The Huge Hunter/Chapter XIII

NOT a second was to be lost. The next moment the boy had run across the intervening space and pulled open the furnace door of the steam man. He saw a few embers yet smoldering in the bottom—enough to rekindle the wood. Dashing in a lot from the wagon, he saw it begin blazing up. He pulled the valve wide open, so that there might not be a moment's delay in starting, and held the water in the boiler at a proper level. The smoke immediately began issuing from the pipe or hat, and the hopes of the boy rose correspondingly.

The great danger was that the Indians would return before he could start. He kept glancing behind him, and it was with a heart beating with despair that he heard several whoops, and saw at the same instant a number of redskins coming toward him.

The boy gave a jolt to the wagon, which communicated to the steam man, and it instantly started, at quite a moderate gait, but rapidly increased to its old-fashioned run.

It was just in the nick of time, for two minutes later the savages would have been upon him. As it was, when they saw the giant moving off they paused for a moment in amazement.

But their previous acquaintance with the apparatus had robbed it of all its supernatural attributes, and their halt lasted but a few seconds. The next moment they understood that there was some human agency about it, and uttering their blood-curdling yells, they started in full pursuit. But by this time the steam gentleman was getting down to his regular pace, and was striding over the prairie like a dromedary. For a time the Indians gained, then the intervening distance became stationary, and then he began pulling steadily away from them.

Still the savages maintained the chase until satisfied of its hopelessness, when they gave it up and sullenly withdrew in the direction of the mountains.

The young fellow, in his triumph, could not avoid rising in the wagon, shouting and waving his hat defiantly at his baffled pursuers. The daring act came near costing his life, for it was instantly followed by the discharge of several guns, and the singing of the bullets about his ears caused him to duck back into his seat as suddenly as he had risen from it.

The afternoon was now quite well advanced, and besides feeling hungry, Johnny Brainerd was anxious to get back to camp.

The intervening distance was rapidly passed, and the sun was just setting as he slacked up within a short distance of Wolf Ravine.

For some unaccountable reason, the nearer he approached 'camp,' as it was called, a feeling akin to fear came over him. It was a presentiment of coming evil, which be found it impossible either to shake off or to define, and that was why he halted some distance away.

From where he stood it was impossible to see his two friends at work, but at that time of day he knew they were accustomed to stop work and come out upon the prairie for the purpose of enjoying the cool breeze of evening. At the same time, when such constant danger threatened, they were accustomed to have one of their number, either all or a part of the time, on the ground above, where the approach of enemies could be detected.

The absence of anything like a sentinel increased the boy's apprehensions, and when he had waited some fifteen minutes without seeing anything of his friends he became painfully uneasy.

'What if they had been killed? What if they were prisoners? What if a hundred Indians were at that moment in the possession of Wolf Ravine?

Such and similar were the questions which the affrighted boy asked himself, and which, with all his shrewdness, he was unable to answer.

In the hope of attracting attention he set up a shrieking with the whistle, which sounded so loud on the still evening air that it must have gone miles away over the level prairie.

There being no response to this he kept it up for some time, but it still failed, and all this confirmed him in the belief that 'something was up.'

What that particular something was it was impossible to say, so long as he sat in the wagon, and for five minutes he endeavored to decide whether it was best to get out and make a reconnoissance on his own hook or remain where, in case of danger, he could seek safety in flight.

As the day wore rapidly away, and he still failed to see or hear anything of his friends, he finally concluded to get out and make an examination of the ravine.

Accordingly he sprung lightly to the ground, but had scarcely alighted when a peculiar signal—something resembling a tremulous whistle—reached his ear, and he instantly clambered back again, fully satisfied that the whistle was intended as a signal, and that it concerned him, although whether from friend or foe he could only conjecture.

However, his alarm was such that he moved a hundred yards or so further away from the ravine, where there was less likelihood of being surprised by any sudden rush upon the part of the thieving red-skins.

From this standpoint he carefully scanned what could be seen of the ravine. It descended quite gradually from the edge of the bank, so that he gained a partial view of the rocks and bowlders upon the opposite side. Some of the trees growing in the narrow valley rose to such a height that one-half or two-thirds of them were exposed to view.

It was while the boy was gazing at these that he detected a peculiar movement in one of the limbs, which instantly arrested his attention.

A moment showed him that the peculiar waving motion was made by human agency, and he strained his eyes in the hope of detecting the cause of the curious movement.

The gathering darkness made his vision quite uncertain; but he either saw, or fancied he saw, a dark object among the limbs which resembled the form of Baldy Bicknell, the trapper.

Johnny Brainerd would have given almost anything in the world could he have understood what it all meant.

But the vary fact of these singular demonstrations was prima facie evidence of the most unquestionable kind; and, after a moment's consultation with himself, he began moving away, just as the sharp crack of several rifles notified him of the fearful peril which he had escaped.