Drawn by an impulse that he tried to check but could not, Will went in the morning to the point in the bushes whence the growling had come the night before, finding there nothing but the bones of the Sioux, from which every trace of flesh had been removed. He shuddered once more. He, instead of the warrior, might have been the victim. His eyes, trained now to look upon the earth as a book and to read what might be printed there, saw clearly the tracks of the wolves among the grass and leaves. After finishing what they had come to do they had gone away some distance and had gathered together in a close group, as if they had meditated an attack, possibly upon the horses and mules.
Will knew how great and fierce the mountain wolves of the north were, and he was glad to note that, after their council, they had gone on and perhaps had left the valley. At least, he was able to follow their tracks as far as the lower rocks, where they disappeared. When he returned to the little camp he told what he had seen.
"We're in no danger of a surprise from the big wolves," said Brady. "They'd have killed and eaten some of the horses and mules if we hadn't been here, but wolves are smart, real smart. Like as not they saw Thomas shoot the Sioux, and they knew that the long stick he carried, from which fire spouted, slaying the warrior, was like the long sticks all of us carry, and that to attack us here was death for them. Oh, I know I'm guessing a lot, but I've observed 'em a long time and I'm convinced wolves can reason that far."
"All animals are smarter than we think they are," said the Little Giant. "I've lived among 'em a heap, an' know a lot o' their ways. Only they've a diff'rent set o' intellectooals from ours. What we're smart in they ain't, an' what they're smart in we ain't. Now, ef I had joined to what I am myself the strength o' a grizzly bear, the cunnin' o' a wolf an' the fleetness o' an antelope I reckon I'd be 'bout the best man that ever trod 'roun' on this planet."
"I've one thing to suggest before we start," said Will, "and I think it's important."
"What is it?" asked Boyd.
"That we make copies of the map. We may become separated for long periods—everything indicates that we will—I might fall into the hands of Felton, who seems to have a hint about the mine, and, if I saw such a thing about to occur, I would destroy the map, and then you would have the copies. Each of you faced by a similar misfortune could make away with his copy, and if the worst came to the worst I could re-draw it from memory."
"Good idee! Good idee!" exclaimed the Little Giant with enthusiasm. "I've been tellin' Jim an' Steve that though they mightn't think it, you had the beginnin's o' intelleck in that head o' yours."
"Thank you," said Will, and they all laughed.
"It's a good thought," said Boyd, "and we'd better do it at once."
Will carried in his pack some pens and a small bottle of indelible ink, and with these they drew with the greatest care three more maps on fine deerskin, small but very clear, and then every man stored one in a secure place about his person.
"Now, remember," said Boyd, "if any one of us is in danger of capture he must get rid of his map."
Then, their breakfast over, they began the ascent of the slope, leading toward the White Dome, finding it easier than they had thought. As always, difficulties decreased when they faced them boldly, and even the animals, refreshed by their stay in the valley, showed renewed vigor, climbing like goats. The Little Giant whistled merrily, mostly battle songs of the late war which was still so fresh in the minds of all men.
"I notice that you whistle songs of both sides," said Brady. "Musically, at least, you have no feeling about our great Civil War."
"Nor any other way, either," rejoined the Little Giant. "I may hev hed my feelin's once, though I ain't sayin' now what they wuz, but fur me the war is all over, done fit clean out. They say six or seven hundred thousand men wuz lost in it, an' now that it's over it's got to stop right thar. I'm lookin' to the future, I am, to the quarter of a million in gold that's comin' to me, an' the gorgeous ways in which I'm goin' to spend it. Young William, see that big mountain ram standin' out on the side o' the peak over thar. I believe he's the same feller that you tried to stalk yesterday, an' that he's laughin' at you. He's a good mile away, but I kin see the twinkle in his eye, an' ez shore ez I stan' here he lifted his left foot to his nose an' twisted it 'bout in a gesture which among us boys allers meant fight. Do you stan' his dare, young William, or are you goin' to climb over thar whar he is an' hev it out with him?"
"I'll let him alone," laughed William, looking at the splendid ram, outlined so sharply in the clear mountain light. "I meant to do him harm, but I'm glad I didn't. Maybe that Indian was engaged in the same task, when he saw me and changed his hunting."
Then he shuddered once more at the growling he had heard and what he had seen in the bushes the next morning, but his feeling of horror did not last long, because they were now climbing well upon the shoulder of the White Dome and the spectacle, magnificent and inspiring, claimed all their attention.
