When he awoke a sun of great brilliancy was shining, and over him arched the high skies of the great west. The air was thin and cool, easy to breathe and uplifting, and in the bracing morning he did not feel the loneliness and immensity of the wilderness. Boyd had already built a little fire among the bushes, and was warming some strips of dried beef over the flames.
"Here's your breakfast, Will," he said. "Beef, a few crackers, and water. Coffee would taste mighty good, but we can't afford to be taking it every morning, or we'd soon use up all we have. This is one of the mornings we skip it."
"I can stand it if you can," said Will cheerfully, "and it seems to me we ought to be saving our other stores, too. You'll have to kill a deer or a buffalo soon, Jim."
"Not until we leave the valley. Now fall on, and when we finish the beef we'll take another look at that map of yours."
They ate quickly and when they were done Will produced from an inside pocket of his waistcoat, where he always carried it, the map which was his most precious possession. It was on parchment, with all the lines very distinct, and the two bent over it and studied it, as they had done so often before.
It showed the Mississippi, flowing almost due south from Minnesota, and the Missouri, which was in reality the upper Mississippi, thrusting its mighty arm far out into the unknown wilderness of the Northwest. It showed its formation by the meeting of the Jefferson, the Madison and the Gallatin, but these three rivers themselves were indicated by vague and faint traces. Extensive dark spaces meant high mountains.
"My father served in the northwest before the great Civil War," said Will, telling it for the fiftieth time, "and he was a man of inquiring mind. If he was in a country he always wished to know all about it that was to be known, particularly if it happened to be a wild region. He had the mind of a geographer and explorer, and the vast plains and huge mountains up here fascinated him. If there was a chance to make a great journey to treat with the Indians or to fight them he always took it."
"And he'd been in California in '49," said Boyd, saying, like Will, what he had said fifty times before. "It was there I first met him, and a fine, upstanding young officer he was."
The lad sighed, and for a moment or two his sorrow was so deep that it gave him an actual thrill of physical pain.
"That's so, Jim. I've often heard him speak of the first time he saw you," he resumed. "He was tempted to resign and hunt gold in California with the crowd, and he did have some experience in the mines and workings there, but he concluded, at last, to remain in the army, and was finally sent into the Northwest with his command to deal with the Indians."
"And it was on the longest of his journeys into the mountains that he found it!"
"Yes. He noticed in a wild place among the ridges that the earth and rock formations were like those of California where the richest gold finds were made. He was alone at the time, though the rest of his command was only a few miles away, but he picked among the rocks and saw enough to prove that it was a mother lode, a great gold seam that would make many men millionaires. It was his intention to resign from the army, get permission from the Sioux to come in, organize a company, and work what he meant to be the Clarke mine. But you know what happened, Jim."
"Aye, Will, I do. By the time he got back to civilization the Civil War broke like a storm, and he went east to fight for his country."
"He could do no less, and he never thought of doing anything else. Bearing in mind the risks of war, he drew this map which he carried on his person and which when he was dying he sent by you to me."
"Aye, Will, he died in my arms at the Wilderness before the Bloody Angle. It was a glorious death. He was one of the bravest men I ever saw. He gave me the map, told me to be sure to reach you when the war was over, and then help you to find the great mine."
Water came again into Will's eyes. Though the wounds of youth heal fast, the hurt made by the death of his heroic father had not yet healed. The hunter respected his emotion and was silent while he waited.
"If we find the great mother lode and take out the treasure, part of it is to be yours, of course," said the boy.
"You can pay me for my work and let it go at that. Your father found the lode and the map telling the way to it, drawn by him, is yours now."
"But we are partners. I could never get through these mountains and past the Indian tribes without you. We're partners and there'll be plenty for all, if we ever get it. Say right now, Jim, that you share and share alike with me, or I won't be easy in my mind."
"Well, then, if you will have it that way. I suppose from all your brave father, the Captain, said, there's so much of it we needn't trouble ourselves about the shares if we ever get there. It would be better if we had another trusty friend or two."
