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on with a rawhide band.

For weapons Bridger carried no firearms at all, but bore a short buffalo
bow of the Pawnees - double-curved, sinew-backed, made of the resilient
_bois d'arc_, beloved bow wood of all the Plains tribes. A thick sheaf
of arrows, newly sharpened, swung in the beaver quiver at his back.
Lean, swart, lank of hair, he had small look of the white man left about
him as he rode now, guiding his horse with a jaw rope of twisted hair
and playing his bow with a half dozen arrows held along it with the
fingers of his left hand.

"For buffler the bow's the best," said he. "I'll show ye before long."

They had not too far to go. At that time the short-grass country of the
Platte Valley was the great center of the bison herds. The wallows lay
in thousands, the white alkali showing in circles which almost touched
edge to edge. The influx of emigrants had for the time driven the herds
back from their ancient fords and watering places, to which their
deep-cut trails led down, worn ineradicably into the soil. It was along
one of the great buffalo trails that they now rode, breasting the line
of hills that edged the Platte to the south.

When they topped the flanking ridge a marvelous example of wild
abundance greeted them. Bands of elk, yet more numerous bands of
antelope, countless curious gray wolves, more than one grizzly bear made
away before them, although by orders left unpursued. Of the feathered
game they had now forgot all thought. The buffalo alone was of interest.
The wild guide rode silent, save for a low Indian chant he hummed, his
voice at times rising high, as though importunate.

"Ye got to pray to the Great Speret when-all ye hunt, men," he
explained. "An' ye got to have someone that can call the buffler, as the
Injuns calls that when they hunt on foot. I kin call 'em, too, good as
ary Injun. Why shouldn't I?

"Thar now!" he exclaimed within the next quarter of an hour. "What did
Jim Bridger tell ye? Lookee yonder! Do-ee say Jim Bridger can't make
buffler medicine? Do-ee see 'em over yan ridge - thousands?"

The others felt their nerves jump as they topped the ridge and saw fully
the vast concourse of giant black-topped, beard-fronted creatures which
covered the plateau in a body a mile and more across - a sight which
never failed to thrill any who saw it.

It was a rolling carpet of brown, like the prairie's endless wave of
green. Dust clouds of combat rose here and there. A low muttering rumble
of hoarse dull bellowing came audible even at that distance. The
spectacle was to the novice not only thrilling - it was terrifying.

The general movement of the great pack was toward the valley; closest to
them a smaller body of some hundreds that stood, stupidly staring, not
yet getting the wind of their assailants.

Suddenly rose the high-pitched yell of the scout, sounding the charge.
Snorting, swerving, the horses of the others followed his, terror
smitten but driven in by men most of whom at least knew how to ride.

Smoothly as a bird in flight, Bridger's trained buffalo horse closed the
gap between him and a plunging bunch of the buffalo. The white savage
proved himself peer of any savage of the world. His teeth bared as he
threw his body into the bow with a short, savage jab of the left arm as
he loosed the sinew cord. One after another feather showed, clinging to
a heaving flank; one after another muzzle dripped red with the white
foam of running; then one after another great animal began to slow; to
stand braced, legs apart; soon to begin slowly kneeling down. The living
swept ahead, the dying lay in the wake.

The insatiate killer clung on, riding deep into the surging sea of
rolling humps. At times, in savage sureness and cruelty, he did not ride
abreast and drive the arrow into the lungs, but shot from the rear,
quartering, into the thin hide back of the ribs, so that the shaft
ranged forward into the intestines of the victim. If it did not bury,
but hung free as the animal kicked at it convulsively, he rode up, and
with his hand pushed the shaft deeper, feeling for the life, as the
Indians called it, with short jabs of the imbedded missile. Master of an
old trade he was, and stimulated by the proofs of his skill, his
followers emulated him with their own weapons. The report of firearms,
muffled by the rolling thunder of hoofs, was almost continuous so long
as the horses could keep touch with the herd.

Bridger paused only when his arrows were out, and grumbled to himself
that he had no more, so could count only a dozen fallen buffalo for his
product. That others, wounded, carried off arrows, he called bad luck
and bad shooting. When he trotted back on his reeking horse, his quiver
dancing empty, he saw other black spots than his own on the short grass.
His followers had picked up the art not so ill. There was meat in sight
now, certainly - as well as a half dozen unhorsed riders and three or
four wounded buffalo disposed to fight.