The last bushes and dwarfed vegetation disappeared. Before them rose terrace on terrace, slope on slope of rock, golden or red in the sun, and beyond them the great snow fields and the glaciers. Over it all towered the White Dome, round and pure, the finest mountain Will had ever seen. He never again saw anything that made a more deep and solemn impression upon him. Far above all the strife and trouble of the world swam the white peak.
Meanwhile the Little Giant continued to whistle merrily. He was not awed, and he was not solemn. Prone to see the best in everything, he enjoyed the magnificent panorama outspread before them, and also drew from it arguments most favorable for their quest.
"We're absolutely safe from the warriors," he said. "We're above the timber line, and they'd never come up here huntin'. An Indian doesn't do anythin' more than he has to. He ain't goin' to wear hisself out climbin' to the top o' a mounting ten miles high in order to hev a look at the scenery. We won't be troubled by no warriors 'til we go down the shoulder o' your White Dome on the other side."
He resumed his clear, musical whistling, pouring out in a most wonderful manner the strains of "Dixie," changing impartially to "Yankee Doodle," shifting back to "The Bonnie Blue Flag," and then, with the same lack of prejudice, careering into "Marching Through Georgia."
The horses and mules that they were now leading felt the uplifting influence, raised their heads and marched forward more sturdily.
"What makes you so happy?" asked Will.
"The kindness o' natur' what gave me that kind o' a disposition," replied the Little Giant, "an' added to it the feelin' that all the time I'm drawin' closer to my gold. What did you say my share would be, young William, a matter o' a million or a half million?"
"A quarter of a million."
"Seems to me it wuz a half million, but somehow it grows ez we go 'long. When you git rich, even in the mind, you keep on gittin' richer."
Then he began to whistle a gallant battle stave with extraordinary richness and variety of tone, and when he had finished Will asked:
"What was that song, Tom? It's a new one to me."
"It's new to most people," replied the Little Giant, "but it's old jest the same. It wuz writ 'way back in the last war with England, an' I'll quote you the first two verses, words an' grammar both correct:
"That's a lot more verses, young William, an' it's all 'bout them great naval duels o' the war o' 1812, an' you'll notice that whoever writ 'em had no ill feelin' in his natur', an' give heaps o' credit to the British. It does seem that we an' the British ought to be friends, bein' so close kin, actin' so much alike, an' havin' institutions just the same, 'cept that whar they hev a king we hev a president. Yet here we are quarrelin' with 'em a lot, though not more than they quarrel with us."
"The trouble lies in the fact that we speak the same language," said Will. "Every word of abuse spoken by one is understood by the other. Now, if the French or the Spanish or the Russians denounce us we never hear anything about it, don't know even that it's been done."
"That's good ez fur ez it goes," said the Little Giant. "I've seen a lot o' English that don't speak any English, a-tall, fellers that come out o' the minin' regions in England an' some from London, too, that talked a lingo soundin' ez much like English ez Sioux does, but it doesn't alter the fact that them an' us ought to be friends. An' I reckon we will be now, 'cause I hear they're claimin' that our Washington wuz an Englishman, the same immortal George that they would hev hung in the Revolution along with his little hatchet, too, ef they could hev caught him."
Will laughed with relish.
"In a way Washington was an Englishman," he said. "That is, he was of pure English stock, transplanted to another land. The Athenians were Greeks, the most famous of the Greeks, but they were not the oldest of the Greeks by any means. They were a colony from Asia Minor, just as we were a colony from England."
"I don't know much 'bout the Greeks, young William, my lad, but ef the English kin lay claim to Washington ez one o' their sons, 'cause he wuz of pure English blood, then me an' most o' the Americans kin lay jest ez good a claim to Shakespeare 'cause, we bein' o' pure British blood, he wuz one o' our ancestors."
"Your claim is perfectly good, Giant. By and by, both Washington and Shakespeare will belong to the whole English-speaking world."
"Its proudest ornyments, so to speak. Now, that bein' settled, I'd like to go back to a p'int that troubles me."
"If I can help call on me."
"It's 'bout that song I wuz jest singin'. At the last line o' each verse it says: 'An' the bell'wing thunders roar.' I've thought it over a heap o' times, but I've never rightly made out what a bell'wing thunder is. Thar ain't nothin' 'bout thunder that reminds me o' bells. Now what is it, young William?"
Will began to laugh.
"What do you find so funny?" asked the Little Giant suspiciously.
