But few words were spoken until the party arrived at a spot where the valley began to narrow in near the boundary of the ranch. They were now considerably beyond the Indian fires.
"There is no fear of our meeting with any of the red devils now," Sancho said. "They know well enough that our Indians would not venture to attack them, and that there are no other enemies near. A quarter of a mile and we shall be at the wigwam where the senorita went this morning."
"We will stop there for a moment," Will said; "it is not likely that we shall find anything that will give us useful information, but at any rate the horses may as well have a short rest there as well as anywhere else."
They had come fifteen miles now at a smart pace.
The men all dismounted. One of them struck a light with his flint and steel, and then lit the short end of a coil of cord that had been soaked in saltpetre, and waved it round his head till it bust into a flame. As they expected, they found the two Indians lying dead; both had been tomahawked and then scalped. On the ground lay a broken medicine bottle and a portion of some soft pudding.
"That does not tell us much," Will said.
Sancho made no answer, but looked all round the wigwam. "The basket is not here," he said. "I noticed that it was pretty full."
"I suppose the red-skins took it, Sancho?"
"They would not bother about a basket; it is the last thing they would think of taking. My idea is that the senorita came back here. I expect to warn the Indians. She would, to begin with, if she rode at full speed, have distanced the 'Paches, who would be able to get through the herd, which must have been between them and her when she first saw them. If she were half-way down the valley she might have been here some minutes before them. Of course the two old Indians knew that there was no escape for them, and made no effort to avoid their fate. I expect they had only taken that pudding and medicine out of the basket when she got back. Now, seeing that the basket and all that was in it are gone, it seems possible enough that the senorita may have caught it up and ridden off with it, knowing that she had a long ride before her, and through a country where there are no villages."
"I hope, indeed, that it may be so, Sancho, for I have been wondering what she would do if she were lost in these mountains. What would she be likely to put in the basket?"
"I handed it up to her, senor, when she had mounted; there were two bottles of milk, a bottle of wine, and a pile of cakes. There were a few other things, but I did not notice what they were."
"I only hope that your idea is correct, Sancho; it would be a great comfort to know that she had enough provisions to last her for two or three days."
"I expect you will find that it is so, senor; the senorita is quick-witted and cool. I saw her once when a dozen bulls stampeded when we were trying to drive them into the yard; she was sitting on her horse a short distance from the gate, and was just in their line. She didn't try to dash aside across their path, as many would have done, but turned and started keeping her horse in at first, and then lettting him out gradually and edging off out of their line, and she came cantering back laughing as she joined her father, who was looking pale as death at the danger she had been in. I have very little doubt that it has been as I said; she galloped at first at full speed, then when she got near this hut she saw that she was well ahead of the red-skins. She rode up here, jumped off to warn the Indians, and when she found they would not go she took the basket, knowing the things could be of no use to them, and might be worth a hundred times their weight in gold to her. Maybe the old Indian may have suggested it to her; at any rate, I feel sure she took them."
"Well, we will ride steadily on. Is there any place where she could have left the valley?"
"Not beyond this, senor; at least, I know of none; but, as I told you, we know very little of the valley beyond this point. Certainly she could have known no path; no doubt she went straight on. Well mounted as she was, she would feel sure that the red-skins could not overtake her, and I expect she did not press her horse much, but contented herself with keeping out of rife shot.
I don't know whether she knew of the
ford across the river, but she would naturally plunge in at the point
where the track comes down on it, and would, no doubt, be surprised at
finding that the horse was able to cross without swimming."
"No, senor; that would not be possible; there are high mountains there, and the river at some places runs through deep gorges."
"How far do you think the Apaches would follow?"
"I think that they would keep on for some distance beyond the river; when they found at last that they had no chance of catching her, they might turn back and cross the river, and camp on this side. By that time their horses would be done for; you see, they most likely had a long ride yesterday; maybe they were traveling all night, and, of course, it gave the senorita an immense advantage that her horse was fresh, while theirs had anyhow a great deal taken out of them before they set out in pursuit. I should recommend that we halt, as soon as it becomes light, in some clump of trees and wait for them as they come back. We are pretty well matched in numbers, and with the advantage of a surprise we ought to be able to wipe them out altogether. We might go as far as we can up the valley to the point where it becomes a mere ravine, before the daylight breaks, and our horses will be all the better for a rest of a few hours. They will have gone over forty miles since they left the river, and we may probably have a very long journey to do again to-morrow. There is no saying how far the senorita may have done; she would not know whether the red-skins might not follow all night, and I should think that she would keep on till daybreak, though of course, she would only go at a walk."
"It is difficult to say what she is most likely to do."
"It is, indeed, senor; if I myself were in her place I should be puzzled. I should reckon that all in the valley had been wiped out. The red-skins would assuredly first make a rush for the hacienda, because it was most important that they should carry that before the men could rally round and make a defense. I should reckon that the red-skins would remain there for four or five days before they had jerked as much meat as they could carry, and that, when they started, a party would like enough be placed in ambush to catch me as I came back. I should know that it was next to hopeless to try and find my way down across such mountains as there are ahead, through which, so far as I know, there are no tracks, and I am not sure that I should not push on in hopes of reaching the Moquis, who are peaceful Indians, as I have heard, with their villages perched on the top of hills, and having flocks and herds, and being in all ways different from all the other tribes except the Zuniis.