"Maybe we'll pick 'em up before we're through with this job, which is going to last a long time. I think we're still on the right trail, Jim. This line leads straight west by north from the Mississippi river far into western Montana, where it strikes a narrow but deep mountain stream, which it crosses. Then it goes over a ridge, leads by a lake which must be several miles long, goes over another ridge, crosses another stream, and then winding many ways, as if penetrating a maze, comes to a creek, with high mountains rising on either side of it. But the mine is there, Jim, and we've got to follow all these lines, if we ever reach it."
"We'll follow 'em, Will, don't you worry about that. Gold draws men anywhere. Through blizzards, over mountains, across deserts, right into the face of the warlike Indian tribes, and the danger of death can't break the spell. Haven't I seen 'em going to California, men, women and children pressing on in the face of every peril that any army ever faced, and it's not likely, Will, that you and me will turn back, when women and children wouldn't."
"No, Jim, we couldn't do that. We're in this hunt to stay, and I for one have the best of reasons for risking everything to carry it to a successful end."
"And I'm with you because the Northwest is my natural stamping ground, because I wouldn't mind being rich either, and because I like you, Will. You're a good and brave boy, and if you can have the advantage of my teaching and training for about fifty years you'll make a first rate man."
"Thanks for the endorsement," laughed Will, "and so we stick together 'till everything is over."
The boy continued to look at the map.
"We've got a long journey over plains," he said, "but it seems to me that when we pass 'em we'll enter mountains without ending. All the west side of the map is covered with the black outlines that mean ridges and peaks."
"It's right, too. I've been in that region. There are mountains, mountains everywhere, and then more mountains, not the puny mountains they have east of the Missip, a mile, or at best, a mile and a half high, but crests shooting up so far that they hit right against the stars, and dozens and dozens of 'em, with snow fields and glaciers, and ice cold lakes here and there in the valleys. It's a grand country, a wonderful country, Will, and there's no end to it. The old fur hunters knew about it, but they've always kept it as secret as they could, because they didn't want other people to learn about the beaver in there."
"But we're going to visit it," exclaimed young Clarke with enthusiasm, "and we're going to find something the fur hunters have never found. I feel, Jim, that we're going to stand where my father stood and get out the gold."
"I've feelings of that kind, too, but we've got to prop up feeling with a power of work and patience and danger, and it's likely too, Will, that it will be a long time before we reach the end of the line on that map."
Young Clarke folded up the parchment again and put it back in the inside pocket of his waistcoat, the hunter watching him and remarking:
"Be sure it's in your pocket tight and fast, Will. We couldn't afford to lose it. Maybe it would be a good idea to make a copy of it."
"I could draw every line on it from memory."
"That being the case we don't exactly need a duplicate, and, as you're a young fellow, Will, and ought to work, you can take the horses down to the brook and let 'em drink."
The lad was willing enough to do the task and the horses drank eagerly and long of the pure stream that had its source in melting snows. All four had been selected for size, power and endurance, and they were in splendid condition, the rich and abundant grass of the valley restoring promptly the waste of travel.
Boyd's great horse, Selim, rubbed his nose in the most friendly manner against Will's arm, and the lad returned his advances by stroking it.
"I've heard the truth about you," he said. "You can do everything but talk, and you'll be a most valuable ally of ours on this expedition."
The horse whinnied gently as if he understood and Will, leading the four back to the rich grass, tethered them at the ends of their long lariats.
"Now, suppose you get out your big glasses," said the hunter, "and we'll go to the top of the hill for a look. The day is well advanced, the sky is brilliant and in the thin, clear atmosphere of the great plateau we'll be able to see a tremendous distance."
Will was proud of his glasses, an unusually fine and powerful pair, and from the loftiest crest they obtained a splendid view over the rolling plain. The hunter at his request took the first look. Will watched him as he slowly moved the glasses from side to side, until they finally rested on a point at the right edge of the plain.
"Your gaze is fixed at last," the boy said. "What do you see?"
"I wasn't sure at first, but I've made 'em out now."
"Something living then?"
"Buffaloes. They're miles and miles away, but they've been lying down and rolling and scratching themselves until they make the wallows you see all over the plains. It's not a big band, two or three hundred, perhaps. Well, they don't mean anything to us, except a possible supply of provisions later on. No wonder the Indians hate to see the buffaloes driven back, because the big beasts are breakfast, dinner and supper on the hoof to them."