"Nothing at all! Nothing at all!" replied Will hastily. "'Bell'wing' is bellowing. The writer meant the bellowing thunders, and it's cut off to bell'wing for the sake of rhyme and metre, a poetical liberty, so to speak. You see, poets have liberties denied to other people."
"Wa'al, I reckon they need a few. All that I ever seed did. But I'm mighty glad the p'int hez been settled. It's been botherin' me fur years. Thank you, young William."
"I think now," said Boyd, "that we'd better be looking for a camp."
"Among all these canyons and valleys," said Will, "it shouldn't be hard to find a suitable place."
Canyons were too abundant for easy traveling, and finding a fairly level though narrow place in one of the deepest, they pitched camp there, building a fire with wood which they had added to their packs for this purpose, and feeding to the animals grass which they had cut on the lower slopes. With the warm food and the fire it was not so bad, although the wind began to whistle fiercely far above their heads. The animals hovered near the fire for warmth, looking to the human beings who guided them for protection.
"I think we shall pass the highest point of our journey tomorrow," said Brady, "and then for the descent along the shoulder of the White Dome. Truly the stars have fought for us and I cannot believe that, after having escaped so many perils, we will succumb to others to come."
"O' course we won't," said the Little Giant cheerfully, "an' all the dangers we've passed through will make our gold all the more to us. Things ain't much to you 'less you earn 'em. When I git my million, which is to be my share o' that mine, I'll feel like I earned it."
"A quarter of a million, Tom," laughed Will. "You're getting avaricious as we go on. You raised it to a half million and now you make it a million."
"It does look ez ef my fancy grew more heated the nearer we come to the gold. I do hev big expectations fur a feller that never found a speck of it. How that wind does howl! Do you think, young William, that a glacier is comin' right squar' down on us?"
"No, Tom. Glaciers, like tortoises, move slowly. We'll have time to get out of the way of any glacier. It's easy to outrun the fastest one on the globe."
"I've heard tell that the earth was mostly covered with 'em once. Is that so?"
"They say there was an Ice Age fifty thousand or so years ago, when everything that lived had to huddle along the equator. I don't vouch for it. I'm merely telling what the scholars tell."
"I'll take your word for it, young William, an' all the same I'm glad I didn't live then. Think o' bein' froze to death all your life. Ez it is I'm ez cold ez I keer to be, layin' here right now in this canyon."
"If we were not hunting for gold," said Brady, "I'd try to climb to the top of this mountain. I take it to be close on to fourteen thousand feet in height and I often feel the ambition of the explorer. Perhaps that's why I've been willing to search so long and in vain for the great beaver horde. I find so many interesting things by the way, lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys, game, hot springs, noble forests and many other things that help to make up a splendid world. It's worth while for a man like me, without any ties, just to wander up and down the face of the earth."
"Do you know anything about the country beyond the White Dome?" asked Will.
"Very little, except that it slopes down rapidly to a much lower range of mountains, mostly forested, then to hills, forested also, and after that we have the great plains again."
"Now you've talked enough, young William," said the Little Giant. "It's time for you to sleep, but ez this is goin' to be a mighty cold night up here, fifteen or twenty miles 'bove the clouds, I reckon we'd better git blankets, an' wrap up the hosses an' mules too."
Having enough to go around they tied one blanket around the body of every animal, and Will was the most proficient in the task.
"It's 'cause they help him an' they don't help us," said the Little Giant. "Seein' that you've got such a touch with animals we're goin' to use you the next time we meet a grizzly bear. 'Stead o' wastin' bullets on him an' runnin' the chance o' some o' us gittin' hurt, we'll jest send you forrard to talk to him an' say, 'Ephraim! Old Eph, kindly move out o' the path. You're obstructin' some good men an' scarin' some good hosses an' mules.' Then he'll go right away."
Despite their jesting they pitched the camp for that critical night with the greatest care, making sure that they had the most sheltered place in the canyon, and ranging the horses and mules almost by the side of them. More clothing was brought from the packs and every man was wrapped up like a mummy, the fur coats they had made for themselves proving the best protection. Although the manifold wrappings kept Will's blood warm in his veins, the night itself and their situation created upon his mind the effect of intense cold.
The wind rose all the time, as if it were determined to blow away the side of the mountain, and it howled and shrieked over their heads in all the keys of terror. None of them could sleep for a long time.
