The Huge Hunter/Chapter XV
IN THE mean time, the situation of our friends in Wolf Ravine was becoming perilous to the last degree.
Before going to work, on the morning of the steam man's excursion to the mountains, Baldy Bicknell made a reconnoissance of the ravine, to assure himself that there was no danger of being suddenly overwhelmed, while delving for the precious yellow sand.
He saw abundant signs of Indians having recently visited the place, but be concluded there were none in the immediate vicinity, and that comparatively little risk was run in the boy making his wished-for visit to the mountains in the west.
Through the center of the ravine ran a small cream of water, hardly of enough volume to be used for washing gold without a dam being treated. It looked as if this had once been the head of a large stream, and that the golden sand had been drifted to this spot, by the force of the powerful current.
The auriferous particles were scattered over the entire breadth of the ravine, for the distance of several hundred felt, being found in the richest deposits between the ledges and rocks, in the bottom of the channel, where, as may well be supposed, it was no easy matter to obtain.
A short distance back of the 'diggings,' where the vast masses of rocks assumed curiously grotesque forms, the miners discovered a rude cave, where they at once established their headquarters. A tiny stream ran through the bottom of it, and with a little placing of the close bowlders, they speedily put it in the best condition of defense.
It was almost entirely surrounded by trees, there was one spot where a thin man, like Hopkins or Baldy, could draw his body through and climb a luxuriant cottonwood, whose top have a wide view of the surrounding plain.
The day passed away without any signs of Indians, Baldy occasionally ascending the side of the ravine, and scanning the plains in every direction, on the constant lookout for the insidious approach of their enemies.
Just before nightfall, while all three were at work, a rifle was discharged, and the bullet was imbedded in the tough oaken handle of the spade with which the trapper was digging.
'Whar in thunder did that come from?' be demanded, dropping the implement, catching up the rifle, and glaring savagely about him.
But neither of the others could answer him, and climbing up the bank, he looked fiercely around for some evidence of the whereabouts of his treacherous foe.
The latter remained invisible, but several hundred yards down the ravine, he caught a glimpse of enough Indians dodging hither and thither to satisfy him that there was quite a formidable force in the valley.
Giving the alarm to his companions, all three withdrew within the cave, not the less willingly, as it was very near their usual quitting time.
'Begorrah! and what'll becoom of the shtame man and the boy?' inquired Mickey, as he hastily obeyed orders.
'Jerusalem!' exclaimed the Yankee, in great trepidation, 'if he isn't warned, they'll catch him sure, and then what'll become of us? We'll have to walk all the way hum.'
As the best means of communicating with him, the trapper climbed through the narrow opening, and to the top of the tree, where he ensconced himself, just as the steam man uttered its interrogative whistle.
The trapper, as we have shown in another place, replied by pantomime, not wishing to discover his whereabouts to the enemy, as he had a dim idea that this means of egress might possibly prove of some use to him, in the danger that was closing around them.
When Johnny Brainerd recognized his signal, and beat a retreat, Baldy began a cautious descent to his cave again. At this time it was already growing dark, and he had to feel his way down again.
And so it came about, that not until he had reached the lowest limb, did his trained ear detest a slight rustling on the ground beneath. Supposing it to be either Mickey or Ethan, he continued his descent, merely glancing below. But at that moment something suspicious caught his eye, and peering down more carefully, he discovered a crouching Indian, waiting with drawn knife until he should come within his reach.
The trapper was no coward, and had been in many a hand to-hand tussle before; but there was something in the character of the danger which would have made it more pleasant for him to hesitate awhile until he could learn its precise dimensions; but time was too precious, and the next moment, he had dropped directly by the side of the redskin.
The latter intended to make the attack, but without waiting for him, Baldy sprung like a panther upon him and bore him to the earth. There was a silent but terrific struggle for a few moments, but the prodigious activity and rower of the trapper prevailed, and when he withdrew from the grasp of the Indian, the latter was as dead as a door nail.
