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The hut was quiet at an unusually early hour, for the men had done a very hard day's work, and felt the strain after the long weeks of inactivity. At daybreak they were up and about, but could remain out but a few minutes, for the cold was so intense that they felt unable to face it until they had taken some hot tea and eaten something. Half an hour sufficed for this early breakfast. Hunting Dog was again left behind by the chief when he started.
"Two eyes enough," the latter said. "Hunting Dog more use here."
The wall of blocks was raised three more feet during the day, as it was agreed to devote all their efforts to this, and to defer the work of thickening it until the next day, for the snow had now been cleared so far from its foot that it could no longer be thrown inside. Though but six feet above the snow level, it was at least three feet more above the level of the rock, and its face was a solid sheet of ice, Tom having, during the two days, made innumerable journeys backwards and forwards with snow-water.
"Another couple of feet and it will be high enough for anything," Harry said. "I don't believe that the Indians will venture to attack us, but it is just as well to have it so high that they can't help each other up to the top. If they knew how strong it is, I am sure they would not attack, and would leave us alone altogether, but if a hundred of them creep up in the dark and make a rush, they will do their best to try to climb it. Anyhow we sha'n't need to make the bank behind very high. If it goes to within four feet and a half of the top, so that we can stand and fire over the wall, that is all that is wanted."
Leaping Horse returned at dusk as before. He uttered a warm approval of the work when he had examined it.
"Good fort," he said, "better than palisades. Indian no climb over it. No opening to fire through, good as wall of town house."
"I think they will be puzzled when they get here, chief."
"Must watch well to-night," the chief said. "Indian scout sure to come. Two men keep on watch; two better than one."
"That is so, chief; we will change every hour. But it will be mighty cold. I don't see why we shouldn't rig up a shelter against the wall, and have a bit of a fire there. Then the two on watch can take it by turns every few minutes to come in and get a warm."
With poles and skins a lean-to was speedily constructed against the wall. The snow was hammered down, and a hearth made of half a dozen logs packed closely together. Some brands were brought up from the fire in the hut, and the skins across the end of the lean-to dropped, so that the air within could get warm while they were at supper.
"Hunting Dog and Tom shall take the first watch," Harry said; "Sam and I will take the next, Jerry and Ben the third, then you, chief, can take the next."
"Leaping Horse watch by himself," the Seneca said; "his eyes will be open."
"Very well, chief. I know you are as good as any two of us, so that will give us each one hour out and three hours in bed."
Wrapping buffalo robes round them, Tom and the young Indian went up to the fort. Tom drew aside one of the skins and looked into the shelter. The hearth was in a glow, and two logs lying on it were burning well. The night was very still, except for the occasional rumble of some distant snow-slide. For a few minutes they stood looking over the wall, but keeping far back, so that only their heads were above its level.
"Tom go in by the fire," the Indian said. "All white, no need for four eyes."
"Very well, I will go in first; but mind, you have got to go in afterwards. I sha'n't go in if you don't."
After waiting for a few minutes in the shelter Tom went out again, and Hunting Dog took his place. It was his first war-path, and nothing would have persuaded him to retire from the watch had he not felt sure that even white men's eyes could not fail to detect any dark object moving on the surface of the snow. But although all white the surface was not level; here and there were sudden elevations marking rises in the rock beneath. Still it seemed impossible to Tom that anyone could approach unseen.
In spite of the protection of the buffalo robe it was intensely cold outside, and he was glad each time when his turn came for a warm by the fire. The changes, too, made the time pass quickly, and he was quite surprised when his uncle and Sam came out to relieve them. The other two men and the chief were still smoking by the fire. There was tea in the kettle, and they evidently did not mean to lie down until after their first watch. Every few minutes the chief got up and went out to the platform, and stood listening there intently for a short time. Just before it was time to change the guard again he said when he returned:
"Indian down in valley."
"Have you heard them, chief?"
"Leaping Horse heard a dead stick crack."
"That might have been a deer," Ben suggested.
The chief shook his head. "'Rappahoe; heard gun strike tree."
"Then I reckon they will be up in our watch," Ben said. "Well, we shall be ready for them."
