Boyd had no mean powers as a narrator. He did not speak at first of their own immediate search, but alluded to the great belief that gold was scattered all through the West, although it seldom had a trace or trail leading to it. Then he spoke of Clarke's father, and what he had discovered, returning soon afterward to the civil war, in which he had fallen.
The Little Giant's eyes brightened with the flame of pursuit as the hunter talked. He who had sought gold for so many years without finding a particle of it was seeing it now, in pockets, and in almost solid ledges, beyond anything he had ever dreamed. But when Boyd told of the officer's death on the battlefield he sighed deeply and his face clouded.
"That's always the way," he said. "Jest when you've got it, it slips through your fingers, though I will say to you, young William, that it's not the lost gold only I'm mournin' 'bout. I'm sorry, too, for the death of your brave father."
"But, knowing the uncertainties of war, he took thought for the future," said Boyd. "He drew a map showing where his great mine is, and it's now in the possession of his son, Will, who sits before you."
The shadow left the face of the Little Giant, and his eyes glistened as Will produced the precious map, spreading it before him. After examining it carefully, he said:
"Ef you fight off many thousand Sioux, run through fifty or a hundred mountain blizzards, starve a dozen times, freeze twenty times an' stick to it three or four years you'll git that thar gold."
Then the Little Giant sighed, and his face clouded again—it had perhaps been years since his face had clouded twice in one day.
"You fellers are in great luck. I wish you well."
"We wish ourselves well," said Boyd, watching him closely.
A sudden thought seemed to occur to the Little Giant and his face brightened greatly.
"Do you two fellers want a hired man?" he asked.
"What kind of a hired man?" said Boyd.
"A likely feller, not very tall, but strong an' with a willin' heart, handy with spade an' shovel, understandin' hosses an' mules, an' able to whistle fur you gay an' lively tunes in the evenin', when you're all tired out from the day's work in the richest mine in the world."
"No, we don't want any hired man."
"Not even the kind I'm tellin' you 'bout?"
"Not even that, nor any other."
"An' both o' you hev got your minds plum' made up 'bout it?"
"Plumb made up."
The Little Giant's face fell for the third time in one day, an absolute record for him.
"I reckon thar ain't no more to say," he said.
Boyd was still watching him closely, but now his look was one of sympathy.
"We don't want any hired man," he said. "We've no use for hired men, but we do want something."
"What's that, Jim Boyd?"
"We want a partner."
"Why, each of you has got one. You hev young William and young William hez you."
"Well, young William and me have talked about this some, not much, but we came straight to the point. For such a big hunt as ours, through dangers piled on dangers, we need a third man, one that's got a strong heart and a cheerful soul, one that can shoot straighter than anybody else in the world, one whose picture, if I could take it, would be the exact picture of you, Tom Bent."
"But I ain't done nothin' to come in as a pardner."
"Neither did I, but Will took me in as a guide, hunter and fighting man. Don't you understand, Giant, that to get the Clarke gold we'll have to pay the price? We'll have to fight and fight, and we'll have to risk our lives a thousand times apiece. Why, in a case like this, you're worth a cool hundred thousand dollars."
"Then I come in fur a tenth—ef we git it."
"You come in for the same share as the rest, share and share alike, but I will say this to you, Little Giant, that we expect you to do the most tremendous fighting the world has ever seen, we expect you to wipe out whole bands of Sioux and Blackfeet by yourself while Will and me stand by and rest, and, after it's all over, we expect you to sit down and whistle an hour or two, until you soothe us to sleep."
"Then, on them conditions I come in as a full pardner," said Giant Tom, and he grinned with pleasure, the most amazing grin that Will had ever seen. It spread slowly across his face, until the great crack seemed to reach almost to each ear, revealing a splendid set of powerful white teeth, without a flaw. Above the chasm two large blue eyes glistened and glowed with delight. It was all so infectious, so contagious that both Will and Boyd grinned in return. They were not only securing for a perilous quest a man who was beyond compare, but they were also giving the most exquisite mental pleasure to a likable human being.
"It shorely does look," said the Little Giant, "ez ef my luck wuz goin' to hev a turn. At any rate, I'll be with you boys, in the best company I've had fur years."
