Come, come, thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood, as any in Italy;
Though the trapper manifested some surprise when he perceived that another human figure was approaching him, and that, too, from a direction opposite to the place where the emigrant had made his encampment, it was with the steadiness of one long accustomed to scenes of danger.
"This is a man," he said; "and one who has white blood in his veins, or his step would be lighter. It will be well to be ready for the worst, as the half-and-halfs,that one meets, in these distant districts, are altogether more barbarous than the real savage."
He raised his rifle while he spoke, and assured himself of the state of its flint, as well as of the priming by manual examination. But his arm was arrested, while in the act of throwing forward the muzzle of the piece, by the eager and trembling hands of his companion.
"For God's sake, be not too hasty," she said; "it may be a friend—an acquaintance—a neighbour!"
"A friend!" the old man repeated, deliberately releasing himself, at the same time, from her grasp. "Friends are rare in any land, and less in this, perhaps, than in another; and the neighbourhood is too thinly settled to make it likely that he who comes towards us is even an acquaintance."
"But though a stranger, you would not seek his blood!"
The trapper earnestly regarded her anxious and frightened features, and then he dropped the butt of his rifle on the ground, like one whose purpose had undergone a sudden change.
"No," he said, speaking rather to himself, than to his companion, "she is right; blood is not to be spilt, to save the life of one so useless, and so near his time. Let him come on; my skins, my traps, and even my rifle shall be his, if he sees fit to demand them."
"He will ask for neither:—he wants neither," returned the girl; "if he be an honest man, he will surely be content with his own, and ask for nothing that is the property of another."
The trapper had not time to express the surprise he felt at this incoherent and contradictory language, for the man who was advancing, was, already, within fifty feet of the place where they stood.—In the mean time, Hector had not been an indifferent witness of what was passing. At the sound of the distant footsteps, he had arisen, from his warm bed at the feet of his master; and now, as the stranger appeared in open view, he stalked slowly towards him, crouching to the earth like a panther about to take his leap.
"Call in your dog," said a firm, deep, manly voice, in tones of friendship, rather than of menace; "I love a hound, and should be sorry to do an injury to the animal."
"You hear what is said about you, pup?" the trapper answered; "come hither, fool. His growl and his bark are all that is left him now; you may come on, friend; the hound is toothless."
The stranger profited by the intelligence. He sprang eagerly forward, and at the next instant stood at the side of Ellen Wade. After assuring himself of the identity of the latter, by a hasty but keen glance, he turned his attention, with a quickness and impatience, that proved the interest he took in the result, to a similar examination of her companion.
"From what cloud have you fallen, my good old man?" he said in a careless, off-hand, heedless manner that seemed too natural to be assumed: "or do you actually live, hereaway, in the prairies?"
"I have been long on earth, and never I hope nigher to heaven, than I am at this moment," returned the trapper; "my dwelling, if dwelling I may be said to have, is not far distant. Now may I take the liberty with you, that you are so willing to take with others? Whence do you come, and where is your home?"
"Softly, softly; when I have done with my catechism, it will be time to begin with yours. What sport is this, you follow by moonlight? You are not dodging the buffaloes at such an hour!"
"I am, as you see, going from an encampment of travellers, which lies over yonder swell in the land, to my own wigwam; in doing so, I wrong no man."
"All fair and true. And you got this young woman to show you the way, because she knows it so well and you know so little about it yourself!"
"I met her, as I have met you, by accident. For ten tiresome years have I dwelt on these open fields, and never, before to-night, have I found human beings with white skins on them, at this hour. If my presence here gives offence, I am sorry; and will go my way. It is more than likely that when your young friend has told her story, you will be better given to believe mine.
"Friend!" said the youth, lifting a cap of skins from his head, and running his fingers leisurely through a dense mass of black and shaggy locks, "if I have ever laid eyes on the girl before to-night, may I—"
"You've said enough, Paul," interrupted the female, laying her hand on his mouth, with a familiarity that gave something very like the lie direct, to his intended asseveration. "Our secret will be safe, with this honest old man. I know it by his looks, and kind words."
"Our secret! Ellen, have you forgot—"
"Nothing. I have not forgotten any thing I should remember. But still I say we are safe with this honest trapper."
"Trapper! is he then a trapper? Give me your hand, father; our trades should bring us acquainted."
