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Text - "The Lone Ranche" Mayne Reid


In less than a dozen paces from its entrance the chine opened into a wider space, again closing like a pair of callipers. It was a hollow of elliptical shape-resembling an old-fashioned butterboat scooped out of the solid rock, on all sides precipitous, except at its upper end. Here a ravine, sloping down from the summit-level above, would to the geologist at once proclaim the secret of its formation. Not so easily explained might seem the narrow outlet to the open plain. But one skilled in the testimony of the rocks would detect certain ferruginous veins in the sandstone that, refusing to yield to the erosion of the running stream, had stood for countless ages. Neither Walt Wilder nor the young Kentuckian gave thought to such scientific speculations as they retreated through the narrow gap and back into the wider gorge. All they knew or cared for was that a gully at the opposite end was seen to slope upward, promising a path to the plain above. In sixty seconds they were in it, toiling onward and upward amidst a chaos of rocks where no horse could follow-loose boulders that looked as if hurled down from the heavens above or belched upward from the bowels of the earth. The retreat of the fugitives up the ravine, like their dash out of the enclosed corral, was still but a doubtful effort. Neither of them had full confidence of being able eventually to escape. It was like the wounded squirrel clutching at the last tiny twig of a tree, however unable to support it. They were not quite certain that the sloping gorge would give them a path to the upper plain; for Wilder had only a doubtful recollection of what some trapper had told him. But even if it did, the Indians, expert climbers as they were, would soon be after them, close upon their heels. The ruse could not remain long undetected. They had plunged into the chasm as drowning men grasp at the nearest thing afloat-a slender branch or bunch of grass, a straw. As they now ascended the rock-strewn gorge both had their reflections, which, though unspoken, were very similar. And from these came a gleam of hope. If they could but reach the summit-level of the cliff! Their pursuers could, of course, do the same; but not on horseback. It would then be a contest of pedestrian speed. The white men felt confidence in their swiftness of foot; in this respect believing themselves superior to their savage pursuers. They knew that the Comanches were horse Indians-a significant fact. These centaurs of the central plateaux, scarce ever setting foot upon the earth, when afoot are almost as helpless as birds with their wings plucked or pinioned. If they could reach the crest of the cliff, then all might yet be well; and, cheered by this reflection, they rushed up the rock-strewn ravine, now gliding along ledges, now squeezing their bodies between great boulders, or springing from one to the other-in the audacity of their bounds rivalling a brace of bighorns. They had got more than half-way up, when cries came pealing up the glen behind them. Still were they hidden from the eyes of the pursuers. Jutting points of rock and huge masses that lay loose in the bed of the ravine had hitherto concealed them. But for these, bullets and arrows would have already whistled about their ears, and perhaps put an end to their flight. The savages were near enough to send either gun-shot or shaft, and their voices, borne upward on the air, sounded as clear as if they were close at hand. The fugitives, as already said, had reached more than halfway up the slope, and were beginning to congratulate themselves on the prospect of escape. They even thought of the course they should take on arriving at the summit-level, for they knew that there was an open plain above. All at once they were brought to a stop, though not by anything that obstructed their path. On the contrary, it only seemed easier; for there were now two ways open to them instead of one, the ravine at this point forking into two distinct branches. There was a choice of which to take, and it was this that caused them to make a stop, at the same time creating embarrassment. The pause, however, was but for a brief space of time-only long enough to make a hasty reconnoissance. In the promise of an easy ascent there seemed but little difference between the two paths, and the guide soon came to a determination. "It's a toss up atween 'em," he said; "but let's take the one to the right. It looks a little the likest." Of course his fellow-fugitive did not dissent, and they struck into the right-hand ravine; but not until Walt Wilder had plucked the red kerchief from his head, and flung it as far as he could up the left one, where it was left lying in a conspicuous position among the rocks. He did not say why he had thus strangely abandoned the remnant of his head-gear; but his companion, sufficiently experienced in the ways and wiles of prairie life, stood in no need of an explanation. The track they had now taken was of comparatively easy ascent; and it was this, perhaps, that had tempted Wilder to take it. But like most things within the moral and physical world, its easiness proved a delusion. They had not gone twenty paces further up when the sloping chasm terminated. It debouched on a little platform, covered with large loose stones, and there rested after having fallen from the cliff above. But at a single glance they saw that this cliff could not be scaled. They had entered into a trap, out of which there was no chance of escape or retreat without throwing themselves back upon the breasts of their pursuers. The Indians were already ascending the main ravine. By their voices it could be told that they had reached the point where it divided; for there was a momentary suspension of their cries, as with the baying of hounds thrown suddenly off the scent. It would not be for long. They would likely first follow up the chasm where the kerchief had been cast, but, should that also prove a cul-de-sac, they would return and try the other. The fugitives saw that it was too late to retrace their steps. They sprang together upon the platform, and commenced searching among the loose rocks, with a faint hope of finding some place of concealment. It was but a despairing sort of search, again like two drowning men who clutch at a straw. All at once an exclamation from the guide called his companion to his side. It was accompanied by a gesture, and followed by words low muttered. "Look hyar, Frank! Look at this hole! Let's git into it!" As Hamersley came close he perceived a dark cavity among the stones, to which Wilder was pointing. It opened vertically downward, and was of an irregular, roundish shape, somewhat resembling the mouth of a well, half-coped with slabs. Dare they enter it? Could they? What depth was it? Wilder took up a pebble and flung it down. They could hear it descending, not at a single drop, but striking and ricochetting from side to side. It was long before it reached the bottom and lay silent. No matter for that. The noise made in its descent told them of projecting points or ledges that might give them a foothold. They lost not a moment of time, but commenced letting themselves down into the funnel-shaped shaft, the guide going first. Slowly and silently they went down-like ghosts through the stage of a theatre-soon disappearing in the gloom below, and leaving upon the rock-strewn platform no trace to show that human foot had ever trodden it.

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