"You and the mules rest a day," said Boyd, "and then we'll be off. We'll keep to the mountains for a while, and then we'll curve back to the plains, where we'll take up the line laid down on the map, and where the going is easier. Maybe we can dodge the Sioux."
The Little Giant made his bed under one of the trees, and he slept very soundly that night, eating prodigiously in the morning. The three were discussing the advisability of leaving at once or of waiting until the dusk for departure, when Will, happening to look toward the east, saw what he took at first to be a tiny cloud in the clear blue sky. He carried his glasses over his shoulders, and he raised them at once. The hunter and the Little Giant had noticed his act.
"What is it, Will?" asked Boyd anxiously.
"Smoke! A big puff of it!"
"And it came from the top of that mountain to the east of the valley."
"It rose straight and fast, as if it had been sent up by some human agency."
"And so it was. It's a signal!"
"What does it mean?"
"It means 'Attention, watch!' They've got a code almost as complete as that of our armies when they use the signal flags. Look at that other crest off to the north. Maybe an answer will come from it."
"There is an answer. I can see it rising now from the very place you indicate, Jim. What does the answer signify?"
"I can see it now with the naked eye. It merely says to the first, 'I've seen you, I'm waiting. Go ahead.' Look back to the other crest."
"Two smokes are now going up there."
"They say 'Come.' It's two bands wanting to meet. Now, the other place."
"Three smokes there."
"Three means, 'We come.'"
"Now back to the other."
"Which says in good, plain English, 'We are following the enemy.' That settles it. They've found out, some way or other, that we're here, and the two bands mean to meet and capture or destroy us. They never suspected that we could read their writing against the sky. We don't wait until tonight. We leave as soon as we can get our packs on our horses and mules."
"I'd like to make a suggestion first," said the Little Giant with some diffidence.
"What is it?" asked Boyd.
"Suppose we stay an' have a crack at 'em before we go, jest kinder to temper their zeal a little. I'd like to show young William that I kin really shoot, an' sorter live up to the braggin' you've been doin'."
"No, you ferocious little man-killer. We can't think of it. We'd have a hundred Sioux warriors on our heels in no time. Now hustle, you two! Pack faster than you ever packed before, and we'll start inside of two hours. Do you see any more smokes, Will?"
"No, the sky is now without a blemish."
"Which means they've talked enough and now they're traveling straight toward our valley. It's lucky they've got such rough country to cross before they reach us."
Inside the two hours they were headed for the western end of the valley, the Little Giant riding one of his mules, the other following. The wickiup was abandoned, but they brought much of the jerked meat with them, thinking wisely of their commissariat.
It was with genuine regret that Will looked back from his saddle upon Clarke Valley and Boyd Lake, shimmering and beautiful now in the opalescent sunshine. They had found peace and plenty there. It was a good place in which to live, if wild men would let one alone, and, loving solitude at times, he could have stayed there several weeks longer in perfect content. He caught the last gleam of the lake as they entered the pass. It had the deep sheen of melted silver, as the waters moved before the slow wind, and he sighed a little when a curve of the cliff cut it wholly from view.
"Never mind, young William," said the Little Giant, "you'll see other lakes and other valleys as fine, an' this wouldn't look so beautiful, after all, tomorrow, filled with ragin' Sioux huntin' our ha'r right whar it grows, squar' on top o' our heads."
Young Clarke laughed and threw off his melancholy.
"You're right," he said briskly. "The lake wouldn't look very beautiful if a half dozen Sioux were shooting at me. You came through this pass, now tell us what kind of a place it is."
"We ride along by the creek, an' sometimes the ledge is jest wide enough fur the horses an' mules. We go on that way four or five miles, provided we don't fall down the cliff into the creek an' bust ourselves apart. Then, ag'in, purvided we're still livin', we come out into a valley, narrow but steep, the water rushin' down it in rapids like somethin' mad. Then we keep on down the valley with our hosses lookin' ez ef they wuz walkin' on their heads, an' in four or five miles more, purvided, o' course, once more that we ain't been busted apart by falls, we come out into some woods. These woods are cut by gulleys an' ravines an' they have stony outcrops, but they'll look good by the side o' what you hev passed through."