"And maybe to us, too, Jim. I've an idea that we'll live a lot on the buffalo."
"More'n likely. Well, we could do worse."
"What are you looking at now, Jim? I see that you've shifted your objective."
"Yes, I've caught some moving black dots to the left of the herd. They're obscured a little by a swell, but they look to me like horsemen, Sioux probably."
"If so then they must be hunters, taking advantage of the swell to attack the buffalo herd."
"Good, sound reasoning. You're learning to think as a scout and hunter. Yes, they're Sioux, and they're aiming for the herd. Now they've thrown out flankers, and they're galloping their ponies to the attack. There'll be plenty of good buffalo meat in some Sioux village before long."
"That means little to us, because after the hunt the warriors will pass on. What do you see elsewhere on the plain, Jim?"
"I can make out a trace of water. It's one of the little, shallow, sandy rivers, a long distance from here, but the presence of water is probably the reason why game is grazing in the neighborhood."
"You don't see any more Indians?"
"No, Will. To the west the horizon comes plumb in that direction are a long way off, which agrees with your map. But in the north the glasses have brought the ridges and peaks a sight nearer. They're all covered with forest, except the crests of some of the higher peaks, which are white with snow. I'm thinking, too, that in the woods at the bottom of one of the slopes I can see a trace of smoke rising. Here you, Will, you've uncommon keen eyes of your own. Take the glasses and look! There, where the mountains seem to part and make a pass! Is that smoke or is it just mist?"
Young Clarke looked a long time. He had already learned from Boyd not to advance an opinion until he had something with which to buttress it, and he kept his glasses glued upon the great cleft in the mountains, where the trees grew so thick and high. At last he saw a column of grayish vapor rising against the green leaves, and, following it with the glasses to its base, he thought he was able to trace the outlines of tepees. Another and longer look and, being quite sure, he said:
"There's an Indian village in the pass, Jim."
"That's what I thought, but I wanted you to say so, too. Now my last doubt is taken away. They're mountain Sioux, of course. I had an idea that we could go through that way and then curve to the west, but since the village is there, maybe it will be better to strike out straight across the plains."
"Perhaps those buffalo hunters will come in here to jerk their meat. They know of the valley, of course. Have you thought of that, Jim?"
"Yes, I have, and it troubles me. It seems to me that dangers we didn't expect are gathering, and that we're about to be surrounded. Maybe we'd better put the packs on the horses, and be ready to start to-night. What do you think?"
"You know what's best, Jim."
"Not always. We're full partners, now, and in all councils of war, though there are but two of us, both must speak."
"Then I'm for getting ready to leave to-night, as soon as it's dark. I suppose it's just chance, but enemies are converging on us. It's a fine valley, one that I could stay in a long time, but we'd better leave it."
"As the two who make up the council are agreed that settles it. When the full dark comes we'll go."
Boyd, who resumed the glasses, turned them back on the buffalo hunters, saw them chase the game toward the valley, and then bring down a half-dozen.
"They're nearer now to us than they are to the mountains," he said, "and they're sure to bring the meat in here, where they can hang it on the trees, or find plenty of firewood. If we had any doubts before, Will, we've got an order now to go and not be slow about our going."
They watched the Indians a long time, and saw them cleaning and cutting up the slain buffaloes. Then they retreated to the depths of the valley, put the packs on the horses, and made ready for flight at the first coming of dusk. Luckily the night gave promise of being dark, and, when the sun had set and its last afterglow was gone they mounted, and, each followed by his packhorse, rode for the western edge of the rim. There they halted and took a last glance at a retreat in which their stay had been so brief but so welcome.
"A fine little valley," said Boyd. "It must have been hunted out years ago, but if it's left alone a few years longer the beaver will return and build along that brook. Those pools will just suit 'em. If we don't find the gold we may turn to looking for beaver skins. There are worse trades."
"At least it provides a lot of fresh air," said Will.
"And you see heaps and heaps of splendid country, all kinds, mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, plains. Fur hunters can't complain of the lack of scenery."
"Which course will we take, Jim?"
