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A Mysterious Shot In The Darkness








From: Far Past The Frontier

"I am going to keep my eyes open for that cut-throat that was under the
bed. There's no telling what he might not do," said John with quiet
determination, to Ree, when the peddler had left them and they were
fairly under way for the journey of another day.

"I have thought of that," Ree answered, "and you see I have put the
rifles where they will be handy. There is no use of carrying them, I
guess, but the time is coming when they must always be within reach."

The peddler had accompanied the boys to a cross-roads a couple of miles
from the Eagle tavern, enlivening them with many odd tales of his
experiences. Now they were alone again, and as the country through which
they passed became rougher and wilder, the lads realized more fully than
ever that theirs was a serious undertaking.

Yet they were happy. The trees were putting on bright colors; the air was
fragrant with the odor of autumn vegetation. The water in every stream
they crossed was fresh and clear, and fall rains had made green the
woodland clearings. Quail called musically from time to time, and once
the "Kee-kee-keow-kee-kee" of a wild turkey was heard.

At noon, beside a dashing brook which tumbled itself over a stony bed as
though in glee with its own noisiness, the travelers halted. They
unhitched Jerry that he might graze, and kindled a fire to boil some
eggs. These with brown bread, a generous supply of which Mrs. Catesby had
given them, and ginger cake which Mary Catesby had announced she had made
with her own hands, made a meal which anyone might have relished. To the
boys, their appetites sharpened by the fine air, every morsel they put
between their lips seemed delicious.

"We won't long have such fare," they reminded one another.

"We will have venison three times a day though," said John.

"Yes, we will have so much meat we will be good and tired of it; because
we must be saving of our meal this winter, and until our own corn grows,"
Ree answered thoughtfully.

"Well, don't be so melancholy about it, Old Sobersides," cried John.
"Why, for my part, I could just yell for the joy of it when I think how
snug we will be in our cabin this winter! And what a fine time we are
going to have choosing a location and building our log house!"

"That, as I have so often said," Ree answered, "is the one thing about
our whole venture that I do not like. We will be 'squatters.' We won't
own the land we settle upon except that we shall have bought it of the
Indians; and that is a deed which the government will not recognize. But
we will have to take our chances of making our title good when the time
comes, though we may have to pay a second time to the men or company, or
whoever secures from the government the territory where we shall be. Or
we might settle near enough to General Putnam's colony to be able to buy
land of them. We must wait and see what is best to do."

"Ree," said John, earnestly, "I know you are right; you always are. But I
don't like to think of those things--only of the hunting and trapping and
fixing up our place, and eating wild turkey and other good things before
our big fire-place in winter--and all that. You see we will have to sort
of balance each other. You furnish the brains, and I'll do the work."

"Oh that sounds grand, but--" Ree laughed and left the sentence
unfinished.

When, by the sun, their only time-piece, the boys judged they had been an
hour and a half in camp, they resumed their journey. They had secured so
early a start that morning, that they had no doubt they would reach the
Three Corners, the next stopping-place designated on Captain Bowen's map,
before night; and indeed it lacked a half hour of sundown when they drove
up to the homely but pleasant tavern at that point. It was so different a
place from the Eagle tavern that the boys had no fear when they went to
bed, that the unpleasant experience of the night before would be
repeated.

Several days followed unmarked by any special incident, except that the
lads were delayed and a part of their goods badly shaken up by their cart
upsetting into a little gully. Fortunately, however, little damage was
done.

At the end of two weeks so thinly settled a country had been reached that
nearly every night was spent in camp. Yet these were not disagreeable nor
was there much danger. Only one man who answered the general description
of a "cut-throat" had been seen, and he seemed inclined to make little
trouble. He rode out on a jet black horse from a barn, near which a house
had at one time stood, its site still marked by charred logs and a
chimney. Perhaps it had been burned in the war-time; at any rate the
place had a forsaken, disagreeable appearance, and the rough-looking
stranger emerging suddenly from the barn, put the young emigrants on
their guard at once.

For two hours the man rode in company with the boys, and finding out who
they were, proposed to spend the night with them. Ree would have
permitted it, but by his actions John so plainly gave the fellow to
understand what he thought of him, that the stranger at last rode back in
the direction he had come, cursing John for the opinions which the latter
had expressed. The boys slept with "one eye open" that night.

