The Huge Hunter/Chapter V
BALDY BICKNELL was a hunter and trapper who, at the time we bring him to the notice of the reader, had spent something over ten years among the mountains and prairies of the West.
He was a brave, skillful hunter, who had been engaged in many desperate affrays with the red-skins, and who, in addition to the loss of the hair upon the crown of his head, bore many other mementos on his person of the wild and dangerous life that he had led.
Like most of his class, he was a restless being, constantly flitting back and forth between the frontier towns and the western wilds. He never went further east than St. Louis, while his wanderings, on more than one occasion, had led him beyond the Rocky Mountains.
One autumn he reached the Yellowstone, near the head of navigation, just as a small trading propeller was descending the stream. As much from the novelty of the thing, as anything else, he rode on board, with his horse, with the intention of completing his journey east by water.
On board the steamer he first met Ethan Hopkins and Mickey McSquizzle, who had spent ten years in California, in a vain hunt for gold, and were now returning to their homes, thoroughly disgusted with the country, its inhabitants and mineral resources.
Baldy was attracted to them by their peculiarities of manner; but it is not probable that anything further would have resulted from this accidental meeting, but for a most startling and unforeseen occurrence.
While still in the upper waters of the Yellowstone, the steamer exploded her boiler, making a complete wreck of the boat and its contents. The hunter, with the others, was thrown into the water, but was so bruised and injured that he found it impossible to swim, and he would assuredly have been drowned but for the timely assistance of his two acquaintances.
Neither the Yankee nor Irishman were hurt in the least, and both falling near the trapper, they instantly perceived his helplessness and came to his rescue. Both were excellent swimmers, and had no difficulty in saving him.
'Do ye rist aisy!' said Mickey, as be saw the hunter's face contorted with pain, as be vainly struggled in the water, 'and it's ourselves that II take the good care of yees jist'
'Stop yer confounded floundering,' admonished Hopkins; 'it won't do no good, and there ain't no necessity for it.'
One of them took the arm upon one side, and the other the same upon the opposite side, and struck out for the shore. The poor trapper realized his dire extremity, and remained motionless while they towed him along.
'Aisy jist—aiey now!' admonished Mickey: 'ye're in a bad fix; but by the blessin' of Heaven we'll do the fair thing wid yees. We understand the science of swimmin', and'——
At that moment some drowning wretch caught the foot of the Irishman, and he was instantly drawn under water, out of sight.
Neither Hopkins nor Baldy lost presence of mind in this fearful moment, but continued their progress toward shore, as though nothing of the kind had happened.
As for the Irishman, his situation for the time was exceedingly critical. The man who had clutched his foot did so with the grasp of a drowning man; in their struggle both went to the bottom of the river together. Here, by a furious effort, Mickey shook him free, and coming to the surface, struck out again for the suffering hunter.
'It is sorry I am that I was compelled to leave yees behind,' he muttered, glancing over his shoulder in search of the poor fellow from whom be had just freed himself; 'but yees are past helpin', and so it's maeself that must attend to the poor gentleman ahead.'
Striking powerfully out, he soon came beside his friends again and took the drooping arm of Baldy Bicknell.
'Be yees sufferin' to a great extent?' inquired the kind-hearted Irishman, looking at the white face of the silent hunter.
'Got a purty good whack over the back,' he replied, between his compressed lips, as he forced back all expression of pain.
Ye'll be aisier when we fotch ye to the land, as me uncle obsarved whin he hauled the big fish ashore that was thrashing his line to pieces jist.'
'Twon't take you long to git over it,' added Hopkins, anxious to give his grain of consolation; 'you look, now, like quite a healthy young man.'
The current was quite rapid, and it was no light labor to tow the helpless hunter ashore; but the two friends succeeded, and at length drew him out upon the land and stretched him upon the sward.
The exertion of keeping their charge afloat, and breasting the current at the same time, carried them a considerable distance downstream, and they landed perhaps an eighth of a mile below where the main body of shivering wretches were congregated.
'Do yees feel aisy?' inquired Mickey, when the hunter had been laid upon the grass, beneath some overhanging bushes.
'Yes—I'll soon git over it—but woofh! that thar war a whack of the biggest kind I got. It has made me powerful weak.'
'What might it have been naow!' inquired Hopkins.
'Can't say—fust thing I know'd, I didn't know nothin'remember suthin' took me back the head, and the next thing I kerwholloped in the water.'
The three men had lost everything except what was on their bodies when the catastrophe occurred. Their horses were gone, and they hadn't a gun between them; nothing but two revolvers, and about a half dozen charges for each.
Of the twenty odd who were upon the steamer at the time of the explosion, nearly one-half were killed; they sinking to the bottom almost as suddenly as the wrecked steamer, of which not a single trace now remained.
The survivors made their way to land, reaching it a short distance below their starting-point, and here they assembled, to commiserate with each other upon their hapless lot and determine how they were to reach home.
Our three friends had remained upon shore about half an hour, the two waiting for the third to recover, when the latter raised himself upon his elbow in the attitude of listening. At the same time he waved his hand for the others to hold their peace.
A moment later he said:
'I hear Injins.'
'Begorrah! where bees the same?' demanded Mickey, starting to his feet, while Ethan gazed alarmedly about.
'Jist take a squint up the river, and tell me ef they ain't pitchin' into the poor critters thar.'
Through the sheltering trees and undergrowth, which partly protected them, the two men gazed up-stream. To their horror, they saw fully fifty Indians massacring the survivors of the wreck—whooping, screeching and yelling like demons, while their poor victims were vainly endeavoring to escape them.
'Begorrah, now, but that looks bad!' exclaimed the Irishman. 'Be the same towken, what is it that we can do?'
'Jerusalem! They'll be sure to pay us a visit—I'll be gummed if they won't,' added the Yankee, in some trepidation, as be cowered down again by the side of the hunter, and said to him in a lower Voice:
'The worst of it is, we haven't got a gun atwixt us. Of course we shall stick by you if we have to lose our heads fur it. But don't you think they'll pay us a visit?'
'Like 'nough!',' was the indifferent reply of the hunter, as he laid his head back again, as if tired of listening to the tumult.
'Can't we do anything to get you out of danger!'
'Can't see that you kin; you two fellers have done me a good turn in gittin' me ashore—so jist leave me yere, and it don't make no difference about me one way or t'other, Ef I hear 'em comin' I'll jist roll into the water and go under in that style.'
'May the Howly Vargin niver smile upon us if we dissart you in this extremity,' was the reply of the fervent-hearted Irishman.
'And by the jumpin' jingo! if we was consarnedly mean enough to do it, there ain't no need of it.'
As the Yankee spoke, he ran down to the river, and walking out a short distance, caught a log drifting by and drew it in.
'Naow, Mr. Baldy, or Mr. Bicknell, as you call yourself, we'll all three git hold of that and float down the river till we git beyond fear of the savages.'
The plan was a good one, and the hunter so expressed himself. With some help he managed to crawl to the river bank, where one arm was placed over the log, in such a manner that he could easily float, without any danger of sinking.
'Keep as close to shore as you kin,' he said, as they were about shoving off.
'We can go faster in the middle,' said Hopkins.
'But the reds'll see us, and it'll be all up then.'
This was the warning of prudence, and it was heeded.