"I think we'd better ride due west. That Indian village shuts us off from the mountains. It's true we may meet 'em on the plains, but likely we can escape 'em, and then when we've gone far enough we'll turn north and seek the ranges, where the cover is good. Now, hark to that, will you!"
From a point to the northward rose a long, quavering shout, shrill in its texture, and piercing the night like a call. A quiver ran along the lad's spine.
"A Sioux made that cry!" he exclaimed.
"Beyond a doubt," replied Boyd, "but why he did so I can't tell. Wait."
They sat, silent, on their horses, and in a minute or two the cry was repeated, but farther toward the east. Will could have mistaken the note for the howl of a wolf, it contained so much animal quality, but since the nature of the first had been told to him he knew that the second was a reply to it.
"It's signals," said Boyd with conviction. "They're talking to one another, though I don't know what they're saying. But it means the sooner we get out of the valley the better for this white army of two."
"There's nothing to keep us from starting now."
"That's true. Because, if they find us here, all knowledge of the mine for which we are looking is likely to perish with us. I don't suppose the Sioux have made any formal declaration of war, but the warning of Red Cloud is enough. They wouldn't hesitate to put out of the way two wandering fellows like ourselves."
As they talked they rode slowly toward the west, the sound of their horses' hoofs deadened on the turf, and both watching among the trees for any hostile appearance. Young Clarke was rapidly learning the ways of the wilderness, from experience, and also because he had in Boyd a teacher not excelled anywhere in the West. The calls, the long, dying cries, came again and again, showing the Sioux were steadily approaching the valley, but the two were leaving it at an equal pace.
Will clutched the reins in his left hand and held the splendid repeating rifle across the saddle bow with the other. The pack horse, unled, but obedient to his training, followed close after. Boyd, just ahead of him, proceeded in the same manner, and now they began to descend the slope that ended in the open plain. In ten more minutes they would leave the cover of the last tree. Before them rolled the bare country, swell on swell, touched but faintly by the moon, yet keen eyes such as those of the Sioux could trace the figures of horses and men on it for a considerable distance.
Will felt little shivers as they were about to leave the final row of trees. He could not help it, knowing that they were going to give up shelter for those open spaces which, dusky though they were, were yet revealing.
"It's likely, in any event, that we'll be followed, isn't it?" he said. "If the Sioux search the valley, and they will, they're sure to find our traces. Then they'll come over the rim of the hills on our tracks."
"Well reasoned, Will," said the hunter. "You'll learn to be a great scout and trailer, if you live long enough. That's just what they'll do, and they'll hang on to our trail with a patience that a white man seldom shows, because time means little to the Indian. As I said before, when we're far out on the plains we must make an abrupt turn toward the north, and lose ourselves among the ranges. For a long time to come the mountains will be our best friends. I love mountains anyway, Will. They mean shelter in a wild country. They mean trees, for which the eyes often ache. They mean grass on the slopes, and cool running water. The great plains are fine, and they lift you up, but you can have too much of 'em."
They rode now into the open country and in its dusky moonlight Will could not at first restrain the feeling that in reality it was as bright as day. A few hundred yards and both gazed back at the circle of hills enclosing the valley, hills and forest alike looking like a great black blur upon the face of the earth. But from the depths of that circling island came a long, piercing note, instinct with anger and menace.
"Now that was plain talk," said Boyd. "It said that they had found our trail, that they knew we were white, that they wanted our scalps, and that they meant to follow us until they got 'em."
"Which being the case," said Will defiantly, "we have to say to them in reply, though our syllables are unuttered, that we're not afraid, that they may follow, but they will not take us, that our scalps are the only scalps we have and we like 'em, that we mean to keep 'em squarely on top of our heads, where they belong, and, numerous and powerful though the Sioux nation may be, and brave and skillful though its warriors are, they won't be able to keep us from finding our mine."
"That's the talk, Will, my boy. It sounds like Red Cloud, the great Ogalala, Mahpeyalute himself. Fling 'em your glove, as the knights did in the old time, but while you're flinging it we'll have to do something besides talking. We must act. Trailers like the Sioux can follow us even in the night over the plains, and the more ground we gain in the beginning the better."