"Perhaps come, perhaps not come; perhaps scout up valley first see if some of us there, and look for horses. Perhaps some come up path; but crawl up slow, not know whether look-out there."
"Well, I don't envy them if they have got much crawling to do to-night; it is cold enough to freeze one's breath."
"'Rappahoe not like cold," the chief said, "but wants scalp bad; that makes his blood warm."
"I will let some of it out," Jerry said wrathfully, "if I get a chance to lay a bead on one of them. Don't you be afeard, chief; we will look out sharp enough, you bet. Waal, I reckon it is about our time to turn out, Ben."
"Jerry tells me that you have heard noises below, chief," Harry said when he came in. "We heard nothing, but it ain't easy to hear well with these hoods over one's head."
"Hoods bad for hear," the chief assented. "Leaping Horse heard plain, Indians down below."
"Well, it is only what we expected, chief. Anyhow, we are ready for them when they come."
Tom lay down now, and knew nothing more till Hunting Dog touched him.
"Time to go and watch," he said.
"Has everything been quiet?"
The Indian nodded. "No come yet."
Leaping Horse remained at his post after they came out to relieve him. Tom made no comment. Harry had impressed upon him the necessity for absolute silence.
"If they hear voices they will never come near us," he had said, "and we would rather they came than stopped away. The sooner we get this job over the better."
The chief stood with his head slightly bent forward and the hood of his hunting-shirt thrown back, listening attentively. Then he touched Hunting Dog, and stooping low down whispered something in his ear, and then both stood again listening. Tom, too, threw back his hood, but he could hear nothing whatever, and was soon glad to pull it forward over his ears again. He strained his eyes in the direction towards which they were listening, which was apparently towards the edge of the ravine where the Indian trail came up from below. All seemed to him to be white and bare.
Presently the chief's rifle went up to his shoulder; there was a sharp crack, a dark figure leapt up from the snow fifty yards away and then fell headlong down again. It seemed to Tom almost magical. His eyes had been fixed in that direction for the last five minutes, and he could have sworn that the surface of the snow was unbroken. A minute later the other four men came running up.
"What is it, chief?" Harry whispered.
Leaping Horse pointed to the dark figure stretched out on the snow.
"So you have got the varmint. Good! Do you think there are any more of them about?"
"More there sure," the chief said, pointing to the path up from below. "Perhaps more there," and he pointed to a broad black line from the foot of the cliffs to the edge of the ravine, where, three days before, an avalanche from the hills above had swept the rock clear of snow.
"They must have made sure that we were all asleep, or that fellow would never have shown himself on the snow," Harry said.
"He did not show himself, uncle. How he got there I don't know; but I was looking at the spot when the chief fired, and I saw no signs of him whatever. How he hid himself I don't know. If it had been anywhere else I should have said he must have had a white sheet over him."
"It certainly was not that whatever it was, Tom. However, we shall see in the morning. Well, we may as well turn in again. Will they try again, do you think, chief?"
"Not try to-night, too cold; if any there, will hide up till daybreak. Now they know we are awake, will not venture on snow."
Half an hour later a great fire was lighted out of gunshot range lower down the valley, and three or four figures could be seen round it.
"Too cold," Hunting Dog said to Tom. "All gone down to get warm."
The watches were relieved regularly through the night, but there was no further alarm until just after daylight had broken, when Sam Hicks suddenly discharged his rifle. The others all turned out at once. He had fired at a bush just at the point where the trail came up from below, and he declared that he had seen a slight movement there, and that some pieces of the snow had dropped from the leaves.
"We will make sure that there is no one there," Harry said, "and then we will turn out and have a look. It is like enough that one of the red-skins from below came up the path to have a look at us this morning."
He took a steady aim and fired.
"Fetch up an axe, Tom; we will cut that bush away at once. It is lucky that Sam caught sight of the red-skin. If he had not done so he might have got a bullet in his own head, for when the red-skin had finished taking a view of the fort he would certainly have picked off Sam or myself before he went down. It is a weak point, that from here one can't command the path. If they come in force we shall have to keep watch on the platform too. From there you can get a sight of two or three of its turnings."