"Encouraging, Giant!" laughed Will. "But hard as all this will be for us to pass over, it will be just as hard for the Sioux, our pursuers."
"Young William," said the Little Giant approvingly, "I like to hear you talk that way. It shows that you hev all the makin's o' them opty-mists, the bunch o' people to which I belong. I never heard that word till three or four years ago, when I wuz listenin' to a preacher in a minin' camp, an' it kinder appealed to me. So I reckoned I would try to live up to it an' make o' myself a real opty-mist. I been workin' hard at it ever sence, an' I think I'm qualifyin'."
"You're right at the head of the class, that's where you are, Giant," said Boyd heartily. "You've already earned a thousand dollars out of the mine that we're going to find, you with your whistling and cheerfulness bracing us up so that we're ready to meet anything."
"What's the use o' bein' an opty-mist ef you don't optymize?" asked the Little Giant, coining a word for himself. "Now, ain't this a nice, narrow pass? You kin see the water in the creek down thar, 'bout two hundred feet below, a-rushin' an' a-roarin' over the stones, an' then you look up an' see the cliff risin' five or six hundred feet over your head, an' here you are betwixt an' between, on a shelf less'n three feet broad, jest givin' room enough fur the horses an' mules an' ourselves, all so trim an' cosy, everythin' fittin' close an' tight in its place."
"It's a lot too close and tight for me, Giant!" exclaimed Will. "I've a terrible fear that I'll go tumbling off the path and into the creek two hundred feet below."
"Oh, no, you won't, young William. The people who fall off cliffs are mighty few compared with them that git skeered 'bout it. Ef you feel a-tall dizzy, jest ketch holt o' the tail o' that rear mule o' mine. He won't kick, an' he won't mind it, a-tall, a-tall. Instead o' that it'll give him a kind o' home-like feelin', bein' ez I've hung on to his tail myself so many times when we wuz goin' along paths not more'n three inches wide in the mountain side. You won't bother or upset him. The biggest cannon that wuz ever forged couldn't blast him out o' the path."
Thus encouraged, young Clarke seized the tail of the mule, which plodded unconcernedly on, and for the rest of the distance along the dizzying heights he felt secure. Nevertheless his relief was great when they emerged into the rough valley of which the Little Giant had spoken, and yet more when, still pressing on, they came to the rocky and hilly forest. Here they were all exhausted, animals and human beings alike, and they stopped a long time in the shade of the trees.
At that point there was no sign of the valley from which they had fled, unless one could infer its existence from the creek that flowed by. Looking back, Will saw nothing but a mass of forest and mountain, and then looking back a second time he saw rings of smoke rising from points which he knew must be in their valley. He examined and counted them through his glasses and described them to the hunter and the Little Giant.
"The Sioux have come down and invaded our pleasant home," said Boyd. "There's no doubt about it, and I can make a good guess that they're mad clean through, because they found us gone. They may be signaling now to another band to come up, and then they'll give chase. You've got to know, Will, that nothing will make the Sioux pursue like the prospect of scalps, white scalps. A Sioux warrior would be perfectly willing to go on a month's trail if he found a white scalp at the end of it."
"They'll naturally think that we'll turn off toward the south so as to hit the plains ez soon ez we kin," said the Little Giant.
"And for that reason, you think we should turn to the north instead, and go deeper into the mountains?" said Boyd.
"'Pears sound reasonin' to me."
"Then we'll do it."
"But we don't go fur, leastways not today. It wouldn't be more'n two or three hours till night anyhow, an' see them clouds in thar to the south, all thickenin' up. We're going to hev rain on the mountains, an' I think we'd better make another wickiup, ez one o' them terrible sleets may come on."
Boyd and Will agreed with him and a mile farther they found a place that they considered suitable, an opening in which they would not be exposed to any tree blown down by a blizzard, but with a heavy growth of short pines near by, among which the horses and mules might find shelter. Then the three worked with amazing speed, and by the time the full dark had come the wickiup was done, the skins that they had brought with them being stretched tightly over the poles. Then, munching their cold food, they crawled in and coiled themselves about the walls, wrapped deep in their blankets. Contrary to the Indian custom, they left the low door open for air, and just when Will felt himself well disposed for the night he heard the first patter of the sleet.
