CHAPTER XIII. HUNTING INDIANS
At last we had reached La Bonte's Camp, toward which our eyes had turned so long. Of all weary hours, those that passed between noon and sunset of the day when we arrived there may bear away the palm of exquisite discomfort. I lay under the tree reflecting on what course to pursue, watching the shadows which seemed never to move, and the sun which remained fixed in the sky, and hoping every moment to see the men and horses of Bisonette emerging from the woods. Shaw and Henry had ridden out on a scouting expedition, and did not return until the sun was setting. There was nothing very cheering in their faces nor in the news they brought.
"We have been ten miles from here," said Shaw. "We climbed the highest butte we could find, and could not see a buffalo or Indian; nothing but prairie for twenty miles around us."
Henry's horse was quite disabled by clambering up and down the sides of ravines, and Shaw's was severely fatigued.
After supper that evening, as we sat around the fire, I proposed to Shaw to wait one day longer in hopes of Bisonette's arrival, and if he should not come to send Delorier with the cart and baggage back to Fort Laramie, while we ourselves followed The Whirlwind's village and attempted to overtake it as it passed the mountains. Shaw, not having the same motive for hunting Indians that I had, was averse to the plan; I therefore resolved to go alone. This design I adopted very unwillingly, for I knew that in the present state of my health the attempt would be extremely unpleasant, and, as I considered, hazardous. I hoped that Bisonette would appear in the course of the following day, and bring us some information by which to direct our course, and enable me to accomplish my purpose by means less objectionable.
The rifle of Henry Chatillon was necessary for the subsistence of the party in my absence; so I called Raymond, and ordered him to prepare to set out with me. Raymond rolled his eyes vacantly about, but at length, having succeeded in grappling with the idea, he withdrew to his bed under the cart. He was a heavy-molded fellow, with a broad face exactly like an owl's, expressing the most impenetrable stupidity and entire self-confidence. As for his good qualities, he had a sort of stubborn fidelity, an insensibility to danger, and a kind of instinct or sagacity, which sometimes led him right, where better heads than his were at a loss. Besides this, he knew very well how to handle a rifle and picket a horse.
Through the following day the sun glared down upon us with a pitiless, penetrating heat. The distant blue prairie seemed quivering under it. The lodge of our Indian associates was baking in the rays, and our rifles, as they leaned against the tree, were too hot for the touch. There was a dead silence through our camp and all around it, unbroken except by the hum of gnats and mosquitoes. The men, resting their foreheads on their arms, were sleeping under the cart. The Indians kept close within their lodge except the newly married pair, who were seated together under an awning of buffalo robes, and the old conjurer, who, with his hard, emaciated face and gaunt ribs, was perched aloft like a turkey-buzzard among the dead branches of an old tree, constantly on the lookout for enemies. He would have made a capital shot. A rifle bullet, skillfully planted, would have brought him tumbling to the ground. Surely, I thought, there could be no more harm in shooting such a hideous old villain, to see how ugly he would look when he was dead, than in shooting the detestable vulture which he resembled. We dined, and then Shaw saddled his horse.
"I will ride back," said he, "to Horseshoe Creek, and see if Bisonette is there."
"I would go with you," I answered, "but I must reserve all the strength I have."
The afternoon dragged away at last. I occupied myself in cleaning my rifle and pistols, and making other preparations for the journey. After supper, Henry Chatillon and I lay by the fire, discussing the properties of that admirable weapon, the rifle, in the use of which he could fairly outrival Leatherstocking himself.
It was late before I wrapped myself in my blanket and lay down for the night, with my head on my saddle. Shaw had not returned, but this gave no uneasiness, for we presumed that he had fallen in with Bisonette, and was spending the night with him. For a day or two past I had gained in strength and health, but about midnight an attack of pain awoke me, and for some hours I felt no inclination to sleep. The moon was quivering on the broad breast of the Platte; nothing could be heard except those low inexplicable sounds, like whisperings and footsteps, which no one who has spent the night alone amid deserts and forests will be at a loss to understand. As I was falling asleep, a familiar voice, shouting from the distance, awoke me again. A rapid step approached the camp, and Shaw on foot, with his gun in his hand, hastily entered.
"Where's your horse?" said I, raising myself on my elbow.
"Lost!" said Shaw. "Where's Delorier?"
"There," I replied, pointing to a confused mass of blankets and buffalo robes.
Shaw touched them with the butt of his gun, and up sprang our faithful Canadian.
"Come, Delorier; stir up the fire, and get me something to eat."
"Where's Bisonette?" asked I.
"The Lord knows; there's nobody at Horseshoe Creek."