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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Young Ranchers; Or, Fighting The Sioux - Chapter 15. Missing
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The Young Ranchers; Or, Fighting The Sioux - Chapter 15. Missing Post by :b2wforum Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Sylvester Ellis Date :July 2011 Read :2688

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The Young Ranchers; Or, Fighting The Sioux - Chapter 15. Missing

CHAPTER XV. MISSING

But there was no avoiding the risk. In silence the little party threaded their way along the margin of the prairie, listening for the sounds they dreaded to hear, and peering through the gloom for the forms they held in unspeakable fear. Not until they had progressed several hundred yards can it be said that the rancher breathed freely. Then he checked his pony, and those behind him did the same.

The next instant he was out of the saddle, with his ear once more against the cold earth.

Not the slightest sound reached him through this better conductor. If the Sioux horsemen were moving, they were too far off for the fact to be known. When first heard, they must have been close to the wood, on reaching which they undoubtedly dismounted and advanced on foot.

In that event, they must detect the footprints of the ponies in advance, and with their skill in trailing were certain to learn of the course taken by the whites. Then the pursuit would be resumed in earnest, and the perils would increase.

One possible remedy suggested itself, though there was no certainty of its success. The snow was now falling so fast that it promised to obliterate the footprints to that extent that they could not be followed in the dark. As it was, even the lynx eyes of the Sioux could avail them nothing. One of their number must be continually dismounting and using his hands to make sure they were not off the track. A half hour or more interval, and this resource would be taken from them by the descending snow.

It was this belief which caused the rancher to ride Dick among the trees, where he and the rest dismounted. Then they groped forward with no little difficulty for some rods and halted.

"Be careful," he said, speaking particularly to Dot, "and do not make any noise, for I believe those bad Indians are not far off, and they are looking for us."

Dot showed her obedience by not venturing to whisper.

It was not Mr. Starr's purpose to lose time by staying where they were. Accordingly, after threading their way for some distance farther, he emerged once more on the plain, and, as they remounted, rode straight away from the timber.

The object of this stratagem can be readily understood. The pursuing Sioux, after discovering that the trail of the fugitives led along the margin of the wood, were likely to override it for some way, before learning the fact. Then they would turn about and hunt until they found it again. The fact that at that point it entered the timber must cause another delay, where the difficulty of tracing the whites would be greatly increased. By the time they came back again to the open plain, the fall of snow was likely to render further pursuit almost, if not quite, impossible.

This was the theory which guided the rancher's actions, though he was too wise to lose sight of the probability of serious miscalculations on his part. There was another danger, however, of which he failed to think, but which was not long in manifesting itself.

By shifting his course so often, and leaving the stream altogether, he was sure to lose his bearings in the darkness. Instead of following the most direct route to Fort Meade, he was liable to turn back on his old trail, with the result that when the sun rose in the morning he would be in the vicinity of his home, with the environing perils more threatening than ever.

Beyond all question this would have been the result had not nature come to his help. He was on the point of turning his pony's head around, to re-enter the timber he had left, when he discovered to his astonishment that he had already reached it. There were the trees directly in front, with the nose of Dick almost touching a projecting limb.

He was at a loss to understand it until his wife suggested that the winding course of the stream was responsible for the situation. Even then he hardly believed until investigation convinced him that it was the same swift current flowing in front.

"We unconsciously strayed from a direct course, and must have been going at right angles to the correct one."

"There is no saying, George; only I advise you not to make too many experiments in the darkness. Several hours have passed since night came, and we are not making much progress toward the fort."

"You are quite right," was the nervous response, "but safety seemed to demand it. How are you standing it, Dot?"

The child made no answer.

"She is asleep," whispered the mother.

"I hope that it may last until morning. If you are tired of holding her in your arms I will take her."

"When I grow weary of that," was the significant reply of the wife, "I will let you know."

Inasmuch as the continually obtruding stream must be crossed, and the precious hours were fast passing, the rancher gave every energy to surmounting the difficulty.

As he led the way once more to the edge of the water, he asked himself whether the wisest course was not to construct a raft. The work promised to be so difficult, however, that he would have abandoned the thought had he not come upon a heavy log, lying half submerged at the very spot where he struck the water.

"This will be of great help," he said to his wife.

Leaning his Winchester against the nearest tree, he drew out his rubber safe and struck a match. The appearance of the log was encouraging, and after some lifting and tugging he succeeded in rolling it into the stream.

That ended the matter. To his chagrin, the water-soaked wood sank like so much mud.

"We won't experiment any longer," concluded the disappointed rancher; "but try the same thing as before."

Dick was stripped again and put in the lead, with his master following on the back of the mare. Mrs. Starr, being helped to the ground, stood with the sleeping Dot in her arms, awaiting the return of her husband from his disagreeable experiment.

"Heaven grant that this maybe the right place," was his prayer, as he entered upon the second essay; "if we are turned back again I shall be in despair."

His interest was intensified, for he was impressed with the belief that this was to be the decisive and final test.

As if Dick, too, felt the seriousness of the situation, he stepped resolutely forward, bracing himself against the strong current which was heard washing about his limbs. It seemed to the anxious rancher that he could discern the figure of his pony as he led the way through the gloom, only a short distance in advance of the mare.

When certain that they were fully half-way across, his heart began to beat with hope at finding that the water did not touch the stirrup in which one foot rested. It was plain also that the leading horse was still firmly wading.

With a relief which possibly may be imagined, the horseman heard Dick step out on the bank a few minutes later. He had waded the whole distance, thus proving that the stream was easily fordable at that point.

The delighted rancher could hardly repress a cheer. But for his fear that the Sioux might be in the vicinity, he would have announced the joyous fact to his wife.

"Perhaps, however, her sharp ears have told her the truth," was his thought, as he wheeled the mare about and started to return, leaving Dick to follow him, as he would be needed to help the party over.

With never a thought of danger, the animal was forced hastily through the water, coming out a few paces below where she had entered it.

"We are all right," he called; "we will be over in a jiffy."

To his astonishment there was no response. He pronounced his wife's name, but still no reply came. Then he moved up and down the bank, stirred by an awful fear, but heard and found her not.

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