It was almost pitch dark in the wickiup, but, through the opening, he could see the hail beating upon the earth in streams of white. The old feeling of comfort and security in face of the wildest that the wilderness had to offer returned to him. When they reached Clarke Valley and built their wickiup he had one powerful friend, but now when the Sioux were once more in pursuit, he had two. The Little Giant had made upon him an ineffaceable impression of courage, skill and loyalty that would stand any test.
"The hail's goin' to drive all through the night," Giant Tom called out in the darkness.
"Right you are," said the hunter, "and the Sioux won't think of trying that pass on such a night. They're back in the valley, in wickiups of their own."
"Might it not stop them entirely?" asked Will.
"No, young William, it won't," said the Little Giant. "They'll come through the pass tomorrow, knowin' thar's only one way by which we kin go, an' then try to pick up our trail when the sleet melts. But tonight, at least, nobody's goin' to find us."
They slept late the next morning, and when they crawled out of the wickiup they found the sleet packed about an inch deep on the ground. The horses and mules, protected by the pines, had not suffered much, and, in order that their trail might be hidden by the melting sleet, they packed and departed before breakfast, choosing a northwesterly direction. They picked the best ground, but it was all rough. Nevertheless the three were cheerful, and the Little Giant whistled like a nightingale.
"Ef I remember right," he said, "we'll soon be descendin', droppin' down fast so to speak, an' then the weather will grow a heap warmer. The sun's out now, though, an' by noon anyway all the sleet will be gone, which will help us a lot."
They had been walking most of the time, allowing their animals to follow, which both horses and mules did, not only through long training but because they had become used to the companionship of men. The three might have abandoned them, escaping pursuit in the almost inaccessible mazes of the mountains, but no such thought entered their minds. The horses and mules not only carried their supplies, chief among which being the ammunition, but also the tools with which to work the mine, and then, in Will's mind at least, they and more of them would be needed to bring back to civilization the tons of gold.
They were now in a fairly level, though narrow, valley, and all three of them were riding. Once more they saw far behind them smoke signals rising, and Boyd felt sure that the Sioux somehow had blundered upon the trail anew. Then he and the Little Giant spoke together earnestly.
"The longest way 'roun' is sometimes the shortest way through," said Giant Tom. "It's no plains for us, not fur many days to come. I'm thinkin' that what we've got to do is to keep on goin' deeper an' deeper into the mountains, an' higher an' higher, too, plum' up among them glaciers, whar the Sioux won't keer to foller. Then, when we winter a while thar we kin turn back toward the plains an' our search."
"Looks like good reasoning to me," said Boyd. "As I told the boy here, once, we're richer in time than anything else. We must make for the heights. What say you, Will?"
"I'm learning patience," replied the lad. "It's better to wait than to spill all the beans at once. Let's head straight for the glaciers."
Will felt that there was something terrible about the Sioux pursuit. He was beginning to realize to the full the power of Indian tenacity, and he was anxious to shake off the warriors, no matter how high they had to go. He knew nothing of the region about them, but he had heard that mountains in many portions of the West rose to a height of nearly three miles. He could well believe it, as he looked north and south to tremendous peaks with white domes, standing like vast, silent sentinels in the sky. They were majestic to him, but not terrifying, because they held out the promise of safety.
"If the worst came to the worst, could we live up there on one of those slopes, a while?" he asked.
"Do you mean by that could we find game enough?" said Boyd.
"Game and shelter both."
"We could. Like as not the mountain deer are plentiful. And there's a kind of buffalo called the wood bison, even bigger than the regular buffalo of the plains, not often found south of Canada, but to be met with now and then in our country. We might run across one of them, and he'd supply meat enough to feed an army. Besides, there are bears and deer and smaller game. Oh, we'd make out, wouldn't we, Tom?"
"We shorely would," replied the Little Giant, "but between you an' me an' the gate post, Jim, I think I see somethin' movin' on the slope acrost thar to the right. Young William, take your glasses an' study that spot whar the bushes are so thick."