The old hunter showed his men how to butcher the buffalo, pulling them
on their bellies, if they had not died thus, and splitting the hide down
the back, to make a receptacle for the meat as it was dissected; showed
them how to take out the tongue beneath the jaw, after slitting open the
lower jaw. He besought them not to throw away the back fat, the hump,
the boss ribs or the intestinal _boudins_; in short, gave them their
essential buffalo-hunting lessons. Then he turned for camp, he himself
having no relish for squaw's work, as he called it, and well assured the
wagons would now have abundance.

Banion and Jackson, with their followers, held their hunt some miles
below the scene of Bridger's chase, and had no greater difficulty in
getting among the herds.

"How're ye ridin', Will?" asked Jackson before they mounted for the
start from camp.

Banion slapped the black stallion on the neck.

"Not his first hunt!" said he.

"I don't mean yore hoss, but yore shootin' irons. Whar's yore guns?"

"I'll risk it with the dragoon revolvers," replied Banion, indicating
his holsters. "Not the first time for them, either."

"No? Well, maybe-so they'll do; but fer me, I want a hunk o' lead. Fer
approachin' a buffler, still-huntin', the rifle's good, fer ye got time
an' kin hold close. Plenty o' our men'll hunt thataway to-day, an' git
meat; but fer me, give me a hunk o' lead. See here now, I got only a
shotgun, cap an' ball, fourteen gauge, she is, an' many a hide she's
stretched. I kerry my bullets in my mouth an' don't use no patchin' - ye
hain't got time, when ye're runnin' in the herd. I let go a charge o'
powder out'n my horn, clos't as I kin guess hit, spit in a bullet, and
roll her home on top the powder with a jar o' the butt on top my saddle
horn. That sots her down, an' she holds good enough to stay in till I
ram the muzzle inter ha'r an' let go. She's the same as meat on the
fire."

"Well," laughed Banion, "you've another case of _de gustibus_, I
suppose."

"You're another, an' I call it back!" exclaimed the old man so
truculently that his friend hastened to explain.

"Well, I speak Blackfoot, Crow, Bannack, Grow Vaw, Snake an' Ute,"
grumbled the scout, "but I never run acrost no Latins out here. I
allowed maybe-so ye was allowin' I couldn't kill buffler with Ole Sal.
That's what I keep her fer - just buffler. I'll show ye afore long."

And even as Bridger had promised for his favorite weapon, he did prove
beyond cavil the efficiency of Old Sal. Time after time the roar or the
double roar of his fusee was heard, audible even over the thunder of the
hoofs; and quite usually the hunk of lead, driven into heart or lights,
low down, soon brought down the game, stumbling in its stride. The old
halfbreed style of loading, too, was rapid enough to give Jackson as
many buffalo as Bridger's bow had claimed before his horse fell back and
the dust cloud lessened in the distance.

The great speed and bottom of Banion's horse, as well as the beast's
savage courage and hunting instinct, kept him in longer touch with the
running game. Banion was in no haste. From the sound of firing he knew
his men would have meat. Once in the surge of the running herd, the
rolling backs, low heads and lolling tongues, shaggy frontlets and
gleaming eyes all about him, he dropped the reins on Pronto's neck and
began his own work carefully, riding close and holding low, always ready
for the sudden swerve of the horse away from the shot to avoid the usual
rush of the buffalo when struck. Since he took few chances, his shot
rarely failed. In a mile or so, using pains, he had exhausted all but
two shots, one in each weapon, and of course no man could load the old
cap-and-ball revolver while in the middle of a buffalo run. Now, out of
sheer pride in his own skill with small arms, he resolved upon
attempting a feat of which he once had heard but never had seen.

Jackson, at a considerable distance to the rear, saw his leader riding
back of two bulls which he had cut off and which were making frantic
efforts to overtake the herd. After a time they drew close together,
running parallel and at top speed. At the distance, what Jackson saw was
a swift rush of the black horse between the two bulls. For an instant
the three seemed to run neck and neck. Then the rider's arms seemed
extended, each on its side. Two puffs of blue smoke stained the gray
dust. The black horse sprang straight ahead, not swerving to either
side. Two stumbling forms slowed, staggered and presently fell. Then the
dust passed, and he saw the rider trot back, glancing here and there
over the broad rolling plain at the work of himself and his men.

"I seed ye do hit, boy!" exclaimed the grizzled old hunter when they
met. "I seed ye plain, an' ef I hadn't, an' ye'd said ye'd did hit, I'd
of said ye was a liar."

"Oh, the double?" Banion colored, not ill pleased at praise from Sir
Hubert, praise indeed. "Well, I'd heard it could be done."

