Gold Cache - James W. Schultz




Chapter II

A fine south wind blew refreshingly in our faces as we rode out of the hot coulee to the rim of the great plain. We were glad to see herds of antelope and buffalo in all directions, for we knew that while those animals were peacefully grazing there could not be any foe in the neighborhood.

We continued to travel southeast, and before sunset came to the edge of the deep-cut valley of Arrow Creek. So sharp are the ledges and slopes of the big gash that there are few places along the whole length of its course where it can be crossed. The cliffs were a favorite haunt of the bighorn, and as we rode down the trail into the valley we saw several bands of them. One big lone ram, after whisking round a boulder to our left, came back to have another look at us, and a bullet from my rifle brought him rolling down into the trail ahead. We soon had the skin off the carcass and, taking most of the fat ribs and part of the saddle, went on down to the stream. There we built a fire of dry cotton-wood and cooked all of the meat; after eating our fill and packing the rest for future use, we rode out of the valley on the south side and camped in the head of a long coulee.

Although the Blackfeet claimed the country south to the Yellowstone, or, as they called it, the Elk River, they did not use it nearly so much as they used the plains and mountains north of the Missouri; when they were away from this southern part of their vast hunting ground the Crows camped and hunted in it.

We knew that a war party of Crows, Sioux, or Cheyennes might appear at any moment, and so stayed in camp until the following evening. When we finally resumed our journey the full moon was flooding the country with silvery light. We traveled for five or six hours, and then, as day was breaking, made camp on a ridge that separated the Judith River from Warm Spring Creek. We hid the horses in a grove of quaking aspen where there was a luxuriant growth of grass and wild pea, and then ate a hearty meal of the cooked meat. I took the first watch, and, after carrying some leafy branches to a bare, rocky flat on the ridge to screen my position, stretched myself out in the shelter of some small boulders. It was interesting to watch the buffalo and antelope coming down into both valleys in long files for their morning drink of the cool water of the streams; generally they went at a leisurely walk until near the shores, and then made a wild rush to quench their thirst.

Our horses were not a hundred yards behind me on the ridge; owing to the density of the outer edge of the grove I could not see them, but in the still air of the early morning I could plainly hear them cropping the rich pasturage.

On my right the ridge was level for twenty or thirty feet, and then ran down so steeply into the Warm Spring flat that I could not see the slope. Several times I thought of crawling over to the edge and looking down, but all was so quiet and peaceful that I kept putting it off. After a time, however, a feeling that there was danger somewhere about came over me.

I was about to go and look down the hidden slope, when I heard a crashing of dry sticks and the rattling of loose rock; falling back, I hugged the ground under my shelter of green branches. For a moment or two all was quiet, and then, with stiff and awkward jumps, two big buck mule deer appeared over the rim of the flat; they stood for an instant, with quivering ears and restless forefeet, looking back down the slope, and then wheeled and bobbed away down the south slope of the ridge.

Presently there was more crunching of sticks and rattling of rocks on the hidden slope, as if several heavy animals were traveling slowly. When very near the trampling ceased, and a little later an Indian came cautiously up on the ridge and, advancing inch by inch, looked down into the valley of the Judith. He was very tall and well-built, and wore elegant buckskin clothing and a cow-skin toga; his two long, heavy braids of hair hung down within six inches of the ground. Rarely had I seen a more pleasing face; it indicated power and dignity, and also expressed, I believed, a kind and generous disposition. The man stood within thirty feet of me. Once he turned and looked my way, and I gripped my rifle tighter; it seemed that his sharp eyes would surely detect me under my leafy screen. If he raised his bow to shoot there was nothing for me to do except to shoot first, and well I knew that just under the edge of the slope was a crowd of his followers awaiting the result of his survey of the country. But he did not see me. With one more sweeping glance into the valley he went back down the slope, and presently reappeared farther on, riding a big roan horse and followed by thirty-two men, all well mounted. They stopped on the summit of the ridge, about one hundred and fifty yards from me, and held a discussion of some kind. I could occasionally hear a word or two, and decided that the party was from the Cheyenne tribe. They were as fine in appearance and as well dressed as any Indians I had ever seen, but they were poorly armed; not more than half of them carried guns. I was badly frightened.

In spite of the kindly looks of their leader, I knew that he and his men would show us no mercy if they discovered us. When he first came up on the ridge only a rising east wind had kept him from hearing our horses cropping the grass. And now should the wind carry the scent of their animals to ours an exchange of inquiring whinnies would follow, and we should be discovered. Every instant I expected to hear one or all of our horses give a shrill neigh. I turned cold with suspense.