He urged his horses into a long, easy gallop and Will promptly followed at the same gait. The night darkened somewhat, at which they rejoiced, and then lightened again, at which they were sad, but they continued the long, swinging pace, which the horses could maintain for hours.
"Try your glasses again, Will," said the hunter. "They will cut through the dark a long way, and maybe they can tell if the Sioux are now in the plain."
Young Clarke slowed his pace, and bending in the saddle took a long look.
"I see nothing," he said. "Do you want to try 'em too, Jim?"
"No. Your eyes are of the best, and your news is good. It's likely that we've got a lead of seven or eight miles at least. Two or three miles more and we'd better turn for the mountains. Our horses are a lot bigger than those of the Sioux, but their ponies, though not much to look at, are made out of steel. They'd follow for days, and if we stuck to the plains they'd be sure to run us down at last."
"And we'd have little chance against a big Sioux band?"
"That's the ugly truth, and it's bound to be the mountains for us. I see a line on the prairie, Will. What do your glasses tell us about it?"
Young Clarke turned his gaze to the front, and after a single glance said:
"Water. It's one of those shallow prairie streams, I suppose, a foot of sand, and an inch of water on top."
"If there's not too much alkali in it it'll be mighty welcome to the horses. Ah, Selim smells it now!"
His great mount raised his head and neighed. Boyd smoothed his long, silky mane.
"Yes, old friend," he said, as if he were talking to a man, "I'm quite sure it won't have much alkali, you're going to have a nice, big drink, so are your friends, and then, ho! for the mountains!"
The stream was just what Will predicted it would be, a foot of sand and an inch of water, but it was only slightly brackish, and both horses and horsemen drank freely from it, took a rest and then drank as freely again. Another half hour and the two remounted.
"Now, Will," said Boyd, "the ridges are our target, and we'll shoot as straight at 'em as our horses can go, though we'll make the pace slow for the present. Nothing to be gained by tiring out our mounts before the race begins."
"And so you look for a real chase?"
"Surely. Those Sioux on their ponies will hang on like grim death and mighty glad I'll be when the trees on the first slopes reach out their boughs to hide us. About midnight now, isn't it, Will?"
The lad was able to see the face of his watch and announced that it was midnight and a half hour more.
"That's good," said Boyd, "because the darkest part of the night is now coming, and maybe some clouds floating up from the south will help us. Yes, I think I notice a change already. Three stars that I counted a little while ago have gone away."
"And about five million are left."
"Still, every little counts. Maybe in an hour or so two or three more will go away."
"You're certainly an optimist, Jim. You draw hope from very little things."
"It pays. Hope not only makes you stronger, it also makes you happier. There, didn't I tell you? I said that two or three stars might go away, but it's far better than two or three. All the skirmishers have left and now troops and battalions are departing, too. Maybe whole armies will leave before long, and give us an entirely black sky."
It grew visibly darker, although many of the stars remained twinkling in their places, but they were much encouraged, nevertheless, and trusting in the aid of the night, still saved the strength of their horses.
"It will make it a little harder for the Sioux to trail us," said Boyd, "and if, by any chance they should get near enough for a shot, the odds are about twenty to one they can't hit us. Suppose we stop here, give the horses another short rest, and you search the blackness back there with your glasses again."
Will was able to discern nothing but the sombre crests of the swells, and Boyd, dismounting, put his ear to the ground.
"I hear something moving," he said at last, and then, after a short pause, "it's the beat of hoofs."
"Can they be so near as that?" asked Will in alarm.
"At first I thought it was the Sioux, but now I'm sure it's running buffalo. I wonder why they're stampeding at this time of the night. Maybe a hunting party of Northern Cheyennes has wandered in here and knows nothing about the presence of the Sioux."
"That won't help us, since the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes are allies."
"No, it won't. If the Cheyennes meet the Sioux they'll join 'em in the pursuit of us. It's a new danger and I don't like it."
Boyd remounted and they rode on slowly. Presently he stopped, and Will, of course, stopped too.
"Listen, boy," he said, "and you'll hear the thunder of the buffalo. It's a big herd and they're running our way. I'm as sure as I sit here in this saddle that they're being driven by hunters."
