California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman

CHAPTER XIII.
A RECONNAISSANCE.

THE sudden scampering of the frightened red-skins tickled Joe immensely, and half in enjoyment of the fun, half to urge them on to greater speed and not to stop, he set up a series of most unearthly yells, as though to make the savages believe that they had invaded the infernal regions.

"If they only knew who I was, that the Injuns below on the river call me a spook, this would help me tip-top, for I even am scared myself," said Joe.

But to keep his foes still going Joe ran after them, yelling as he went, and reaching the abrupt bend in the canyon found that they had not tarried there.

But at the entrance of the ravine they had, and Joe discovered that they had been reinforced by the entire band of hunters, who had doubtless been sent for to hurry back.

They were building camp-fires, with evident intention to stop for the remainder of the night, and here and there, in the fire-light, Joe beheld knots of red-skins discussing the fearful sight they had witnessed, and telling their comrades.

"They'll not come again until morning, and then they'll come with a rush, or roll logs before 'em, which I can't shoot through.

"They have camped for business, and I've got to do something mighty quick, if I wants to keep my hair, and I do."

Cautiously Joe left then his place of reconnaissance, and proceeded back to the cavern, for he saw the utter impossibility of getting out of the canyon.

One thing gave him hope, and that was the wind came through the canyon, and the smoke from his fire had been blown back into it, and in some way disappeared.

If it did this there must be another opening, and he must find it. His blankets had dried by the heat of the fire, and he rolled them up and strapped them up, with his other belongings, upon his back.

Securing his lariat, he left the mummy-like corpses where they fell, lying in rows across, the cavern entrance, and then, with a torch he manufactured, he set out upon his reconnaissance.

He followed the cloud of smoke through several winding passageways, and discovered that the cavern was indeed a perfect charnel house, or huge -tomb, for hundreds of bodies were there.

"Holy Smoke! hain't I scared," he said to himself, as he glanced upon the grim lines of dead Indians, yet he did not certainly act as though he were very much frightened.

After walking full a hundred yards, he came to a large chamber, or rotunda, and here he halted, holding the torch over his head to have a look around him.

"Whew! this is the high mucky muck of all, and it looks as if the whole tribe had died sudden like and been buried here.

"Wonder if 'twas small-pox they had!

"If 'twas I'm in for it.

"Well, well! I've seen old Injuns and squaws, young Injuns and pappooses Injuns along the sides, but this is where the high-toned bucks camp out.

"Guess they are all big warriors in here," and in spite of his assumed fright, he glanced coolly around upon the scaffolds with their weight of dead, and saw by the robes, necklaces, feathers, bonnets and weapons that there the head men only had found burial, such, burial as it was.

"I guess this must be where Kit Carson buries his dead Injuns," said Joe, and then he added grimly:

"I've started in putty well myself in the killin' line, and I may have a graveyard as big as Kit's, when I get to be away in years.

"But if I don't get out of this, I'll have only a grave."

He saw that the smoke went up over his head, just where he was standing, and a crevice was visible in the vaulted roof Placing his torch some distance off he then returned and looked upward. To his delight he saw the stars, and he knew that there was an opening there large enough for him to pass through.

It seemed round, and about the size of a well, and could not be less than a hundred feet to the top.

But how was he to get there? That he soon decided upon, for he set to work building afire and soon had a bright blaze.

By its light he saw that there was a natural chimney-like opening in the roof, and remembering the hight of the hill, he knew that it must be many feet to the top.

Measuring the width with his eye, he saw that it was just wide enough for him to reach each side, by stretching his legs far apart, and his hands too.

I've been down a well and up again, and I guess, I can make it, if the sides ain't smooth as glass," he said.

"Now to make something I can climb upon.

"Injuns, I'm sorry to disturb your rest, but I think more of myself living than I do of you all dead.

"So here goes!"

He jerked one of the scaffolding poles out as he spoke, and with a crash and heavy thuds, a score of dead bodies came down to, the rocky flooring.