They went out together, and as they passed, stopped to look at the body of the Indian the chief had shot. He was a young brave of two-or three-and-twenty, and the manner of his advance so far unperceived was now evident. Favoured by a slight fall in the ground, he had crawled forward, scooping a trench wide enough for his body a foot in depth, pushing the snow always forward, so that it formed a sort of bank in front of him and screened him from the sight of those on watch. The chief's keen eye had perceived a slight movement of the snow, and after watching a moment had fired at the point where he judged anyone concealed by it must be. He had calculated accurately. The ball had struck on the shoulder close to the neck, and had passed down through the body. The Indian had brought no rifle with him, but had knife and tomahawk in his belt.
"Poor young fellow," Harry said. "He wanted to win a name for himself by a deed of desperate bravery. It has cost him his life, but as he would have taken ours if he had had a chance it is of no use regretting it."
They now went on to the bush.
"You were right, Sam," he went on, as they saw the impression on the snow made by a figure lying down behind it. "There was an Indian here sure enough, and here is the mark of the stock of his rifle, and no doubt he would have picked off one of us if you had not scared him. I don't expect you hit him; there are no signs of blood."
"Fire too high," the chief said, pointing to a twig that had been freshly cut off two feet from the ground. "Always shoot low at man behind bush. Man cannot float in air."
There was a general laugh at Sam, who replied: "I did not suppose he could, chief. I just fired where I saw the snow fall, without thinking about it one way or the other. I was an all-fired fool, but I shall know better next time."
The bush was cut down, and also two or three others that grew along by the edge of the ravine. On their way back to the hut Harry stopped by the dead Indian.
"Fetch me a shovel, Tom," he said, "I will dig a hole in the snow; it ain't a pleasant object to be looking at anyway."
Tom fetched the shovel, Harry dug down in the snow till he reached the rock, then he and Jerry laid the body in it and filled in the snow again. The chief looked on.
"Bears get him," he said when they had finished.
"That is like enough, chief, but we have done the best we can for him. There is no digging into the rock."
"I thought the Indians always scalped enemies they shot?" Tom afterwards said to his uncle.
"So they do, Tom; but you see the chief is a sort of civilized Indian. He has consorted for years with whites, and he knows that we don't like it. I don't say he wouldn't do it if he were on the war-path by himself, but with us he doesn't, at any rate not openly. I have no doubt it went against his grain to see the red-skin buried with his hair on, for the scalp would have been a creditable one, as it would not have been got without a clear eye and good judgment in shooting. I have no doubt he has got some scalps about him now, though he don't show them; but they will be hung up some day if he ever settles down in a wigwam of his own.
"Well, chief, and what do you think," he asked Leaping Horse, as, after returning to the hut, they sat down to breakfast, "will they come or won't they?"
"I think they no come," the chief said. "Scout behind bush will tell them fort too strong to take; must cross snow, and many fall before they get to it. Very hard to climb. No like cold, Leaping Horse thinks they will stop in wigwams."
"No fools either," Jerry agreed; "a man would be worse than a natural if he were to go fooling about in this weather, and run a pretty good big risk of getting shot and nothing much to gain by it. They know we have left their country now, and ain't likely to come back again either to hunt there or to dig gold, and that all we want is to get away as soon as we can. I allow that the chief is right, and that we sha'n't hear no more of them, anyhow not for some time."
The chief nodded. "If come again, not come now. Wait a moon, then think perhaps we sleep sound and try again; but more likely not try."
"Much more likely," Harry assented. "Unless they can do it by a surprise. Indians are not fond of attacking; they know we shoot straighter than they do and have better rifles. You remember that time when you and I and Jersey Dick kept off a party of Navahoes from sunrise till sunset down near the Emigrant trail? It was lucky for us that a post-rider who was passing along heard the firing, and took the news to a fort, and that the officer there brought out fifty troopers just as the sun went down, or we should have been rubbed out that night sure."
The Seneca nodded.
"How was it, Harry?" Sam Hicks asked.
