California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman

CHAPTER VI.
JOE'S LITTLE GAME.

JOE, whatever time he had been upon the border, or whatever scenes he had passed through, before meeting with the Reynolds' emigrant train, had certainly been able to become a thorough prairieman, He could match Indian cunning any time, was able to take care of himself, and seemed to rather enjoy the thought that he was regarded as a spook, or evil spirit.

Though wholly uncommunicative regarding the past, and one, young as he was, who certainly had some mysterious history, some strange story to tell, would he but tell it, he was yet not taciturn, for once his lips were unlocked upon ordinary matters, he had plenty to say.

After having warned the train of their threatened danger, and guided them to a place of safety at the Bluff camp, he had ridden off at a gallop as though the kiss given him by little Maggie Reynolds had reopened wounds he had thought were healed.

He had not gone very far from the camp before he saw a form suddenly spring from the grass before him.

Then another and another, until two mustangs which had been lying down by the side of their masters, were flying away at full speed, and upon their backs were their riders.

But Joe did not hesitate at sight of them, but, on the contrary, let his horse increase his speed.

"They are Bad Blood's spies, and they know just who I am," he muttered.

After a while, as he gained rapidly upon the flying red-skins, he said: "If I was anybody else, I'd have got an arrow in me, but they're afraid of me."

Urging his white horse to a still greater speed, which the splendid animal seemed readily capable of, he soon drew within close pistol range of the two red-skins.

"It don't seem exactly right to shoot 'em, when they won't shoot back, thinking I'm a spook; but they'll report mighty soon that I was coming from the pale-face camp, and then they won't believe I'm an evil spirit, so I guess I'd better kill 'em.."

With this, Joe threw his hand forward quickly, and it held a revolver, a weapon at that time almost unknown upon the plains.

Instantly followed two sharp reports, and the two riders fell from their saddles without a cry, for Joe's aim was deadly.

Although relieved of their weight, the ponies were no match for the white animal Joe rode, who was alongside of them in a minute's time, and both were quickly caught.

Then back to where the Indians lay went the boy, and he found them just as he knew he would, dead.

It was but the work of a few minutes to place them upon the backs of their mustangs and make them fast, after which Joe started off on the course he had been going when he saw the red-skins.

A ride of several miles brought him to a range of hills and through them ran a swift stream, with high banks.

Here the boy halted, turned his own horse I loose, with perfect confidence that he would not leave him, and staking out the ponies, relieved them of their ghastly loads.

To remove the two scalp-locks, with a dexterity that showed he had had practice in the art of scalping, was but an instant's work with Joe, after which he took their weapons and robes, and threw the bodies into the stream.

The current carried them swiftly away, and then the strange boy built a small fire in a ravine, cooked some dried meat upon the coals, and spreading the robes of his slain foes down upon the ground, rolled his blankets around him and was almost instantly asleep.

The coming of dawn did not seem to disturb him in the least, but when the sun rose, he got up, cooked his breakfast, and, leading his two captured ponies, started on up into the hills.

At last he gained a point of observation from whence he could see the distant bluff and camp of the emigrants, and, after a close observation of the surrounding country, he again settled himself down to rest.

When the sun drew near the western horizon, he mounted his horse, and, leading the ponies, started to descend to the prairie once more.

It was dark when he gained the level lands, and, as though resolved upon his course, he went off at a lope in the direction of the emigrant camp. A ride of several miles brought him in sight of the camp- fire, and, then he went along at a slower pace.

Drawing nearer, he at length came to a halt and looked ahead of him for a long time in silence.

"They're coming!"

He uttered the words in a matter-of-fact kind of tone, and, dismounting, at once ordered his horse to lie down.

The intelligent and faithful animal at once obeyed and then Joe went to one of the ponies and ordered him down too.

Whatever the brute might have done for his redskin, master, he certainly would not for his pale-face captor.

But in an instant he was hoppled and thrown upon his side in a manner that proved to him he had a master in this youth.

Then Joe took something from a pouch and besmeared his face with it, and next pat upon his head the feather bonnet of one of the dead Indians, and about his shoulders a blanket.

"We'll go now, pony," he said, at the same time throwing himself upon the back of the other mustang.

Leaving his own horse lying flat down in the long prairie grass, and the mustang hoppled, Joe rode on directly toward the emigrant camp, the fires of which were burning brightly, not two miles distant.

After riding considerably nearer, he halted and waited.

With the same patience that would have been shown by an Indian, Joe sat upon the mustang watching and waiting.

Suddenly he saw forms pass between him and the light of the fires, and he knew that Bad Blood and his warriors were preparing for the attack. Slowly he drew nearer and he saw that the warriors had dismounted, and, as he had felt assured, were approaching the camp on foot.

Then Joe turned to the right-about and went rapidly back to where he had left his horse and, the hoppled mustang.

Quickly he got them both up, and hiding the white animal under robes and blankets, he mounted him and rode toward the camp once more.

Passing the spot where he had before halted, he continued on until he could near the snorting and stamping of the red-skins' mustangs, and again he stopped and staked out the three horses.

At a run on foot he approached the herd, and gained their midst without attracting the attention of any of the guards, who were little dreaming of danger from that point, and were taken up wholly in watching and waiting for the attack of their comrades, which was to bring them scalps and plunder.

From horse to horse Joe glided, his sharp knife severing the lariat near their necks, and in a few moments' time he had set free the lot, excepting the few near the guards, who, five in number, were grouped together waiting to hear the sound of conflict begin.

The Indians had left their horses over a mile from the camp, so that no neigh or sound should alarm the guards, and this distance they had to go on foot, and moving with the greatest caution, it gave Joe nearly an hour in which to perfect his little game.

At last the ringing war-cry, for the charge upon the emigrant camp, broke on the air, and immediately after came the terrific yells of the red fiends as they rushed upon what they supposed were their victims. Then, like a deer, Joe ran back toward his horses, threw the robes and blankets off of his own animal, and leading the two mustangs by long lariats, dashed toward the ponies of the red-skins.

Firing his pistol, yelling, and at fully speed he charged the herd and at once, as he had forseen began a wild stampede.

The guards in vain tried to check their flight, and over them the frightened animals dashed, driven straight toward the camp.

As he neared it, by the flaming up of the fire, Joe saw that the red-skins had been badly hurt, and were flying too, and he increased the racket behind the charging mustangs.

Not, for an instant believing that their own animals were stampeded, and fearing that they were charging soldiery, the red-skins fled from their ponies at first, until too late they discovered their mistake.

And on by the camp rushed the frightened ponies, held at their speed by Joe, to disappear in the darkness beyond, though the thunder of their hoofs was long heard by the emigrants in the camp, and the enraged and skulking Indians, as they fell back on foot toward their own village, too utterly demoralized for their savage chief to bring them again to the attack.

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