"I can just barely make out the figures of men among the bushes," announced Will, after a good look.
"Then they're Indians," said Boyd with emphasis. "You wouldn't find white men lurking here in the undergrowth. It's a fresh band, hunters maybe, but dangerous just the same. We'd better push on for all we're worth."
They urged forward the horses and mules, seeking cover in the deep forest along the slope, but without success, as a faint yell soon told them. At the suggestion of Boyd, they stopped and examined the ground. The way was steadily growing steeper and more difficult, and the warriors, who were on foot could make greater speed than the fugitives.
"Lend me your glasses a minute, young William," said the Little Giant.
But he did not turn the lenses upon the Indians. Instead, he looked upward.
"Thar's a narrow pass not fur ahead," he said. "I think we'd better draw into it an' make a stand. The pass is deep, an' they can't assail us on either flank. It will have to be a straight-away attack."
"That's lucky, mighty lucky," said Boyd with heartfelt thankfulness. "Will, you push on with the animals, and maybe if you look back you'll see that what I told you about Giant Tom's sharpshooting is true."
Will hurried the horses and mules ahead, following a shallow dip that was the outlet of the deep pass they were seeking. Behind them he heard again the yells of the Indian warriors, hopeful now of an unexpected triumph. He saw their figures emerging from cover and he judged that they were at least twenty in number. He saw also that the Little Giant had stopped and was looking at the pursuers with a speculative eye, while his repeating rifle lay easily in the hollow of his arm. Then he urged the animals on and presently he looked back a second time.
He was just in time to see the breech of the rifle leap to the Little Giant's shoulder. "Leap" was the only word to describe it, his action was so swift and so little time did he waste in taking aim. It all passed in an instant, as he pulled the trigger, and the foremost Indian far down the slope threw up his arms, falling backward without a cry. In another instant he pulled the trigger again and another Indian fell beside the first. The whole band stopped, uttered a tremendous cry of rage, and then darted into the undergrowth for cover.
"Two," said Boyd. "Didn't I tell you, Will, that he was a wonder with the rifle?"
"I had to do it. I call you both to witness that I had to do it," said the Little Giant in a melancholy voice. "I'm a hunter o' gold an' not properly a killer o' men, even o' savage men. An' yet I find no gold, but I do kill. Sometimes I'm sorry that I happened to be born jest a natcherly good shot. I reckon we'd better whoop up our speed ez much ez we kin now, 'cause after that lesson they'll hang back a while afore follerin'."
"That's good generalship," said Boyd.
Will was already urging forward the animals, which, frightened by the shots, were making speed of their own accord toward the pass. The hunter and the Little Giant followed at a more leisurely gait, with their rifles ready to beat off pursuit. Some shots were fired from the bushes, but they fell short, and the two laughed in disdain.
"They'll have to do a lot better than that, won't they, Giant?" said the hunter.
"A powerful sight better, but they'll hope to slip up on us in the dark. It hurts my feelin's to hev to shoot any more of 'em, or to shoot anybody, but I'm afeard I'll hev to do it, Jim Boyd, afore we git through with this here piece o' business."
"In that case, Giant, just let your feelings go and shoot your best."
Will still led on, and, though his heart beat as hard as ever, it was more from the exertion of climbing than from apprehension. He had seen the two wonderful shots of the Little Giant, he knew what a wonderful marksman Boyd was also, and he felt since they were within the shelter of the pass, their three rifles might keep off any number of Sioux.
The shallow gully up which they were travelling now narrowed rapidly, and soon they were deep in the looming shadow of the pass, which seemed to end blindly farther on. But for the present it was a Heaven-sent refuge. At one point, where it widened somewhat, the horses and mules could stand, and there was even a little grass for them. A rill of water from the high rocks was a protection against what they had to fear most of all, thirst, and the three human beings in turn drank freely from it, letting the animals follow.
Boyd deftly tethered the horses and mules to bushes that grew at the foot of the cliff in the wide space, and then he joined the other two, who, lying almost flat, were watching at the entrance to the pass. The rocks there also gave them fine protection, and they felt they had reached a fort which would test all the ingenuity, patience and courage of the Sioux.
