Twice the American attempted to break through the taciturnity of his guides, but his advances were met with nothing more than sultry grunts or silence, and presently a suspicion began to obtrude itself among his thoughts that possibly these “honest farmers” were something more sinister than they represented themselves to be.
A malign and threatening atmosphere seemed to surround them. Even the cat-like movement of their silent mounts breathed a sinister secrecy, and now, for the first time, Barney noticed the short, ugly looking carbines that were slung in boots at their saddle-horns. Then, promoted to further investigation, he dropped back beside the man who had been riding behind him, and as he did so he saw beneath the fellow’s cloak the butts of two villainous-looking pistols.
As Barney dropped back beside him the man turned his mount across the narrow trail, and reining him in motioned Barney ahead.
“I have changed my mind,” said the American, “about going to the Old Forest.”
He had determined that he might as well have the thing out now as later, and discover at once how he stood with these two, and whether or not his suspicions of them were well grounded.
The man ahead had halted at the sound of Barney’s voice, and swung about in the saddle.
“What’s the trouble?” he asked.
“He don’t want to go to the Old Forest,” explained his companion, and for the first time Barney saw one of them grin. It was not at all a pleasant grin, nor reassuring.
“He don’t, eh?” growled the other. “Well, he ain’t goin’, is he? Who ever said he was?”
And then he, too, laughed.
“I’m going back the way I came,” said Barney, starting around the horse that blocked his way.
“No, you ain’t,” said the horseman. “You’re goin’ with us.”
And Barney found himself gazing down the muzzle of one of the wicked looking pistols.
For a moment he stood in silence, debating mentally the wisdom of attempting to rush the fellow, and then, with a shake of his head, he turned back up the trail between his captors.
“Yes,” he said, “on second thought I have decided to go with you. Your logic is most convincing.”
A KING’S RANSOM
For another mile the two brigands conducted their captor along the mountainside, then they turned into a narrow ravine near the summit of the hills—a deep, rocky, wooded ravine into whose black shadows it seemed the sun might never penetrate.
A winding path led crookedly among the pines that grew thickly in this sheltered hollow, until presently, after half an hour of rough going, they came upon a small natural clearing, rock-bound and impregnable.
As they filed from the wood Barney saw a score of villainous fellows clustered about a camp fire where they seemed engaged in cooking their noonday meal. Bits of meat were roasting upon iron skewers, and a great iron pot boiled vigorously at one side of the blaze.