"There is little call for handicrafts in this region," returned the other, examining the athletic and active form of the youth, as he leaned carelessly and not ungracefully, on his rifle; "the art of taking the creatur's of God, in traps and nets, is one that needs more cunning than manhood; and yet am I brought to practise it, in my age! But it would be quite as seemly, in one like you, to follow a pursuit better becoming your years and courage."
"I! I never took even a slinking mink or a paddling musk-rat in a cage; though I admit having peppered a few of the dark-skin'd devils, when I had much better have kept my powder in the horn and the lead in its pouch. Not I, old man; nothing that crawls the earth is for my sport."
"What then may you do for a living, friend? for little profit is to be made in these districts, if a man denies himself his lawful right in the beasts of the fields."
"I deny myself nothing. If a bear crosses my path, he is soon the mere ghost of Bruin. The deer begin to nose me; and as for the buffaloe, I have kill'd more beef, old stranger, than the largest butcher in all Kentuck."
"You can shoot, then!" demanded the trapper, with a glow of latent fire, glimmering about his eyes; "is your hand true, and your look quick?"
"The first is like a steel trap, and the last nimbler than a buck-shot. I wish it was hot noon, now, grand'ther; and that there was an acre or two of your white swans or of black feathered ducks going south, over our heads; you or Ellen, here, might set your heart on the finest in the flock, and my character against a horn of powder, that the bird would be hanging head downwards, in five minutes, and that too, with a single ball. I scorn a shot-gun! No man can say, he ever knew me carry one, a rod."
"The lad has good in him! I see it plainly by his manner;" said the trapper, turning to Ellen with an encouraging air; "I will take it on myself to say, that you are not unwise in meeting him, as you do. Tell me, lad; did you ever strike a leaping buck atwixt the antlers? Hector; quiet, pup; quiet. The very name of venison quickens the blood of the cur;—did you ever take an animal in that fashion, on the long leap?"
"You might just as well ask me, did you ever eat? There is no fashion, old stranger, that a deer has not been touched by my hand, unless it was when asleep."
"Ay, ay; you have a long and a happy-ay, and an honest life afore you! I am old, and I suppose I might also say, worn out and useless; but, if it was given me to choose my time, and place, again,—as such things are not and ought not ever to be given to the will of man— though if such a gift was to be given me, I would say, twenty and the wilderness! But, tell me; how do you part with the peltry?"
"With my pelts! I never took a skin from a buck, nor a quill from a goose, in my life! I knock them over, now and then, for a meal, and sometimes to keep my finger true to the touch; but when hunger is satisfied, the prairie wolves get the remainder. No—no—I keep to my calling; which pays me better, than all the fur I could sell on the other side of the big river."
The old man appeared to ponder a little; but shaking his head he soon continued—
"I know of but one business that can be followed here with profit—"
He was interrupted by the youth, who raised a small cup of tin, which dangled at his neck before the other's eyes, and springing its lid, the delicious odour of the finest flavoured honey, diffused itself over the organs of the trapper.
"A bee hunter!" observed the latter, with a readiness that proved he understood the nature of the occupation, though not without some little surprise at discovering one of the other's spirited mien engaged in so humble a pursuit. "It pays well in the skirts of the settlements, but I should call it a doubtful trade, in the more open districts."
"You think a tree is wanting for a swarm to settle in! But I know differently; and so I have stretched out a few hundred miles farther west than common, to taste your honey. And, now, I have bated your curiosity, stranger, you will just move aside, while I tell the remainder of my story to this young woman."
"It is not necessary, I'm sure it is not necessary, that he should leave us," said Ellen, with a haste that implied some little consciousness of the singularity if not of the impropriety of the request. "You can have nothing to say that the whole world might not hear."
"No! well, may I be stung to death by drones, if I understand the buzzings of a woman's mind! For my part, Ellen, I care for nothing nor any body; and am just as ready to go down to the place where your uncle, if uncle you can call one, who I'll swear is no relation, has hoppled his teams, and tell the old man my mind now, as I shall be a year hence. You have only to say a single word, and the thing is done; let him like it or not."
"You are ever so hasty and so rash, Paul Hover, that I seldom know when I am safe with you. How can you, who know the danger of our being seen together, speak of going before my uncle and his sons?"
"Has he done that of which he has reason to be ashamed?" demanded the trapper, who had not moved an inch from the place he first occupied.
