The Huge Hunter/Chapter XIX
IT WAS soon found that the camping ground possessed another advantage which, during the discussion, had been altogether overlooked.
During the afternoon they had shot a fine-looking antelope, cooking a portion at the time upon the prairie. A goodly portion was left, and they now had an opportunity of kindling their fire without the liability of its being seen, as would have been the case had they encamped in any other place.
This being agreed to, the fire was speedily kindled, and the trapper himself began the culinary performance. It was executed with the characteristic excellence of the hunter, and a luscious meal was thus provided for all. At its conclusion, all stretched themselves upon the ground for the purpose of smoking and chatting, as was their usual custom at such times.
The evening whiled pleasantly away, and when it had considerably advanced, the question of who should act as sentinel was discussed. Up to this, young Brainerd had never once performed that duty at night, although he had frequently solicited the privilege. He now-asked permission to try his hand. After considerable talk it was agreed that he might do. The trapper had lost so much sleep, that he was anxious to secure a good night's rest, and the careful scrutiny which he had taken of the surrounding prairie convinced him that no danger threatened. So he felt little apprehension in acceding to the wish of the boy.
At a late hour the two men stretched themselves upon the ground, with their blankets gathered about them, and they were soon wrapped in profound slumber, while Johnny, filled with the importance and responsibility of his duty, felt as though he should never need another hour's sleep. He was sure of being able to keep up an unintermitting watch several days and nights, should it become necessary.
Following the usual custom of sentinels, he shouldered his gun and paced back and forth before the smoldering camp-fire, glancing in every direction, so as to make sure that no enemy stole upon him unawares.
It formed a curious picture—the small fire burning in the valley—motionless forms stretched out before it, the huge steam man silent and grim standing near, the dwarfed boy, pacing slowly back and forth, and, above all, the moon shining down upon the silent prairie.
The moon was quite faint, so that only an indistinct view of objects could be seen. Occasionally Johnny clambered up the bank and took a survey of the surrounding plains; bat seeing nothing at all suspicious, he soon grew weary of this, and confined his walks to the immediate vicinity of the camp-fire, passing back and forth between the narrow breadth of the valley.
As the hours dragged slowly by, the boy gradually fell into a reverie, which made him almost unconscious of external things. And it was while walking thus that he did not observe a large wolf advance to the edge of the gully, look down, and then whisk back out of sight before the sentinel wheeled in his walk and faced him.
Three separate times was this repeated, the wolf looking down in such an earnest, searching way that it certainly would have excited the remark and curiosity of any one observing it.
The third glance apparently satisfied the wolf; for it lasted for a few seconds, when he withdrew, and lumbered away at an awkward rate, until a rod or two had been passed, when the supposed wolf suddenly rose on its hind legs, the skin and head were shifted to the arms of the Indian, and he continued on at a leisurely gait until be joined fully fifty comrades, who were huddled together in a grove, several hundred yards away.
In the meantime young Brainerd, with his rifle slung over his shoulder, was pacing back and forth in the same deliberate manner, his mind busily engaged on an 'improvement' upon the steam man, by which he was to walk backward as well as forward, although he couldn't satisfactorily determine how he was to go up and down hill with safety.
Still occupied in the study of the subject, he took a seat by the half-extinguished camp-fire and gazed dreamily into the embers. It had been a habit with him, when at home, to sit thus for hours, on the long winter evenings, while his mind was so busily at work that he was totally oblivious to whatever was passing around him.
It must have been that the boy seated himself without any thought of the inevitable result of doing so; for none knew better than he that such a thing was fatal to the faithful performance of a sentinel's duty: and the thought that his three companions, in one sense, had put their safety in his hands, would have prevented anything like a forgetfulness of duty.
Be that as it may, the boy had sat thus less than half an hour when a drowsiness began stealing over him. Once he raised his head and fancied he saw a large wolf glaring down upon him from the bank above, but the head was withdrawn so quickly that he was sure it was only a phantom of his brain.
So he did not rise from his seat, but sitting still he gradually sunk lower, until in a short time he was sleeping as soundly as either of the three around him.
Another hour wore away, and the fire smoldered lower and all was still.
Then numerous heads peered over the edge of the ravine for a few seconds, and as suddenly withdrew.
A few minutes later a curious sight might have been seen—a sight somewhat resembling that of a parcel of school-boys making their gigantic snow-balls. The fifty Indians, the greater portion of whom had patiently waited in the adjoining grove, while their horses were securely fastened near, issued like a swarm of locusts and began rolling huge bowlders toward the valley. Some of them were so large that half a dozen only succeeded in moving them with the greatest difficulty.
But they persevered, working with a strange persistency and silence, that gave them the appearance of so many phantoms engaged at their ghostly labor. Not a word was exchanged, even in the most guarded of tones, for each understood his part.
In time half a dozen of these immense stones reached the edge of the ravine. They were ranged side by side, a few feet apart, so as not to be in each other's way, and the Indians stood near, waiting until their work should be completed.
Some signal was then made, and then one of these bowlders rolled down in the ravine. Even this scarcely made any perceptible noise, the yielding ground receiving it like a cushion, as it came to a halt near the center of the valley.
When this was done a second followed suit, being so guided that it did not grate against its companion, but came to rest very near it.
Then another followed, and then another and another, in the same stealthy manner, until over a dozen were in the valley below.
This completed, the phantom-like figures descended like so many shadows, and began tugging again at the bowlders.
Not a word was exchanged, for each knew what was required of him. Fully an hour more was occupied, by which time the labor was finished.
The bowlders were arranged in the form of an impassable wall across the narrow valley, and the steam man was so thoroughly imprisoned that no human aid could ever extricate him.