Chapter XXIII. In the Home of the Blackfeet
 

Their coming was greeted by the loud barking of dogs, while from the tepees appeared as if by magic, women and children, together with innumerable braves and boys.

They fairly swarmed out into the open space in front of the camp, setting up a shout as they recognized the newcomers.

"They seem to be mighty glad to see us,"

growled Tad. "Wish I could say as much for them."

The ponies, seeming to share the general good feeling, pricked up their ears and dashed into the camp at a gallop, Pink-eye with the rest. Almost before the little animals had come to a stop, the braves threw themselves from their saddles and darted into their tepees.

"They seem to have left me out of it, so I guess I'll go back," decided the lad half humorously. But he was given no chance to slip away. The young brave who had accompanied his chief, came running out and grasped the pony by its bridle.

"Boy, git off," he said.

Tad threw a leg over the pommel and landed on the ground. He could hardly stand, so stiff were his legs.

The young brave took him into one of the tepees, held the flap aside while Tad entered, then closed it. The lad heard him moving away. Tired out and dispirited, Tad Butler threw himself down on the grass and, in spite of his troubles, was asleep in a few moments.

A dog barking in front of his tepee awakened him. The boy pulled the flap aside ever so little and peered out. He was surprised to find that the sun was setting. He had been asleep practically all day long.

Scrambling to his feet hastily the lad stepped outside. He did not know whether he would be permitted to roam about, but he proposed to try. The answer came quickly. A brave whom he had not seen before suddenly appeared and, with a grunt of disapproval, grabbed Tad by the arms, fairly flinging him into the tepee.

The lad's cheeks burned with indignation.

"I'll teach them to insult me like that," he fumed, shaking his fist toward the opening. "I'll look out anyway."

He did so, prudently drawing the flap close whenever he heard anyone approaching. Once as he peered out, a disreputable looking cur snapped at his legs. First, the lad coaxed the animal, then tried to drive him away, finally administering a kick that sent the dog away howling.

"I've got revenge on one of the gang anyway," he laughed. "But it's not much of a revenge, at that. I wonder if they are going to bring me anything to eat. I----"

The flap was suddenly jerked aside and the face of the chief appeared in the opening.

"How," greeted Chief Willy.

"How," answered Tad rather sullenly. "What do you want?"

"Paleface want eat?"

"You ought not to have to ask that question. So you can talk English just a little bit? Chief, when are you going to let me go away from here? It will only get you into trouble if you try to keep me. They are sure to find me."

"No find," grunted the chief.

"Oh, yes they will."

"Ugh," answered the redskin, hastily withdrawing. Then followed another long period when Tad was left alone with his thoughts.

"I wonder two things," thought the lad aloud. "I wonder what he brought me here for and I wonder when I am going to get something to eat? Captured by the Indians, eh? That's more than the rest of the Pony Riders can say."

Yet there was a more serious side to it all. They had taken him prisoner for some purpose, but what that purpose was he could not imagine.

His thoughts were interrupted by some one silently entering the tent. Glancing up, Tad saw a slender, rather pretty Indian girl standing there looking down at him.

The boy scrambled to his feet and took off his sombrero.

"How," he said.

The girl answered in kind. Then she placed on the ground before him a bowl of soup and a plate of steaming stew. Tad sniffed the odor of mutton, which now was so familiar to him, wondering at the same time, if it had come from Mr. Simms's flock.

"Thank you," he said. "If you will excuse me I will eat. I'm awfully hungry.

She nodded and Tad went at the meal almost ravenously. The Indian girl squatted down on the ground and watched him.

"What's your name?" he asked between mouthfuls.

"Jinny."

"That's a funny name. Doesn't sound like an Indian name. Is it?"

"Me not know. Young buck heap big eat," she added.

"Yes. Oh, yes, I have something of an appetite," laughed Tad. "Jinny, what are they going to do with me, do you know?"

The girl shook her head with emphasis.

"What tribe is this?"

"Blackfeet. Other paleface boy here too."

Tad set down his plate and surveyed her inquiringly.

"Say that again, please. You say there's another paleface boy here in this village?"

Jinny nodded vigorously.

"Who is he?"

"Jinny not know."

"When did he--how long has he been here?"

"Sun-up."

"This morning?"

"Yes. He there," pointing with a finger to the lower end of the village.

Tad's curiosity was aroused. He wondered if another besides himself had been made an unwilling guest by the Blackfeet wanderers. If so, it must have been by another party. A sudden thought occurred to him. Tad was wearing a cheap ring on the little finger of his left hand. He had picked up the ring on the plains in Texas. Hastily stripping it from his finger he handed it to the girl.

"Want it, Jinny?"

She did. Her eyes sparkled as she slipped it on her own finger and held it off to view the effect.

"Thank," she said, turning her glowing eyes on Tad.

"You're welcome. But now I want you to do something for me. I'll send you another, a big, big ring when I get home, if you will help me to get away from here."

Jinny eyed him steadily for a few seconds, then shook her head.

"I'll send you beads, too, Jinny--beads like the paleface ladies wear."