"Heaven forbid! But there are reasons, why he should not be seen, just now, that could do him no harm if known; but which may not yet be told. And, so, if you will wait, father, near yonder willow bush, until I have heard what Paul can possibly have to say, I shall be sure to come and wish you a good night, before I return to the camp."
The trapper drew slowly aside, as if satisfied with the somewhat incoherent reason Ellen had given why he should retire. When completely out of ear shot of the earnest and hurried dialogue, that instantly commenced between the two he had left, the old man again paused, and patiently awaited the moment when he might renew his conversation with beings in whom he felt a growing interest, no less from the mysterious character of their intercourse, than from a natural sympathy in the welfare of a pair so young, and who, as in the simplicity of his heart he was also fain to believe, were also so deserving. He was accompanied by his indolent, but attached dog, who once more made his bed at the feet of his master, and soon lay slumbering as usual, with his head nearly buried in the dense fog of the prairie grass.
It was a spectacle so unusual to see the human form amid the solitude in which he dwelt, that the trapper bent his eyes on the dim figures of his new acquaintances, with sensations to which he had long been a stranger. Their presence awakened recollections and emotions, to which his sturdy but honest nature had latterly paid but little homage, and his thoughts began to wander over the varied scenes of a life of hardships, that had been strangely blended with scenes of wild and peculiar enjoyment. The train taken by his thoughts had, already, conducted him, in imagination, far into an ideal world, when he was, once more suddenly, recalled to the reality of his situation, by the movements of the faithful hound.
The dog, who, in submission to his years and infirmities, had manifested such a decided propensity to sleep, now arose, and stalked from out the shadow cast by the tall person of his master, and looked abroad into the prairie, as if his instinct apprised him of the presence of still another visitor. Then, seemingly content with his examination, he returned to his comfortable post and disposed of his weary limbs, with the deliberation and care of one who was no novice in the art of self-preservation.
"What; again, Hector!" said the trapper in a soothing voice, which he had the caution, however, to utter in an under tone; "what is it, dog? tell it all to his master, pup; what is it?"
Hector answered with another growl, but was content to continue in his lair. These were evidences of intelligence and distrust, to which one as practised as the trapper could not turn an inattentive ear. He again spoke to the dog, encouraging him to watchfulness, by a low guarded whistle. The animal however, as if conscious of having, already, discharged his duty, obstinately refused to raise his head from the grass.
"A hint from such a friend is far better than man's advice!" muttered the trapper, as he slowly moved towards the couple who were yet, too earnestly and abstractedly, engaged in their own discourse, to notice his approach; "and none but a conceited settler would hear it and not respect it, as he ought. Children," he added, when nigh enough to address his companions, "we are not alone in these dreary fields; there are others stirring, and, therefore, to the shame of our kind, be it said, danger is nigh."
"If one of the lazy sons of Skirting Ishmael is prowling out of his camp to-night," said the young bee-hunter, with great vivacity, and in tones that might easily have been excited to a menace, "he may have an end put to his journey sooner than either he or his father is dreaming!"
"My life on it, they are all with the teams," hurriedly answered the girl. "I saw the whole of them asleep, myself, except the two on watch; and their natures have greatly changed, if they, too, are not both dreaming of a turkey hunt, or a court-house fight, at this very moment."
"Some beast, with a strong scent, has passed between the wind and the hound, father, and it makes him uneasy; or, perhaps, he too is dreaming. I had a pup of my own, in Kentuck, that would start upon a long chase from a deep sleep; and all upon the fancy of some dream. Go to him, and pinch his ear, that the beast may feel the life within him."
"Not so—not so," returned the trapper, shaking his head as one who better understood the qualities of his dog.—"Youth sleeps, ay, and dreams too; but age is awake and watchful. The pup is never false with his nose, and long experience tells me to heed his warnings."
"Did you ever run him upon the trail of carrion?"
"Why, I must say, that the ravenous beasts have sometimes tempted me to let him loose, for they are as greedy as men, after the venison, in its season; but then I knew the reason of the dog, would tell him the object!—No—no, Hector is an animal known in the ways of man, and will never strike a false trail when a true one is to be followed!"
"Ay, ay, the secret is out! you have run the hound on the track of a wolf, and his nose has a better memory than his master!" said the bee-hunter, laughing.
"I have seen the creatur' sleep for hours, with pack after pack, in open view. A wolf might eat out of his tray without a snarl, unless there was a scarcity; then, indeed, Hector would be apt to claim his own."
