XIV. A Prisoner
 

It chanced that as I lay on my side my eye caught a gleam of light through a little ragged hole in the matting of pine branches. Part of the interior of the cabin, the doorway, and some space outside were plainly visible. The thud of horses had given place to snorts, and then came a flopping of saddles and packs on the ground. "Any water hyar?" asked a gruff voice I recognized as Bill's. "Spring right thar," replied a voice I knew to be Bud's.

"You onery old cayuse, stand still!"

From that I gathered Herky was taking the saddle off his horse.

"Here, Leslie, I'll untie you--if you'll promise not to bolt."

That voice was Buell's. I would have known it among a thousand. And Dick was still a prisoner.

"Bolt! If you let me loose I'll beat your fat head off!" replied Dick. "Ha! A lot you care about my sore wrists. You're weakening, Buell, and you know it. You've got a yellow streak."

"Shet up!" said Herky, in a low, sharp tone. A silence followed. "Buell, look hyar in the trail. Tracks! Goin' in an' comin' out."

"How old are they?"

"I'll bet a hoss they ain't an hour old."

"Somebody's usin' the cabin, eh?"

The men then fell to whispering, and I could not understand what was said, but I fancied they were thinking only of me. My mind worked fast. Buell and his fellows had surely not run across Hiram Bent. Had the old hunter deserted me? I flouted such a thought. It was next to a certainty that he had seen the lumbermen, and for reasons best known to himself had not returned to the cabin. But he was out there somewhere among the pines, and I did not think any of those ruffians was safe.

Then I heard stealthy footsteps approaching. Soon I saw the Mexican slipping cautiously to the door. He peeped within. Probably the interior was dark to him, as it had been to me. He was not a coward, for he stepped inside.

At that instant there was a clinking sound, a rush and a roar, and a black mass appeared to hurl itself upon the Mexican. He went down with a piercing shriek. Then began a fearful commotion. Screams and roars mingled with the noise of combat. I saw a whirling cloud of dust on the cabin floor. The cub had jumped on the Mexican. What an unmerciful beating he was giving that Greaser! I could have yelled out in my glee. I had to bite my tongue to keep from urging on my docile little pet bear. Greaser surely thought he had fallen in with his evil spirit, for he howled to the saints to save him.

Herky-Jerky was the only one of his companions brave enough to start to help him.

"The cabin's full of b'ars!" he yelled.

At his cry the bear leaped out of the cloud of dust, and shot across the threshold like black lightning. In his onslaught upon Greaser he had broken his halter. Herky-Jerky stood directly in his path. I caught only a glimpse, but it served to show that Herky was badly scared. The cub dove at Herky, under him, straight between his legs like a greased pig, and, spilling him all over the trail, sped on out of sight. Herky raised himself, and then he sat there, red as a lobster, and bawled curses while he made his huge revolver spurt flame on flame.

I could not see the other men, but their uproarious mirth could have been heard half a mile away. When it dawned upon Herky, he was so furious that he spat at them like an angry cat and clicked his empty revolver.

Then Greaser lurched out of the door. I got a glimpse of him, and, for a wonder, was actually sorry for him. He looked as if he had been through a threshing-machine.

"Haw! haw! Ho! ho!" roared the merry lumbermen.

Then they trooped into the cabin. Buell headed the line, and Herky, sullenly reloading his revolver, came last. At first they groped around in the dim light, stumbling over everything. Part of the time they were in the light space near the door, and the rest I could not see them. I scarcely dared to breathe. I felt a creepy chill, and my eyesight grew dim.

"Who does this stuff belong to, anyhow?" Buell was saying. "An' what was thet bear doin' in here?"

"He was roped up--hyar's the hitch," answered Bud.

"An' hyar's a rifle--Winchester--ain't been used much. Buell, it's thet kid's!"

I heard rapid footsteps and smothered exclamations.

"Take it from me, you're right!" ejaculated Buell. "We jest missed him. Herky, them tracks out there? Somebody's with this boy--who?"

"It's Jim Williams," put in Dick Leslie, cool-voiced and threatening.

The little stillness that followed his words was broken by Buell.