The struggle had been so short that neither Mickey nor Ethan knew anything of it, until Baldy dropped down among them, and announced what had taken place.
'Jerusalem! have they come as close as that?' asked the Yankee in considerable terror.
'Skulp me, if they ain't all around us!' was the reply of the hunter. 'How we ar' to git out o' hyar, ar' a hard thing to tell j'ist now.'
'It's meself that thinks the rid gentlemin have a love fur us, as me mither obsarved, when she cracked the head of me father,' remarked Mickey, who had seated himself upon the ground with all the indifference of an unconcerned spectator.
It was so dark in their cave-like home that they could not see each other's faces, and could only catch a sort of twilight glimpse of their forms when they passed close to each other.
It would have made their quarters more pleasant had they struck a light, but it was too dangerous a proceeding, and no one thought of it. They could only keep on the alert, and watch for the movement of their enemies.
The latter, beyond all doubt, were in the immediate vicinity, and inspired as they were by hate of the most vindictive kind, would not allow an opportunity to pass of doing all the harm in their power.
The remains of their food was silently eaten in the darkness, when Baldy said:
'Do yer stay hyar whar ye be till I come back'
'Where might ye be going naow?' inquired Hopkins.
'I'm goin' outside to see what the reds are doin', and to see whether thar's a chance fur 'em to gobble us up hull.'
'Do yees mind and take care of y'urself, as me mither cautioned me when I went a shparkin',' said Mickey, who naturally felt some apprehension, when he saw the trapper on the point of leaving them at such a dangerous time.
'Yes, Baldy, remember that my fate is wrapped up in yours,' added the Yankee, whose sympathies were probably excited to a still greater extent.
'Never mind about Baldy; he has been in such business too often not to know how to take care of himself.'
'How long do you expect to begone? inquired Ethan.
'Mebbe all night, if thar ain't much danger. Ef I find the varments ar' too thick I'll stay by yer, and if they ain't I'll leave fur several hours. Leastways, whatever I do, you'll be sure to look out for the skunks.'
With this parting admonition, the trapper withdrew.
In going out, he made his exit by the same entrance by which all had come in. He proceeded with great caution, for none knew better than he the danger of a single misstep. He succeeded, after considerable time, in reaching a portion of the valley so shrouded in gloom that he was able to advance without fear of discovery.
He thoroughly reconnoitered every part of the ravine in the immediate vicinity of the cave, but could discover nothing of the Indians, and he concluded that they were some distance away.
Having assured himself of this, the trapper cautiously ascended the side of the ravine, until he reached the open prairie, when he lost no time in leaving the dangerous place behind him.
He had no intention, however, of deserting his friends, but had simply gone in quest of the steam man. He comprehended the difficulty under which they all labored, so long as they were annoyed in this manner by the constant attacks of the savages, and he had an idea that the invention of the dwarfed Johnny Brainerd could be turned to a good account in driving the miscreants away so thoroughly that they would remain away for a long enough time for them to accomplish something in the way of gathering the wealth lying all about them.
He recalled the direction which he had seen the puffing giant take, and he bent his steps accordingly, with only a faint hope of meeting him without searching the entire night for him. Baldy was shrewd enough to reason that as the boy would wish some water for his engine, he would remain in the immediate vicinity of the river until at least that want could be supplied.
Acting on this supposition, he made his way to the river bank, and followed so closely to the water that its moonlit surface was constantly visible to him.
The night was still, and, as he moved silently along, he often paused and listened, hoping to hear the familiar rattle of the wheels, as the youngster sped over the prairie.
Without either party knowing it, he passed within a few yards of Duff McIntosh, the huge trapper, whom he had known so intimately years before.
But had he been aware of the fact, he would only have turned further aside, to avoid him; for, when the two trappers, several years previous, separated, they had been engaged in a deadly quarrel, which came near resulting fatally to both.
At length the faint rattle of the wheels caught his ear, and he bent his steps toward the point where he judged the steam man to be.