Chapter 3
 

Bill Horn, leader of that caravan, had a large amount of gold which he was taking back East. No one in his party, except a girl, knew that he had the fortune.

Horn had gone West at the beginning of the gold strikes, but it was not until '53 that any success attended his labors. Later he struck it rich, and in 1865, as soon as the snow melted on the mountain passes, he got together a party of men and several women and left Sacramento. He was a burly miner, bearded and uncouth, of rough speech and taciturn nature, and absolutely fearless.

At Ogden, Utah, he had been advised not to attempt to cross the Wyoming hills with so small a party, for the Sioux Indians had gone on the war-path.

Horn was leading his own caravan and finding for himself the trail that wound slowly eastward. He did not have a scout or hunter with him. Eastward-traveling caravans were wont to be small and poorly outfitted, for only the homesick, the failures, the wanderers, and the lawless turned their faces from the Golden State. At the start Horn had eleven men, three women, and the girl. On the way he had killed one of the men; and another, together with his wife, had yielded to persuasion of friends at Ogden and had left the party. So when Horn halted for camp one afternoon in a beautiful valley in the Wyoming hills there were only nine men with him.

On a long journey through wild country strangers grow close together or far apart. Bill Horn did not think much of the men who had accepted the chance he offered them, and daily he grew more aloof. They were not a responsible crowd, and the best he could get out of them was the driving of oxen and camp chores indifferently done. He had to kill the meat and find the water and keep the watch. Upon entering the Wyoming hills region Horn showed a restlessness and hurry and anxiety. This in no wise affected the others. They continued to be aimless and careless as men who had little to look forward to.

This beautiful valley offered everything desirable for a camp site except natural cover or protection in case of attack. But Horn had to take the risk. The oxen were tired, the wagons had to be greased, and it was needful to kill meat. Here was an abundance of grass, a clear brook, wood for camp-fires, and sign of game on all sides.

"Haul round--make a circle!" Horn ordered the drivers of the oxen.

This was the first time he had given this particular order, and the men guffawed or grinned as they hauled the great, clumsy prairie- schooners into a circle. The oxen were unhitched; the camp duffle piled out; the ring of axes broke the stillness; fires were started.

Horn took his rifle and strode away up the brook to disappear in the green brush of a ravine.

It was early in the evening, with the sun not yet out of sight behind a lofty ridge that topped the valley slope. High grass, bleached white, shone brightly on the summit. Soon several columns of blue smoke curled lazily aloft until, catching the wind high up, they were swept away. Meanwhile the men talked at their tasks.

"Say, pard, did you come along this here Laramie Trail goin' West?" asked one.

"Nope. I hit the Santa Fe Trail," was the reply.

"How about you, Jones?"

"Same fer me."

"Wal," said another, "I went round to California by ship, an' I'd hev been lucky to drown."

"An' now we're all goin' back poorer than when we started," remarked a third.

"Pard, you've said somethin'."

"Wal, I seen a heap of gold, if I didn't find any."

"Jones, has this here Bill Horn any gold with him?"

"He acts like it," answered Jones. "An' I heerd he struck it rich out thar."

The men appeared divided in their opinions of Bill Horn. From him they drifted to talk of possible Indian raids and scouted the idea; then they wondered if the famous Pony Express had been over this Laramie Trail; finally they got on the subject of a rumored railroad to be built from East to West.

"No railroad can't be built over this trail," said Jones, bluntly.

"Sure not. But couldn't more level ground be dug?" asked another.

"Dug? Across them Utah deserts an' up them mountains? Hell! Men sure hev more sense than thet," exclaimed the third.

And so they talked and argued at their tasks.

The women, however, had little to say. One, the wife of the loquacious Jones, lived among past associations of happy years that would not come again--a sober-faced, middle-aged woman. The other woman was younger, and her sad face showed traces of a former comeliness. They called her Mrs. Durade. The girl was her daughter Allie. She appeared about fifteen years old, and was slight of form. Her face did not seem to tan. It was pale. She looked tired, and was shy and silent, almost ashamed. She had long, rich, chestnut-colored hair which she wore in a braid. Her eyes were singularly large and dark, and violet in color.

