Chapter XXIV. Something About Slaves and Indian Captives
 

Two days later found the young hunters and Barringford about forty miles further to the northwest of the trading-post, at one of the most beautiful spots it is possible to imagine.

To the westward was a small stream running silently through a wide stretch of prairie land, the banks covered with bushes and plants. To the eastward was the edge of the mighty forest, a few giant trees standing out picturesquely in the foreground. Under the trees lay the sprawling roots, covered in spots with light and dark green moss, as soft to tread upon as the richest velvet carpet. At one side of the camp was a small series of rocks, and from them gushed forth a spring of cold water, running over the rocks and into the tall grass out of sight.

The weather had remained perfect, and the last twenty-four hours had been productive of sport not to be despised. They had found a beaver dam and taken twelve beavers, and had also laid low two deer and a cougar, or panther. The last-named animal had been found asleep by Barringford, and a single bullet had dispatched it almost before the beast awakened.

"Thet's what I call dead-easy huntin'," Barringford remarked when the panther was found to be dead. "No fight nor nuthin'."

"You won't often surprise the game like that," replied Henry.

The two young pioneers had surveyed the panther with interest. The fur, even at this season of the year, was fairly good, and they had assisted Barringford in dressing it, and it now hung on a branch of the nearest tree.

"What a farm one could have here," declared Dave, as his eye roved over the stretch of prairie. "Not a single tree to cut down or stump to burn or drag out."

"And just look at the soil," came from Henry. "As black and rich as any I ever saw. A fellow could raise anything he wished without half trying."

"It is certainly beautiful ground," put in Barringford, who sat in the shade, smoking a red clay pipe with a reed stem. "An' some day you'll see a plantation here true enough."

"How well the Indians could live, if they would only till this soil," continued Dave. "But you can't get them to raise anything but a little maize and tobacco."

"They are natural-born hunters--just like I am," said Henry with a short laugh.

"Sam, shall we find that buffalo we've been talking about?"

The old frontiersman blew a long stream of smoke from his mouth ere replying. "Will it rain afore Sunday, Dave?" he drawled.

"What has that got to do with it?"

"Nuthin'; only you know as much about thet as I do about the buffalo. Ef he comes this way, we'll git him, an' if he don't, why, we won't git him, thet's all," and the old frontiersman continued his enjoyment of the pipe.

"You said buffaloes like such prairie ground as this," declared Henry.

"So they do, so they do; but most of the buffaloes thet war here air gone--either killed, or lit out to the westward. Ye see," went on the old hunter, "buffaloes air like elk--they need lots o' elbow-room. I've been told thet a young buffalo will travel fifty miles an' think nuthin' of it."

"I don't think I want to try running down a young one then," answered Henry. "I'll try an old one that can't travel over three or four miles," and this caused a general laugh.

They had spent the entire morning on the edge of the prairie, keeping somewhat out of sight so as not to disturb any game that might appear. All had enjoyed an unusually hearty dinner, and were quite content to take it easy during the middle of the day. A faint breeze was blowing which was exceedingly pleasant, for the morning had been a trifle warm.

"I wonder what the folks are doing just now," mused Henry.

"I think I can tell you," answered Dave. "Your father and Rodney are getting ready to go back to the field to work, your mother is clearing off the table, and little Nell is playing with the twins. Perhaps they are wondering what we are doing at the trading-post, too."

"Them twins is what gits me," came from Barringford. "It's mighty funny I can't find out who they belong to, ain't it?"

"It is in one way, Sam; but you must remember that many women and children have been lost in the last five or six years. This war has been simply awful in that respect. The Indians don't think anything of carrying them off into captivity."

"Well, why should they, when you come to think of it?" came from Henry.

"Oh, Henry!"

"Now, hold on, Dave, let me reason it out for you. The whites hold hundreds of black slaves, don't they?"

"Yes."

"Well, to an Indian it is no worse for a red man to hold a white person as a captive than it is for a white man to own a slave. It's a poor rule that won't work both ways."

"The blacks are naturally slaves--ain't good fer nuthin' else," put in Barringford, who had some old-fashioned ideas on the subject.

"I don't believe that, Sam," came from Dave. "Some black people are wiser than you think. If they had the chance to rise, they'd do it."

"I heard tell that some men believe in freeing the blacks," came from Henry.

"Some on 'em don't want to be free," said the old frontiersman. "Jest look at the slaves belongin' to old Lord Fairfax, and to the Dinwiddies, and to the Washingtons. Why, they all think it is an honor to belong to them families. They wouldn't go if ye druv 'em away."

"Yes, I know, for I have talked to some of 'em myself," said Dave. "The Washington blacks are particularly faithful. If they were set free I don't suppose they'd know what to do with themselves."

"They'd starve," said Barringford.

"But to come back to where we started from," went on Dave. "There is a difference between being a white man's slave and being an Indian captive. The whites don't kill their slaves or torture them."

"They torture some of 'em," replied Henry. "I've seen a negro whipped till it made my blood boil. Of course the majority of 'em are treated fairly good."

"A darkey who has a good home on the plantation has nuthin' to complain on," said Barringford. "His master feeds him, clothes him, and takes care of him when he's sick. In nine cases out of ten he's better off nor he would be if he had to shift fer himself."