Will drew back behind a stony upthrust, sat up and used his glasses, searching everywhere among the rocks and bushes down the pass.
"What do you see, Young William?" asked the Little Giant.
"Nothing yet, Tom, except the bushes, the stones and the slopes of the mountains far across the valley."
"Nor you won't see nothin' fur some time. Took to cover, they hev. An' I don't blame 'em, either. We wouldn't be anxious ourselves to walk up ag'inst the mouths o' rifles that don't miss, an' Indians, bein' smart people, don't risk their lives when thar's nothin' to be gained."
"Then how are they going to get at us?"
"Not straight-away, but by means o' tricks."
"I don't know. Ef they wuz so plain ez all that they wouldn't be tricks. We'll hev to be patient."
All three of them drew back into the mouth of the pass, where they found abundant shelter behind the stony outcrops, while the Sioux, who lay hidden in the undergrowth farther down the slope, would be compelled to advance over open ground, if they made a rush. Young Clarke's confidence grew. That wonderful sharpshooting feat of the Little Giant was still in his mind. In such a position and with such marksmen as Boyd and Bent, they could not be overwhelmed.
"Take them glasses o' yourn, young William," said the Little Giant, "an' see ef you can pick out any o' the Sioux down the slope."
Will was able to trace three or four warriors lying down among the short cedars, apparently waiting with illimitable patience for any good idea that might suggest itself. The others, though out of sight, were certainly near and he was wondering what plan might occur to them.
"Do you think it likely that they know the pass?" he asked Boyd.
"Hardly," replied the hunter. "They are mountain Sioux, but on the whole they prefer the plains."
"Maybe they think then that they can wait, or at least hold us until we are overcome by thirst!"
"No, the little stream of water breaks a way down the slope somewhere, and when they find it they'll know that it comes from the pass. I think they'll attack, but just how and when is more'n I can say. Now, Will, will you go back where the animals are and cook us a good supper, including coffee? When you're besieged it's best to keep yourself well fed and strong. I saw plenty of dead wood there, tumbled from the cliffs above."
Young Clarke, knowing that he was not needed now at the mouth of the pass, was more than glad to undertake the task, since waiting was hard work.
He found the horses and mules lying down, and they regarded him with large, contemplative eyes as he lighted the fire and began to cook supper. The animals were on the best of terms, constituting a happy family, and the eyes with which they regarded Will seemed to him to be the eyes of wisdom.
"Shall we get safely out of this?" he asked, addressing himself to the animal circle.
Either it was fact, or his imagination was uncommonly lively, as he saw six large heads nod slowly and with dignity, but with emphasis.
"All of us?"
The six heads again moved slowly and with dignity.
"And with you, our faithful four-footed friends, and with the packs that are so needful to us?"
The six heads nodded a little faster, but with the same dignity. Will was just putting the coffee on to boil when he asked the last question and received the last answer, and he stopped for a moment to stare at the six animals, which were still regarding him with their large, contemplative eyes. Could he refuse to believe what he thought he saw? If fancy were not fact it often became fact a little later. Those were certainly honest beasts and he knew by experience that they were truthful, too, because he had never yet caught them in a lie. Animals did not know how to lie, wherein they were different from human beings, and while human beings were not prophets, at least in modern times, animals, for all he knew, might be, and he certainly intended to believe that the six, for the present, enjoyed the prophetic afflatus.
"I accept the omens as you give them," he said aloud. "From this moment I dismiss from my mind all doubt concerning the present affair."
Then he found himself believing his own words. The omens continued to be favorable. The coffee boiled with uncommon readiness and the strips of venison that he fried over the coals gave forth an aroma of unparalleled richness. Filling two large tin cups with the brown fluid he carried them to the watchers at the mouth of the pass, who drained them, each at a single draught.
"Best you ever made, Will," said Boyd.
"Ez good ez anybody ever made, young William," said the Little Giant.
"Now I'll bring you strips of venison and crackers," said Will, much pleased, "and after you've eaten them you can have another cup of coffee apiece."