"It was just the usual thing, Sam. We had left the trail two days before, and were hunting on our own account when the Navahoes came down. We had just time to throw the three horses and lie down behind them. They were within two hundred yards when I began and fetched the chief, who was leading them, out of his saddle. Leaping Horse brought down another one and Jersey Dick held his fire, and instead of keeping straight on they began to straggle round. And they kept at that all day. Sometimes they would get in pretty close, but each time they did the chief brought down a horse, and when his rider, who was of course hanging on the other side of him, got up to run, I fetched him down. Dick wasn't much of a shot, so we would not let him fire. It discourages red-skins mightily when they see that there is never a shot thrown away, and that it is sure death whenever one draws a trigger. So at last they got careful and held off, knowing as they would get us at night, when they could have crawled up on foot and made a rush when they got close to us.
"The worst of it was we hadn't struck water the evening before, and it was just one of the hottest days on the plains, and we were pretty nigh mad with thirst before evening. I believe when the soldiers rode up I was about as glad to get a drink from one of their bottles as I was that the Navahoes bolted when they saw them coming. No, the red-skins ain't any good for an open attack; they would have lost fewer men by riding straight at us than they did by fooling round, but they could not bring themselves to do it, and I reckon that is what it will be here. They may, as the chief says, try, say six weeks on, when the frost begins to break, in hopes that we may have given up keeping watch: but if they find us awake they will never try an open attack, for they could not reckon on taking the place without losing a score of men in doing so. If the snow was off the ground it would be different. Then of a dark night they could crawl up close and make a rush."
After breakfast the chief and Hunting Dog went out scouting. When they returned they brought news that three Indians had come over the snow along the side of the hills, that three others had come up the valley, and that in a wood half a mile below where they had seen the fire, there had been a large party encamped.
"I reckoned that would be about it, chief. Three fellows came along over the hill, in case we should be keeping guard at the top of the path, and they had a big force somewhere down below, so that if the scouts reported that there was nothing to prevent them falling on us they would come up before morning and wipe us out. I suppose they have all ridden off?"
"All gone. Leaping Horse and Hunting Dog followed right down valley. No stop anywhere, gone back to lodges."
"Then in that case, Harry, we had best get the critters down to their shed again. They have eaten all that stuff they brought up three days ago, I gave them the last of it this morning. The Indians know that we keep a pretty sharp look-out during the day and there ain't no fear of their coming up here when it is light."
As the chief was also of opinion that there was no danger, the horses were taken down the path into the valley, where on having their bridles unbuckled they at once trotted off of their own accord towards the beaver meadow.
For the next six weeks a watch was kept regularly, but by only one man at a time. The horses were driven down to the valley every morning and brought up again before sunset. There was little hunting now, for they had as many skins as they could carry comfortably, and a supply of frozen meat sufficient to last well into the spring. In March the weather became perceptibly warmer, and the snow in the valley began to melt where the full power of the sun at mid-day fell upon it. Day by day the crashes of distant avalanches became more frequent, and they began to look forward to the time when they should be able to proceed on their journey.
One night towards the end of the month Tom was on watch, when he heard a rustling sound far up beyond the wall of cliff in front of him. It grew louder and rose to a roar, and then a white mass came pouring down over the cliff. Leaping from the wall he dashed down the path to the hut. It needed no word to call the men to their feet, for a deep rumbling filled the air and the rock seemed to quiver. The horses struggled to break their head-ropes and snorted with fright.
"Your backs to the wall!" Harry shouted, and as all leapt across at his order there was a crash overhead. The roof above them fell in and a mass of snow followed; a, minute later a deep silence followed the deafening roar.
"Anyone hurt?" Harry shouted, and the replies came in muffled tones. Tom was jambed against the rock by the snow; he was nearest to the entrance, his uncle was next to him.
"I am all right at present, uncle, but I feel half smothered."
"All right, lad; I am pretty free, and I will soon clear you a bit."
The snow was pushed away from before Tom's face, his left arm was cleared, and then his uncle with a vigorous pull brought him back close to him. Here he was comparatively free, for a part of the roof had fallen close to the wall and had partially kept off the snow. Then Harry turned, and with some difficulty managed to get Jerry, who was next to him, freed from the snow.
"Now, Jerry, you work along that way and get at the others. Tom and I will try to burrow a way out."