"Naw! 'Twasn't Williams. You can't bluff this bunch, Leslie. By your own words Williams is lookin' for us, an' if he's lookin' for anybody I know he's lookin' for 'em. See!"

"Buell, the kid's fell in with old Bent, the b'ar hunter," said Bill. "Thet accounts fer the cub. Bent's allus got cubs, an' kittens, an' sich. An' I'll tell you, he ain't no better friend of ourn than Jim Williams."

"I'd about as soon tackle Williams as Bent," put in Bud.

Buell shook his fist. "What luck the kid has! But I'll get him, take it from me! Now, what's best to do?"

"Buell, the game's going against you," said Dick Leslie. "The penitentiary is where you'll finish. You'd better let me loose. Old Bent will find Jim Williams, and then you fellows will be up against it. There's going to be somebody killed. The best thing for you to do is to let me go and then cut out yourself."

Buell breathed as heavily as a porpoise, and his footsteps pounded hard.

"Leslie, I'm seein' this out--understand? When Bud rode down to the mill an' told me the kid had got away I made up my mind to ketch him an' shet his mouth--one way or another. An' I'll do it. Take thet from me!"

"Bah!" sneered Dick. "You're sca'red into the middle of next week right now. . . . Besides, if you do ketch Ken it won't do you any good-now!"

"What?"

But Dick shut up like a clam, and not another word could be gotten from him. Buell fumed and stamped.

"Bud, you're the only one in this bunch of loggerheads thet has any sense. What d'you say?"

"Quiet down an' wait here," replied Bud. "Mebbe old Bent didn't hear them shots of Herky's. He may come back. Let's wait awhile, an', if he doesn't come, put Herky on the trail."

"Good! Greaser, go out an' hide the hosses--drive them up the canyon."

The Mexican shuffled out, and all the others settled down to quiet. I heard some of them light their pipes. Bud leaned against the left of the door, Buell sat on the other side, and beyond them I saw as much of Herky as his boots. I knew him by his bow-legs.

The stillness that set in began to be hard on me'. When the men were moving about and talking I had been so interested that my predicament did not occupy my mind. But now, with those ruffians waiting silently below, I was beset with a thousand fears. The very consciousness that I must be quiet made it almost impossible. Then I became aware that my one position cramped my arm and side. A million prickling needles were at my elbow. A band as of steel tightened about my breast. I grew hot and cold, and trembled. I knew the slightest move would be fatal, so I bent all my mind to lying quiet as a stone.

Greaser came limping back into the cabin, and found a seat without any one speaking. It was so still that I heard the silken rustle of paper as he rolled a cigarette. Moments that seemed long as years passed, with my muscles clamped as in a vise. If only I had lain down upon my back! But there I was, half raised on my elbow, in a most awkward and uncomfortable position. I tried not to mind the tingling in my arm, but to think of Hiram, of Jim, of my mustang. But presently I could not think of anything except the certainty that I would soon lose control of my muscles and fall over.

The tingling changed to a painful vibration, and perspiration stung my face. The strain became unbearable. All of a sudden something seemed to break within me, and my muscles began to ripple and shake. I had no power to stop it. More than that, the feeling was so terrible that I knew I would welcome discovery as a relief.

"Sh-s-s-h!" whispered some one below.

I turned my eyes down to the peep-hole. Bud had moved over squarely into the light of the door. He was bending over something. Then he extended his hand, back uppermost, toward Buell. On the back of that broad brown hand were pieces of leaf and bits of pine-needles. The trembling of my body had shaken these from the brush on the rickety loft. More than that, in the yellow bar of sunlight which streamed in at the door there floated particles of dust.

Bud silently looked upward. There was a gleam in his black eyes, and his mouth was agape. Buell's gaze followed Bud's, and his face grew curious, intent, then fixed in a cunning, bold smile of satisfaction. He rose to his feet.

"Come down out o' thet!" he ordered, harshly. "Come down!"

The sound of his voice stilled my trembling. I did not move nor breathe. I saw Buell loom up hugely and Bud slowly rise. Herky-Jerky's boots suddenly stood on end, and I knew then he had also risen. The silence which followed Buell's order was so dense that it oppressed me.

"Come down!" repeated Buell.

