What was that? A shot in the direction of the cabin! yet so faint, so echoless, so ineffective in the vast silence, that he would have thought it his fancy but for the strange instinctive jar upon his sensitive nerves. Was it an accident, or was it an intentional signal to him? He stopped; it was not repeated, the silence reasserted itself, but this time with an ominous death-like suggestion. A sudden and terrible thought crossed his mind. He cast aside his pack and all encumbering weight, took a deep breath, lowered his head and darted like a deer in the direction of the challenge.
The exodus of the seceding partners of the Lone Star claim had been scarcely an imposing one. For the first five minutes after quitting the cabin, the procession was straggling and vagabond. Unwonted exertion had exaggerated the lameness of some, and feebleness of moral purpose had predisposed the others to obtrusive musical exhibition. Union Mills limped and whistled with affected abstraction; the Judge whistled and limped with affected earnestness. The Right Bower led the way with some show of definite design; the Left Bower followed with his hands in his pockets. The two feebler natures, drawn together in unconscious sympathy, looked vaguely at each other for support.
“You see,” said the Judge, suddenly, as if triumphantly concluding an argument, “there ain’t anything better for a young fellow than independence. Nature, so to speak, points the way. Look at the animals.”
“There’s a skunk hereabouts,” said Union Mills, who was supposed to be gifted with aristocratically sensitive nostrils, “within ten miles of this place; like as not crossing the Ridge. It’s always my luck to happen out just at such times. I don’t see the necessity anyhow of trapesing round the claim now, if we calculate to leave it to-night.”
Both men waited to observe if the suggestion was taken up by the Right and Left Bower moodily plodding ahead. No response following, the Judge shamelessly abandoned his companion.
“You wouldn’t stand snoopin’ round instead of lettin’ the Old Man get used to the idea alone? No; I could see all along that he was takin’ it in, takin’ it in, kindly but slowly, and I reckoned the best thing for us to do was to git up and git until he’d got round it.” The Judge’s voice was slightly raised for the benefit of the two before him.
“Didn’t he say,” remarked the Right Bower, stopping suddenly and facing the others, “didn’t he say that that new trader was goin’ to let him have some provisions anyway?”
Union Mills turned appealingly to the Judge; that gentleman was forced to reply, “Yes; I remember distinctly he said it. It was one of the things I was particular about on his account,” responded the Judge, with the air of having arranged it all himself with the new trader. “I remember I was easier in my mind about it.”