It was a difficult task. Once through the passage in the log wall they pushed to the left towards the edge of the platform, taking it by turns to go first until the snow became lighter; then by a vigorous effort Harry rose to his feet, sending a mass of snow tumbling over the edge of the platform. As soon as Tom had joined him they set to work with hands and knives, and soon cleared a passage back to the entrance. Just as they did so Jerry crawled out from within.
"Are they all right, Jerry?"
"Yes, the others are coming; only about twelve feet of the roof caved in, and the two Indians and Sam soon got in among the horses. I had a lot of trouble with Ben; he had been knocked down, and I thought that he was gone when I got him out; but he is all right now, though he can't walk yet. The Indians and Sam have got the shovels, and are working away to clear a passage along by the wall; there is no getting Ben out through that rabbit-hole you have made."
"Thank God we are all right," Harry said; "it does not matter a bit, now that we know no one is badly hurt. We will begin at this end, but we sha'n't be able to do much until we get the shovels, the snow will fall in as fast as we get it out."
They soon found that they could do nothing in this way.
"We will try to tunnel again," Harry said, "it is not more than ten feet along. If we get in and hump ourselves, we shall soon get it big enough to drag Ben out, then the others can follow, and we can set to work with the spades to clear the place."
After a good deal of effort they succeeded in enlarging the hole, and then got Ben through it, one crawling backwards and pulling him while the other shoved at his legs.
"How do you feel, Ben?" Harry asked him when they laid him down outside.
"I dunno, Harry; I am afraid my back is badly hurt. I don't seem to feel my legs at all. I expect they are numbed from the weight of snow on them."
"I will crawl into our store and fetch out the keg."
"I reckon a drop of whisky will do me good if anything will," Ben said. "I was crushed pretty near flat, and if my head hadn't been against the wall I should have been smothered. Are you all right, young Tom?"
"Yes, I am not hurt at all. The snow squeezed me against the rock, and I could not move an inch, but uncle managed to get me a little free and then pulled me out of it."
Harry soon came back with the whisky, and was followed by the Indians and Sam, who found that they could do nothing with the snow, which fell in as fast as they cleared it. Their first step was to dig out a buffalo robe to wrap Ben in. His voice was stronger after he had drank some spirit, and he said that he felt better already. The others at once set to work with the shovels. They first cleared the platform along by the wall to the entrance, and then attacked the snow which filled the space between the two rock walls to the top.
Two of them worked with poles, loosening the snow above, and bringing it down in masses, while those with shovels cast it out on to the platform, going out occasionally to throw it over into the ravine. Hunting Dog made his way up over the snow to the top of the path, and called down to say that the fort was entirely swept away, and the chief told him to take up his post at once at the top of the path leading from below.
"He need not have told us that the fort was gone," Jerry grumbled. "If it had been made of cast-iron it would not have stood. The sooner we get our rifles out the better."
This could not be done for a time, for the loosening of the snow above had caused that below to slip, and the passage along by the wall had fallen in. The Indians, however, who had slept beyond the part filled by snow, had brought their pieces out with them, and could have defended the path alone. Several times those at work were buried by falls of snow, and had to be dragged out by the others. By daylight a considerable gap had been made in the snow, and they were able to get into the space beyond the fall. A number of logs, and a joint of meat that had been taken in the day before to thaw, were brought out, and a fire was soon blazing on the platform.
"I wonder why the snow did not shoot over as it did before?" Ben, who was now able to sit up, remarked.
"I reckon it is the fort did it," Harry said. "Of course it went, but it may have checked the rush of the snow for a moment, and those thick walls couldn't have got the same way on as the rest of the snow had."
"But the fort wasn't over the roof, uncle," Tom remarked.
"No, but it may have blocked the slide a little, and thrown some of it sideways; you see it is only this end that gave, while it shot right over the rest of the roof just as before."
"It is mighty lucky it did not break in all along," Sam Hicks said, "for it would have left us without horses if it had; and it would have been mighty rough on us to have lost them, just as we are going to want them, after our taking such pains with them all through the winter."
