California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman

CHAPTER III.
"JOE"

THAT the four guards had been stationed about the camp, the number nightly placed on duty, all the emigrants knew, and yet through the line, apparently unseen by them, the white horse and the sable-clad rider had come.

All gazed upon him an instant in silence, and he at them, as though awaiting for them to speak.

They beheld a snow-white steed of perfect symmetry, his mouth unrestrained by a bit, and his back not weighted by a saddle.

Instead of the former was a long lariat about his neck, and in place of the latter were several blankets fastened on with a surcingle.

The rider was a youth of seventeen perhaps, strange to say, clad in a suit of black broadcloth that looked as though it might have done service for his father's Sunday wear, or upon the form of some itinerant person.

The coat was buttoned up close, as though to hide the absence of a shirt, and the boots into the tops of which the pants were stuck, were four sizes too large for the wearer.

The hat was a black felt, and it too seemed never to have been intended to fit the head upon which it rested.

He carried a rifle large enough for a man of full size, and a pair or revolvers, knife, and hatchet in a horse-hair belt.

To the emigrants he appeared to be like one who had found his clothing and arms separately, and his appearance seemed to tell the story, in connection with the graves in the forest where the party of hunters had first seen him, of one who might be the only survivor of some fearful massacre of some little settlement or wagon train, and had gone back after flying for his life, to find all he loved ones dead, and had picked up for himself just what he could find.

So it seemed to those who saw him, and his pale face rather added to this surmise being true.

It was a bold, fearless face, a trifle reckless, with earnest black eyes, full of fire, and that seemed to look straight into one's soul. His form was well-built, sinewy and supple, and yet he looked like one who had been ill, or else met with some great sorrow. Seeing that the emigrants were too much surprised at his unexpected appearance to speak, the strange youth said bluntly:

"Good-evening, folks."

"Good-evening, my young friend," returned the captain pleasantly, while the others nodded at the salutation, and then the Train Boss continued:

"May I ask your name, my friend?"

"Joe."

"Joe?"

"Yes, Joe."

"But you have another name?"

"Isn't Joe name enough?"

"Certainly, if you do not care to be known by any other."

"I don't," was the frank reply.

Captain Reynolds was both surprised and interested in the young stranger, so he said:

"I believe we are to thank you for staking a trail out for us the past two days?"

"Yes, you were going wrong; so if you were heading for Sunset Settlement."

"There is where we are going."

"Well, you were going wrong; so I put you right."

"You are sure you are right, are you?"

"I know," was the quiet rejoinder.

"Well, we do not; for our guide took sick and died some days ago, and we were going by aided by one of the teamsters, who had been over the trail before."

"Guess is a bad trail to follow in these parts, stranger, and, as it is, you are in danger."

"Ha! Do you know of any danger threatening us?" quickly asked Captain Reynolds.

"Yes."

"You will of course tell us what it is?"

"That is what I came here for."

"You are very kind, and I am remiss in not offering the hospitalities of our camp.

"Dismount, and let us give you some supper."

"I have been to supper, sir, but I'll tell you that the red-skins have laid an ambush for you."

"Ha! That is news indeed!"

"But how know you this?"

"I rode upon their camp to-night."

"To-night?"

"Yes; they are about ten miles from here, and their spies have been watching you all day."

"They would have come nearer, but are afraid of me."

"Afraid of you?"

"Yes, they think I am a spook, or what they call an Evil Spirit." It was on the tip of Captain Reynolds's tongue to say:

"I don't blame them; for we half thought so too."

But he said instead:

"What makes them think so?"

"Because I live alone on the prairies, and in the forests and hills."

"Have you no home?"

"No."

"Where are your parents?"

"I have no parents," was the reply, in the same tone in which he had before spoken.

"But you have friends?"

"I have no friends."

"And you live in this wild land alone?"

"Yes."

"But, the Indians--"

"They don't harm me. I harm them," was the laconic response.

Captain Reynolds saw that he had a strange character to deal with, but was anxious to find out more about him, so asked:

"How long have you--"

"Say, stranger, I didn't come here to be asked questions, but to tell you that your train is in danger," abruptly said the youth, and he continued:

"My name, as I told you, is Joe, and I wander about the prairies, and that is all you need know about me; but I now that old Bad Blood and two hundred warriors are laying for your train.

"If you go on to-morrow, you run right into their ambush, but if you stay here, they will come to-morrow night and attack you."

"How do you know this, my young friend Joe?"

"I know Injuns' ways, and Bad Blood is on the war-path.

"If you went right on he would wait for you, but it you did not, he'd think you stopped for rest and attack you."

"And what would you advise?"

"My advice would be to lay a trap for Bad Blood."

"But how, Joe?"

"A mile further on is a stream with the prairie on one side and a bluff on the other.

"On the bluff is a thicket, and the hills rise beyond.

"You can camp on the prairie, making a corral of your wagons, make dummies about the fires, and put all the women and children in a dugout you an make, while you and your men can take the bluff and shoot down every Indian that comes into camp."

"Well, Joe, you advise like a general and we will follow your advice.

"When would you say move?"

"Now, and I will guide you to the spot, and then when the Injuns attack you, I'll be around somewhere," was the very significant reply of the strange youth..

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