Will heard a low, rolling sound like that of distant thunder. It was approaching rapidly, too, and it seemed to his heightened imagination that it was bearing straight down upon them.
"If they are Cheyennes we may be in the middle of 'em soon," he said.
"If we sit still here," said Boyd, "but that's just what we won't do. We'll gallop ahead until we come to a deep dip between the swells."
"Dismount, keep low, and let the storm drive by."
They did not have much time to spare, as the rumbling sound was growing fast beneath the tread of the flying herd, and they urged their horses into a gallop until they came to a dip, which they thought was deep enough to hide them. Here they dismounted and holding the lariats, watched as the thunder of the running herd increased, until they saw its van of lowered heads, short, curved horns and great, shaggy manes, and then the dark mass stretching back out of sight.
"There are tens of thousands of 'em," said the hunter. "They'll be some time in going by, and then, I think, we'll see the Indians hanging on the rear."
The multitude drove on for a period somewhat longer than Boyd had predicted, and then Will saw naked horsemen crouched low on ponies, some firing with rifles and others with bows and arrows.
"They're Cheyennes, as I thought," said Boyd, "and they're enjoying a mighty killing. There'll be huge feasts for days and days in their lodges. They're so intent on it, too, that there isn't one chance in a thousand they'll see us."
"But I'm glad I see them," said Will. "It's a wonderful sight. I never thought I'd look upon its like, the chase of the buffalo herd under a midnight moon. It makes my blood leap."
"And mine, too, though I've seen it before. This wild country with its vast plains and its high mountains takes hold of you, Will. It grips you with fetters of steel. Maybe, when you find the gold you won't want to go back to civilization."
"If we find it, it will be easy enough to decide what we wish to do. But the whole herd is disappearing in the moonlight in the west, and I can barely make out the last of the Indian hunters who are following 'em. I can see, though, a lot of beasts running low."
"The wolves. They're always hanging on the rear of a herd, hoping to cut out calves or buffaloes weak from old age. Now they're expecting to reap a little from the harvest made by the hunters. There, they've gone too, though for a long time you'll hear the herd thundering away to the west. But we don't mind the sound of a danger when the danger itself has passed. We'll mount and start again on our particular little excursion to the mountains, where we hope the fresh, cool air will help two fellows like ourselves, in failing health, no strength, no appetite, no anything."
The big hunter laughed aloud in pleasure.
"That herd was a help to us," he said. "It passed to the south of us, and so cut across our trail. If the Sioux are pursuing, as we think they are, it'll take 'em a long time to find our traces again. We'll take advantage of it, as our horses are thoroughly rested, and make some speed."
They swung into an easy gallop, and went on without further talk for a long time. When two or three hours had passed Will raised his glasses and gazed into the north.
"I think I see there a blur which is not of the night itself," he announced. "It may be the loom of the mountains that we're so anxious to reach."
"But a long way off yet," said the hunter. "Day will come hours before we can strike the first slopes, and we may have the Sioux hanging on our trail."
As a faint, gray light in the east told of the coming dawn, they came to another of the shallow streams of the plains and both horses and horsemen drank again. Will and Boyd also ate a little food.
"Now turn your glasses to the south and tell me what you see," said the hunter.
Will gazed and then lowered the glasses, a look of alarm on his face.
"I know from your eyes what you've seen without your telling me," said Boyd. "The Sioux are there. In some way they've picked up our trail and are coming. It's a mighty good thing that we've saved our horses. They're in splendid trim now for a long run, and we'll need every ounce of their speed and courage."
He did not seek to disguise the full measure of the danger from Will, who, he knew, would summon his utmost courage to meet it. The lad looked again through the glasses, and was able now to see a full score of men coming on their ponies. The dawn had just spread to the south and against its red and gold they were shown sharply, a long line of black figures on the crest of a swell.
"Take a look, Jim," said young Clarke, handing him the glasses. "You'll be able to tell more about 'em than I can."
Boyd studied the picture carefully—it was in reality a picture to him—and after due deliberation, said:
"They are thirty-two, because I've counted 'em. They're comparatively fresh, because their ponies are running straight and true. They're Sioux, as I know from the style of their war bonnets, and they're after us, as I know from the way they're riding."
