2. MANUELITO'S TREACHERY.
All this time Darkey Jim had been sleeping soundly, wrapped in his blankets, with his feet to the fire. There was never an hour, day or night, when this lively African could not loll at full length, in sunshine or shade, and forget his cares, if cares he ever had, in less than three minutes. In this case, despite Sieber's warning, which he had overheard, he simply took note of the fact that the captain and Corporal Pike were looking after things and that was enough for him. There was no use in worrying when "Marsa Gwin" was on guard, and
Manuelito was thoroughly aware of this trait of his "stable-mate," else he had not dared to bring the captain's horse so close to the fire. Now his fierce, half Indian face seemed full of perplexity and dread. The Apache signal fire still glowed among the black pines away to the westward. The captain and Corporal Pike were hurriedly coming towards him through the stunted trees, — yet here he stood with "Gregg," all irresolute, all fearful what to do. Back towards those black pines and the long reach of road beyond he dare not go. The Tontos held the line of retreat. Here in camp he hardly dare remain for the keen cut in "Gregg's" side line showed plainly that the knife had been used, and left him accused of treachery. Out of the
‘‘I shall only go out a short four miles,’’ said the former, ‘‘but I must satisfy myself as to whether those beggars are coming this way to-night. Gregg and I have 'stalked' them many a time and the country is all flat and open for six miles back.’’
Who can say with what love and yearning the father bent over those little faces as he peered in upon them? The flickering light of the camp-fire threw an occasional glimmer over them — just enough to enable him to see at times the contour yet hardly to reveal the features of "his babies." He dare not kiss for fear of waking them. ‘‘God bless and guard you, darlings,’’ was the choking prayer that fell from his lips. Then, vigorous and determined, he sprang into saddle.
Three minutes more and they heard the rythmic beat of "Gregg's" hoofs out on the open plateau and dying away westward, sturdy, measured, steady in the trot the captain preferred to any other gait. Pike moved out to the edge of the timber, where he could hear the last of it — a big anxiety welling up in his heart and a world of responsibility with it; but he clutched his carbine the more firmly and gave a backward glance, his face softening as his eyes fell upon the wagon where little Ned and Nell lay sleeping, and darkening with menace and suspicion as he took one swift look at Manuelito, cowering there over the fire.
Once out at his chosen station, Pike found himself in a position where he could "cover" three important objects. Here, close at his right hand, between him and the lake, the horses and mules were browsing peacefully and as utterly undisturbed as though there were not an Apache within a thousand miles. To his rear, about fifty yards, were the two wagons, the little camp-fire and flitting restlessly about it the slouching form of Manuelito. In front of him, close at hand, nothing but a dark level of open prairie; then a stretch of impenetrable blackness; then, far away towards the western horizon, that black, piney ridge, stretching from north to south across the
The night was still as the grave; the skies cloudless and studded with stars. One of these came shooting earthward just after he took his post, and seemed to plunge into vacancy and be lost in its own combustion over towards Jarvis Pass behind him. This gave him opportunity to glance backward again, and there was Manuelito still cowering over the fire. Then once more he turned to the west, watching, listening.
Many a year had old Pike served with the standards of the cavalry. All through the great civil war he had born manful, if humble part, but with his fifth enlistment stripe on his dress coat, a round thousand dollars of savings and a discharge that said under the head of "Character," "A brave, reliable and trustworthy man," the old corporal had chosen to add to his savings by taking his chances with Captain Gwynne, hoping to reach Santa Fe and thence the Kansas Pacific to St. Louis, to betterment of his pocket and to the service of one, at least, of his former troop commanders. No coward was Pike, but he had visions of a far-away home his coming would bless, where a loved sister's children would gather about his knee and hear his stories of battle and adventure, and where his dollars would enable him to give comforts and comfits, toys and "taffee" to her little ones. Was he not conscious
‘‘If it were anybody else now but old Gwynne,’’ he muttered to himself, ‘‘things wouldn't be so mixed, but he never did have any horse sense and now has run us into this scrape — and it's a bad one or I'm no judge.’’