"It's real skeery," said the Little Giant. "Mebbe nobody hez ever been up here so high before, an' this old giant of a mountain don't like our settin' here on his neck. I've seen a lot o' the big peaks in the Rockies, w'arin' thar white hats o' snow, an' they allers 'pear to me to be alive, lookin' down so solemn an' sometimes so threatenin'. Hark to that, will you! I know it wuz jest the screamin' o' the wind, but it sounded to me like the howlin' o' a thousand demons. Are you shore, young William, that thar ain't imps an' critters o' that kind on the tops o' high mountings, waitin' fur innocent fellers like us?"
Will slept at last, but the mind that can remain troubled and uneasy through sleep awoke him several times in the course of the night, and always he heard the fierce, threatening blasts shrieking and howling over the mountain. His eyes yet heavy with sleep, it seemed to him in spite of himself that there must be something in the Little Giant's suggestion that imps and demons on the great peaks resented their presence. He knew that it could not be true, but he felt as if it were, and once he rose all swathed in many garments and stroked the noses of the horses and mules, which were moving uneasily and showing other signs of alarm.
Dawn came, clear, with the wind not so high, but icily cold. They fed the last of the little store of hay to the animals, ate cold food themselves, and then crept out of the canyon, leading their horses and mules with the most extreme care, a care that nevertheless would have been in vain had not all the beasts been trained to mountain climbing. It was a most perilous day, but the next night found them so far down on the western slope of the White Dome that they had reached the timber line again.
The trees were dwarfed and scraggly, but they were trees just the same, affording shelter from wind and cold, and fuel for a fire, which the travelers built, providing themselves once more with warm food and coffee as sizzling hot as they could stand it. The animals found a little solace for their hunger by chewing on the tenderest parts of the bushes.
After the meal they built the fire higher, deciding that they would watch by turns and keep it going through the night. As the wind was not so threatening and the glow of the coals was cheerful they slept well, in their turns, and all felt fresh and vigorous when they renewed the journey the next morning. They descended rapidly now among the lower ranges of the mountains and came into heavy forests and grassy openings where the animals ate their fill. Game also was abundant, and they treated themselves to fresh deer meat, the product this time of Brady's rifle. They were all enveloped by a great sense of luxury and rest, and still having the feeling that time was their most abundant commodity, they lingered among the hills and in the timber, where there were clear, cold lakelets and brooks and creeks that later lost themselves on the plains.
It gave Will a great mental stimulus after so many dangers and such tremendous hardships, the survival of which without a wound seemed incredible. He looked back at the vast peak of the White Dome, solemn and majestic, piercing the sky, and it seemed to him at times that it had been a living thing and that it had watched over them in their gigantic flight.
Despite the increased danger there from Indian raids they lingered longer than they had intended among the pleasant hills. The animals, which had been much worn in the passage of the great mountains, and two that became lame in the descent recovered entirely. The Little Giant and the hunter scouted in wide circles, and, seeing no sign of Indian bands, most of their apprehension on that score disappeared, leaving to them a certain sense of luxury as they delayed among the trees, and in the pleasant hills. Will caught some fine trout in one of the larger brooks, and Brady cooked them with extraordinary culinary skill. The lad had never tasted anything finer.
"Come here, young William," said the Little Giant, "an' stand up by the side o' me. No, you haven't grown a foot in height, since I met you, so many days since, but you've grown jest the same. Your chest is bigger, too, an' you eat twice ez much ez you did. I hope that what's inside your head hez done growed too."
"Thomas Bent," said Brady, "you should not talk in such a manner about what's inside his head to the one who is the real leader of this expedition, as the mine is his. He might be insulted, cast you off, and let you go eat corn husks with the prodigal son."
"No, he won't," replied the Little Giant, confidently. "Will, hevin' done tuk me in ez pardner, would never want to put me out ag'in, nor thar ain't no corn husks nor no prodigal son. Besides, he likes fur me to compliment him on his growth. You're older than I am, Steve Brady, but I want to tell you that the man or woman wuz never born who didn't like a little well-placed flattery now an' then, though what I've been sayin' to young William ain't flattery."
"In that matter I'm agreeing with you, Thomas Bent. You're dipping from a well of truth, when you're saying all men are accessible to flattery—and all women too, though perhaps more so."
"Mebbe women are more so an' mebbe men are more so. I reckon it depends on whether a man or woman is tellin' it."
"Which is as near as we'll ever come to a decision," said Brady, "but of one thing I'm sure."
"What's that, Steve?"
"We've dallied long enough with the flesh pots of Egypt. If William will take his glasses he can see the land of Canaan outspread far below us. It is there that we must go."