"The red-skins say that these people were here before them, and that they really belong to the tribes of Central Mexico, and came from there long before the white man ever set foot in America. From there one could travel north, strike the Santa Fe trail, and possibly make one's way through safely, though the Navajos are pretty nearly as bad there as the Apaches are here. Whether the senorita has ever heard of the Moquis I cannot say, but if she finds that she is on a trail she will follow it, thinking anything better than going back and falling into the hands of the Apaches."
"Are there any other tribes she would have to pass through on the way?"
"I think not. It is a great mountain track, where even red-skins could not pick up a living. As far as I have heard, the track from the ford leads through a series of passes between lofty hills. It is not the course of a river, and, therefore, there are not likely to be any villages. I should say that there would be forest on the lower slopes, and we are sure to meet with enough game to keep us."
They now proceeded at a walk, for the trees in most places grew thickly, and the ground here and there was broken by boulders that had rolled down from the hillside. At last they came to a point where the valley was but a hundred yards wide. Here they halted, took off the horses' bridles to allow them to pick what grass there was, and threw themselves down, and most of them were asleep in a few minutes.
"Is it necessary to keep watch?" Will said.
"No, senor, the 'Paches will assuredly not start to come back until morning. The country is as strange to them as it is to us. I should say, from what I have heard, it is about ten miles from the river, and in an hour or an hour and a half after daylight they are likely to be here."
Will took a seat by the trunk of a tree. He had no inclination for sleep. His thoughts were busy with the girl - alone in these mountains with an unknown country before her and a band of relentless savages who might, for aught she knew, be still pressing after her. It was difficult to conceive a more terrible situation. She might lose the trail, which was sure to be a faintly-marked one, and in some places indistinguishable save to an eye accustomed to tracking. If so, her fate was sealed. She must wander about till she died of hunger and thirst. It was maddening to be waiting there even for an hour or two and to know that she was alone. As soon as daylight broke, Sancho sent four of the men back to hunt for game. If they did not come across something in the course of three-quarters of an hour, they were to return. They had been gone, however, half that time when the crack of a rife was heard, and ten minutes later they rode back, bringing with them a stage they had shot. Already a fire had been lighted one hundred yards behind the camping-ground. Antonio had collected some perfectly dry wood for the purpose.
"There will be no smoke to speak of," he said to Will, "and what little there is will make its way out through the leaves. It is unlikely in the extreme that the Indians will notice it, and if they do, they will think that it is a fire made by one of our Indians."
A couple of the hunters at once set about skinning and cutting up the carcass. They were to go on cooking it until a signal was made to them that the Indians were approaching. The horses had now been collected, and the men disposed themselves behind trunks of trees, each with his horse a few yards behind him. All these were well trained to stand still when the reins were thrown over their heads. In front of them was a clear space some thirty yards across. After half an hour's anxious waiting, Sancho, who was lying with his ear to the ground, raised his hand as a signal that he could hear the Indians coming. The men from the fire ran up and took their places with the rest. The rifles were thrown forward in readiness. All could now hear the dull tread of the horses, with an occasional sharper sound as the hoofs fell upon rock. As the Apaches rode out from the wood their leader suddenly checked his horse with a warning cry, but it was too late.
Sixteen rifles flashed out, half the Apaches fell, and before the others could recover from their surprise at this unexpected attack the vaqueros charged down upon them. Hopelessly outnumbered as they were, the Apaches fought desperately, but the combat was short. The pistols of Will and Sancho were used with deadly effect, and in a couple of minutes the fight was over and the last Indian had fallen.
"Now, let us waste no time," Will said. "Ten minutes must do for our breakfast; then we will be off."
None of the party was seriously hurt, and the wounds were soon bandaged. The joints hanging above the fire were soon taken down, cut into slices, and grilled. They were being eaten when four Indians stepped from among the trees, one of them being evidently a chief.
"You are breaking the rules," he said to Will, whom he recognized as the leader of the party. "We shall lay a complaint before the great master."
Will did not answer, but Antonio, who spoke their language fairly, replied, "Have you not heard the news?"
"We have heard no news," the chief said. "We heard a gun fire when we were hunting two miles down the valley. We came to see what it was. Then we heard many guns, and, not knowing what it could be, hid our horses and came on."
"Then do you not know that there are three or four hundred Apaches and Tejunas in the valley below; that the hacienda has been attacked, all within it killed, and that the herds have been destroyed? So far as we know, we alone have escaped."
The Indians uttered deep exclamations of surprise.
"What was the firing?" the chief asked.
"If you go on a hundred yards further up, you will find the dead bodies of twenty Apache braves; they have been riding in pursuit of Donna Clara, the daughter of the senor, who was fortunately at your end of the valley, having gone there with food and medicine for the old Indian of your tribe who was too ill to leave with the rest, a fortnight since."