His little task, his success at it, and the praise of his comrades cheered him wonderfully. When he had taken them the second cups of coffee and had also served himself, he put out the coals, picked up his rifle and rejoined the others. The first faint breath of the twilight was appearing over the mountains. The great ridges and peaks were growing dim and afar the wind of night was moaning.
"It'll be dark soon," said the Little Giant, "an' then we'll hev to watch with all our eyes an' all our ears. Onless the Sioux attack under kiver o' the night they won't attack at all."
"They'll come. Don't you worry about that, Tom," said Boyd. "The Sioux are as brave fighters as any that tread the earth, and they want our scalps bad, particularly yours. If I was an Indian and loved scalps as they do, I'd never rest until I got yours. The hair is so thick and it stands up so much, I'd give it a place of honor in my tepee, and whenever my warrior friends came in for a sociable evening's talk I'd tell 'em how I defeated you in battle and took your scalp, which is the king scalp."
"It's a comply-ment you make me to call my scalp the king scalp, but no Indian will ever take it. Do you see something stirring down thar 'mong the little cedars? Young William, them glasses o' yourn a minute or two."
He made a careful study with the glasses, and, when he handed them back, he announced:
"They're movin' 'mong the cedars. I made out at least a half dozen thar. Ez soon ez it's good an' dark they're goin' to try to creep up on us. Well, let 'em. We kin see pretty nigh ez good in the dark ez in the light, can't we, Jim Boyd?"
"I reckon we can see good enough, Giant, to draw a bead on anything that comes creeping, creeping after our hair."
Again Will felt pride that he was associated with two such formidable champions of the wild, but he did not let pride keep him from selecting a good high stony outcrop behind which he lay with his rifle ready and his revolver loose in his belt. Now and then, however, he held his rifle in only one hand and used the glasses so valuable to him, and which he was beginning to prize so highly.
Much time passed, however, and it passed slowly. Young Clarke realized that the other name for the Sioux was patience, but it was hard on his nerves, nevertheless. He wanted to talk, he longed to ask questions of the two borderers, but his will kept him from doing so. He was resolved not to appear nervous or garrulous at such a time.
The night deepened. The twilight had passed long since. Many of the stars did not come out and heavy waves of dusk rolled up the valley. The slopes of the opposite mountain became invisible, nor did Will see the dwarf cedars in which his glasses told him a portion of the Sioux band had lain hidden.
The time was so long that his muscles felt stiff and sore, and he stretched arms and legs vigorously to restore the circulation. Moreover the elevation was so great that it was growing quite cold in the pass, and he became eager for the warriors to attack if they were going to attack at all. But he remembered the saying that patience was only another name for Sioux and steeled his heart to endure.
The three were lying close together, all behind rocky upthrusts, and after a space that seemed a thousand years or so to Will the Little Giant edged toward him and whispered:
"Young William, you wouldn't mind lendin' me them glasses o' yourn once more?"
"As often as you like, Giant."
"Hand 'em over, then. Even ef it's night they've got a way o' cuttin' through the dark, an' I feel it's 'bout time now fur the Sioux to be comin'. They like to jump on an unsuspectin' foe 'bout midnight."
He took an unusually long look and handed the glasses back to Will. Then he whispered to both the lad and the hunter:
"I could make 'em out snakin' theirselves up the pass nigh flat on the rock."
"They hope to get so near in the dark that they can spring up and rush us."
"I reckon that's jest 'bout thar game, but them glasses o' young William's hev done give them away already. The Sioux hev fixed everythin' mighty careful, an' jest one thing that chance hez give us, young William's glasses, is goin' to upset 'em. Take a look, Jim."
"I can see 'em, so many dark spots moving, always moving up the pass and making no noise at all. Now, Will, you look, and after that we'll make ready with the rifles."
Will through the glasses saw them quite plainly now, more than a score of dark figures, advancing slowly but quite steadily. He threw the glasses over his shoulder and took up his rifle with both hands.
"Not yet, young William," said the Little Giant. "We don't want to waste any bullets, and so we'll wait until Jim gives the word. Ev'ry army needs a leader. Thar ain't but three in this army, but it hez to hev a leader jest the same and Jim Boyd is the man."