"An' that thar land o' Canaan," said the Little Giant, "is rid over by Sioux warriors, ready to shoot us with rifles or stick us through with lances. I'd hate to die hangin' on a Sioux lance. Sech a death makes me shiver. Ef I've got to die a violent death, give me a good, honest bullet ev'ry time. You hevn't seen the Sioux at work with lances, hev you, young William?"
"Well, I hev. They fight with 'em, o' course, an' they hev a whole code o' signals with 'em, too. In battle everybody must obey the head chief, who gives the orders to the sub-chiefs, who then direct their men accordin'. Often thar ain't a chance to tell by words an' then they use the lances fur signallin'. In a Sioux army, an', fur the matter o' that, in any Indian army, the hoss Indians is divided into two columns, the right an' the left. When the battle comes on, the head war chief rides to the top o' a ridge or hill, gen'ally 'bout half a mile 'way from the scrap. The columns on the right an' the left are led by the under chiefs.
"Then the big chief begins to tell 'em things with his lance. He ain't goin' to fight with that lance, an' fur other purposes he hez fastened on it near the blade a big piece o' dressed skin a yard squar' an' painted black. Now he stretches the lance straight out in front o' him an' waves it, which means fur both columns to attack all at once an' right away, lickety-split. Ef he stretches the lance out to his right and waves it forward it means fur the right column alone to jump inter the middle o' things, the same movement on the left applyin' to the left column, an' thar's a lot more which I could tell you 'bout lance signallin' which I hope you won't hev to see."
"We will not disguise from ourselves," said Brady, in his usual grave tone, "that we must confront peril when we descend into the plains, yet descend we must, because these mountains and hills won't go on with us. It will be a long time before we strike another high range. On the plains we've got to think of Indians, and then we've got to look out for water, too."
"Our march often makes me think of Xenophon, whom I studied in the high school," said Will.
"What's Xenophon?" asked the Little Giant suspiciously. "I ain't heard o' no sich country."
"Xenophon is not a country. Xenophon was a man, and a good deal of a man. He led a lot of Greeks, along with a lot of Persians, to help a Persian overthrow his brother and seize the throne of the Persian empire. In the battle the Greeks were victorious wherever they were fighting, but the Persian whom they were supporting was killed, and having no more business there they concluded to go away."
"Lost their paymaster, eh?"
"Well, I suppose you could put it that way. Anyway they resolved to go back to their homes in Greece, across mountains, rivers and deserts. Xenophon, who led them, wrote the account of it."
"Then I'll bet that Xenophon looms up pretty big in the tellin' o' it."
"No, he was a modest man, Tom. But what I remember best about the story, they were always marching so many parasangs, so many days' journey to a well of water. It gets to be a sort of fascination with you. You are always wondering how many parasangs they'll march before they come to water. And sometimes you've a kind of horrible fear that there won't be any water to come to, and it keeps you keyed up."
"Same ez ef you wuz in that sort o' condition yourself."
"Something like it."
"Well, mebbe we will be, an' jest you remember, young William, since them Greeks allers come to water, else Xenophon who led them never would hev lived fur the tellin' o' it, that we'll allers come to water, too, even of we do hev to wait a week or two fur it. Cur'us how long you kin live after your tongue hez baked, your throat hez turned to an oven, an' your lips hev curled up with the heat."
"I imagine, Tom," said Boyd, "we're not going to suffer like that."
"I jest wanted to let young William know the worst fust an' he kin fortify himself accordin'."
"I'm prepared to suffer what the rest of you suffer," said the lad.
"The right spirit," said Brady, heartily. "We'll be Davids and Jonathans, cleaving the one unto the other, and now, as we're about to emerge from the last bit of forest I suggest that we fill all our water bottles from this brook among the trees. Thomas has talked so feelingly about thirst that I want to provide against it. We will not strike here the deserts that are to be found in the far south, but we may well have long periods without water free from alkali."
They had many leather water bottles, their packs having been prepared with all the skill of experience and sound judgment, and they filled all of them at the brook, which was pure and cold, flowing down from the mountains. At one of the deeper pools which had a fine bottom of gravel they bathed thoroughly, and afterward let the horses and mules wade into the water and take plunges they seemed to enjoy greatly.
"An' now," said the Little Giant, taking off his hat and looking back, "good-bye trees, good-bye hills, good-bye, high mountains, good-bye all clear, cold streams like this, an' good-bye, you grand White Dome. Say them words after me, young William, 'cause when we git out on the great plains we're likely to miss these friends o' ourn."