"I shouldn't wonder if we had trouble some day over this slave question," came from Henry. "If they bring too many over, the slaves may rise up some day and try to wipe the whites out."

"Don't you fear for thet, Henry; they ain't equal to it, nohow."

"But if they join with the Injuns?"

"They'll never do thet nuther, an' you know it. A good darky ain't got no opinion at all o' a redskin--they hate 'em wuss nor p'ison."

How long the fruitless discussion might have lasted there is no telling, but during a brief pause Henry chanced to glance across the prairie and uttered an exclamation.

"Something is moving yonder. What is it?"

Barringford leaped to his feet and gave a long, earnest look.

"Buffaloes!" he said laconically. "Two on 'em!"

"Can we catch them?" queried Dave.

"We can try, lad. But keep under cover. They seem to be coming this way."

All three hurried back to the foremost trees in the forest, carrying their guns as they did so. Luckily the camp-fire had died out, so there was no smoke to alarm the animals. Further in the forest the horses were tethered, having had their fill of grass two hours before.

"Better see if the horses are ready for use, Henry," said Barringford. "We may have to do some tall riding for our game."

"I will," answered Henry, and ran back without loss of time. The three steeds were quickly saddled, and then the young hunter brought them forward in a bunch, still, however, keeping them out of sight of the prairie.

It was now seen that the buffaloes were indeed moving in the direction of the camp. The two that had at first appeared were followed by eight or ten others, who kept in a bunch several rods behind the leaders.

"Oh, what a chance for big game!" whispered Dave. "If only we had two or three guns apiece!"

"Never mind, we have our pistols," came from Henry. "They'll count for something at close quarters."

"Whatever you do, don't all fire at once," cautioned Barringford. "One bullet may not be enough for one of the buffaloes. I'll fire first, and if he don't fall then Henry can fire, and then Dave."

Anxiously they waited for the big game to come within gun shot. The buffaloes moved slowly, and to Dave it appeared an age before even half the distance was covered.

"Oh, pshaw! They are turning to the northward!" cried Henry a few minutes later.

"Wait, they may turn this way again," said Barringford, but they were disappointed; the buffaloes continued to move in a direction that was parallel to the edge of the forest.

"We'll lose them unless we ride after them," said Dave; and a minute later all were in the saddle, leaving their camping outfit behind them.

They kept well in among the trees, riding as hard as possible, until half a mile was covered. Then Barringford slipped to the ground and crawled forward to the open.

"We are gaining on 'em," he announced. "Another ride like thet an' we can go after 'em on the prairie."

Once more they urged their steeds forward. The way was full of rocks and dangerous tree-roots, but the horses were growing used to such traveling and rarely made a misstep. Twice they crossed little creeks which flowed into the larger stream beyond. Then, without warning, they reached a portion of the forest so thick with young trees that further progress in that direction was impossible.

"Nothing left but to take to the open and ride like the wind," announced the old frontiersman. "Are ye ready, lads?"

"Yes," came from both.

"Then follow me!"

Barringford turned his horse toward the open prairie, and the others came close behind him. Away they went at what to an ordinary observer would have seemed a breakneck speed. The little ride through the forest had warmed up the horses, and the rest of the morning had put them in fine condition for a good run. On they sped, as if they enjoyed it fully as much as did their riders.

"Don't make any noise," came from Barringford. "The nearer we get without bein' discovered the better."

At least a third of the distance toward the buffaloes was covered when suddenly the herd stopped short. They had heard the dull thud of the horses' hoofs, and now looked around to see what the sound meant. Then came a wild snorting and throwing of shaggy heads, and away went the herd due west and making the best speed of which their sturdy limbs were capable.

"They have found us out!" shouted Barringford. "Now to catch 'em--or miss 'em!"

"I don't intend to miss 'em," came warmly from Henry. "But I think you ought to give me the first shot if I get nearest to 'em."

"All right, Henry, so be it."

No more was said, for, with the pace such a hot one, nobody cared to waste breath in conversation. Far ahead the buffaloes were running as gamely as ever, being spread out somewhat in a semicircle, with the leader, a heavy old fellow with an extra shaggy head, a little in advance.

Slowly, but surely, Henry gained on both of his companions. His steed was the best of the three, and if Henry was a natural-born hunter and trapper he was likewise a good horseman. Bending low over the horse's neck he spoke words of encouragement, to which the animal responded to the best of his ability.

Thus mile after mile was covered, and still the buffaloes kept on as before. They were now coming to a locality where the prairie was broken up into little hummocks, with here and there gopher holes that were exceedingly dangerous.

At last all three of the hunters saw one of the buffaloes go down. One leg had gone into a gopher hole and become broken, and although the animal arose and tried to run, it was soon overtaken by Henry.

"Finish him off, Dave!" yelled back the young hunter. "I'm going to see if I can't run down another!" And he kept on as before.

Dave heard the cry. He could not make out what was said, but he understood, and riding up close to the hurt buffalo, he let the animal have a bullet directly in the head. It was a fair shot, and with a lurch the beast staggered a few feet and then fell with a heavy thud on the prairie.

"Good for you, Dave!" cried Barringford. "That makes number one. Now let us finish him and see if we can run down some more on 'em."