California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman

CHAPTER II.
THE UNSEEN GUIDE.

WHEN the dawn broke upon the camp, the emigrants were somewhat startled to discover a stick in front of the center fire, sticking up in the ground, and with a piece of paper fastened to it.

The captain of the train read what was written thereon aloud, and it was as follows:

"WARNING:

"If this train is bound for Sunset Settlement it is on the wrong trail.

"If they do not fear to trust the one who writes his, let them follow the wrong trail."

This was all, but it set the entire train of emigrants to thinking. They had little confidence in their amateur guide, for the simple reason he had less in himself, and had only guaranteed to go the way he thought was right.

Now he said that he might be wrong, and he advised the captain to follow the staked trail.

But who was their unknown informer?

He had passed the guards, that was evident, and had entered the camp unseen, for who else had put the stake there with its warning?

Then some one came in with the information that a large number of small sprigs had been cut from a tree near by, and another reported that one was staked out just beyond the camp.

Instantly the captain went to this stake, and it had evidently been placed there under cover of the night just passed.

Afar off a close scrutiny showed that another stake had been placed, and then it was decided to follow the trail they marked out.

The order to move was given, and the train pulled slowly out of its camping-place.

Following the stakes, which were placed about a mile apart, with a bunch of prairie grass upon the top of each, that they might be the better seen, the train continued on its way until the noon halt.

Then the mysterious affair was talked over and the fact made known that the trail of a single horse had been left from stake to stake.

Could it be the Forest Phantom? Such was the question asked by all.

It must be, many thought, for had he not faithfully guided the hunters back to their camp the night before?

After an hour's halt the train again moved, and passed through a valley that divided the range of hills out upon the prairie beyond.

Not caring to go away from a good camping ground, to perhaps make a dry camp* out upon the prairie, the captain of the train called a halt in the shelter of the hills, although there had been but about fifteen miles made that day.

And as soon as night came on, and all gathered around the camp fires, the subject of conversation was about their unseen guide.

Placing the guards, the camp again sunk to rest, and no sound disturbed them through the night; and the guards neither heard nor saw anything of a suspicious nature to alarm them.

But, strange to say, when the dawn came, there, in front of the captain's teat, was the stake, driven into the ground under the shadow of the night, and upon it was a piece of paper, evidently torn, as had the other piece been, from off an old letter, and written in pencil.

The writing was legible, but by no means written by a scribe.

This second note read:

"You are doing right! Follow the staked trail."

And all through the day the train did follow the staked trail, for the stakes were still placed to guide them, though they were further apart than the day before.

At dark the train reached a small stream, and in the shelter of the few willows and cottonwoods upon its banks went into camp.

Hardly had the fires been lighted when, far off upon the prairie, a light was visible.

That it came from a camp-fire was evident, and the emigrants gazed at it long and earnestly, for who could have built it unless it was their unseen guide?

Some wished to go and see, but this the train captain would not allow, as he knew well he was in dangerous country, for both train robbers and Indians were to be dreaded in that border land.

After blazing for half an hour the distant fire died out, and then all was blackness upon the prairie.

At an early hour the train again pulled out, and the staked trail led directly over the spot where had been seen the fire the night before. A few charred sticks were visible right on the bank of a tiny stream, and there were only a dozen cottonwoods near to form a shelter for a camp.

But there, evidently, had their unseen guide camped, for they could see where blankets had pressed down the grass beneath the trees and where a horse had fed about the lonely camp.

On through the day pulled the train, until they came to a spot that was an excellent camping-ground, and here they halted.

Again were fires built, and after supper the emigrants assembled around them for a talk, the one topic of conversation being about their unseen guide.

Then there were croakers in the party, for some would say if he was honest he would show himself.

Others feared he was leading them into a trap, until at last the general opinion was against the unseen guide.

But his stanch friends were the hunting-party whom he had guided back to camp.

They all maintain that he was true, what-ever he was, or it was, ghost or man.

Some too believed they were being led by a spook, for superstition held a great sway over the minds of people two-score years ago, and even now many believe in the supernatural.

At last, after a warm discussion upon the subject, it was decided not to follow the staked trail the following day, but to take their bearings as well as they were able, and endeavor to find their way to Sunset Settlement as best they could.

Hardly had they come to this conclusion, and were about to separate for the night, to go to respective quarters, when suddenly into their midst came a white horse, and upon his back was the rider in black.

A few of the women screamed, men sprung to their feet, and at once all was a scene of excitement, as they gazed upon the snow-white steed and his sable-clad rider.


[Back]*A camp with no water near.
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