"You send Jinny white woman beads!"

"I promise you."

"Me help um little paleface buck. Me help um two," she added, holding up two fingers. Without another word, she slipped from the tepee as silently as she had come.

Tad pondered over this last remark for some time. He did not understand what Jinny had meant.

"So I'm a buck, am I? That's one thing I haven't been called before since I have been out on the range. She said she would help me to get away. I wonder when she is going to do it."

Though Tad waited patiently until late in the evening, he saw no more of the little Indian girl. Shortly after dark several camp-fires were lighted, the cheerful blazes lighting up the street or common in front of the row of tepees in which his own was located.

Children played about the fires, the dogs were disputing over the bones tossed to them after the evening meal, while the squaws and braves, gathered in separate groups, were squatting about, gesticulating and talking.

To Tad Butler the scene held a real interest. He had never before seen an Indian camp, and least of all been a prisoner in it. He lay down on his stomach, with elbows on the ground, chin in hands, and gazed out over the village curiously.

"I wonder who that other boy is," he mused. "I presume he is a prisoner, too. Hello, there's my guard."

An Indian, with knees clasped in his arms, was rocking to and fro a little distance from the tepee. Though he was not looking toward Tad's tent, the lad felt sure the fellow had been placed there to watch him. He understood then why Jinny had not been to the tepee since bringing his meal.

Finally the camp quieted down, the fires smouldered and the dogs stretched out before them for sleep. Tad Butler's tired head drooped lower and lower, his elbows settling until his arms were down and he was lying prone upon the ground, sound asleep.

After a time the Indian whom the lad had seen sitting out in front rose, and, stepping softly to the tepee, looked in. He gave a grunt of satisfaction, threw himself down right at the entrance and was snoring heavily half a minute later.

The camp slumbered on undisturbed until aroused by the ill-natured curs at daybreak next morning.

Tad was awakened by one of them barking at his door and snapping at him. Suddenly pulling his flap open, he hurled his sombrero in the dog's face, frightening it, so that it slunk away with a howl. Tad, laughing heartily, reached out and recovered the hat.

"Hey, there, I want to wash," he called to a brave who was passing. The redskin paid no attention to him. "All right, if you won't, then I'll go without you."

He stepped boldly from the tepee and headed for a small stream at the left of the village, which he had observed on the previous day. He had not gone far before he observed that he was being followed at a distance. He did not let it appear that he noticed this, and after making his toilet strolled back to his tepee.

Tad shrewdly reasoned that if he could induce them to relax their vigilance over him, he would have a better chance to make his escape, and he determined that he would act as if he had no intention of leaving.

He made an effort to find out where they had tethered Pink-eye, but there were no signs of ponies anywhere. He knew, however, that they could not be far away, for the Indian always keeps in touch with his mount.

Jinny came with his breakfast at sunrise. He noticed the first thing that she was not wearing the ring he had given her, but before he had an opportunity to comment on it, the girl drew the ring from a pocket, placed it on a finger and fell to admiring it.

Tad laughed and turned to his breakfast. This consisted of a big bowl of corn meal, steaming hot, with some cold mutton on the side. Frankly, he admitted to himself that he had eaten far worse meals in more civilized communities.

"Good morning, Jinny. I was so much interested in the breakfast that I forgot to say it when you first came in. This is very good. Did you cook it?"

She nodded.

"I thought so. You beat Old Hicks's cooking already. Hicks is the cook out on Mr. Simms's sheep ranch, where I come from. Understand?"

"Yes."

"I thought you were going to help me to escape," said Tad, suddenly leaning toward her. "Aren't you?"

Jinny made a sign for silence, and then went to the opening and peered out cautiously. She returned, and, placing her mouth close to the lad's ear, whispered, "Byrneby."

Tad could scarcely repress a laugh at the tragic tone in which she said it. Yet his face was perfectly sober and he continued with his breakfast without further comment.

Jinny gathered up the dishes and left him without a word. After a time the boy pulled back the flaps and sat down to watch the life of the camp by daylight. The squaws were busily at work, carrying wood and engaged in other occupations, though few of the braves were to be seen. The boy concluded that they must be sleeping.

The hours dragged along slowly. It seemed an age until night came once more. Somehow he felt that the night would bring him good luck. A warning glance from the Indian girl when she brought his supper told him that conversation were better not indulged in, so he said nothing to her. She left the dishes with him and went away at once.

That night Tad sat up until late, hoping vainly for word from Jinny, but none came. When the guard approached the tent along toward midnight, Tad feigned sleep, and so well did he feign it that he really went to sleep.

He thought he had been napping but a few moments, when a peculiar scratching sound on the back of his tepee brought him up sitting, every nerve on the alert.

Tad peered out through the flap. The guard was asleep. He crept back to the other side of the tepee and scratched on the tepee wall with his finger-nail.

"S-h-h."

The warning was accompanied by a slight ripping sound, and he knew the wall was being slit with a knife.

"Paleface buck, come with Jinny," whispered a voice in his ear.