"It's a long, long way we are from home yet," sighed Mrs. Jones.

"You call East home!" replied Mrs. Durade, bitterly.

"For land's sake! Yes, I do," exclaimed the other. "If there was a home in that California, I never saw it. Tents and log cabins and mud-holes! Such places for a woman to live. Oh, I hated that California! A lot of wild men, all crazy for gold. Gold that only a few could find and none could keep! ... I pray every night to live to get back home."

Mrs. Durade had no reply; she gazed away over the ridges toward the east with a haunting shadow in her eyes.

Just then a rifle-shot sounded from up in the ravine. The men paused in their tasks and looked at one another. Then reassured by this exchange of glances, they fell to work again. But the women cast apprehensive eyes around. There was no life in sight except the grazing oxen. Presently Horn appeared carrying a deer slung over his shoulders.

Allie ran to meet him. She and Horn were great friends. To her alone was he gentle and kind. She saw him pause at the brook, then drop the deer carcass and bend over the ground, as if to search for something. When Allie reached his side he was on his knees examining a moccasin print in the sand.

"An Indian track!" exclaimed Allie.

"Allie, it sure ain't anythin' else," he replied. "Thet is what I've been lookin' fer.... A day old--mebbe more."

"Uncle Bill, is there any danger?" she asked, fearfully gazing up the slope.

"Lass, we're in the Wyoming hills, an' I wish to the Lord we was out," he answered.

Then he picked up the deer carcass, a heavy burden, and slung it, hoofs in front, over his shoulders.

"Let me carry your gun," said Allie.

They started toward camp.

"Lass, listen," began Horn, earnestly. "Mebbe there's no need to fear. But I don't like Injun tracks. Not these days. Now I'm goin' to scare this lazy outfit. Mebbe thet'll make them rustle. But don't you be scared."

In camp the advent of fresh venison was hailed with satisfaction.

"Wal, I'll gamble the shot thet killed this meat was heerd by Injuns," blurted out Horn, as he deposited his burden on the grass and whipped out his hunting-knife. Then he glared at the outfit of men he had come to despise.

"Horn, I reckon you 'pear more set up about Injuns than usual," remarked Jones.

"Fresh Sioux track right out thar along the brook."

"No!"

"Sioux!" exclaimed another.

"Go an' look fer yourself."

Not a man of them moved a step. Horn snorted his disdain and without more talk began to dress the deer.

Meanwhile the sun set behind the ridge and the day seemed far spent. The evening meal of the travelers was interrupted when Horn suddenly leaped up and reached for his rifle.

"Thet's no Injun, but I don't like the looks of how he's comin'."

All gazed in the direction in which Horn pointed. A horse and rider were swiftly approaching down the trail from the west. Before any of the startled campers recovered from their surprise the horse reached the camp. The rider hauled up short, but did not dismount.

"Hello!" he called. The man was not young. He had piercing gray eyes and long hair. He wore fringed gray buckskin, and carried a long, heavy, muzzle-loading rifle.

"I'm Slingerland--trapper in these hyar parts," he went on, with glance swiftly taking in the group. "Who's boss of this caravan?"

"I am--Bill Horn," replied the leader, stepping out.

"Thar's a band of Sioux redskins on your trail."

Horn lifted his arms high. The other men uttered exclamations of amaze and dread. The women were silent.

"Did you see them?" asked Horn.

"Yes, from a ridge back hyar ten miles. I saw them sneakin' along the trail an' I knowed they meant mischief. I rode along the ridges or I'd been hyar sooner."

"How many Injuns?"

"I counted fifteen. They were goin' along slow. Like as not they've sent word fer more. There's a big Sioux camp over hyar in another valley."

"Are these Sioux on the war-path?"

"I saw dead an' scalped white men a few days back," replied Slingerland.

Horn grew as black as a thundercloud, and he cursed the group of pale-faced men who had elected to journey eastward with him.

"You'll hev to fight," he ended, brutally, "an' thet'll be some satisfaction to me."

"Horn, there's soldiers over hyar in camp," went on Slingerland. "Do you want me to ride after them?"