He spoke with evident feeling, and Will, taking off his hat, said the words after him, though with more regard to grammar.
"And now, after leading them most of the way," said Boyd, "we'll ride on the backs of our horses."
The four mounted, and, while they regretted the woods and the running water they were about to leave behind them, they were glad to ride once more, and they felt the freedom and exhilaration that would come with the swift, easy motion of their horses. The pack animals, knowing the hands that fed and protected them, would follow with certainty close behind them, and Will, in particular, could lead them as if he had been training them for years.
The vast sweep of the plains into which they now emerged showed great natural beauty, that is, to those who loved freedom and space, and the winds came untarnished a thousand miles. Before them stretched the country, not flat, but in swell on swell, tinted a delicate green, and with wild flowers growing in the tufts of grass.
"I've roamed over 'em for years," said Brady, "and after a while they take a mighty grip on you. It may be all the stronger for me, because I'm somewhat solitary by nature."
"You're shorely not troubled by neighbors out here," said the Little Giant. "I've passed three or four months at a time in the mountings without a soul to speak to but myself. The great West suits a man, who don't want to talk, clean down to the groun'."
Will, the reins lying upon the pommel of his saddle, was surveying the horizon with the powerful glasses which he was so proud to possess, and far in the southeast he noticed a dim blur which did not seem to be a natural part of the plain. It grew as he watched it, assuming the shape of a cloud that moved westward along one side of a triangle, while the four were riding along the other side. If they did not veer from their course they would meet, in time, and the cloud, seemingly of dust, was, therefore, a matter of living interest.
"What are you looking at so long?" asked Boyd.
"A cloud of dust that grows and grows and grows."
"In the southeast."
"I can't see it and I have pretty keen eyes."
"The naked eye won't reach so far, but the dust cloud is there just the same. It's moving in a course almost parallel with us and it grows every second I look at it. It may be the dust kicked up by a band of Sioux horsemen. Take a look, Jim, and tell us what you make of it."
Boyd looked through the glasses, at first with apprehension that soon changed to satisfaction.
"The cloud of dust is growing fast, just as you told us, Will," he said, "and, while it did look for a moment or two like Indian horsemen, it isn't. It's a buffalo herd, and the tail of it runs off into the southeast, clean down under the horizon. Buffaloes move in two kinds of herds, the giant herds, and the little ones. This is a giant, and no mistake. In a few minutes you'll be able to see 'em, plain, with your own eyes."
"I kin see thar dust cloud now," exclaimed the Little Giant. "Looks ez ef they wuz cuttin' 'cross our right o' way."
They rode forward at ease and gradually a mighty cloud of dust, many miles in length and of great width, emerged from the plain, moving steadily toward the northwest. Will, with his glasses, now saw the myriads of black forms that trampled up the dusty typhoons, and was even able to discern the fierce wolves hanging on the flanks in the hope of pulling down a calf or a decrepit old bull.
"They must number millions," he said.
"Like ez not they do," said the Little Giant. "You kin tell tales 'bout the big herds o' bufflers on the plains that nobody will b'lieve, but they're true jest the same. Once at the Platte I saw a herd crossin' fur five days, an' it stretched up an' down the river ez fur ez the eye could see."
"How do they all live? Where do they find enough grass to eat?" asked Will.
"I dunno, but bunch grass is pow'ful fillin' an' fattenin', an' when a country runs fifteen or eighteen hundred miles each way, thar's a lot o' grass in it. The Sioux, the Cheyennes, the Pawnees an' all the plains Indians live on the buffler."
"And in my opinion," said Brady, "the buffalo must have been increasing until the white man came with firearms. Their increase was greater than the toll taken by Indians with bows and arrows and by the wolves. No wonder the Indians fight so hard to retain the plains and the buffalo. With an unlimited meat supply on the hoof, and with limited needs, they undoubtedly lived a happy, nomadic life. If your health is good and your wants are few it's not hard to be happy. The Biblical people were nomadic for a long time, and some of the world's greatest men and women moved with herds and lived in tents. My mind often reverts to those old days and the simplicity of life."
"I've allers thought thar wuz somethin' o' the old Bible 'bout you, Steve," said the Little Giant. "You ain't no prophet. Nobody is nowadays, but you talk like them fightin' an' prayin' old fellers, an' you wander 'roun' the West jest ez they wandered 'bout the land o' Canaan, but shore that you will git to your journey's end at last. An' I know, too, Steve, that when you come to a fight you're jest ez fierce an' terrible ez old Joshua hisself ever wuz, an' ef I ain't mistook it wuz him that wuz called the sword o' the Lord. Ain't I right, young William?"