The party consulted together for what seemed to me an interminable time. At last one of the men dismounted, and the others started down the ridge, leading his horse. He laid down his gun, carefully folded a buffalo robe that he had taken from the saddle and sat down on it with his back to me. Alternately I watched him and his receding comrades. They were evidently going down to the stream to rest during the day. Here was another danger: should they come across our fresh trail, they would suspect at once that we were in hiding on the ridge, and would come back and hunt us out. In their meandering across the bottom they did once ride near our trail; but fortunately they turned away from it and at last unsaddled, several hundred yards below the place at which we had forded the stream. They had probably traveled all night and were tired, and I thought it unlikely that they would wander round and discover our trail on the shore.

My one anxiety now was the watcher sitting there in front of me. Jose and I had agreed that I should wake him some time before noon for his turn on watch. If I did not rouse him, he was sure to awake in due time and come out to relieve me; the result would be a gunshot or two that would summon the war party down at the river. What was I to do?

I looked back at the stretch along the ridge between me and the grove where my companions and the horses were concealed; the land sloped gently up to it and for the first fifty yards was entirely bare! The man in front of me was continually turning and looking my way; he would certainly discover me before I could cross the place and crawl into the nearest brush; it was equally certain that he would see me if I tried to crawl across to either slope of the ridge. There seemed to be nothing to do except "pot" the man in the back where he sat, then get my companions to saddle the horses and try to outride the party that would surely be fast after us. But at that thought a cold perspiration broke out on me; it was plain murder to kill a man in that way. I could not lift my gun—much less pull the trigger. Three times I tried to nerve myself to do it—and failed.

Then it occurred to me that he, as well as I, would be relieved by a fresh guard before noon; all war parties divided the day into three watches. It was even probable that he would go down to the river and wake the man appointed to succeed him, and he might go before Jose woke and came out from the grove. Moreover, Jose was noted for his cautiousness; before coming out of the grove he would have a good look at the open country and, seeing the man in front of me—well, he certainly would not make any disturbance. This reasoning made me feel a little hopeful. Drawing back the rifle and uncorking it, I lay motionless and watched the man in front of me.

An hour or more passed. The mounting sun beat fiercely down on the rocks where I lay and made me gasp for breath. Suddenly the Cheyenne straightened up all alert, and turned his head toward the hidden slope on our right. And then I heard something—the faint breaking of a dry stick. I again cocked my rifle and said to myself, "Now, then, steady! Steady!"

Another and another stick snapped. The Cheyenne stood up, and then quickly threw himself flat on the ground, with his gun extended and ready to fire. A moment later a big, lean, ragged she grizzly bear, followed by two cubs, came waddling up from the hidden slope. She paused on the edge of the flat top of the ridge, much nearer the Cheyenne than to me. As soon as she stopped, the cubs rose up under her; but she was in no mood for nursing jest then and sent them rolling and squalling away with a couple of cuffs. Then she turned over a large, gat rock and began to lick up the ants that clung to it. One of the cubs ran to get its share of them; but the other cub, after regaining its feet, kept on in the direction it had been rolling, and walked straight toward the motionless Indian. Presently it came right up to him, stuck its little nose against his shining hair, and, with a squall of terror, turned to run back to its mother.

Although ungainly in appearance, there are few animals more "sudden" than the bear. In response to her cub's squall, the mother grizzly left the rock with a flying leap. The Cheyenne was no less quick to move than she. The way he sped across the top of the ridge and down the slope toward the Judith would have shamed an antelope. The grizzly followed him to the edge of the slope and then sat up, growling and sniffing the air. The Cheyenne had gone down the hill out of sight and here was my chance; in a second I was on my feet and "making tracks" for the grove.

As I dashed into the thicket I met Jose. He instantly saw by my face that something was wrong, and in a few words I told him all that had happened.

"Maybe all is still well," he said calmly. "Come! Let us see."

He led the way to the edge of the grove, from which we could look down into the valley of the Judith, and there we saw the Cheyenne threading his way through the patches of tall sage toward the wooded point where his companions were resting. The bear and her cubs had gone. We hastened to rouse Pi'tamakan and to saddle the horses, and in less than ten minutes we were riding up the timbered ridge toward the mountains. The way became steeper and steeper. In the course of half an hour we climbed the side of a point that ended in a bare bluff, and dismounted in the pines. Then, after securing the horses, Jae led the way to the edge of the bluff and adjusted his spyglass; in a