Daily the road became worse and worse. For great distances it was
bordered on both sides by forests and the country was rough and broken.
There were wild animals and, undoubtedly, Indians not far away, but the
settlements were yet too near for the young travelers to have much fear.
So when their camp fire had burned low in the evening, they piled on
large sticks of wood, put their feet to the blaze, and, wrapped in their
blankets, slept splendidly. One night when it rained--and the water came
down in torrents--they made their bed inside the cart; but if the weather
was pleasant they preferred to be beside the glowing coals.

An adventure which had an important bearing on the future, befell the
boys early in the fourth week of their travels. They had resolved to be
saving of their ammunition, and wasted no powder in killing game for
which they had no use, though they twice saw wild turkeys and once a
bear, as they left civilization farther and farther behind. But when
provisions from home began to run low, it happened, as so often it does,
that when they felt the need of game to replenish their larder they
chanced upon scarcely any.

"One of us must go through the woods, keeping in line with the road, and
shoot something or other this afternoon," said Ree, at dinner one day.
"The other will not be far away when he returns to the road again."

"Which?" John smiled.

"I don't care. You go this time and I will try my luck another day," Ree
answered. "Get a couple of turkeys, if you can, old boy; or, if you can
get a deer, the weather is cool and the meat will keep."

So John set off, planning to work his way into the woods gradually and
then follow the general direction of the road and come out upon it
sometime before sun-set. He waved his hand to Ree, a smile on his happy
freckled face as he disappeared amid the timber.

Slowly old Jerry plodded on; slowly the miles slipped to the rear; slowly
the time passed. Ree thought of many things during the afternoon and
planned how he and John should spend the winter hunting and trapping and
secure, he hoped, a large quantity of furs. Two chests they had were
filled with goods for trade with the Indians, also, and they would
receive skins in return. These would add greatly to the store they
themselves accumulated, and they should realize a considerable sum when
they came to market them. Ree hoped so. It was no part of his plan to go
into the forest fastnesses merely to hunt and trap and lead a rough life.
No, indeed! He wished to make a home, to grow up with the country and "be
somebody."

Lower and lower the sun sank behind the darkness of the trees which
seemed to rise skyward in the western horizon, and as the early October
twilight approached, Ree began to watch for John's coming. He had
listened from time to time but had heard no gun discharged, and he
laughed to himself as he thought what John's chagrin would be if he were
obliged to come into camp empty-handed. And when Old Sol, slipped out of
sight and his chum had not appeared, he inwardly commented: "You went
farther into the woods than was good for you, my boy! I suspect I have
already left you a good ways behind."

So he drove to a little knoll beneath an old oak, and unhitched. He
kindled a fire, then busied himself straightening up some of the boxes
and bundles which had slipped from position during the day, often
stopping to look back along the trail in hope of seeing John; and when
the darkness had become so dense he could see but a few rods from the
camp-fire and still his chum was missing, alarm invaded Ree's thoughts.
He could not imagine what detained the boy. But he toasted some bread and
broiled some bacon for his supper.

A sense of loneliness over his solitary meal added to Ree's anxiety,
because of John's non-appearance, and presently he walked back along the

road a considerable distance, whistling the call they had adopted years
before. The darkness gave every object an unnatural, lifelike look;
bushes and tree trunks assumed fantastic shapes. No human habitation was
within miles of the spot, and as the echoes of the whistling died away
and no answer came, Ree was almost frightened. Not for himself but on
John's account was he conscious of a gloomy foreboding in all his
thoughts. What should he do if the boy had fallen a victim of some bear,
perhaps, or lawless men.

Slowly he retraced his steps to the campfire's light. Weighing the whole
question carefully, however, as to whether he had not better go in search
of his friend, he decided he could do no wiser thing than to remain where
he was until daylight; then if John had not arrived, he would set out to
find him.

Piling more wood on the fire that the light might help to guide John to
camp, the lonely boy wrapped a blanket about his shoulders and sat down,
resolved to remain awake to watch and listen. He heard only the soughing
wind and old Jerry nibbling the short grass nearby, and the hooting of an
owl in the forest gloom. Thus an hour passed, and then suddenly a sound
of soft footsteps broke upon the boy's ear. Was it John slipping up
stealthily to try to scare him? Ree thought it was, but in another
instant he detected the foot-falls of more than one person, and sprang to
his feet.

