Chapter XXXIII. A Ride in the Night.
 

Sammy arrived at the Ford homestead in time for dinner, and was joyfully received by her friend, Mandy. But early in the afternoon, their pleasure was marred by a messenger from Long Creek on the other side of the river. Mrs. Ford's sister was very ill, and Mrs. Ford and Mandy must go at once.

"But Sammy can't stay here alone," protested the good woman. "Mandy, you'll just have to stay."

"Indeed, she shall not," declared their guest. "I can ride up Jake Creek to the Forks and stay all night at Uncle Ike's. Brownie will make it easily in time for supper. You just get your things on and start right away."

"You'd better hurry; too," put in Mr. Ford. "There's a storm comin' 'fore long, an' we got t' git across th' river 'fore hit strikes. I'll be here with th' horses by the time you get your bonnets on." He hurried away to the barn for his team, while the women with Sammy's assistance made their simple preparation.

As mother Ford climbed into the big wagon, she said to Sammy, "Hit's an awful lonely ol' trip fer you, child; an' you must start right away, so's t' be sure t' get there 'fore hit gets plumb dark," while Mr. Ford added, as he started the team, "Your pony's ready saddled, an' if you'll hurry along, you can jest 'bout make hit. Don't get catched on Jakey in a big rain whatever you do."

"Don't you worry about me," returned the girl, "Brownie and I could find the way in the dark."

But when her friends were gone, Sammy, womanlike, busied herself with setting the disordered house aright before she started on her journey. Watching the clouds, she told herself that there was plenty of time for her to reach the Postoffice before the storm. It might not come that way at all, in fact.

But the way up Jake Creek was wild and rough, and along the faint trail, that twisted and wound like a slim serpent through the lonely wilderness, Brownie could make but slow time. As they followed the little path, the walls of the narrow valley grew steeper, more rocky, and barren; and the road became more and more rough and difficult, until at last the valley narrowed to a mere rocky gorge, through which the creek ran, tumbling and foaming on its way.

It was quite late when Sammy reached the point near the head of the stream where the trail leads out of the canon to the road on the ridge above. It was still a good two miles to the Forks. As she passed the spring, a few big drops of rain came pattering down, and, looking up, she saw, swaying and tossing in the wind, the trees that fringed the ledges above, and she heard the roar of the oncoming storm.

A short way up the side of the mountain at the foot of a great overhanging cliff, there is a narrow bench, and less than a hundred feet from where the trail finds its way through a break in the rocky wall, there is a deep cave like hollow. Sammy knew the spot well. It would afford excellent shelter.

Pushing Brownie up the steep path, she had reached this bench, when the rushing storm cloud shut out the last of the light, and the hills shook with a deafening crash of thunder. Instinctively the girl turned her pony's head from the trail, and, following the cliff, reached the sheltered nook, just as the storm burst in all its wild fury.

The rain came down in torrents; the forest roared; and against the black sky, in an almost continuous glare of lightning, the big trees tugged and strained in their wild wrestle with the wind; while peal after peal of thunder, rolling, crashing, reverberating through the hills, added to the uproar.

It was over in a little while. The wind passed; the thunder rumbled and growled in the distance; and the rain fell gently; but the sky was still lighted by the red glare. Though it was so dark that Sammy could see the trees and rocks only by the lightning's flash, she was not frightened. She knew that Brownie would find the way easily, and, as for the wetting, she would soon be laughing at that with her friends at the Postoffice.

But, as the girl was on the point of moving, a voice said, "It's a mighty good thing for us this old ledge happened to be here, ain't it?" It was a man's voice, and another replied, "Right you are. And it's a good thing, too, that this blow came early in the evening."

The speakers were between Sammy and the trail. They had evidently sought shelter from the storm a few seconds after the girl had gained her position. In the wild uproar she had not heard them, and, as they crouched under the cliff, they were hidden by a projection of the rock, though now and then, when the lightning flashed, she could see a part of one of the horses. They might be neighbors and friends. They might be strangers, outlaws even. The young woman was too wise to move until she was sure.

The first voice spoke again. "Jack got off in good time, did he?"

"Got a good start," replied the other. "He ought to be back with the posse by ten at the latest. I told him we would meet them at nine where this trail comes into the big road."

"And how far do you say it is to Jim Lane's place, by the road and the Old Trail?" asked the first voice.

At the man's words a terrible fear gripped Sammy's heart. "Posse," that could mean only one thing,--officers of the law. But her father's name and her home--in an instant Jim's strange companionship with Wash Gibbs, their long mysterious rides together, her father's agitation that morning, when he said good- by, with a thousand other things rushed through her mind. What terrible thing was this that she had happened upon in the night? What horrible trap had they set for her Daddy, her Daddy Jim? For trap it was. It could be nothing else. At any risk she must hear more. She had already lost the other man's reply. Calming herself, the girl listened eagerly for the next word.

