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- The Lost Trail - 2/42 -
glare, that scintillated with a greenish light, as the relative position of the enemies changed.
The lad passed under the limbs staring unflinchingly aloft. When exactly beneath, the cougar was hidden for an instant from sight, but, recognizing the changing conditions, he quickly lifted his head to the right, and the lad again saw the greenish glare, the white teeth, and blood red mouth. He traced the outlines of the sinewy body close along the limb, and through which he could have driven a bullet with fatal certainty. The "painter," whose scream is often mistaken for the cry of a human being, uttered an occasional snarling growl as he looked down on the lad. His attitude and manner seemed to say: "I've got my eye on you, young man! Walk very straight or you will find yourself in trouble."
The probability that a cougar is gathering his muscles on a limb with the intention of bounding down on one's shoulders, is enough to make the bravest man uneasy. Jack Carleton did feel a creeping chill, but the same pride which prevented him deviating a hair's-breadth from the trail, would not allow him to increase or retard his gait.
"If you think you can make me run, old fellow," he muttered, with his gaze still fixed on the beast, "you are mistaken. We don't meet wild animals in Kentucky that are able to drive us out of the woods. You needn't fancy, either, that I am in any hurry to walk away from you."
And, to show the contempt in which he held the beast, the youth at that moment came to a full stop, turned about and faced him.
WHAT A RIFLE-SHOT DID
The moment the young Kentuckian assumed this attitude, he became aware that the cougar had determined upon hostilities.
With a rasping snarl he buried his claws in the shaggy bark, pressing his body still closer to the limb, and then shot downward straight toward Jack, who was too vigilant to be caught unprepared. Leaping backward a couple of steps, he brought his gun to his shoulder, like a flash, and fired almost at the moment the animal left his perch. There could be no miss under the circumstances, and the "painter" received his death wound, as may be said, while in mid-air. He struck the ground with a heavy thump, made a blind leap toward the youthful hunter, who recoiled several steps more, and then, after a brief struggle, the beast lay dead.
During these moments, Jack Carleton, following the rule he was taught when first given his gun, occupied himself with reloading the weapon. A charge of powder was poured from the hollow cow's horn, with its wooden stopper, into the palm of his hand, and this went rattling like fine sand down the barrel. The square piece of muslin was hammered on top until the ramrod almost bounded from the gun; then the bullet which the youthful hunter had molded himself, was shoved gently but firmly downward, backed by another bit of muslin. The ramrod was pushed into its place, and the hammer, clasping the yellow, translucent flint, was drawn far back, like the jaw of a wild cat, and the black grains sprinkled into the pan. The jaw was slowly let back so as to hold the priming fast, and the old fashioned rifle, such as our grandfathers were accustomed to use, was ready for duty.
Jack surveyed the motionless figure on the ground and said:
"I don't think you'll ever amount to anything again as a painter; at any rate, you ain't likely to drop on to a fellow's head when he is walking under a tree."
And, without giving him any further notice, he turned about and resumed his walk toward the Mississippi.
It was vain, however, for him to seek to suppress his anxiety. The trail of the flying horse still indicated that he was going on a dead run, and some unusual cause must have impelled him to do so. Jack could not doubt that his friend Otto was driven to such severe effort by the appearance of Indians, but it would seem that the terrific gait of the Steed ought to have taken him beyond all danger very speedily, whereas, for more than a mile, the pace showed not the slightest diminution.
At the most, Otto was not more than an hour in advance, and his friend, therefore, had good reason to fear he was in the immediate vicinity of the dreaded red men.
The young hunter was brave, but he was not reckless. He had refused to turn aside to avoid a collision with the cougar, but he did not hesitate to leave the trail, in the hope of escaping the savages who were likely to be attracted by the report of the gun.
From the beginning the lad had stepped as lightly as possible, bringing his feet softly but squarely down on the ground, after the fashion of the American Indian, when threading his way through the trackless forest. He now used the utmost care in leaving the trail, for none knew better than he the amazing keenness of the dark eyes that were liable to scan the ground over which he had passed.
