Chapter XXII. Captured by the Indians
 

"Yes. I recognized it the instant I saw it," answered Ned.

"Cavanagh, what does this mean?" demanded the foreman. "I think it's up to you to explain and mighty quick at that."

"I--I don't know anything about it," stammered the storekeeper.

"Where did you get that hat?"

"I bought it."

"Off whom?"

"Don't know what his name is. I never seen him before."

"Tell me all you know. Come, I've no time to fool away asking you questions. Get to the point."

"I'll tell you all I know. A fellow came in here this afternoon. I give him fifty cents for the hat and that's all there was to it."

"Say where he come from?"

"Yes, said he was down from the Medicine range."

"That's more than thirty miles north of here," mused the foreman. "I don't understand it. You sure that's all he said?"

"Yes; I don't know any more."

"Then we'll be off. I guess we'd better hit the trail for the Medicine range to-night so as to be well on our way by daylight."

"Here's fifty cents. I'll take the hat with me," said Ned, tossing a half dollar on the counter, and stowing the sombrero under his belt.

They hurried from the store, with a parting injunction to Cavanagh to be watchful. Mounting their ponies they rode swiftly away.

"We'll return to camp before we leave for the north," said Luke.

As the sun went down, Tad, becoming concerned for himself, turned sharply to the right, urging his pony on so as to get back to camp before night. He did not relish the idea of spending another night alone in the mountains.

"I believe I don't know where I am," decided the lad at last, pulling up sharply and gazing first at the sky, then at the unfamiliar landscape about him. "I seem to have acquired the habit of getting lost. Hello, I hear some one coming. W-h-o-o-p-e-e!" he shouted to attract the attention of the newcomers, hoping that it might be some of the men from the Simms outfit.

There were several of them, and though they made no reply, he heard them turn their ponies in his direction. Suddenly there rode into the little clearing where he was sitting on his pony, half a dozen men, the sight of whom made him take a short, sharp breath.

"Indians!" he gasped.

With gaudily painted faces, bright blankets and buckskin suits, they made a picturesque group as they halted and surveyed the young man questioningly.

One who appeared to be the leader of the party rode forward and peered into Tad's face.

"How," he grunted.

"How," answered Tad, saluting bravely, but feeling far from brave at that moment.

A second and younger brave rode up at this point and in very good English asked the lad who he was.

"I am from the Simms sheep ranch, and I guess I have lost my way. If you can set me straight, I shall be very much obliged."

The younger man consulted with the older one, who had greeted Tad first.

"The chief says we are going that way. If you will come along with us we will leave you within about a mile of the camp."

"Very well," answered the boy, with some reluctance. They seemed friendly enough and, besides, there could be no danger to him in accompanying them.

As they started to move on, Tad clucked to Pink-eye and fell in with the party. He noticed shortly, that the others had ridden up and that he was in reality surrounded by the painted braves. Then he remembered that he had heard of roving bands of Indians in that part of the country--Indians who had been getting off their reservations and indulging in various depredations.

"Are we getting near the place?" asked the lad finally, a growing uneasiness rising within him.

"I'll ask the chief," said the young Indian, who had been riding by Tad's side. "He says it will he two hours yet," was the reply, after a series of grunts and gestures had passed between the men.

"It didn't take me that long to get here."

"Camp almost one sun away."

"Who is he?" indicating the leader of the party.

"Chief."

"What's his name?"

"Chief Willy. He doesn't talk much English."

"You do, though," answered Tad, glancing up at the expressionless face of his companion.

"Me with Wild West show long, long time."

"Is that so. Maybe I have seen you. Were you with the show that was in Chillicothe last summer? I saw the show then."

"Me with um," answered the redskin.

"Why, that's interesting," said the boy, now thoroughly interested and for the time so absorbed in questioning the Indian about his life with the show that he forgot his own uneasiness.

By this time, darkness intense and impenetrable, at least to the eyes of the boy, had settled down about them. Yet it seemed to make no difference to the Indians, who kept their ponies at a steady jog-trot, picking their way unerringly, avoiding rocks and treacherous holes as if it were broad daylight.

Tad did not try to guide Pink-eye any more, but let him follow the others, and when he got a little out of his course, the pony next to him would crowd Pink-eye over where he belonged.

"Seems to me we are a long time getting there," announced the boy finally. He was beginning to grow uneasy again.

"Come camp bymeby," informed the young Indian. "Chief, him know way."

Tad had his doubts about that, but he thought it best not to tell them of his misgivings until he was certain. Perhaps they were honest Indians after all and were only seeking to do him a favor.

The lad was getting tired and hungry, having had nothing more than a mutton sandwich since early morning. He judged it must be getting close to midnight now.

