California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman

CHAPTER IX.
A LEAP LIFE.

WHEN Joe left the fort he headed directly for the camp of the emigrants, for he was anxious to get back and guide them out of the dangerous country into which their being without a guide had led them.

He had gone but a few miles when he crossed a trail that he was convinced was made by Indians.

The tracks showed the it was a large force and the trail was so fresh that he determined to follow it and see just who had made it, as the direction in which it led he knew would head off the emigrant train on its way to Sunset Settlement.

If he could discover that the Indians, hearing in some way of the coming train, had determined to lay in wait for its coming by a certain point, by knowing where they would place their ambush, he could flank them and thus put there at fault.

It was with such determination that he struck the trail and cautiously followed it.

He had not proceeded very far before he knew that there were fully a hundred horses that had left their trail; but, whether all of these were mounted, or not, he could not discover until he saw them.

He saw that the trail led towards a high range of hills, and into a most wild country; but he unhesitatingly pressed on until darkness hid every trace from view and he was compelled to camp. In darkness and silence he ate his frugal supper, and then lay down upon the open prairie to sleep, his horse, which he had given no name whatever, feeding around him, and not held by the lariat, for the boy know that the faithful animal would not leave him.

With the first peep of day he was up and on the trail once more, and two hours after had reached the foot-hills.

There he came upon the camp of those he followed, and a glance was sufficient to show him that they were red-skins, as one at all familiar with encampments can readily detect the difference between a pale-face and Indian halting place for the night.

He knew by the still burning fires that the enemy could not be far in advance, and acquainted with the nature of the country, he determined to seek a high hill which would give him a view for miles around.

From the position he had in view he knew that he could see whether the red-skins took a trail that would enable them to head off the emigrant train, or crossed the prairie beyond to the mountains miles away, where they had their village.

Turning short off from the beaten track, Joe began to climb the hillside, and for once his keen eyes failed to detect halt a dozen horsemen coming back upon the trail, and with heads bent down as though they were searching for something that had been lost, and which he had, for it was the sacred pipe of a chief and his necklace of bear claws, which the youth had picked up in the deserted camp, though attaching little value to them.

Back to their night camping ground went the warriors, and not finding the pipe and necklace, they started upon their return, still searching the trail, when the eyes of one of them fell upon something that attracted his attention.

A call brought his five comrades to his side and after a few words they left the trail and branched off up the hill; and it was Joe's trail that they had discovered, and were following.

Up the hill they went, until they came to a narrow ridge, and along this Joe had gone, and they followed.

As for that mysterious youth, he was standing upon the edge of a cliff, the point of lookout which he had sought, gazing down into the valley below, and across the lower range of hills to the prairie beyond.

Far down the valley his quick glance had caught sight of the Indians, filing along; and directing their way across, and not up it, as he had feared.

He saw now, too, that they numbered but fifty warriors, and that the other ponies were laden down -with game, showing that the were a party of hunters returning to their village Satisfied that the emigrant train was not their object, but that they were making a flank movement to avoid any soldiers that might be out scouting from the fort, Joe mounted his horse and started to retrace his way.

Hardly had he ridden a hundred yards before he beheld before him the six warriors.

They halted at sight of him, and he drew rein upon seeing them. How many more were behind him he knew not; but he did know that there were just six more than he cared to see at that time, and in such a locality.

He knew well that the ridge ended in a sheer precipice, sixty feet high. Far below was a pool of water, surrounded by willows and cottonwood, but the depth of which he did not know.

Upon either side of the ridge he knew a man on foot could not ascend or descend, and to think of such a thing as attempting it upon horseback would be madness.

To charge upon the six warriors and attempt to break through their ranks, would be next to seeking death, for the ridge was not a hundred yards wide at its best, and where they had halted was in the narrowest part, and in the roughest, which would prevent his horse going at fall speed.

They were ready for him, he could see, and had evidently followed him, knowing that he had gone into a trap.

To make matters worse for him Joe had in his hand the sacred pipe he had picked up, and about his neck the bear-claw neck-lace, and the keen eyes of the red-skins detected this.

Joe's rifle lay across his horse in front of him and he had quickly thrust the pipe in his blanket, and ready for the death struggle. The Indians were armed with bows an arrows, excepting one who carried a musket.

Joe took in the chances against him at a glance, and they did the same. If it was night, and they were red-skins who had heard of him. or knew him, as an evil spirit would have played the spook business

But it was in the broad glare of day, and they could see that he was fully armed and well mounted though his horse did look ghostly and wore no bridle.

"I've got to take the chances of the leap over the cliff," said Joe coolly to himself, and then he added in the same tone:

"But I guess all of that gang won't live to see if it kills me."

He threw his rifle forward as he spoke, determined no longer to delay, after he had made up his mind as to his course, and with the crack a warrior dropped from his horse.

A shot from the musket and a shower of arrows were sent in response, accompanied by wild yells: but they fell short, or failed in their aim, and Joe hastily began reloading his rifle.

This the red-skins discovered, and knowing the deadly aim of their foe, and that their chance lay in charging directly upon him, they urged their ponies into a run.

Joe had not finished reloading his rifle when they started; but he coolly did so, threw it to his shoulder, after adjusting the cap with a band that did not tremble, and again its sharp report was heard, and down fell a second brave.

To draw his revolvers and meet them, Joe knew would end in his death, even though he might kill a couple more, for they would send their arrows through him at close range.

So he wheeled about quickly, and a yell sent his horse into a swift run. On he bounded, straight for the cliff, and to urge him to the leap Joe pricked the noble animal with the point of his knife.

Right upon his heels came the red-skins, determined to force him over, and then ride around the ridge and secure his scalp; but their reins were held firmly in hand to check their own ponies before they went too near.

As he drew near the precipice, Joe slung his rifle upon his back, settled himself well upon the back of his horse, and drew a revolver. His face was calm and fearless, and it was evident, that having taken the chances of the leap, he intended meeting his fate boldly, even should it be death.

With a yell to his horse he went over, and when the now frightened, maddened animal shot away from the brink, Joe turned quickly, dropped his revolver upon a red-skin and drew trigger, as he cried:

"Take that bull as my parting present, red-skins!"

The shot, in spite of the situation of peril of Joe was sent to kill, and struck a brave fairly in the heart, as he reined his horse up on the brink.

Up went his arms, and from his lips broke forth the death-cry, and Joe shot downward out of sight.

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