Not until he was several rods from the footprints of the flying horse did he advance with anything like assurance. He then moved with more certainty until he reached a chestnut, whose trunk was broad enough to afford all the concealment he could desire.
Stepping behind this, Jack assumed a position which gave him a view of the trail, with no likelihood of being seen, unless the suspicion of the Indians should be directed to the spot.
"If they are coming, it is time they showed themselves."
The words were yet in the mouth of the youth, when something seemed to twinkle and flicker among the trees, in advance of the point where he had turned aside from the path. A second look allowed that two Indian warriors were returning along the trail.
He recognized them as Shawanoes--one of the fiercest tribes that resisted the march of civilization a century ago. It may be said that they corresponded to the Apaches of the present day.
The couple were scrutinizing the ground, as they advanced with heads thrown forward and their serpent-like eyes flitting from side to side. Manifestly they were expecting to discover certain parties along the trail itself. There may have been something in the peculiar sound of the rifle, which raised their suspicions, though it is hard to understand wherein the report of two similarly made weapons can possess any perceptible difference.
Be that as it may, that which Jack Carleton feared had taken place--the shot which killed the cougar brought far more dangerous enemies to the spot.
The lad would have had no difficulty in picking off one of the warriors, but he had not the remotest intention of doing so. There could be no justification for such a wanton act, and the consequences could not fail to be disastrous to himself. He was never better prepared to support the creed of the frontiersmen who would willingly leave the red men unmolested if they in turn sought to do them no harm.
The Shawanoes soon passed by, making no pause until they reached the carcass of the panther. They quickly saw the bullet-wound, between his fore legs, and understood that his heart had been pierced while in the act of leaping from his perch upon the hunter beneath. A brief scrutiny of the ground brought to light the impressions of the calf-skin shoes of him who had fired the fatal shot.
They understood at once that the party was a white person, and, judging from the size of the footprints, he clearly was an adult-one who, it was safe to conclude, was able to taking good care of himself; but it must have been a relief to the warriors when their examination of the earth showed that only a single member of the detested race had been concerned in the death of the cougar.
That which followed was precisely what the watcher expected. The moment the red men were certain of the direction taken by the hunter they started along the same line. The foremost looked down for an instant at the ground, and then seemed to dart a glance at every visible point around him. The other warrior did not once look down, but guarded against running into any ambush for it need not be said that the task on which they were engaged was most delicate and dangerous.
The American Indian cannot excel the white man in woodcraft and subtlety, and no Kentucky pioneer ever stood still and allowed a dusky foe to creep upon him.
It will be conceded that a point had been reached where Jack Carleton had good cause for alarm. Those Shawanoe were following his trail, and they had but to keep it up for a short distance when he was certain to be "uncovered."
"I wish there was only one of them," muttered the youth, stealthily peering from behind the tree; "it will be hard to manage two."
The coolness of Jack was extraordinary. Though he felt the situation was critical in the highest degree, yet there was not a tremor of the muscles, nor blanching of the countenance, as it would seem was inevitable when such a desperate encounter impended.
There was a single, shadowy hope; it was fast growing dark in the woods, and the eyes of the Shawanoes, keen as they were, must soon fail them. The sun had set and twilight already filled the forest arches with gloom.
Peering around the bark, Jack saw the leading Indian bend lower, leaving to the other the task of guarding against mishap. He walked more slowly; it was plain his task was not only difficult, but was becoming more so every moment.
Jack followed the movements with rapt attention. Knowing the precise point where he had left the path, his heart throbbed faster than was its wont, when he saw his enemies close to the tingle in his course. A half minute later they were beyond--they had overrun his trail.
A short distance only was passed, when the warriors seemed to suspect the truth. They came to a halt, and the trail-hunter sank upon his knees. His head was so close to the ground that it looked as if he were drawing lines and figures with his curving nose, which
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