"I saw her often then," the chief said, "and this young brave" - and he motioned to Will - "he was often in our camp, and the girl visited our wigwams and gave many little presents to our women. Did she escape them?"
"She did, but where she is we know not. We are going in search of her. If you and your warriors will go with us, we shall be glad, for your eyes are better than ours, and could follow the footmarks of her horse where we should see nothing."
"Teczuma, with one of his warriors, will go." the chief said. "The other two must go and carry the news to our people, and, though they are not strong enough to fight so large a force, yet they will not be idle, and many of the Apaches and Tejunas will lose their scalps before they cross the river again."
He spoke a few words to the three men, who at once left, and in ten minutes one returned with two horses. The chief had already eaten two slices of deer's flesh, and he mounted and rode on with the others, while his follower waited for a minute to eat the flesh that had already been cooked for him. Sancho had chosen the horse that had been ridden by the Apache chief, and, without stopping, they rode on until they were, a few minutes later, joined by the other Indian. They now pushed on rapidly, ascending the ravine, and on reaching the top Will saw with satisfaction that high hills on both sides bordered what was, in fact, a pass between them, and that Clara must therefore have kept on straight.
The chief with his follower rode a little ahead of the others, Will, with Antonio and Sancho, following closely behind him. Once or twice the chief pointed down to marks on the rocks, with the remark, "A shod horse."
"That is all right," Antonio said. "The Indians do not shoe their horses, so we may be sure it was the senorita."
The path soon began to descend again and in an hour from the time of starting they emerged fro the pass within one hundred yards of the river; the ground here being soft, a well-marked track was visible.
"Made by our people," the chief said, turning around. "They often cross ford to hunt on the other side - large forests there, two hours' ride away - good hunting-ground. Apache not come there. Hills too big to cross."
Beyond the river the track was for some time perfectly distinct, but it presently became fainter. However, as the Indians rode on rapidly, Will had no doubt that, although he could not see the tracks on the ground, they were plain enough to the eyes of the Indians.
"It is a mighty good job we have the chief with us," Antonio said. "The trail is plain enough at present, but it is sure to get fainter when we get into these forests they speak of. Probably it goes straight enough there, but once among the trees it will break up, as the Indians would scatter to hunt. We should have lost a lot of time following it. Now we have got these two red-skin fellows, they will pick it up almost as fast as we can ride."
The road, indeed, after passing over a rocky plateau, dipped suddenly down into a deep valley running up from the river, and extending as far as one could see almost due east among the hills. The track they were following turned to the right at the foot of the hill. For miles it was clearly defined, then gradually became fainter, as the Indians who had followed it turned off in search of game. The footprints of the shod horse continued straight up the valley, until, ten miles from the point at which they had entered it, they turned to the left.
"It has been going at a walk for some miles," the chief said, "and the white girl has been walking beside it. I saw her footprints many times. We shall find that she halted for the night at the little stream in the middle of the valley. It must have been getting dark when she arrived here. She must be a good horsewoman and have a good horse under her, for it is nearly eighty miles from here to the hacienda."
By the stream, indeed, they found the place where Clara had slept. The Indian pointed to spots where the horse had cropped the grass by the edge of the stream, and where it had at last lain down near its mistress, who had, as a few crumbs showed, eaten some of the cakes.
"I wonder we don't see one of the bottles." Will remarked.
Antonio translated his remarks to the chief, who said, "Girl wise; fill bottle with water; not know how far stream come. We halt here; cannot follow trail farther; soon come dark."
This was evident to them all; men and horses alike needed rest. They set a fire and sat around it for a short time; all were encouraged by the success so far, and even the fact that they were supperless did not affect them.
"Teczuma and Wolf go out and find game in the morning," the chief said confidently. "Plenty of game here."
Long before the others were awake, indeed, the chief and his follower were moving. Just as daylight broke, the latter ran into camp.
"Come," he said, "bring gun; grizzly coming down valley. Teczuma watch him."
The men were on their feet the instant Antonio translated the Indian's words, and followed the Indian on foot.
"Was the bear too much for the two Indians?" Will asked Sancho.
"If they had been alone they would have fought it, but the chief was right to send for us. It was like enough they might have got badly hurt, and that would have been a bad thing for us."
Presently the Indian stopped. It was still twilight under the trees, but they could make out a great gray form advancing toward them. When within twenty yards it scented danger, and stopped with an angry growl. Almost at the same moment a rifle flashed out behind a tree near its flank. With a furious growl it turned, exposing its flank to the watchers. Antonio had warned five of these not to fire; the other ten rifles were fired simultaneously, and the bear rolled over and over. It scrambled to its feet again, and stood rocking itself, evidently wounded to the death. The other five men ran forward together, and when three yards distant poured in their fire, and the bear fell dead. The vaqueros lost no time in skinning it. A portion of the flesh was carried to the fire, cut up into strips, and at once cooked. As soon as the meal was finished, the rest of the meat was cut off and divided between the party, who then mounted and rode on, the two Indians again leading the way.
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