The chief took Hunting Dog's place as soon as he had finished his meal, and remained on watch all day. The men worked without ceasing, but it was not until sunset that the snow was completely cleared away.
"I reckon that we shall have to be starting before long," Jerry said as they sat round the fire in what they before called their store-room, having driven the horses as far in as possible to make room. "We could have held out before as long as we liked, but it is different now. The rock's cleared now for a hundred yards on each side of us, our fort's gone, and there is nothing to prevent the redskins from crawling close up the first dark night and making a rush. They are like enough to be sending scouts up the valley occasionally, and it won't be long before they hear that our fort has gone and the ground cleared of snow."
Leaping Horse nodded. "Two men must watch at top of path," he said.
"That is right enough, chief; but we know three of them came along the hills before, and it is like enough they will all come that way next time. They are safe to reckon that we shall hold the path."
"It is very unfortunate," Harry said; "in another month, we should have been able to travel. Anyhow, it seems to me that we have got to try now; it would never do to be caught in here by the red-skins. If we are to go, the sooner the better. All our meat has been carried over the edge. This is about the time we expected the Indians back, and it would be dangerous to scatter hunting. It is a big risk, too, taking the horses down to the meadow. No, I think we can manage to get over the pass. The snow gets softer every day when the sun is on it; but it freezes at night. We have the moon, too, so we shall be able to travel then; and even if we take three or four days getting over the divide we can sleep in the daytime."
"We must get a little more meat anyhow before we start," Jerry said. "This joint ain't more than enough for another square meal for us, and though I reckon the bighorns will be coming up to the hills again now, it won't do to risk that."
"We have the pack-horses, Jerry."
"Yes, I did not think of them. Horseflesh ain't so bad on a pinch; but I don't want to lose our skins."
"Better our skins than our hair," Sam laughed.
"That is right enough, Sam, but I would like to save both."
"Perhaps there is some of the meat under the snow," Tom suggested. "It hung near the wall, and the snow must have come straight down on it from above, as it did in here."
"That is so, Tom; we will have a look the first thing in the morning. I am so tired now I would not dig for it if it were gold."
As soon as it was light the next morning they began to clear the snow from the rest of the platform, and found to their great satisfaction four bear hams. The rest of the meat had been swept over the edge. The two Indians had not shared in the work, having started away early without saying where they were going. They returned to breakfast, each carrying a hind-quarter of venison, which they had found in the snow below.
It was agreed that a start should be made that evening. By sunset the horses were loaded, and half an hour later they moved away. Ben Gulston had to be assisted on to his horse, for although in other respects recovered, it was found that he had so severely strained his back across the loins that he was scarcely able to walk a foot. The moon was shining brightly, and as soon as they were on the snow they could see as plainly as if it were day. All were in high spirits that they had left the spot where for six months they had been prisoners. They had difficulty in restraining themselves from shouting and singing, but the chief before starting had warned them of the necessity for travelling silently. "Snow-slides very bad now; shouting might set them going."
The others looked rather incredulous, but Harry said:
"I know he is right, boys; for I have heard that in the Alps the guides always forbid talking when they are crossing places exposed to avalanches. At any rate we may as well give the snow as little chance as may be of going for us."
They travelled in Indian file from habit rather than necessity, for the snow was firm and hard, and the horses made their way over it without difficulty. There had been some debate as to the way they should go; but they determined at last to take the valley through the cliff wall, and to strike to the right whenever they came upon a likely spot for crossing. Two such attempts were made in vain, the upper slopes of snow being found too steep for the horses to climb; but at the third, which was made just after morning broke, they succeeded in getting up the hill to their right, and, after great difficulty, descended into another valley. This they had little doubt was the one that led to the pass, for from the hill they could see the great peak along whose foot the trail ran.
It was ten o'clock before they got down into the valley. The snow was beginning to be soft on the surface, and the horses were tired out. They therefore halted, made a fire with two or three of the logs they had brought with them for the purpose, boiled water and had breakfast, and gave half a bucket of gruel to each of the animals. Then wrapping themselves in their buffalo robes they lay down and slept till late in the afternoon. The journey was resumed at sunset, and before morning they had crossed the divide; and when the sun rose obtained a view over the country far to the south.
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