"Once is enough. Let 'em call ye a liar atter this! Ef ary one o' them
bulls had hit ye ye'd have had no hoss; an' ary one was due to hit ye,
or drive ye against the other, an' then he would. That's a trap I hain't
ridin' inter noways, not me!"

He looked at his own battered piece a trifle ruefully.

"Well, Ole Sal," said he, "'pears like you an' me ain't newfangled
enough for these times, not none! When I git to Oregon, ef I ever do,
I'm a goin' to stay thar. Times back, five year ago, no one dreamed o'
wagons, let alone plows. Fust thing, they'll be makin' plows with
wheels, an' rifles that's six-shooters too!"

He laughed loud and long at his own conceit.

"Well, anyways," said he, "we got meat. We've licked one red nation an'
got enough meat to feed the white nation, all in a couple o' days. Not
so bad - not so bad."

And that night, in the two separate encampments, the white nation, in
bivouac, on its battle ground, sat around the fires of _bois des vaches_
till near morning, roasting boss ribs, breaking marrowbones, laughing,
singing, boasting, shaking high their weapons of war, men making love to
their women - the Americans, most terrible and most successful of all
savages in history.

But from one encampment two faces were missing until late - Banion and
Jackson of the Missourians. Sam Woodhull, erstwhile column captain of
the great train, of late more properly to be called unattached, also was
absent. It was supposed by their friends that these men might be out
late, superintending the butchering, or that at worst they were
benighted far out and would find their way to camp the next morning.

Neither of these guesses was correct. Any guess, to be correct, must
have included in one solution the missing men of both encampments, who
had hunted miles apart.




CHAPTER XXI

THE QUICKSANDS


As Banion and Jackson ended their part in the buffalo running and gave
instructions to the wagon men who followed to care for the meat, they
found themselves at a distance of several miles from their starting
point. They were deep into a high rolling plateau where the going was
more difficult than in the level sunken valley of the Platte. Concluding
that it would be easier to ride the two sides of the triangle than the
one over which they had come out, they headed for the valley at a sharp
angle. As they rode, the keen eye of Jackson caught sight of a black
object apparently struggling on the ground at the bottom of a little
swale which made down in a long ribbon of green.

"Look-ee yan!" he exclaimed. "Some feller's lost his buffler, I expect.
Let's ride down an' put him out'n his misery afore the wolves does."

They swung off and rode for a time toward the strange object. Banion
pulled up.

"That's no buffalo! That's a man and his horse! He's bogged down!"

"You're right, Will, an' bogged bad! I've knew that light-green slough
grass to cover the wurst sort o' quicksand. She runs black sand under
the mud, God knows how deep. Ye kain't run a buffler inter hit - he
knows. Come on!"

They spurred down a half mile of gentle slope, hard and firm under foot,
and halted at the edge of one of the strange man-traps which sometimes
were found in the undrained Plains - a slough of tall, coarse, waving
grass which undoubtedly got its moisture from some lower stratum.

In places a small expanse of glistening black mud appeared, although for
the most part the mask of innocent-looking grass covered all signs of
danger. It was, in effect, the dreaded quicksand, the octopus of the
Plains, which covered from view more than one victim and left no
discoverable trace.

The rider had attempted to cross a narrow neck of the slough. His mount
had begun to sink and flounder, had been urged forward until the danger
was obvious. Then, too late, the rider had flung off and turned back,
sinking until his feet and legs were gripped by the layer of deep soft
sand below. It was one of the rarest but most terrible accidents of the
savage wilderness.

Blackened by the mud which lay on the surface, his hat half buried, his
arms beating convulsively as he threw himself forward again and again,
the victim must in all likelihood soon have exhausted himself. The chill
of night on the high Plains soon would have done the rest, and by good
fortune he might have died before meeting his entombment. His horse ere
this had accepted fate, and ceasing to struggle lay almost buried, his
head and neck supported by a trembling bit of floating grass roots.

"Steady, friend!" called out Banion as he ran to the edge. "Don't fight
it! Spread out your arms and lie still! We'll get you out!"

"Quick! My lariat, Jackson, and yours!" he added.

The scout was already freeing the saddle ropes. The two horses stood,
reins down, snorting at the terror before them, whose menace they now
could sense.

"Take the horse!" called Banion. "I'll get the man!"

He was coiling the thin, braided hide _reata_, soft as a glove and
strong as steel, which always hung at the Spanish saddle.