There was no hint of doubt in his deep voice, but a cold certainty and a brutal note. I had feared the man before, but that gave me new terror.

"Bud, climb the ladder," commanded Buell.

"I ain't stuck on thet job," rejoined Bud.

As his heavy boots thumped on the ladder they jarred the whole cabin. My very desperation filled me with the fierceness of a cornered animal. I caught sight of a short branch of the thickness of a man's arm, and, grasping it, I slowly raised myself. When Bud's black, round head appeared above the loft I hit it with all my might.

Bud bawled like a wounded animal, and fell to the ground with the noise of a load of bricks. Through my peep-hole I saw him writhing, with both hands pressed to his head. Then, lying flat on his back, he whipped out his revolver. I saw the red spurt, the puff of smoke. Bang!

A bullet zipped through the brush, and tore a hole through the roof.

Bang! Bang!

I felt a hot, tearing pain in my arm.

"Stop, you black idiot!" yelled Buell. He kicked the revolver out of Bud's hand. "What d'you mean by thet?"

In the momentary silence that followed I listened intently, even while I held tightly to my arm. From its feeling my arm seemed to be shot off, but it was only a flesh-wound. After the first instant of shock I was not scared. But blood flowed fast. Warm, oily, slippery, it ran down inside my shirt sleeve and dripped off my fingers.

"Bud," hoarsely spoke up Bill, breaking the stillness, "mebbe you killed him!"

Buell coughed, as if choking.

"What's thet?" For once his deep voice was pitched low. "Listen."

Drip! drip! drip! It was like the sound of water dripping from a leak in a roof. It was directly under me, and, quick as thought, I knew the sound was made by my own dripping blood.

"Find thet, somebody," ordered Buell.

Drip! drip! drip!

One of the men stepped noisily.

"Hyar it is--thar," said Bill. "Look on my hand. . . . Blood! I knowed it. Bud got him, all right."

There was a sudden rustling such as might come from a quick, strained movement.

"Buell," cried Dick Leslie. in piercing tones, "Heaven help you murdering thieves if that boy's killed! I'll see you strung up right in this forest. Ken, speak! Speak!"

It seemed then, in my pain and bitterness, that I would rather let Buell think me dead. Dick's voice went straight to my heart, but I made no answer.

"Leslie, I didn't kill him, an' I didn't order it," said Buell, in a voice strangely shrunk and shaken. "I meant no harm to the lad. . . . Go up, Bud, an' get him."

Bud made no move, nor did Greaser when he was ordered. "Go up, somebody, an' see what's up there!" shouted Buell. "Strikes me you might go yourself," said Bill, coolly.

With a growl Buell mounted the ladder. When his great shock head hove in sight I was seized by a mad desire to give him a little of his own medicine. With both hands I lifted the piece of pine branch and brought it down with every ounce of strength in me.

Like a pistol it cracked on Buell's head and snapped into bits. The lumberman gave a smothered groan, then clattered down the ladder and rolled on the floor. There he lay quiet.

"All-fired dead--thet kid--now, ain't he?" said Bud, sarcastically. "How'd you like thet crack on the knob? You'll need a larger size hat, mebbe. Herky-Jerky, you go up an' see what's up there."

"I've a picture of myself goin'," replied Herky, without moving.

"Whar's the water? Get some water, Greaser," chimed in Bill.

From the way they worked over Buell, I concluded he had been pretty badly stunned. But he came to presently.

"What struck me?" he asked.

"Oh, nothin'," replied Bud, derisively. "The loft up thar's full of air, an' it blowed on you, thet's all."

Buell got up, and began walking around.

"Bill, go out an' fetch in some long poles," he said.

When Bill returned with a number of sharp, bayonet-like pikes I knew the game was all up for me. Several of the men began to prod through the thin covering of dry brush. One of them reached me, and struck so hard that I lurched violently.

That was too much for the rickety loft floor. It was only a bit of brush laid on a netting of slender poles. It creaked, rasped, and went down with a crash. I alighted upon somebody, and knocked him to the floor. Whoever it was, seized me with iron hands. I was buried, almost smothered, in the dusty mass. My captor began to curse cheerfully, and I knew then that Herky-Jerky had made me a prisoner.