Boys of the Fort/6
DARRY MAKES A DISCOVERY.
As pressed as they were for time, Darry and Joe begged that the bearskin be saved, and did all they could toward helping the old scout skin the beast. With the pelt they took along about twenty pounds of the juiciest steaks.
"It's a pity to leave the rest to the wolves!" sighed Joe. "But it can't be helped. What a feast they will have!"
"I'm going to sling the beast into a tree," replied old Benson. "That may help save it until somebody else comes this way. The soldiers from the fort use the trail yonder, you know."
Soon they were on the way to where Benson and Darry had left Joe's horse. As Joe was tired from his night's adventure, his cousin and the old scout took turns in carrying him behind them. Even then his eyes would occasionally close.
"We can't make the fort to-night, that's certain," said the old scout.
"Not if we pushed on hard?" asked Darry.
Joe can't push on as fast as that, Darry. He'll want to rest as soon as sundown comes."
"Perhaps I can get a nap at noon, while you two get dinner ready," suggested Joe. "I wonder if we'll meet those rascals anywhere on the road? I hope not, for they'd be certain to recognize me."
"We'll keep an eye open for 'em," responded Benson dryly. "And see to it that your shooting-irons are ready for use."
"Why—do you think they'd attack us?" asked Darry quickly.
"They might—if they thought we were carrying anything of value. To such desperadoes all are fish that swim near their net."
"It's a pity the government can't stamp such a gang out, Benson."
"The government has stamped out lots of 'em, lad. Why, ten years ago none of these trails was safe. Nearly every horseman and stage-coach was held up. To-day you don't hear of a hold-up once in six months."
"Is this Gilroy a very bad man?"
"He is—in a way. He's a well-educated fellow, so I've been told, and not as brutal as some. But he's committed some robberies that have no equal in the history of these parts. Once he painted himself as an Indian and went to the agency, and there collected a lot of money which was coming to the redskins, the agent taking him for Chief Snowbird of the Modocs. The trick wasn't discovered until three days later, when the real Snowbird turned up. Even then it wasn't known who did the trick."
"And how was Gilroy found out?"
"A fellow named Downes, who belonged to the gang, was captured, and he gave the secret away. But it cost Downes his life, for he got away from the soldiers, and while he was in the mountains some of his gang shot and killed him."
At this story both Joe and Darry shuddered.
"What a lawless set!" muttered Joe. "One could hardly believe it unless he saw it with his own eyes."
"In a rough country the men are bound to be more or less rough, lad. Look at California, for instance. To-day it's as quiet and orderly as Massachusetts or Illinois. But in the days of '49 it wasn't that way. Many a miner was held up for his gold dust, and many a miner's secret of a rich find was stolen from him and the miner himself murdered."
"And how long do you think it will take to make this territory perfectly safe?"
"There aint no telling about that, but probably when you are as old as I am now you'll be able to travel anywhere without fear of being stopped. The railroads are a-coming in, towns are building up, and one of these days the desperadoes and stage-coach robbers will all be a thing of the past—and a good job done."
The third horse had been found, and now Joe was riding in his own saddle. The rain of the night before had made the trail dustless, and the air was as pure and sweet as one could wish.
By noon they calculated that they had covered ten miles of the worst portion of the distance to the fort. The ride had been a strain to Joe, and when old Benson called a halt he was glad enough to slip to the ground and throw himself in the shade of a tree to rest. Darry and the old scout lit a fire, and soon had a nice steak preparing for dinner.
"He's asleep," said Darry, a little later, pointing to Joe. "Poor fellow! supposing we let him rest for a couple of hours? I haven't the heart to wake him up."
"All right," answered Benson. The pair ate their dinner without arousing Joe, and after it was over the scout sat down near at hand to smoke his stumpy brier-root pipe, filling it with cut-plug which was as black as coal, and puffing away with keen satisfaction.
Darry was more restless, and having put away the things used in preparing the meal he began an inspection of the neighborhood.
"Be careful," said old Benson, as the youth moved around. "Don't get into trouble, as Joe did."
"I'll keep my eyes open," replied Darry.
Opposite the trail was a tall spur of rocks with something of a series of natural steps leading to the top. Up these steps went the youth. Some of the climbing was difficult, but this he did not mind.
When the top was gained a magnificent panorama was spread out before him. To one side were the tall mountains, hidden in a bluish mist, to the other the vast forests and plains. Northward was the continuation of the gap they were traveling, and southward was a series of foothills, with here and there a stream or water fall glinting brightly in the sunshine.
"How grand!" he murmured. "What a vast country this is! Thousands upon thousands of people could live here, and nobody be crowded. This would make splendid pasture for cows and sheep, and yet there isn't a single animal in sight."
Beyond the rocky spur was a similar elevation, and presently Darry crossed to this. Here there was a lone pine with several low branches, and he drew himself up and climbed to the top. He could now see much further than formerly, and his view took in a portion of the trail passed several hours before, as it wound, serpent-like, between the foothills.
"Hullo!" he cried, as he caught sight of something moving on the trail. "Three people on horseback. Can they be the desperadoes Joe met?"
He watched the riders with interest, and at last felt certain they were three men fully armed and wearing slouch hats and light-colored coats. This description tallied with that given by his cousin, and he hastened down to acquaint old Benson with the news.
"Must be the gang," said the scout. "Are they moving this way?"
"Then we had better move on."
Joe was awakened, and leaped to his feet, looking rather bewildered.
"I—I thought I'd take a little nap," he stammered. "I suppose I've slept a good while, haven't I?"
"About an hour and a half," answered his cousin. "Here's your dinner," and he passed it over. "We've got to move on. Those rascals are behind us."
"Don't get scared," put in old Benson. "They are a good distance back. Darry discovered 'em from yonder p'int. Eat what you want, and then it will be time enough to start."
The repast was quickly disposed of by Joe, and soon they were in the saddle once more. The long nap had refreshed the lad greatly, and he said he would now be able to ride as far as anybody.
On they went, the trail growing more difficult as the top of the mountain was gained. Here there was a stiff breeze that at times was positively cold, and both boys were glad enough to button their jackets tightly around them.
If all went well Benson calculated that they could reach Hank Leeson's place with ease before dark. This was the cabin of an old hunter and trapper who was known from one end of the Territory to the other. As mentioned at the beginning of this tale, Leeson's place was twenty miles from the fort.
"I could ride right through," said the old scout. "But you boys couldn't do it. If you tried it, you'd be so sore and stiff the next day you couldn't stand up."