The Huge Hunter/Chapter XVIII
THE STORM proved the severest which the steam man had encountered since leaving St. Louis, and it put an effectual veto on his travels during its continuance, and for a short time afterward.
The prairie was found so soft and slippery that they were compelled to lie by until the sun had hardened it somewhat, when they once more resumed their journey.
As they now had thousands of dollars in their possession, and as all sorts of characters were found on the western plains, it may be said that none of the company ever felt easy.
Baldy Bicknell, the trapper, from his extensive experience and knowledge of the West, was the guide and authority on all matters regarding their travels. He generally kept watch during the night, obtaining what sleep he could through the day. The latter, however, was generally very precarious, as at sight of every horseman or cloud of smoke, they generally awakened him, so as to be sure and commit no serious error.
As the steam man would in all probability attract an attention that might prove exceedingly perilous to the gold in their possession, the trapper concluded it prudent to avoid the regular emigrant routes. Accordingly they turned well to the northward, it being their purpose to strike the Missouri, where they would be pretty sure of intercepting some steamer. Reaching such a place they would unjoint and take apart the steam man, packing it up in such a manner that no one could suspect its identity, and embark for St. Louis.
While this relieved them of the danger from their own race, it increased the probability of an attack upon the Indians, who scarcely ever seemed out of sight.
Their watchfulness, however, was constant, and it was due to this fact, more than any other, that they escaped attack at night for the greater part of their return journey.
Their position in the wagon was so cramped, that the party frequently became excessively wearied, and springing out, trotted and walked for miles alongside the tireless steam giant. Water was abundant, but several times they were put to great inconvenience to obtain wood. On three occasions they were compelled to halt for half a day in order to obtain the necessary supply.
Once the steam man came to a dead standstill in the open prairie, and narrowly escaped blowing up. A hasty examination upon the part of the inventor, revealed the fact that a leak had occurred in the tank, and every drop had run out..
This necessitated the greatest work of all, as water was carried the better part of a mile, and nearly an entire day consumed before enough steam could be raised to induce him to travel to the river, to procure it himself, while the miners acted as convoys.
Late one afternoon, they reached a singular formation in the prairie. It was so rough and uneven that they proceeded with great difficulty and at a slow rate of speed. While advancing in this manner, they found they had unconsciously entered a small narrow valley, the bottom of which was as level as a ground floor. The sides contracted until less than a hundred feet separated them, while they rose to the height of some eight or ten feet, and the bottom remained compact and firm, making it such easy traveling for the steam man, that the company followed down the valley, at a slow pace, each, however, feeling some misgiving as to the propriety of the course.
'It runs in the right direction,' said young Brainerd, 'and if it only keeps on as it began, it will prove a very handy thing for us.'
'Hyar's as afeared it ain't goin' to keep on in that style,' remarked Baldy; 'howsumever, you can go ahead awhile longer.'
'Naow, that's what I call real queer,' remarked Ethan Hopkins, who was stretching his legs by walking alongside the steamer.
'And it's meself that thinks the same,' added Mickey, puffing away at his short black pipe. 'I don't understand it, as me father obsarved when they found fault with him for breaking another man's head.'
'Ef we git into trouble, all we've got ta do is to back out,' remarked Baldy, as a sort of apology for continuing his advance.
'This fellow doesn't know how to go backward,' said Johnny, 'but if it prove necessary, we can manage to turn him round.'
'All right—go ahead.'
At the same moment, the limber Yankee sprung into the wagon, and the steam man started ahead at a speed which was as fast as was prudent.
However, this delightful means of progress was brought to an unexpected standstill, by the sudden and abrupt termination of the valley. It ended completely as though it were an uncompleted canal, the valley rising so quickly to the level of the prairie, that there was no advancing any further, nor turning, nor in fact was there any possible way of extricating themselves from the difficulty, except by working the steam man around, and withdrawing by the same path that they had entered by.
'Well, here we are' remarked the boy, as they came to a standstill, 'and what is to be done?'
'Get out of it,' was the reply of Hopkins, who advanced several yards further, until he came up on the prairie again, so as to make sure of the exact contour of the ground.
'Did yer ever try to make the thing go up hill?' asked the trapper.
Young Brainerd shook his head.
'Impossible! he would fall over on us, the minute it was attempted. When I was at work at first making him, what do you think was the hardest thing for me to do?'
'Make him go, I s'pose.'
'That was difficult, but it was harder work to balance him—that is, so when he lifted up one foot he wouldn't immediately fall over on the same side. I got it fixed after a while, so that he ran as evenly and firmly as an engine, but I didn't fix upon any plan by which he could ascend or descend a hill.'
'Can't you make him do it?'
'Not until he is made over again. I would be afraid to attempt to walk him up a moderate inclination, and know it would be sure destruction to start him up such a steep bank at that.'
'Then we must work him round, I s'pose.'
'There is nothing else that can be done.'
'Let's at it, then.'
This proved as difficult a job as they imagined. The steam man was so heavy that it was impossible to lift him, but he was shied around as much as possible; and, by the time he had walked across the valley he had half turned round.
He was then coaxed and worked back a short distance, when, with the 'leverage' thus gained, the feat was completed, and the steam man stood with his face turned, ready to speed backward the moment that the word might be given.
By this time, however, the day was gone, and darkness was settling over the prairie. Quite a brisk breeze was blowing, and, as the position of the party was sheltered against this annoyance, Hopkins proposed that they should remain where they were until morning.
'We couldn't get a better place,' said Johnny Brainerd, who was quite taken with the idea.
'It's a good place and it's a bad one,' replied the trapper, who had not yet made up his mind upon the point.
They inquired what be meant by calling it a bad place.
'Ef a lot of the varmints should find we're hyar, don't you see what a purty fix they'd have us in?'
'It would be something like the same box in which we caught them in Wolf Ravine,' said young Brainerd.
'Jist the same, perzactly.'
'Not the same, either,' said Hopkins; 'we've got a better chance of getting out than they had. We can jump into the wagon and travel, while they can't; there's the difference.'
'S'pose they git down thar ahead of us—how ar' we goin' to git away from them then?
'Run over them.'
'Don't know whether the younker has fixed he engine so it'll run over' the skunks, ef it doesn't run up hill.'
'It can be made to do that, I think,' laughed young Brainerd.
'Afore we stay hyar, I'll take a look round to make sure that thar's some show for us.'
The trapper ascended the bank, and, while his companions were occupied in their preparations for encamping, he examined the whole horizon and intervening space, so far as the human eye was capable of doing it. Finding nothing suspicious, he announced to his companions that they would remain where they were until morning.