Joe sprung aside to escape being buried, while he cried: "It's raining corpses, hard."

But the bodies were not exactly what he was after, though he made use of some of them for props for the poles.

Selecting three of the longest poles, he tied the tops together, and then stood them up like Gipsy camp-sticks, the center being directly in the opening in the vaulted roof, which they just reached.

The bodies at the base kept the poles from slipping, and throwing aside the pack on his back, he climbed up one of the uprights as nimbly as a cat could have done.

Standing on the tops, he glanced upward, and when his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he saw to his delight, that the well-like opening continued about the same size all the way through, and that its sides were so uneven and rough that he could manage to make his way to the surface by stretching his feet and hands across it, and thus working his way along.

Descending once more, he tied his lariat to his rifle and belt of arms, and then attached to that a longer line, made from strips he cut from the buffalo and bear robes he found with the dead warriors.

Two long lines he thus made, one for his weapons, the other for his blankets and traps, and then he fastened them to his waist.

But he did not intend to help the red-skins find him, and about the base of each pole he built a large pile which met in the center, so that it would make one grand fire when he got ready to ignite it. Taking some light sticks for kindling, he fastened them to his pack, and then started upon his ascent of the poles, having divested himself of his huge boots, as he knew he could not climb with them on.

Reaching the top of the poles, he spread himself so to speak, across the well-like opening, and found that he could cling there.

"It's going to be a tough job," he said, realizing fully the great strain it would be upon him, and that a false step would burl him back to death.

He knew too, should his strength fail him, back he must fall.

But the Indians would visit upon him a worse fate, he well knew, so up he started.

Slowly, first one hand, and then a foot, and so on he went.

The strain now begin to tell on him, and in places he had only the rough rocky side for a footing or hold, instead of as in other places a slight projection, and in each instance it took all his strength to keep from falling.

The smoke too, came up about him, nearly blinding him, and that with the foul air of the huge tomb were suffocating in the extreme.

But on he went, slowly, surely, the sweat dropping from him in great beads, his feet and hands blistering, and the nails of his toes tearing to the quick as he clung to the rough rocks.

Nearer and nearer the top he drew, and yet the way seemed interminable. No resting-place, his muscles strained raw sore, his blistered hands and feet wearing and bloody, and his weight seeming to be hundreds of pounds.

But Joe had a will of iron, and a nerve not to be subdued, and with shut teeth, and blinded eyes, for the smoke made it impossible for him to see, he struggled on upward.

At last he put his hand out as usual, and he nearly fell, for it met no resistance.

Quickly he felt around him, and knew that he was at the top.

Then he made a violent effort and drew himself over the ledge.

He was safe, but so worn out that he could not move, and lay where he had dragged himself.

He was so blinded that he could not see; but he was content to wait.

The cool air soon revived him, the smokeblinded eyes were soon able to look about, and he found himself upon a high ridge, overgrown with dwarfed trees.

The stars were shining brightly, and the air was chill, after his experience in the cavern.

But he shook himself together, and seizing the line that was fastened to his arms, lay down upon the rock and glanced below.

The foul air and smoke almost stifled him, and he wondered how he could have lived through it.

Slowly he drew on the line and up came his weapons to the top.

He could hardly repress a shout of joy when he grasped them.

Then the blanket-pack was drawn up, and laid beside the rifle, and Joe gathered the faggots, which were like tinder, lighted them, and lowered them quickly to the pile below.

Instantly they blazed up, and a hot roaring fire was the result.

"Rather, hard on the dead Injuns, I guess," he said, with some sympathy for those in the tomb.

Ever and anon he looked down, and saw that the fire was creeping up the poles and, that they would soon be consumed, and all below present no appearance how an escape had been made from the cavern.

Joe was foot-sore, weary, in fact utterly worn out but he felt it incumbent upon him to place as much distance as possible between him and his foes by morning, so he drew on his over-large boots, wincing with the pain it gave him and then started upon his way.

But each step was agony to him and at last he knew he must rest, be the consequences what they might to him.

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