A match cracked. The light flared out, and a whiff of tobacco smoke came curling around the rock, as one of the men said: "Are you sure there is no mistake about their meeting at Lane's to- night?"

"Can't possibly be," came the answer. "I was lying in the brush, right by the gate when the messenger got there, and I heard Jim give the order myself. Take it all the way through, unless we make a slip to-night, it will be one of the prettiest cases I ever saw."

"Yes," said the other; "but you mustn't forget that it all hinges on whether or not that bank watchman was right in thinking he recognized Wash Gibbs."

"The man couldn't be mistaken there," returned the other. "There is not another man in the country the size of Gibbs, except the two Matthews's, and of course they're out of the question. Then, look! Jim Lane was ready to move out because of the drought, when all at once, after being away several days the very time of the robbery, he changes his mind, and stays with plenty of money to carry him through. And now, here we are to-night, with that same old Bald Knobber gang, what's left of them, called together in the same old way by Jim himself, to meet in his cabin. Take my word for it, we'll bag the whole outfit, with the rest of the swag before morning. It's as sure as fate. I'm glad that girl is away from home, though."

Sammy had heard enough. As the full meaning of the officers' words came to her, she felt herself swaying dizzily in the saddle and clung blindly to the pony's mane for support. Then something in her brain kept beating out the words, "Ride, Ride, Ride."

Never for an instant did Sammy doubt her father. It was all some horrible mistake. Her Daddy Jim would explain it all. Of course he would, if--if she could only get home first. But the men were between her and the path that led to the road.

Then all at once she remembered that Young Matt had told her how Sake Creek hollow headed in the pinery below the ridge along which they went from Fall Creek to the Forks. It might be that this bench at the foot of the ledge would lead to a way out.

As quick as thought the girl slipped to the ground, and taking Brownie by the head began feeling her way along the narrow shelf. Dead leaves, tangled grass and ferns, all wet and sodden, made a soft carpet, so that the men behind the rock heard no sound. Now and then the lightning revealed a glimpse of the way for a short distance, but mostly she trusted blindly to her pony's instinct. Several times she stumbled over jagged fragments of rock that had fallen from above, cutting her hand and bruising her limbs cruelly. Once, she was saved from falling over the cliff by the little horse's refusal to move. A moment she stood still in the darkness; then the lightning showed a way past the dangerous point.

After a time that seemed hours, she noticed that the ledge had become no higher than her head, and that a little farther on the bench was lost in the general slope of the hill. She had reached the head of the hollow. A short climb up the side of the mountain, and, pushing through the wet bushes, she found herself in the road. She had saved about three miles. It was still nearly five to her home. An instant later the girl was in her saddle, and the brown pony was running his best.

Sammy always looked back upon that ride in the darkness, and, indeed, upon all that happened that night, as to a dream of horror. As she rode, that other night came back to her, the night she had ridden to save the shepherd, and she lived over again that evening in the beautiful woods with Young Matt. Oh, if he were only with her now! Unconsciously, at times, she called his name aloud again and again, keeping time to the beat of her pony's feet. At other times she urged Brownie on, and the little horse, feeling the spirit of his mistress, answered with the best he had to give. With eager, outstretched head, and wide nostrils, he ran as though he understood the need.

How dark it was! At every bound they seemed plunging into a black wall. What if there should be a tree blown across the road? At the thought she grew faint. She saw herself lying senseless, and her father carried away to prison. Then rallying, she held her seat carefully. She must make it as easy as possible for Brownie, dear little Brownie. How she strained her eyes to see into the black night! How she prayed God to keep the little horse!

Only once in a lifetime, it seemed to her, did the pony's iron shoe strike sparks of fire from the rocks, or the lightning give her a quick glimpse of the road ahead. They must go faster, faster, faster. Those men should not--they should not have her Daddy Jim; not unless Brownie stumbled.

Where the road leaves the ridge for Fall Creek Valley, Sammy never tightened the slack rein, and the pony never shortened his stride by so much as an inch. It was well that he was hill bred, for none but a mountain horse could have kept his feet at such a terrific pace down the rocky slope. Down the valley road, past the mill, and over the creek they flew; then up the first rise of the ridge beyond. The pony was breathing hard now, and the girl encouraged him with loving words and endearing terms; pleading with him to go on, go on, go on.

At last they reached the top of the ridge. The way was easier now. Here and there, where the clouds were breaking, the stars looked through; but over the distant hills, the lightning still played, showing which way the storm had gone; and against the sky, now showing but dimly under ragged clouds and peeping stars, now outlined clearly against the flashing light, she saw the round treeless form of Old Dewey above her home.