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The trees began fully half a mile above the point where Zeke had made his way up with the horses, and, running now at the top of their speed, they were among them before the Indians issued from the gorge.
The fugitives went on at a slower pace among the trees, until they heard a war-whoop, and knew that the leading Indians had passed out.
"Now throw yourselves down," Dave said, "and just lie as still as mice--the slightest noise would tell them we had taken to the wood. We want them to go straight on for a bit."
In four or five minutes they heard the tramping of horses, and a party of Indians rode down the valley.
"There are over fifty of them," Dave whispered. "I expect the other two bands must have come up together. Now let us get up as high as we can. As long as they are galloping they won't hear any little noise we may make, but mind how you go, lads. Don't step on a twig, don't brush against any dead wood that might crack, and mind you don't set a stone rolling."
They climbed for ten minutes, and then came to a spot where they had a view through the trees down the valley.
"There they are in a heap about a mile down," Joe said, and the boys in the moonlight could see a dark mass gathered in the middle.
"They are having a talk over it," Dave said; "they know if we held on down the valley they would have overtaken us by this time, and they know we have taken to the wood one side or the other. I recken they won't think it any use searching for us to-night, but maybe they will go straight on for a bit. They won't know how long a start the horses may have had, and will think we may have had them in the gorge, and have mounted and ridden down. Yes; there they go. Now we can move on again without fear of being heard."
Half an hour later they joined Zeke, who was with the horses a hundred yards over the crest of the hill in a line with the two trees.
"No one hurt?" he asked, as they approached.
"Nary a scratch, Zeke. We have wiped out eight of them. The rest have just gone tearing down the valley."
"Well, we had best be moving so as to get as far as we can before we lose the moon."
"That won't be till within an hour of daylight," Zeke said. "Now, which way shall we go?"
"I think we had better keep along the hillside, Zeke. We can travel fast here, and can get so far that when they find the trail in the morning, and follow us, we shall be too far away for them to overtake us before nightfall."
So day after day they traveled, sometimes in deep ravines, sometimes high up among the hills, sometimes coming upon a stream and taking in a supply of water, and sometimes well-nigh mad with thirst. They had cut up two of the empty water-skins and had made rough shoes for their horses, and believed that they had entirely thrown their pursuers off the trail, winding along on what was little more than a goat's track up the steep face of a valley, the opposite side of which was a perpendicular cliff. They had nearly gained the top when the crack of a rifle was heard from the opposite cliff, which was not more than two hundred yards away, although the depth of the gorge was fully a thousand feet. Looking across they saw that nearly opposite to them stood an Indian village, and that a number of redskins were running toward the edge.
"Hurry up, hurry up!" Dave shouted. "It is too far for them to shoot straight, but a stray bullet might hit us. Push on, lads, with the ponies. We will give them a shot or two. Our rifles will carry that distance easy enough."
The lads pushed on while the three miners opened fire. There was but another fifty yards to climb. They could hear the sharp ping of the bullets round them. One of the ponies gave a sudden start, stumbled forward, and then rolled over the edge. In another minute the rest gained the plateau.
"Oh, Dick, it is one of the treasure ponies," Tom exclaimed.
"That is a bad job, Tom; which is it?"
"Better him than the others. It was one of his bags that we took the gold out of to make us up twenty pounds each, so there aint above seventy pounds lost. Come on, let us get beyond range. We don't want to lose any more." When they got two or three hundred yards further the three men ran up.
"One pony has gone, I see," Dave said.
"Yes; it is the gray. He had only seventy pounds, you know, so if one was to go it were best it should be him."
"Well, let us mount and be off, lads; like enough those Indians will have to ride forty or fifty miles to get round this canyon, and come here, but, anyhow, we may as well push on. It is lucky the horses have done well the last day or two, and that we have got our water-skins full."
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