Chapter IX. Henry's Strange Disappearance
 

In days gone by the American buffalo, or bison, roamed nearly the entire length and breadth of North America. The Indians hunted the animal industriously, but their efforts with bow and spear were not sufficient to exterminate the species.

But with the coming of the white man to America matters took a different turn. The buffalo could not run away so easily from a rifle shot, and armed with the best weapons they could obtain, Indians and white hunters rounded up the buffaloes at every possible opportunity, in order to obtain the pelts. This soon caused the animals to thin out and flee to the westward, beyond the Mississippi, where they at last sought refuge in the Rocky Mountains. So fiercely have they been hunted during the past seventy-five years that to-day but a few herds remain and ere long these promise to be totally exterminated.

Henry had never seen a buffalo so far to the eastward and he was therefore much astonished at the sudden appearance of the shaggy-headed beast. He gave a yell of alarm, which was followed by another yell from Dave, as the frail shelter bent beneath the weight of the buffalo.

"A bison!" shouted James Morris, and White Buffalo took up the cry of alarm. Then down went the canvas flat, and the buffalo made a plunge for the forest beyond. Henry heard a groan from Dave, as the youth was covered up. Not waiting longer, he raised his gun, took hasty aim at the animal and fired.

"Did ye git him?" The query came from Sam Barringford, as, bare-headed, he rushed into the little clearing back of the trees. "I give him one in the side but it didn't seem to stop him none."

"I don't know if I hit him or not," answered Henry. "He burst upon us so swiftly I hardly knew what to do."

While this talk was going on James Morris was crawling from under the wreck of the tent. Barringford reloaded and ran on after the buffalo and Henry did likewise. They could hear the great beast plunging headlong through the brush.

"He has got it putty bad," remarked Barringford. "If he hadn't he wouldn't ram into things so hard. Reckon he hardly knows what he is doin'."

"I hope we get him," answered Henry, his eyes filled with eager desire. "We would have fresh meat for a long time, and plenty of jerked beef, too."

More than half a mile was covered and still the buffalo kept on, much to the surprise of the young hunter and the pioneer.

"Not so badly hit as I reckoned on," panted Barringford.

"Perhaps I didn't hit him at all," was Henry's answer.

Soon they gained the top of a rise of ground. Here the rocks were smooth and slippery, and in a twinkling Henry went down and rolled over and over down a long hill.

"Hi! hi! stop yourself!" roared Barringford in quick alarm. "Stop, or ye'll go over the cliff!"

His alarm was justified, for the hill ended in a cliff all of thirty feet in height, below which were some jagged rocks and a small mountain torrent flowing into the upper Monongahela.

Henry heard the cry but did not understand the words. Yet he did not like the idea of rolling he knew not to where, and dropping his gun he caught at the wet rocks and bushes which came to hand. But his downward progress was not stayed, and in a few seconds he reached the edge of the cliff and rolled out of sight!

[Illustration: Henry ... rolled over and over down a long hill]

The incident happened so quickly that Barringford was almost stunned. He started to go down the hill after Henry but for fear of meeting a like fate, dropped on his breast in the wet and worked his way along from rock to bush with great caution. Twice he called Henry's name, but no answer came back.

"If he went over on them rocks it's likely he was smashed up," he groaned. "Why didn't I have sense enough to hold him back? I knew this dangerous spot was here."

Step by step he drew closer to the edge of the cliff. The snows of the past winter had washed away and loosened much of the ground, and once he felt as if everything was giving way and he was to share the fate of his companion.

At last he was within three feet of the edge of the cliff. He could look down into the gully beyond but not down on the side where he felt Henry must be resting.

"Henry!" he called loudly. "Henry!"

He waited for fully a minute, but no answer came back. His face grew more disturbed than ever.

"He is hurt, that's sartin," he muttered. "Like as not he broke his neck."

Barringford always carried a bit of rope with him and he now had the same piece used in dragging the elk to the Morris homestead. Taking this, he tied it to a stout bush, and by this means lowered himself to the very edge of the cliff.

Night was now approaching, and at the bottom of the gully all was so dark he could see only with the greatest of difficulty. The torrent ran among rough rocks and brushwood, with here and there a patch of long grass bent flat from the winter's snows.

"Henry! Where are you?"

Again there was no answer, and now Barringford was thoroughly alarmed. He remembered how Mrs. Morris had asked him to keep watch over her son.

"Got to git down to him somehow," he told himself. "I hope he's only stunned."

After a general survey of the situation, the old frontiersman decided that the cliff terminated at a point several hundred yards to the southward. Accordingly, he climbed up the hill with care and commenced to make a detour in that direction.

It was hard work to make any movement forward, for the rocks were unusually rough and between them were hollows filled with mud, dead leaves and water. Three times he fell and when he arose he was plastered with mud from head to feet. But he did not turn back, and every minute wasted only added to his alarm, for Sam Barringford, rough though he was in outward appearance, had a heart that at times could be as tender as that of a child.

"If the lad's dead I don't know how I'm a-goin' to break the news to his folks," he groaned, with a long sigh. "Joseph and his wife allers looked to me to keep an eye on him. They expect me to be keerful. 'Twasn't right at all fer me to take Henry so close to sech a dangerous spot. I ought to be licked fer it, an' licked hard, too."

It was a good half hour before he could get down to where the torrent flowed over the rocks. He was now a quarter of a mile from where Henry had taken the unexpected tumble, and working his way down the stream was no easy task.

It had set in to rain harder than ever, and the black clouds soon shut out what little was left of daylight. Wet to the skin, and shivering from the cold, he moved on as well as he was able. Again he called Henry's name, but only a dull echo came back, partly drowned by the rushing of the water.

When Barringford thought he had covered the proper distance he came to a halt. On his back he carried Henry's rifle as well as his own, having picked it up when leaving the top of the hill, but the owner of the firearm was nowhere visible.

"I'll have to make a light, no two ways on thet," he mused, and moved close up under the rocks to get some dry kindlings. But everything was thoroughly wet around him and though he set fire to the tinder in his box he could obtain nothing in the shape of a torch.

Again he stumbled on, soon getting into the water up to his waist. In fresh alarm he found his way out of the torrent and next encountered some thick, wiry bushes where further progress seemed out of the question.

"Beats all, how things are goin' crosswise," he muttered, as he paused to get his breath. "An' all along o' thet confounded buffalo, too. Reckon he's miles an' miles away by this time," and in this surmise the old frontiersman was correct.

An hour's search convinced him that Henry was no longer in that vicinity. But what had become of the youth was a mystery.

"He wouldn't walk away without lettin' me know," reasoned Barringford. "Must be he fell into the water and got drowned and somethin' is holdin' him under. One thing is sartin, if thet's so tain't no use to try to find him afore mornin'. Might as well go back to camp an' break the news."

But he was unwilling to go back, and again and again he called Henry's name, listening with all the acuteness of which his trained sense of hearing was capable. Only the rushing of the torrent and the dripping of the rain answered him.

"No use," he muttered. "He is gone an' thet is all there is to it. I've got to face the music and tell the others, though it's worse nor pullin' teeth to do it."

Getting out of the gully in the almost total darkness was now truly difficult, and had not Barringford been skilled in woodcraft he would certainly have been lost. But he had taken note of the way he had come and remembered every bush, tree, and rock, and now he returned by the same route. It was a tough climb back to the forest where the trail of the buffalo had been last seen and here he had to rest once more, before starting for the camp.