"But look the other way, Jim, and see how much nearer the mountains have come!"
"Aye, lad! They stand up like a fort, and if we reach 'em in time we may stave off our pursuers. They're coming fast, and they're spreading out in a long line now. That helps 'em, because it's impossible for fugitives to run exactly straight, and every time we deviate from the true course some part of their line gains on us."
"I see a huge, rocky outcrop on the mountain side. Suppose we always ride for that."
"Something to steer by, so to speak. A good idea. We won't push the horses hard at first, because it will be a long time before they come within rifle shot of us. Then maybe we'll show 'em a spurt that'll count."
But it was hard for Will not to use the utmost speed at once, as every time he looked back he saw that the Sioux were gaining, their figures and those of their horses, horse and rider seemingly one, always standing out black and clear against the rosy dawn. But he knew that Boyd was right, and he tried hard to calm the heavy beating of his pulses.
The whole horizon was now lighted by a brilliant sun and the earth was bathed in its beams. Flight and pursuit went on, unabated, and the hunter and the boy began to increase the speed of their horses, as they saw that the Sioux were gaining. They had been riding straight as they could toward the stony outcrop, but in spite of everything they curved a little now and then, and some portion of the following line drew closer. But they were yet a full two miles away, and the mountains were drawing much nearer. Trees on the slopes detached themselves from the general mass, and became separate and individual. Once Will thought he caught a flash of water from a mountain torrent, and it increased the desirability of those slopes and ridges. How sheltered and protecting they looked! Surely Boyd and he could evade the Sioux in there!
"We'll make it easily," said Boyd, and then he added with sudden violence. "No, we won't! Look, there on your right, Will!"
Four warriors on swift ponies suddenly emerged from a swell scarcely a quarter of a mile away, and uttered a shout of triumph. Perhaps they were stray hunters drawn by the spectacle of the pursuit, but it was obvious that, in any event, they meant to co-operate with the pursuers.
"They're Sioux, too," said Boyd. "Now, steady, Will. It's a new and pressing danger, of course, but it may help us, too."
"I think I can give 'em a healthy lesson. We all learn by experience, and they'll take notice, if I make a good example. They're bearing down on our flank. You lead, Will, and keep straight for our rock. The four will soon be within range, as this repeating rifle of mine is a beauty, and it carries mighty far. The old muzzle loader is just a pistol by the side of it. Come on, my fine fellows! The nearer you are the better! I learned long ago to shoot from a running horse, and that's more than many Sioux can do."
The four Sioux on the right, bent low, were urging their ponies forward at their utmost speed. From the band behind came a tremendous yell, which, despite the distance, reached Boyd and young Clarke, and, apparently, they had full warrant in thus giving utterance to their feeling of triumph. The sudden appearance of the warriors coming down the dip was like the closing of a trap and it seemed that all chance of escape was cut off from the two who rode so desperately for the mountains.
The hunter shut his teeth tightly and smiled in ironic fashion. Whenever he was highly pleased he grew rather talkative, and now he had much to say for a man whose life was about to turn on a hair.
"If the four on the ponies off there knew the peril into which they were riding they wouldn't ride so hard," he said. "But the Sioux are not yet acquainted with the full merits of a long range repeating rifle, nor do they understand how well I can shoot. I'm as good a marksman as there is in the West, if I do say it myself, and lest you may think me a boaster, Will, I'll soon prove it."
He dropped the reins on the neck of Selim, who, though unguided, ran on straight and true, and grasped the splendid rifle with both hands. Will ceased to think of the band behind them and began to watch the hunter, who, though still smiling, had become one of the most dangerous of human beings.
"Yes, my four friends, you're overhauling us fast," murmured the hunter, "and I'm glad of it, because then I don't have to do so much waiting, and, when there's ugly work at hand, one likes to get it over. Ah, I think they're near enough now!"
The rifle sprang to his shoulder, a jet of flame leaped from the muzzle, and, with the sharp crack, the foremost Sioux rolled to the ground and lay still, his frightened pony galloping off at an angle. The hunter quickly pulled the trigger again and the second Sioux also was smitten by sudden death. The other two turned, but one of them was wounded by the terrible marksman, and the pony of the fourth was slain, his rider hiding behind the body. A dismal wail came from the Sioux far back. The hunter lowered his great weapon, and one hand resumed the bridle rein.