"How!" The word was spoken in a deep guttural tone almost before Ree had
time to face about. At the same moment he saw two Indians stalking toward
him.

"Howdy!" Ree promptly answered, though filled with misgiving; for at a
glance he saw that the savages were fully armed. One was of middle age,
tall and stately as a king. The other was much younger. As they came
within reach Ree held out his hand, but the Indian either did not see or
refused to accept the proffered greeting.

Nevertheless Ree spread a blanket near the fire and asked the savages to
sit down. They made no reply. The older of them looked at him intently
and gazed around in evident surprise to see the lad alone. The younger
stepped around the fire and looked inquiringly into the cart.

"I am just a trader," said Ree, with an open frankness in his tones which
even a savage must have appreciated. "There are two of us, but my partner
went hunting and has not yet come back. Sit down, brothers; I have no
fresh meat to offer you, but my friend will soon return with some, I
hope."

The elder Indian seated himself saying: "White men steal, Indians no
steal."

"There are good Indians and good white men," answered Ree, but he was
keeping an eye on the younger savage, who seemed to have found something
in the cart which interested him, for he slyly put his hand inside.

"Oh, do be seated!" Ree exclaimed as he noticed this. There was irony in
his voice which made the older Indian shrug his shoulders, but the young
white man led the Indian brave, a chap but little older than himself,
away from the cart. With some force he drew the buck to a blanket and
motioned to him to sit down.

Appearing to give the matter no further thought, Ree placed bacon before
the Indians saying simply "Eat." They drew out their knives and cut and
broiled each a slice of the meat. This they ate, and it was rather
remarkable that they did so, for Ree well knew that the Redskins had no
relish for food which had been freely salted. He therefore judged their
eating to be a sign of friendliness, and seated himself quietly by the
fire.

"White man go far--goes to Ohio? Yes--long way--far--far. Snow comes;
hurry fast," said the older Indian.

"Yes," said Ree, guessing at the speaker's meaning. "We have a long way
to go, and must be in our cabin before deep snow comes."

"Delaware country--much game," the Indian was saying, Ree having told him
whither they were bound, when suddenly a rifle cracked behind them and a
bullet whistled past Ree's ear. The young Indian at the opposite side of
the fire, gasped and fell backward.

Seizing his rifle, Ree instantly sprang away from the firelight. The
elder redskin did likewise and just as quickly.

Who could have fired the shot? Ree trembled with dread that it had been
John. All was quiet save for the night wind rustling the leaves and
branches overhead. There came no sound to indicate whose hand had sped
the bullet from out of the forest gloom.

A minute passed. It seemed like ten, to Return Kingdom, and, forgetting
prudence, he stepped from behind the cart's protection, full into the
campfire's ruddy glow, making of himself an easy target. He bent over the
wounded Indian and found the blood flowing from a wound in the young
brave's neck. Quickly he tied his handkerchief about the injury, then
bathed the fellow's forehead and temples with water from the bucket he
had filled at supper time. The older Indian crept up to watch this
operation, but did not come fully within the lighted circle.

"Who fired that shot, my friend?" Ree asked, very earnestly.

"White men steal," the Indian answered, and shook his head.

It was evident then that the savage suspected some white person of having
made this attack with intent to commit robbery. Ree hoped this was the
truth of the matter but there was a terrible suspicion growing in his
mind that his own friend and partner, through some awful mistake, had
fired upon the Indian. He drew the wounded man to the rear of the cart
and placed him on a blanket beyond the campfire's light. The other savage
made no move to help him, but crouched in the darkness intently
listening, watching.

Of a sudden the Indian's rifle flew like a flash to his shoulder. At the
same instant Ree heard John Jerome's familiar whistle, and springing
forward, seized the red man's weapon in time to prevent the speeding of a
leaden messenger of death to his friend's heart. He answered John's call
as he did this, praying and hoping that it could not--must not, have been
his friend who had fired the shot which would probably end the younger
Indian's life.





Next: On Lonely Mountain Roads

Previous: The Man Under The Bed



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