"I'm not sure," replied the lad, "but if you'll read the Book of Joshua you'll find his sword was a great and terrible weapon indeed."
"What do you think we'd better do, Boyd," asked Brady. "If we keep going we'll find the herd crossing our path, and it will be no use fur us to try to break through it."
"We can move on until we come close up," replied the hunter, "and then wait for the herd to go by. Maybe we might strike a clump of trees in which we could camp. Pick out the country with your glasses, Will, and see if you can find any trees on our side of the moving buffalo line."
Will, after much searching, was able to identify the tops of some trees standing in a dip where, sheltered from the winds that blew unceasingly, they had been able to obtain good size.
"We'll ride fur 'em," said Boyd. "There may be a pool of water in the dip, too."
"But won't the buffaloes stop and drink it up?" asked Will.
"No, they're bearing straight ahead, looking neither to the right nor to the left, going I've no idea where."
"Two million hearts that beat as one," said Will.
They reached the dip in due time, finding it a shallow depression of a half acre, well grown with substantial cottonwoods and containing, as they had surmised, a pool of good water, perhaps twenty feet each way, and two feet deep. Here the animals drank freely, enabling them to save the store they carried for more stringent times, and then all rested among the trees, while myriads of buffaloes thundered by.
Hour after hour they marched past, not a single one stopping for the water and deep grass they must have smelled so near. At times, they were half hidden by the vast cloud of dust in which they moved, and which was of their own making, and at other times the wind of the plains blew it away, revealing the lowered heads and huge black forms, pressing on with some sort of instinct to their unknown destination.
Will watched them a long time and the tremendous sight at last laid a spell upon him. Apparently they had no leaders. What power moved them out of a vast and unknown region into another region, alike vast and unknown? Leaderless though they were, they advanced like the columns of an army and with a single purpose. He climbed into a fork of one of the cottonwoods and used his glasses once more.
First he looked into the northwest, where they were going, and he could not now see the head of the shaggy army or of the dust column that hung above it, as both had passed long since under the horizon. And looking into the southeast he could not see, either, the end of the coming army or of its dust cloud. It emerged continually from under the rim of the horizon, and there was such an effect of steadiness and permanency that it seemed to the lad as if that vast column, black and wide, would be coming on forever.
Then he caught a glimpse of something glinting through the dust and from the other side of the herd a full two miles away. Only good eyes and the most powerful glasses of the time could have detected it at such a moment, but he saw it twice, and then thrice and once more. Then, waiting for the dust to lift a little, he discerned a brilliant ray of sunlight striking on the head of a lance. Looking further and searchingly he was able to note the figures of Indians on their ponies, armed with lances, and cutting out from the herd as many of its choicest members as they wanted, which were always the young and fat cows.
He descended the tree hastily and related what he had seen to the others, who, however, were not stirred greatly by the narration.
"The buffaloes are a river, two miles wide, flowing between us and the savage hunters," said Boyd, "and not having trees to climb and glasses to look through they won't see us."
"Besides, they're taking meat for their village, wherever it may be," said Brady, "and they're not dreaming that white men whose heads can furnish nice scalps are near."
Will shivered a little, and clapped one hand to his hair, which was uncommonly thick and fine.
"Your scalp is thar, right an' tight, young William," said the Little Giant, "but ef the Sioux got up close to you, you'd hev to hold it on with both han's 'stead o' one. Hev any o' you fellers noticed that all of us hev pow'ful thick, strong hair that would make splendid scalps fit to hang in the tepees o' the head chiefs theirselves? It's remarkyble how fine they are, speshully on the heads o' old men like Jim an' Steve."
"Thomas Bent, you irreverent and chunky imp," said Brady, "I, the oldest of this party, am but thirty-eight. I have not yet reached the full prime of my physical powers, and if I should be put to it I could administer to you the thrashing you need."
"And I'm only thirty-six," said Boyd, "and I've licked Tom often and often, though sometimes, when he's feeling right peart, I'd have to use both hands to do it. But I don't have any feeling against him when I do the job. It's just to improve his language and manners. These boys of thirty-two or three are so pesky full of life and friskiness that you have to treat 'em as you would young lions. Before we met you in the mountains, Steve, I generally gave him his thrashing in the morning before breakfast."
He reached a large palm for the Little Giant, who leaped lightly away and laughed.
