of the deeply-cut rift in which he now stood. For gloomy and forbidding as the place looked by night, even awful in its black solemnity, it was striking enough now in its effects of brilliant sunshine and shade to make the boy think it was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen in his life.
"What a pity!" he muttered, as he listened to the crop, crop of the ponies.
He did not say what was a pity, for the sharp crack of a rifle brought him out of his musings to gaze sharply in the direction of the barrier, far away from where he was waiting, and wondering now whether there was any more fighting on the way.
Another sharp crack, and Chris's excitement increased, as he first looked anxiously at his charges to see if they were startled by the firing.
But the ponies did not even lift their heads, but went on browsing upon the green shoots near the spring, while the boy involuntarily dragged his rifle round, ready to throw the sling over his head if the need sprang up for its use.
But there was evidently no immediate danger, for quite an hour passed before there was another shot fired to raise the echoes, and this proved to be single.
A longer period elapsed before anything more occurred, and twice as long a time passed before there was another.
"It's just as they said," thought Chris—"a shot or two, just to show the redskins that we're on the alert."
It was about this time that Chris fancied that the faintness from which he suffered was due to the want of food, and opening his wallet he took out a piece of damper, to find that it ate very sweet with nothing but a few handfuls of water to wash it down.
By the time this was finished the sun had sunk far below the rocks on his left, and the dreamy, restful state into which the boy had been falling passed away. For the thoughts that came fast now were beginning to grow troublous. It would not be long before it was night, and with the darkness an exciting time would arrive. Chris thought that the Indians would not wait long before they attacked, and a great anxiety now oppressed him. Would his father think of this and be prepared, or would he wait too long, and then—
It was too horrible to think of. Chris all through that afternoon had been suffering from the effect of his exertions, and had sunk into a restful state a long way on to the border which divides wakefulness from sleep; but with the coming of darkness his brain had become active to a painful degree, and but for the stringent orders he had received to be prepared and wait with the ponies, he would have gone forward, sought his father, and told him of his fears.
"He's sure to know better than I do," cried the boy at last, to comfort himself, but with very poor effect, as he kept his watch till the darkness had seemed to settle down like a flood in the gulch, the ponies had become invisible, and the sky had turned to a dark purple with a few stars dotting it here and there.
Half-an-hour now passed, and then the boy's agonised tension was broken by three shots ringing out almost together.
"A volley!" he said aloud, and the words had hardly passed his lips before there was a repetition of the reports.
"The other three barrels!" he cried excitedly, and then, speaking as if those of whom he thought were close at hand, "Load, load, load!" he panted. "Oh, quick, quick! They're coming on!"
He waited again, but there was not a sound, and half-an-hour seemed to have passed, during which his busy brain invented a host of horrors, chief among which was that in which he pictured to himself the Indians stealing up to the defenders of the barrier, knife in hand, to spring upon them and massacre all before they could fire another shot in their defence.
So horrible became the silence at last that Chris felt that if it lasted much longer he must mount his mustang and ride forward to learn the worst.
"Even if they kill me," he muttered, and he mentally saw himself falling beneath the enemy's blows.
But in response to a desperate effort to recall his duty those thoughts grew dull and distant, and straining his eyes to gaze into the darkness he obeyed a sudden impulse to slip the ponies' bridles into their mouths, fasten a strap or two, and then tighten the saddle-girths, the animals submitting patiently enough, and allowing themselves to be placed in readiness for a start.
"I can't do anything more," he said to himself. "Oh, how terribly dark!"
Pst! from close at hand, so close to him that the boy started as if he had been stung.
"Father!" he whispered.
"Good lad. Not a word. Are the ponies saddled and bridled?"
"Right. Now, Griggs—Wilton; take two each, and lead on. Walk with them for the present, and as quietly as you can go. We'll follow close behind."
No further words were spoken, but there was the sound of hoofs passing over the stony bottom of the gulch, and the next minute Chris and his father, each leading his pony, were walking together side by side, the animals stepping instinctively in the footprints of those in front, and, saving for the faint sound of tramping, the silence seemed to the boy perfectly awful.
At last Chris could keep back a question no longer.
"The firing, father—I heard two volleys. Were the savages coming on?"
"No, but we treated them as if they were, just to show them that we were waiting for an attack, and then came on to join you at once. Now, no more talking; I want to listen till they announce that they are there."
"Will they?" whispered Chris.
"They'll either attack with one of their savage yells, or else give one in their rage when they find that we are gone. That will be the signal for us to mount and ride for our lives. Indians are swift of foot, boy."
It seemed an hour, during which every ear was on the strain, but probably it was not a fourth of that time, before the fierce yell of the savages was heard; but it only reached the fugitives as a faint whisper, followed by another.