He cast, and cast again - yet again, the loop at forty feet gone to
nothing. The very silence of the victim nerved him to haste, and he
stepped in knee deep, finding only mud, the trickle of black sands being
farther out. The rope sped once more, and fell within reach - was caught.
A sob or groan came, the first sound. Even then from the imprisoned
animal beyond him came that terrifying sound, the scream of a horse in
mortal terror. Jackson's rope fell short.

"Get the rope under your arms!" called Banion to the blackened, sodden
figure before him. Slowly, feebly, his order was obeyed. With much
effort the victim got the loop below one arm, across a shoulder, and
then paused.

"Your rope, quick, Bill!"

Jackson hurried and they joined the ends of the two ropes.

"Not my horse - he's wild. Dally on to your own saddle, Bill, and go slow
or you'll tear his head off."

The scout's pony, held by the head and backed slowly, squatted to its
haunches, snorting, but heaving strongly The head of the victim was
drawn oddly toward his shoulder by the loop, but slowly, silently, his
hands clutching at the rope, his body began to rise, to slip forward.

Banion, deep as he dared, at last caught him by the collar, turned up
his face. He was safe. Jackson heard the rescuer's deep exclamation, but
was busy.

"Cast free, Will, cast free quick, and I'll try for the horse!"

He did try, with the lengthened rope, cast after cast, paying little
attention to the work of Banion, who dragged out his man and bent over
him as he lay motionless on the safe edge of the treacherous sunken
sands which still half buried him.

"No use!" exclaimed the older man. He ran to his saddle and got his
deadly double barrel, then stepped as close as possible to the sinking
animal as he could. There came a roar. The head of the horse dropped
flat, began to sink. "Pore critter!" muttered the old man, capping his
reloaded gun. He now hastened to aid Banion.

The latter turned a set face toward him and pointed. The rescued man had
opened his eyes. He reached now convulsively for a tuft of grass,
paused, stared.

"Hit's Sam Woodhull!" ejaculated the scout. Then, suddenly, "Git away,
Will - move back!"

Banion looked over his shoulder as he stood, his own hands and arms, his
clothing, black with mire. The old man's gray eye was like a strange
gem, gleaming at the far end of the deadly double tube, which was
leveled direct at the prostrate man's forehead.

"No!" Banion's call was quick and imperative. He flung up a hand,
stepped between. "No! You'd kill him - now?"

With a curse Jackson flung his gun from him, began to recoil the muddied
ropes. At length, without a word, he came to Banion's side. He reached
down, caught an arm and helped Banion drag the man out on the grass. He
caught off a handful of herbage and thrust it out to Woodhull, who
remained silent before what seemed his certain fate.

"Wipe off yore face, you skunk!" said the scout. Then he seated himself,
morosely, hands before knees.

"Will Banion," said he, "ye're a fool - a nacherl-borned, congenual,
ingrain damned fool! Ye're flyin' in the face o' Proverdence, which
planted this critter right here fer us ter leave where no one'd ever be
the wiser, an' where he couldn't never do no more devilment. Ye idjit,
leave me kill him, ef ye're too chicken-hearted yoreself! Or leave us
throw him back in again!"

Banion would not speak at first, though his eyes never left Woodhull's
streaked, ghastly face.

"By God!" said he slowly, at length, "if we hadn't joined Scott and
climbed Chapultepec together, I'd kill you like a dog, right here! Shall
I give you one more chance to square things for me? You know what I
mean! Will you promise?"

"Promise?" broke in Jackson. "Ye damned fool, would ye believe ary
promise he made, even now? I tell-ee, boy, he'll murder ye the fust
chanct he gits! He's tried hit one night afore. Leave me cut his throat,
Will! Ye'll never be safe ontel I do. Leave me cut his throat er kill
him with a rock. Hit's only right."

Banion shook his head.

"No," he said slowly, "I couldn't, and you must not."

"Do you promise?" he repeated to the helpless man. "Get up - stand up! Do
you promise - will you swear?"

"Swear? Hell!" Jackson also rose as Woodhull staggered to his feet. "Ye
knew this man orto kill ye, an' ye sneaked hit, didn't ye? Whar's yer
gun?"

"There!" Woodhull nodded to the bog, over which no object now showed.
"I'm helpless! I'll promise! I'll swear!"

"Then we'll not sound the No-quarter charge that you and I have heard
the Spanish trumpets blow. You will remember the shoulder of a man who
fought with you? You'll do what you can now - at any cost?"

"What cost?" demanded Woodhull thickly.

Banion's own white teeth showed as he smiled.

"What difference?" said he. "What odds?"