"Lend me your glasses, young William," he said. "I'd like to climb one o' the cotton woods myself an' take a look at the Indian hunters. O' course you're a bright boy, young William, an' Jim an' Steve are so old they're boun' to hev some intelligence forced upon 'em, but ez fur me brightness an' intelligence come nateral, an' though mighty modest 'bout it, I reckon I'm a kind o' Napoleon o' the West. They say our figgers are tremenjeously alike, though, o' course, I'm thicker an' much stronger than he wuz, an' perhaps a lot brighter in some ways."
"Go on, you supreme egotist," said Brady in his usual solemn tones, "climb the tree, where I cannot hear your voice, and stay there a long time."
The Little Giant was more serious than he pretended to be. He was fully aware that they had lost at least seventy-five per cent of their security when they descended from the high mountains. On the plains it was difficult to fortify against attack, and he did not like the appearance of the Indians, even as hunters on the far side of the buffalo herd. Hence, when he had made himself comfortable in one of the highest forks of a cottonwood, his examination through the glasses was long and critical. He saw, just as Will had seen, the herd coming forever from under the southeastern rim of the horizon and disappearing forever under the northwestern rim. Then he caught glimpses of the hunters still pursuing and cutting out the fat young cows, but instead of being parallel with the little party in the dip they had now passed far beyond it. Then he descended the tree and spoke what he thought.
"Jim Boyd, hunter, Steve Brady, trapper, an' young William," he said, "I'm of the opinion that we'd better stay here at least one day an' night. The river o' buffaloes will be flowin' by at least that long, but ef we wuz to go on an' they wuz to pass us, we might meet the warriors with no river in between, an' we ain't looking fur that."
"Good advice," said Brady. "When the conquerors went down into the land of Canaan they used every chance that nature or circumstance offered them, and why shouldn't we, even though three thousand years or so have elapsed? We will build no fire, but repose calmly in our little clump of trees."
"Good judgment," said Boyd.
"Pleases me," said Will.
All day long and all that night the herd, as wide and dense as ever, was passing. They might have slain enough to feed a great army, but they did not fire a shot. The sight, whether by daylight or moonlight, did not lose its romance and majesty for the lad. It was a black sea, flowing and living, one of the greatest spectacles of the mighty western wilderness, and it was given to him to look upon it.
He grew so used to it by and by that he had no thought of its turning from its course or of its throwing out stragglers like little, diverging currents. It would go on in a vast flood, straight into the unknown, wherever it intended to go.
The horses and mules themselves, though at first uneasy, soon grew used to the passage of the living river, and, since no harm came from it, evidently concluded that none would come. Will walked among them more than once and stroked their manes and then their noses, which they rubbed confidingly against him.
The moon shining that night was very bright, and, the heavens being starred in such brilliant splendor, they saw almost as well as by day. Will, to whom the romantic and majestic appealed with supreme force, began to find a certain enjoyment, or rather a mental uplift, in his extraordinary position. Before him was the great, black and living river, flowing steadily from the unknown into the unknown, to north and to south the rolling plains stretched away to infinity, and behind him, piercing the skies, rose the misty White Dome, a vast peak; now friendly, that seemed to watch over these faithful comrades of his and himself.
None of them slept until late, and they divided the remainder of the night into watches of two hours apiece, Will's running from two until four in the morning. It was Brady whom he succeeded and it required some effort of the will for him to leap at once from his warm blankets and take the place of sentinel in the night, which was now cold, as usual on the plains. But, while averse to bloodshed, he had drilled himself into soldiership in action, always prompt, accurate and thorough, and in less than a minute he was walking up and down, rifle on shoulder, eyes open to everything that was to be seen and ears ready for everything that was to be heard. Stephen Brady, the philosopher, looked at him with approval.
"A prompt and obedient lad is sure to be a good and useful man," he said. "You're as big as a man now, but you haven't the years and the experience. I like you, William, and you are entitled to your share of the Land of Canaan, which, in these later days, may be interpreted variously as the treasures of the spirit and the soul. And now, good-night."
He wrapped himself in his blankets and, sound of body and conscience, he slept at once. Will, walking back and forth, alert, eager, found that nothing had changed while he was in slumber. The buffalo herd flowed on, its speed and its flood the same, while the White Dome towered far into the sky, almost above them, serene, majestic and protecting. It seemed to Will that all the omens were good, that, great though the dangers and hardships might be, they would triumph surely in the end. And the feeling of victory and confidence was still strong upon him when his watch of two hours was finished and he, too, in his turn, slept again.