"Soldiers!" ejaculated Horn.

"Yes. They're with a party of engineers surveyin' a line fer a railroad. Reckon I could git them all hyar in time to save you--if them Sioux keep comin' slow.... I'll go or stay hyar with you."

"Friend, you go--an' ride thet hoss!"

"All right. You hitch up an' break camp. Keep goin' hard down the trail, an' I'll fetch the troops an' head off the redskins."

"Any use to take to the hills?" queried Horn, sharply.

"I reckon not. You've no hosses. You'd be tracked down. Hurry along. Thet's best.... An' say, I see you've a young girl hyar. I can take her up behind me."

"Allie, climb up behind him," said Horn, motioning to the girl.

"I'll stay with mother," she replied.

"Go child--go!" entreated Mrs. Durade.

Others urged her, but she shook her head. Horn's big hand trembled as he held it out, and for once there was no trace of hardness about his face.

"Allie, I never had no lass of my own.... I wish you'd go with him. You'd be safe--an' you could take my--"

"No!" interrupted the girl.

Slingerland gave her a strange, admiring glance, then turned his quick gray eyes upon Horn. "Anythin' I can take?"

Horn hesitated. "No. It was jest somethin' I wanted the girl to hev."

Slingerland touched his shaggy horse and called over his shoulder: "Rustle out of hyar!" Then he galloped down the trail, leaving the travelers standing aghast.

"Break camp!" thundered Horn.

A scene of confusion followed. In a very short while the prairie- schooners were lumbering down the valley. Twilight came just as the flight got under way. The tired oxen were beaten to make them run. But they were awkward and the loads were heavy. Night fell, and the road was difficult to follow. The wagons rolled and bumped and swayed from side to side; camp utensils and blankets dropped from them. One wagon broke down. The occupants, frantically gathering together their possessions, ran ahead to pile into the one in front.

Horn drove on and on at a gait cruel to both men and beasts. The women were roughly shaken. Hours passed and miles were gained. That valley led into another with an upgrade, rocky and treacherous. Horn led on foot and ordered the men to do likewise. The night grew darker. By and by further progress became impossible, for the oxen failed and a wild barrier of trees and rocks stopped the way.

Then the fugitives sat and shivered and waited for dawn. No one slept. All listened intently to the sounds of the lonely night, magnified now by their fears. Horn strode to and fro with his rifle- -a grim, dark, silent form. Whenever a wolf mourned, or a cat squalled, or a night bird voiced the solitude, or a stone rattled off the cliff, the fugitives started up quiveringly alert, expecting every second to hear the screeching yell of the Sioux. They whispered to keep up a flickering courage. And the burly Horn strode to and fro, thoughtful, as though he were planning something, and always listening. Allie sat in one of the wagons close to her mother. She was wide awake and not so badly scared. All through this dreadful journey her mother had not seemed natural to Allie, and the farther they traveled eastward the stranger she grew. During the ride that night she had moaned and shuddered, and had clasped Allie close; but when the flight had come to a forced end she grew silent.

Allie was young and hopeful. She kept whispering to her mother that the soldiers would come in time.

"That brave fellow in buckskin--he'll save us," said Allie.

"Child, I feel I'll never see home again," finally whispered Mrs. Durade.

"Mother!"

"Allie, I must tell you--I must!" cried Mrs. Durade, very low and fiercely. She clung to her daughter.

"Tell me what?" whispered Allie.

"The truth--the truth! Oh, I've deceived you all your life!"

"Deceived me! Oh, mother! Then tell me--now."

"Child--you'll forgive me--and never--hate me?" cried the mother, brokenly.

"Mother, how can you talk so! I love you." And Allie clasped the shaking form closer. Then followed a silence during which Mrs. Durade recovered her composure.

"Allie, I ran off with Durade before you were born," began the mother, swiftly, as if she must hurry out her secret. "Durade is not your father.... Your name is Lee. Your father is Allison Lee. I've heard he's a rich man now.... Oh, I want to get back--to give you to him--to beg his forgiveness.... We were married in New Orleans in 1847. My father made me marry him. I never loved Allison Lee. He was not a kind man--not the sort I admired.... I met Durade. He was a Spaniard--a blue-blooded adventurer. I ran off with him. We joined the gold-seekers traveling to California. You were born out there in 1850.... It has been a hard life. But I taught you--I did all I could for you. I kept my secret from you--and his! ... Lately I could endure it no longer. I've run off from Durade."