"That's hit!" Again Jackson cut in, inexorable. "Hit's no difference to
him what he sw'ars, yit he'd bargain even now. Hit's about the gal!"

"Hush!" said Banion sternly. "Not another word!"

"Figure on what it means to you." He turned to Woodhull. "I know what it
means to me. I've got to have my own last chance, Woodhull, and I'm
saving you for that only. Is your last chance now as good as mine? This
isn't mercy - I'm trading now. You know what I mean."

Woodhull had freed his face of the mud as well as he could. He walked
away, stooped at a trickle of water to wash himself. Jackson quietly
rose and kicked the shotgun back farther from the edge. Woodhull now was
near to Banion's horse, which, after his fashion, always came and stood
close to his master. The butts of the two dragoon revolvers showed in
their holsters at the saddle. When he rose from the muddy margin,
shaking his hands as to dry them, he walked toward the horse. With a
sudden leap, without a word, he sprang beyond the horse, with a swift
clutch at both revolvers, all done with a catlike quickness not to have
been predicted. He stood clear of the plunging horse, both weapons
leveled, covering his two rescuers.

"Evener now!" His teeth bared. "Promise _me_!"

Jackson's deep curse was his answer. Banion rose, his arms folded.

"You're a liar and a coward, Sam!" said he. "Shoot, if you've got the
nerve!"

Incredible, yet the man was a natural murderer. His eye narrowed. There
came a swift motion, a double empty click!

"Try again, Sam!" said Banion, taunting him. "Bad luck - you landed on an
empty!"

He did try again. Swift as an adder, his hands flung first one and then
the other weapon into action.

Click after click, no more; Jackson sat dumb, expecting death.

"They're all empty, Sam," said Banion at last as the murderer cast down
the revolvers and stood with spread hands. "For the first time, I didn't
reload. I didn't think I'd need them."

"You can't blame me!" broke out Woodhull. "You said it was no quarter!
Isn't a prisoner justified in trying to escape?"

"You've not escaped," said Banion, coldly now. "Rope him, Jackson."

The thin, soft hide cord fell around the man's neck, tightened.

"Now," shrilled Jackson, "I'll give ye a dog's death!"

He sprang to the side of the black Spaniard, who by training had settled
back, tightening the rope.




CHAPTER XXII

A SECRET OF TWO


Catching the intention of the maddened man, now bent only on swift
revenge, Banion sprang to the head of his horse, flinging out an arm to
keep Jackson out of the saddle. The horse, frightened at the stubborn
struggle between the two, sprang away. Woodhull was pulled flat by the
rope about his neck, nor could he loosen it now with his hands, for the
horse kept steadily away. Any instant and he might be off in a mad
flight, dragging the man to his death.

"Ho! Pronto - _Vien aqui_!"

Banion's command again quieted the animal. His ears forward, he came up,
whickering his own query as to what really was asked of him.

Banion caught the bridle rein once more and eased the rope. Jackson by
now had his shotgun and was shouting, crazed with anger. Woodhull's life
chance was not worth a bawbee.

It was his enemy who saved it once again, for inscrutable but unaltered
reasons of his own.

"Drop that, Jackson!" called Banion. "Do as I tell you! This man's
mine!"

Cursing himself, his friend, their captive, the horse, his gun and all
animate and inanimate Nature in his blood rage, the old man, livid in
wrath, stalked away at length. "I'll kill him sometime, ef ye don't
yerself!" he screamed, his beard trembling. "Ye damned fool!"

"Get up, Woodhull!" commanded Banion. "You've tried once more to kill
me. Of course, I'll not take any oath or promise from you now. You don't
understand such things. The blood of a gentleman isn't anywhere in your
strain. But I'll give you one more chance - give myself that chance too.
There's only one thing you understand. That's fear. Yet I've seen you on
a firing line, and you started with Doniphan's men. We didn't know we
had a coward with us. But you are a coward.

"Now I leave you to your fear! You know what I want - more than life it
is to me; but your life is all I have to offer for it. I'm going to wait
till then.

"Come on, now! You'll have to walk. Jackson won't let you have his
horse. My own never carried a woman but once, and he's never carried a
coward at all. Jackson shall not have the rope. I'll not let him kill
you."

"What do you mean?" demanded the prisoner, not without his effrontery.

The blood came back to Banion's face, his control breaking.

"I mean for you to walk, trot, gallop, damn you! If you don't you'll
strangle here instead of somewhere else in time."

He swung up, and Jackson sullenly followed.

"Give me that gun," ordered Banion, and took the shotgun and slung it


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