The Huge Hunter/Chapter XIV
SIMULTANEOUS with the report of the rifles came the pinging of the bullets about the ears of young Brainerd, who, having started the steam man, kept on going until he was a considerable distance from the ravine.
All the time he kept looking back, but could see nothing of his enemies, nor could he detect the point from which the rifle-shots were fired.
Now, as night descended over the prairie, and the retreat of his friends became shrouded in impenetrable darkness, he fully appreciated the fact that not only were they in great danger, but so was he himself.
The heathenish terror with which the steam man had at first inspired the savages had rapidly worn away, the circumstances unfortunately having been such that they had very speedily learned that it was nothing more than a human invention, which of itself could accomplish little or no harm.
He could but reflect, as the man glided slowly along, that if he had the three friends beside him, how easily they could glide away in the darkness and leave all danger behind.
But they were in the extremity of peril already, and, reflect and cogitate as much as he chose, he could see no earthly way of assisting them out of their difficulty.
Besides the concern which he naturally felt regarding his friends, there was a matter that more clearly related to himself that demanded his attention.
The water in the tank was at its lowest ebb, and it would be dangerous for him to attempt to run more than one hour or so longer before replenishing it. Consequently he was unable to stand anything like another chase from the Indians.
As the part of prudence, therefore, he turned toward the river, following slowly along the bank, in quest of some place where it would be easy and safe for him to secure the much-needed water.
It was a long and discouraging hunt. The banks were so high that he could find no point where it was safe for him to descend to the water's edge. There was too great a risk of 'upsetting his cart,' a calamity which, in all probability, would be irreparable.
At length, however, when be had wandered about a mile distant from the Wolf Ravine, he discovered a place, where the bank had about six feet elevation, and sloped down gradually to the river.
Here he paused, and with a small vessel, descended to the stream, muttering to himself as he did so:
'Why didn't I think and put a pumping arrangement to the machine? I could have done it as well as not, and it would have saved me a good deal of trouble.'
But regrets were now unavailing, and he lost no time in useless lamentations, setting to work at once. It was tedious labor, carrying up the water in a small vessel, and emptying it in the tank, but he persevered, and at the end of a couple of hours the task was completed.
'I can make the wood stand me another day,' he added, as be stood looking at the greatly diminished pile—'although, if I knew where to get it, I would load up now, and then I should be prepared'——
He suddenly paused, for scarcely a dozen yards away, coming up the margin of the river, straight toward him, he descried the figure of a man fully six feet and a half high.
Young Brainerd's first impulse was to spring into the wagon and start away at full speed; but a second glance showed him that it was not an Indian, but a white man, in the garb of a hunter.
'Hullo, boss, thar, what yer doin'?'
He was at a loss what reply to make, and therefore made none. The next moment the giant hunter was beside him.
'B'ars and bufflers! younker, what ye got thar?' he demanded, eyeing the steam man with an expression of the most amazed wonder. 'I say, what do yer call that thing?'
'That,' laughed Johnny, who could not avoid a feeling of strong apprehension at the singular appearance of the strange hunter, 'is a sort of peregrinating locomotive.'
'Paggyratin' locomotive—what's that?' he asked, in a gruff voice, and with an expression of great disgust at the unfamiliar words employed.
'You have seen a locomotive, haven't you?'
'Reckon I hev, down in St. Louey.'
'Well, this is something on the same principle, except that it uses legs instead of wheels.'
'Can that ere thing walk?'
'Yes, sir, and run, too; it traveled all the way from the Missouri river to this place.'
The huge hunter turned upon him with a fierce expression.
'Yer can't fool this yar boss in that style.'
'Don't you believe me?' asked the boy, who was fearful of offending the stranger.
'No, sar; not a word.'
'How do you suppose we got it here?'
'Fotched in a wagon.'
'Let me show you what be can do.'
He was about to step into the wagon, when the hunter stopped him.
'See hyar, younker, who mought yer be?'
The boy gave his name and residence.
'What yer doin' hyar?'
'I'm traveling with this machine of mine.'
'How do you git it along?'
'I was just going to show you when you stopped me.'
'Hold on; no need of bein' in a sweat about it. Do yer come alone?'
'No. I came with a hunter.'
'What war his name?'
'B'ars and bufflers! did yer come with him?'
'Yes; he was my companion all the way.'
'Whar mought he be?'
Johnny Brainerd hesitated a moment. While the huge hunter might possibly be of great service to the beleaguered miners, yet he recollected that it was the desire of Baldy that the fact of gold existing in Wolf Ravine should be kept a secret from all except their own party.
Should it become known to any of the numerous hunters and emigrants who were constantly passing in the neighborhood, there would be such a flocking to the place that they would be driven away and probably killed for the treasure that they had already obtained.
The boy, therefore, chose to make a non-committal reply:
'Baldy is some distance away, in camp.'
'And what are yer doin' hyar?'
'I stopped here to pet water for this steam man, as we call him. You know anything that travels by steam must have the water to generate it.'
'I say, younker, I don't want none of yer big words to me. Ef I h'ar any more, b'ars and bufflers, ef I don't crack yer over the head with Sweetlove, my shootin'-iron, so mind what yer say, fur I won't stand no nonsense.'
'I didn't wish to offend you,' returned the boy, in the meekest of tones.
'How far away might be Baldy?'
'I couldn't tell you exactly, but I think it is less than ten miles.'
'Be you goin' back to camp to-night?'
'It was my intentionthat is, I meant to do so.'
'Guess I'll go with yer; but see hyar, younker, let's see yer try that old humbug of yourn.'
The boy sprung into the wagon, glad of the opportunity of getting rid of what looked like a dangerous man. Before be could start he was again peremptorily stopped.
'Yer see, I b'leeve yar a humbug, but if that ole thing does run, and, mind, I tell yer, I don't b'leeve it will, do yer know what I'm goin' to do?'
'I do not.'
'I'm goin' to take it myself to chase rod-skins in. It won't bother yer much fur them long legs of yourn to carry that humpback home again. So, younker, start now, and let us see what yer can do.'
The boy let on steam, and the man started off on a moderate gait, which rapidly increased to a swift one. The huge, wonder-stricken hunter watched it until it gradually faded out of sight in the gloom, and still watched the place where it had disappeared, and though he watched much longer, with a savage and vindictive heart, yet it never came back to him again.