Will waited motionless, but he could not keep his heart from beating hard, as the Sioux, ruthless and bold, came forward silently to the attack. He did not have the infinite wilderness experience of the older two which had hardened them to every form of danger, and his imagination was alive and leaping. The dusky forms which he could now faintly see with the naked eye were increased by fancy threefold and four, and his eager finger slipped to the trigger of his rifle. He was sure they ought to fire now. The Sioux were certainly near enough! If they came any closer before meeting the bullets of the defense they would have a good chance to spring up and make a victorious rush. But the word to fire did not come. He glanced at their leader, and Boyd was still calmly watching.
The three lay very close together, and Will heard the hunter whisper to the Little Giant:
"How much nearer do you think I ought to let 'em come, Tom?"
"'Bout ten feet more, I reckon, Jim. Then though it's night, thar would be no chance fur a feller to miss, onless he shet his eyes, an' we want all our bullets to hit. Indians, even the bravest, don't like to rush riflemen that are ez good ez a batt'ry. Ef we strike 'em mighty hard the first time they'll fall back on tricks an' waitin'."
"Good sound reasoning, Tom. You hear, Will. Be sure you don't miss."
"I won't," replied the lad. Nevertheless those ten minutes, every one of them, had a way of spinning themselves out in such an extraordinary manner that his nerves began to jump again, and it required a great effort of the will to keep them quiet. The black shadows were approaching. They had passed over a stretch of rough ground that he had marked four or five minutes before, and the outlines of the figures were growing more distinct. He chose one on the extreme right for his aim. He could not yet see his features, of course, but he was quite certain that they were ugly and that the man was a warrior wicked beyond belief. Before he could fire upon anyone from ambush it was necessary for him to believe the man at whom he aimed to be utterly depraved, and the situation created at once such a belief in his mind.
He kept his eye steadily upon the ugly and wicked warrior, and as he watched for his chance and awaited the word from Boyd all scruples about firing disappeared from his mind. It was that warrior's life or his, and the law of self-preservation controlled. Nearer and yet nearer they came and the time had grown interminable when the hunter suddenly said in a low voice:
Young Clarke pulled the trigger with a sure aim. He saw the hideous warrior draw himself into a bunch that sprang convulsively upward, but which, when it fell, lay back, outspread and quiet. Then he fired at a second figure, but he was not sure that he hit. The hunter and the Little Giant were already sending in their third and fourth bullets, with deadly aim, Will was sure, and the Sioux, after one mighty yell, wrenched from them by rage, surprise and fear, were fleeing down the pass under the fierce hail from the repeating rifles.
In a half minute all the shadows, save those outlined darkly on the ground, were gone, and there was complete and utter silence, while the light smoke from the rifles drifted about aimlessly, there being no wind. The three did not speak, but slipping in fresh cartridges continued to gaze down the pass. Then Will heard a wild, shrill scream behind him that made him leap a foot from the ground, and that set all his nerves trembling. The next moment he was laughing at himself. One of the horses had neighed in terror at the firing, and there are few things more terrifying than the terrified shriek of a horse.
"Maybe you'd better go back and see 'em, Will," said Boyd. "They may need quieting. I've noticed that you've a gentle hand with horses, and that they like you."
"And mules too," said the Little Giant. "Mine hev already taken a fancy for young William. But mules are much abused critters. You treat 'em well an' they'll treat you well, which is true of all tame animals."
Young Clarke suspected that they were sending him back to steady his own nerves as well as those of the animals after such a fierce encounter, but if so he was glad they had the thought. He was willing enough to go.
"Nothing will happen while you're gone," said Boyd cheerfully. "The Sioux, of course, would try to rush us again if they knew you were away, but they won't know it."
Will crawled until he came to a curve of the cliff that would hide him from any hidden Indian marksman, and then he rose to his feet, glad that he was able to stand upright. He found the horses and mules walking about uneasily at the ends of their lariats, but a few consoling strokes from him upon their manes quieted all of them, and, if they found comfort in his presence, he also found comfort in theirs.
Then he kneeled and drank at the rill, as if he had been parching in a desert for days.