"There are panthers down from the mountains; I saw one make a leap at a sick deer, as the sun was setting. Go; go you back to the dog, and tell him the truth, father; in a minute, I—"
He was interrupted by a long, loud, and piteous howl from the hound, which rose on the air of the evening, like the wailing of some spirit of the place, and passed off into the prairie, in cadences that rose and fell, like its own undulating surface. The trapper was impressively silent, listening intently. Even the reckless bee-hunter, was struck with the wailing wildness of the sounds. After a short pause the former whistled the dog to his side, and turning to his companions he said with the seriousness, which, in his opinion, the occasion demanded—
"They who think man enjoys all the knowledge of the creatur's of God, will live to be disappointed, if they reach, as I have done, the age of fourscore years. I will not take upon myself to say what mischief is brewing, nor will I vouch that, even, the hound himself knows so much; but that evil is nigh, and that wisdom invites us to avoid it, I have heard from the mouth of one who never lies. I did think, the pup had become unused to the footsteps of man, and that your presence made him uneasy; but his nose has been on a long scent the whole evening, and what I mistook as a notice of your coming, has been intended for something more serious. If the advice of an old man is, then, worth hearkening to, children, you will quickly go different ways to your places of shelter and safety."
"If I quit Ellen, at such a moment," exclaimed the youth, "may I—"
"You've said enough!" the girl interrupted, by again interposing a band that might, both by its delicacy and colour, have graced a far more elevated station in life; "my time is out; and we must part, at all events—so good night, Paul—father—good night."
"Hist!" said the youth, seizing her arm, as she was in the very act of tripping from his side—"Hist! do you hear nothing? There are buffaloes playing their pranks, at no great distance—That sound beats the earth like a herd of the mad scampering devils!"
His two companions listened, as people in their situation would be apt to lend their faculties to discover the meaning of any doubtful noises, especially, when heard after so many and such startling warnings. The unusual sounds were unequivocally though still faintly audible. The youth and his female companion had made several hurried, and vacillating conjectures concerning their nature, when a current of the night air brought the rush of trampling footsteps, too sensibly, to their ears, to render mistake any longer possible.
"I am right!" said the bee-hunter; "a panther is driving a herd before him; or may be, there is a battle among the beasts."
"Your ears are cheats," returned the old man, who, from the moment his own organs had been able to catch the distant sounds, stood like a statue made to represent deep attention:—"the leaps are too long for the buffaloe, and too regular for terror. Hist! now they are in a bottom where the grass is high, and the sound is deadened! Ay, there they go on the hard earth! And now they come up the swell, dead upon us; they will be here afore you can find a cover!"
"Come, Ellen," cried the youth, seizing his companion by the hand, "let us make a trial for the encampment."
"Too late! too late!" exclaimed the trapper, "for the creatur's are in open view; and a bloody band of accursed Siouxes they are, by their thieving look, and the random fashion in which they ride!"
"Siouxes or devils, they shall find us men!" said the bee-hunter, with a mien as fierce as if he led a party of superior strength, and of a courage equal to his own.—"You have a piece, old man, and will pull a trigger in behalf of a helpless, Christian girl!"
"Down, down into the grass—down with ye both," whispered the trapper, intimating to them to turn aside to the tall weeds, which grew, in a denser body than common, near the place where they stood. "You've not the time to fly, nor the numbers to fight, foolish boy. Down into the grass, if you prize the young woman, or value the gift of life!"
His remonstrance, seconded, as it was, by a prompt and energetic action, did not fail to produce the submission to his order, which the occasion seemed, indeed, imperiously to require. The moon had fallen behind a sheet of thin, fleecy, clouds, which skirted the horizon, leaving just enough of its faint and fluctuating light, to render objects visible, dimly revealing their forms and proportions. The trapper, by exercising that species of influence, over his companions, which experience and decision usually assert, in cases of emergency, had effectually succeeded in concealing them in the grass, and by the aid of the feeble rays of the luminary, he was enabled to scan the disorderly party which was riding, like so many madmen, directly upon them.
A band of beings, who resembled demons rather than men, sporting in their nightly revels across the bleak plain, was in truth approaching, at a fearful rate, and in a direction to leave little hope that some one among them, at least, would not pass over the spot where the trapper and his companions lay. At intervals, the clattering of hoofs was borne along by the night wind, quite audibly in their front, and then, again, their progress through the fog of the autumnal grass, was swift and silent; adding to the unearthly appearance of the spectacle. The trapper, who had called in his hound, and bidden him crouch at his side, now kneeled in the cover also, and kept a keen and watchful eye on the route of the band, soothing the fears of the girl, and restraining the impatience of the youth, in the same breath.