Then he glanced over his shoulder again. Manuelito was shuffling about the fire apparently doing nothing. Presently the ex-corporal saw the Mexican saunter up to the wagons and Pike took several strides through the timber watching before he said a word; yet, with the instinct of the old soldier, he brought his carbine to full cock. Somehow
But the suspected greaser seemed to content himself with a cursory examination of the forage and baggage wagon and presently came slouching back to the fire again. He had some scrap of harness in his hand and Pike longed to know what, but it was too far from his post of observation. He decided to remain where he was. He must listen for the captain. All the same he kept vigilant watch of Manuelito's movements and ere long, when the fire brightened up a bit, he made out that the "greaser" was fumbling over nothing else than a side line. Now what did that mean?
Pike took a turn through the little herd of "stock," bending down and feeling the side line of each horse and mule. All were secure and in perfect order. The one in Manuelito's hands, therefore, was probably "Gregg's," or an extra "pair" that he had in his wagon. There was nothing out of the way about that after all, so Pike resumed his watch towards the west, where still the Apache beacon was burning.
MANUELITO WAS SHUFFLING ABOUT THE FIRE APPARENTLY DOING NOTHING.
It must have been half after ten o'clock. Manuelito had slunk down by the fire, and not a sound was to be heard except Jim's musical snore, and a little cropping noise among the horses. Yet Pike's quick ear caught, far out on the prairie to the west, the sound of hoofs coming towards him.
‘‘When those Apaches named a horse 'click-click' they must have struck one that interfered,’’ he muttered. ‘‘Now that's old Gregg coming in, I'll bet my boots, and there's not a click about his tread. 'Course there might be on rock, instead of this soft earth. The captain's back sooner than I supposed he'd come. What's up?’’
‘‘I didn't venture too far, but I went far enough to learn by my night glass and my ears that those scoundrels were having a war-dance. Now the chances are they'll keep it up all night until they gather in all the renegades in the neighborhood. Then come after us. This is no place to make a fight. It's all open here. But the road is good all the way to Sunset, and once there I know a nook among the rocks where we
In ten minutes Black Jim, roused by vigorous kicks, was silently but briskly hitching in his team, Manuelito silently but suddenly buckling the harness about his mules. Irish Kate, aroused by the clatter, had poked her head from underneath the canvas to inquire what was the matter, and, at a few words from the captain, had shrunk
‘‘Let the children sleep as long as possible, Kate,’’ were Gwynne's orders. ‘‘The jolting will wake them too soon, I fear, but we've got to push ahead to Sunset Pass at once. There are Indians ten miles behind us.’’
‘‘Now, Pike, ride ahead and keep sharp lookout for the road. I'll jump up here beside Jim and drive, keeping right on your trail. Old 'Gregg' will tow along behind the wagon. He is too tired to carry any one else this day — and you — Manuelito, hark ye, keep right behind 'Gregg.' Don't fall back ten yards. I want you right here with us, and if anything goes wrong with your team, or you cannot keep up, shout and we'll wait for you. Now, then, Pike, forward!’’
‘‘The Tontos were ten miles behind us, Ned, my boy, when we left Snow Lake, and are farther away now. These mountain Apaches in northern Arizona have no horses, you know, and have to travel afoot. Not a rod will they journey at night if they can help themselves — the lazy beggars!’’
And so the poor father, realizing at last the fruits of his obstinacy, strove to reassure his children and his dependants. Little Nell was too young to fully appreciate their peril, and soon fell asleep with her curly head pillowed on Kate's broad lap. Ned, too, valiant little man, soon succumbed and, still grasping his Ballard, fell sound asleep. In darkness and silence the little convoy sped swiftly along, and at last, far in the ‘‘wee sma' hours,’’ Pike hailed:
Down the road the captain went stumbling afoot. Everything was rock, bowlder and darkness now. The early morning wind was sighing through the pines up the mountain side at the south. All else was silence.