"A rifle like mine is worth more than its weight in gold," he said. "It's worth its weight in diamonds, rubies, emeralds and all the other precious jewels at a time like this. I can say, too, that's about the best shooting I ever did, and I think it'll save us. Even the band behind, thirty or so in number, won't want to ride full tilt into rifles like ours."
"The first slopes are not more than three or four miles away now," said young Clarke, "and no matter how hard they push they can't overtake us before we reach the trees. But Jim, how are we to ride through those high mountains, and, if we abandon the horses, we might as well give up our quest."
"I chose these horses myself, Will," said Boyd, "and I knew what I was about. I trained Selim, and, of course, he's the best, but the others are real prize packages, too. Why, they can walk up the side of a cliff. They can climb trees, and they can jump chasms fifty feet wide."
"Come down to earth, Jim. Stay somewhere in the neighborhood of truth."
"Well, maybe I do draw a rather long bow, but horses learn to be mountain climbers, and ours are the very best of that kind. They'll take us up through the ridges, never fear. The Sioux will follow, for a while, at least, but in the deep forest you see up there we'll shake 'em off."
"Hear 'em shouting now! What are they up to?"
"Making a last rush to overtake us, while we're yet in the plain. But it is too late, my gay scalp hunters!"
The mountains were now drawing near very fast, and with the heavy forest along their slopes they seemed to Will to come forward of themselves to welcome them. He became suddenly aware that his body ached from the long gallop, and that the dust raised by the beating hoofs was caked thickly on his face. His lips were dry and burning, and he longed for water.
"In five more minutes we'll be on the first slope," said Boyd, "and as we'll soon be hidden in the forest I think I'll say farewell to our pursuers."
"I don't understand you, Jim."
"I'm going to say only one word, and it'll be short and sharp."
He turned suddenly in his saddle, raised the repeating rifle and fired once at the band.
He had elevated the sight for a very long shot, regarding it as a mere chance, but the bullet struck a pony and a few moments of confusion in the band followed. Now Boyd and young Clarke made their horses use the reserves of strength they had saved so prudently, and with a fine spurt soon gained the shelter of the woods, in which they disappeared from the sight of the pursuing horde.
They found themselves among oaks, aspens, pines, cedars, and birch, and they rode on a turf that was thick, soft and springy. But Selim neighed his approval and Boyd pulled down to a walk. A little farther on both dismounted at his suggestion.
"It'll limber us up and at the same time help the horses," he said. "Knowing what kind of rifles we carry and how we can shoot, the Sioux won't be in any hurry to ride into the forest directly after us. We've a big advantage now in being able to see without being seen. As we needn't hurry, suppose we stop and take another look with those glasses of yours, Will. I never thought they'd prove so useful when you insisted on bringing 'em."
Will obeyed at once.
"They're a mile or so away," he said, "and they've stopped. They're gathered in a semi-circle around one man who seems to be a chief, and I suppose he's talking to 'em."
"Likely! Most likely. I can read their minds. They're a little bit bashful about riding on our trail, when we have the cover of the forest. Repeating rifles don't encourage you to get acquainted with those who don't want to know you. I can tell you what they'll do."
"The band will split into about two equal parts. One will ride to the right and the other to the left. Then, knowing that we can't meet both with the rifles, they'll cautiously enter the mountains and try to pick up our trail. Am I right or am I wrong?"
"Right, O, true prophet! They've divided and already they're riding off in opposite directions. And what's the best thing for us to do?"
"We'll lead the horses up this valley. I see through leaves a little mountain stream, and we'll drink there all the water we want. Then we'll push on deeper and deeper into the mountains, and when we think we're clear out of their reach we'll push on."
They drank plentifully at the brook, and even took the time to bathe their hands and faces. Then they mounted and rode up the slopes, the pack horses following.
"Didn't I tell you they were first class mountain climbers?" said Boyd with pride. "Why, mules themselves couldn't beat 'em at it."
When twilight came they were high on the slopes under the cover of the forest, pushing forward with unabated zeal.