"If there's one, there's thirty of the miscreants!" he said, in a sort of episode to his whispered comments. "Ay, ay; they are edging towards the river—Peace, pup—peace—no, here they come this way again—the thieves don't seem to know their own errand! If there were just six of us, lad, what a beautiful ambushment we might make upon them, from this very spot—it won't do, it won't do, boy; keep yourself closer, or your head will be seen—besides, I'm not altogether strong in the opinion it would be lawful, as they have done us no harm.—There they bend again to the river—no; here they come up the swell—now is the moment to be as still, as if the breath had done its duty and departed the body."
The old man sunk into the grass while he was speaking, as if the final separation to which he alluded, had, in his own case, actually occurred, and, at the next instant, a band of wild horsemen whirled by them, with the noiseless rapidity in which it might be imagined a troop of spectres would pass. The dark and fleeting forms were already vanished, when the trapper ventured again to raise his head to a level with the tops of the bending herbage, motioning at the same time, to his companions to maintain their positions and their silence.
"They are going down the swell, towards the encampment," he continued, in his former guarded tones; "no, they halt in the bottom, and are clustering together like deer, in council. By the Lord, they are turning again, and we are not yet done with the reptiles!"
Once more he sought his friendly cover, and at the next instant the dark troop were to be seen riding, in a disorderly manner, on the very summit of the little elevation on which the trapper and his companions lay. It was now soon apparent that they had returned to avail themselves of the height of the ground, in order to examine the dim horizon.
Some dismounted, while others rode to and fro, like men engaged in a local enquiry of much interest. Happily, for the hidden party, the grass in which they were concealed, not only served to skreen them from the eyes of the savages, but opposed an obstacle to prevent their horses, which were no less rude and untrained than their riders, from trampling on them, in their irregular and wild paces.
At length an athletic and dark looking Indian, who, by his air of authority, would seem to be the leader, summoned his chiefs about him, to a consultation, which was held mounted. This body was collected on the very margin of that mass of herbage in which the trapper and his companions were hid. As the young man looked up and saw the fierce aspect of the group, which was increasing at each instant by the accession of some countenance and figure, apparently more forbidding than any which had preceded it, he drew his rifle, by a very natural impulse, from beneath him, and commenced putting it in a state for service. The female, at his side, buried her face in the grass, by a feeling that was, possibly, quite as natural to her sex and habits, leaving him to follow the impulses of his hot blood; but his aged and more prudent adviser, whispered, sternly, in his ear—
"The tick of the lock is as well known to the knaves, as the blast of a trumpet to a soldier! lay down the piece—lay down the piece— should the moon touch the barrel, it could not fail to be seen by the devils, whose eyes are keener than the blackest snake's! The smallest motion, now, would be sure to bring an arrow among us."
The bee-hunter so far obeyed as to continue immovable and silent. But there was still sufficient light to convince his companion, by the contracted brow and threatening eye of the young man, that a discovery would not bestow a bloodless victory on the savages. Finding his advice disregarded, the trapper took his measures accordingly, and awaited the result with a resignation and calmness that were characteristic of the individual.
In the mean time, the Siouxes (for the sagacity of the old man was not deceived in the character of his dangerous neighbours) had terminated their council, and were again dispersed along the ridge of land as if they sought some hidden object.
"The imps have heard the hound!" whispered the trapper, "and their ears are too true to be cheated in the distance. Keep close, lad, keep close; down with your head to the very earth, like a dog that sleeps."
"Let us rather take to our feet, and trust to manhood," returned his impatient companion.
He would have proceeded; but feeling a hand laid rudely on his shoulder, he turned his eyes upward, and beheld the dark and savage countenance of an Indian gleaming full upon him. Notwithstanding the surprise and the disadvantage of his attitude, the youth was not disposed to become a captive so easily. Quicker than the flash of his own gun he sprang upon his feet, and was throttling his opponent with a power that would soon have terminated the contest, when he felt the arms of the trapper thrown round his body, confining his exertions by a strength very little inferior to his own. Before he had time to reproach his comrade for this apparent treachery, a dozen Siouxes were around them, and the whole party were compelled to yield themselves as prisoners.