"Oh, mother, I knew we were running off from him!" cried Allie, breathlessly. "And I know he will follow us."

"Indeed, I fear he will," replied the mother. "But Lord spare me his revenge!"

"Mother! Oh, it is terrible! ... He is not my father. I never loved him. I couldn't.... But, mother, you must have loved him!"

"Child, I was Durade's slave," she replied, sadly.

"Then why did you run away? He was kind--good to us."

"Allie, listen. Durade was a gambler--a man crazy to stake all on the fall of a card. He did not love gold. But he loved games of chance. It was a terrible passion with him. Once he meant to gamble my honor away. But that other gambler was too much of a man. There are gamblers who are men! ... I think I began to hate Durade from that time.... He was a dishonest gambler. He made me share in his guilt. My face lured miners to his dens.... My face--for I was beautiful once! ... Oh, I sunk so low! But he forced me.... Thank God I left him--before it was too late--too late for you."

"Mother, he will follow us!" cried Allie.

"But he shall never have you. I'll kill him before I let him get you," replied the mother.

"He'd never harm me, mother, whatever he is," murmured Allie.

"Child, he would use you exactly as he used me. He wanted me to let him have you--already. He wanted to train you--he said you'd be beautiful some day."

"Mother!" gasped Allie, "is that what he meant?"

"Forget him, child. And forget your mother's guilt! ... I've suffered. I've repented.... All I ask of God is to take you safely home to Allison Lee--the father whom you have never known."

The night hour before dawn grew colder and blacker. A great silence seemed wedged down between the ebony hills. The stars were wan. No cry of wolf or moan of wind disturbed the stillness. And the stars grew warmer. The black east changed and paled. Dawn was at hand. An opaque and obscure grayness filled the world; all had changed, except that strange, oppressive, and vast silence of the wild.

That silence was broken by the screeching, blood-curdling yell of the Sioux.

At times these bloody savages attacked without warning and in the silence of the grave; again they sent out their war-cries, chilling the hearts of the bravest. Perhaps that warning yell was given only when doom was certain.

Horn realized the dread omen and accepted it. He called the fugitives to him and, choosing the best-protected spot among the rocks and wagons, put the women in the center.

"Now, men--if it's the last for us--let it be fight! Mebbe we can hold out till the troops come."

Then in the gray gloom of dawn he took a shovel; prying up a piece of sod, he laid it aside and began to dig. And while he dug he listened for another war-screech and gazed often and intently into the gloom. But there was no sound and nothing to see. When he had dug a hole several feet deep he carried an armful of heavy leather bags and deposited them in it. Then he went back to the wagon for another armful. The men, gray-faced as the gloom, watched him fill up the hole, carefully replace the sod, and stamp it down.

He stood for an instant gazing down, as if he had buried the best of his life. Then he laughed grim and hard.

"There's my gold! If any man wins through this he can have it!"

Bill Horn divined that he would never live to touch his treasure again. He who had slaved for gold and had risked all for it cared no more what might become of it. Gripping his rifle, he turned to await the inevitable.

Moments of awful suspense passed. Nothing but the fitful beating of hearts came to the ears of the fugitives--ears that strained to the stealthy approach of the red foe--ears that throbbed prayerfully for the tramp of the troopers' horses. But only silence ensued, a horrible silence, more nerve-racking than the clash of swift, sure death.

Then out of the gray gloom burst jets of red flame; rifles cracked, and the air suddenly filled with hideous clamor. The men began to shoot at gliding shadows, grayer than the gloom. And every shot brought a volley in return. Smoke mingled with the gloom. In the slight intervals between rifleshots there were swift, rustling sounds and sharp thuds from arrows. Then the shrill strife of sound became continuous; it came from all around and closed in upon the doomed caravan. It swelled and rolled away and again there was silence.