As if interpreting his thoughts, the young Indian rode up close beside him, at the same time thrusting something into Tad's hand. "What is it?" asked the boy. "Eat. Good meat," answered the Indian. The boy nibbled at it gingerly. It was meat of some kind, and it was tough. But most anything in the nature of food was acceptable to him then, so he helped himself more liberally and enjoyed his lunch. The dried meat was excellent, even if it was tough to chew.

After a little they came to a level stretch, and now the Indians put their ponies to a lively gallop, which Pink-eye, being surrounded by the other ponies, was forced to fall into to keep from getting run down by the riders behind him. Faster and faster they forced their mounts forward, uttering sharp little exclamations to urge them on, accompanied by sundry grunts and unintelligible mutterings.

That they all meant something, the boy felt sure. But it meant nothing to him so far as understanding was concerned.

After hours had passed the lad found all at once that the gray dawn was upon them and it was not many minutes before the stolid faces of his companions stood out clear and distinct.

Tad jerked Pink-eye up sharply.

"See here, where are you taking me to?" he demanded.

"Camp," grunted the young Indian.

"You're not. You are taking me away. I shall not go another step with you."

Summoning all his courage the boy turned his pony about and started to move away. A quick, grunted order from the chief and one of the braves caught Pink-eye's bridle, jerking him back to his previous position.

"Take your hands off, please," demanded Tad quietly. "You've no right to do that. For some reason you have deceived me and taken me far from home. I'll----"

"No make chief angry," urged the young brave.

"I tell you I'm going. You let me alone," persisted the boy, making another effort to ride from them.

This time the chief whirled his own pony across Tad's path. From under his blanket, he permitted the boy to see the muzzle of a revolver that was protruding there.

"Ugh!" grunted the chief. "Him say you must go. Him shoot! No hurt paleface boy."

Tad hesitated. His inclination was to put spurs to Pink-eye and dash away. He did not fear the chief's revolver so much for himself. He did fear, however, that the chief might shoot his pony from under him, which would leave the boy in a worse predicament still.

"All right, I'll go with you. But I warn you the first white man I see, I'll tell him you are taking me away."

"Ugh!"

"If he shoots, I don't see how he can help hurting me," added the lad to himself, with a mirthless grin.

"Bymeby, boy go back with paleface friends."

"That's what I expect to do. But if Luke Larue finds out you have taken me away against my will, he'll do some shooting before the big chief gets a chance to. Where are you taking me to?"

Shrugs of the shoulders was all the answer that Tad could get, so he decided to make the best of his position and escape at the first opportunity. Keeping his eyes on the alert he followed along without further protest.

Once, as they ascended a sudden rise of ground on the gallop, he discovered two horsemen on beyond them about half a mile as near as he was able to judge.

Evidently the Indians saw them at the same instant, for they changed their course and went off into the rougher lands to the left.

"Had they been nearer, I'd have taken a chance and yelled for help," thought the boy. "I will do it the next time I get a chance even if they are a long way off. I can make somebody hear."

But they gave him no chance to put his plan into practice. Not a human being did Tad see during the rest of the journey, nor even a sign of human habitation. Evidently they were traveling through a very rough, uninhabited part of the state. If this were the case, he reasoned that they must be working northward. This surmise was verified with the rising of the sun.

Chief Willy gave the lad a quick glance and grunted when he saw his captive looking up at the sun.

The chief then uttered a series of grunts, which the younger Indian interpreted as meaning that they would soon reach their destination.

Tad was somewhat relieved to hear this, for he ached all over from his many hours in the saddle. Then again he was sleepy and hungry as well. They offered him no more food, so he concluded that they had none. In any event he did not propose to ask for more, even if he were starving.

Along about nine o'clock in the morning they came suddenly upon a broad river. Without hesitation the braves plunged their ponies in, with Tad and Pink-eye following. There was nothing else they could do tinder the circumstances.

The water was not deep, however, the chief having chosen a spot for fording where the stream was not above the ponies' hips. Tad lifted up his legs to keep them dry, but the Indians stolidly held their feet in their stirrups, appearing not to notice that they were getting wet.

"What river is this!" he asked, the first question he had ventured in a long time.

The young brave referred the question to his chief, to which the usual grunt of response was made.

"Him say don't know."

Tad grinned.

"For men who can find their way in the dark as well as these fellows can, they know less than I would naturally suppose," smiled the boy.

The chief saw the smile and scowled.

Tad made careful note of the fording place in case he should have occasion to cross the river on his own hook later on. He examined the hills on both sides of the stream at the same time.

Leaving the river behind them, they began a gradual ascent. Now they did not seem to be in so great a hurry as before, and allowed their ponies to walk for a mile or so, after which they took up their easy jog again. Shortly after that the boy descried several wreaths of smoke curling up into the morning sky. The Indians were heading straight toward the smoke.

At first Tad had felt a thrill of hope. But a few moments later when a number of tepees grew slowly out of the landscape he saw that they were approaching what appeared to be an Indian village, and his heart sank within him.