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CHAPTER XV OFF!
The Indian is nothing if he is not unexpected in all his actions. Surprise attacks were ever his weapons of warfare. From among the long grass of an apparently innocent meadow he would suddenly rise up with his followers to attack the caravan that was quietly pursuing its way along the prairie in absolute ignorance of the nearness of enemies. In the dead hour of night the war-whoop would suddenly ring through the forest, and the settlers would be scalped and dead before the last echo had time to fade away.

So it was on this occasion. Utterly unsuspicious of attack, both boys were taken at a disadvantage. Bob was floundering in the water before he had time to realise the assault, while Alf was equally unprepared as the Indian sprang towards him.[Pg 165]

The claw-like fingers missed their intended grip upon the boy's throat, but the arms managed to grapple the lad in a tight embrace. Alf struggled well, but he was no match for the muscles of the giant Dacotah.

"I'm coming! I'll be with you in a second!" called Bob from the water, striking out strongly for the shore as soon as he had recovered breath.

The Indian looked hastily around him without releasing the bearlike hug. He saw the swimmer quickly approaching, and he gave a cry of fury as he thought that he would be baulked of his purpose of revenge, for he rightly thought that he would stand a poor chance against two active lads. He might succeed in injuring the one, but there was little chance of his escaping.

Suddenly he released Alf. Feeling himself free for the moment, the boy jumped back in readiness for another attack. But once again the unexpected had him at a vantage. The boy anticipated no other attack now but that of fists or a knife at the utmost. These were the only contingencies that his inexperience could imagine. But before he had time to conjecture other possibilities, Red Fox had slipped off his blanket,[Pg 166] flung it around the lad just as the ancient gladiator was wont to entangle his opponent in the deadly net, and before Arnold had reached the river bank the Indian had wound the blanket tightly round his captive, picked him up in his arms, and commenced running towards the tent.

Bob gave a cry of dismay and rushed on in pursuit.

But the redskin had the start, and ran straight towards the picketed horse, still carrying the lad, who was half stifled by the thick cloak, and practically helpless, owing to the tightness with which the bond was twined.

It would have been an easy matter then for Red Fox to have killed his captive and yet escape the other boy. But that was not his purpose. In his thirst to revenge the insult of Alf's words, he had quite forgotten Thunder-maker's commission and the coveted ermine robe. These were nothing to him now. He had listened to sneers with patience. The time had now come to repay the taunts with interest. He ran towards the pack-horse. A slash with his hunting-knife severed the rope within two or three feet of the halter. Alf was then thrown roughly across the animal's back, while the[Pg 167] Indian was himself astride an instant afterwards. A vicious dig of the heels, and the horse sprang forward.

And the last that Bob saw as he reached the tent was an ugly face grinning at him and an arm waving tauntingly as horse, rider, and burden disappeared into the woods.

Arnold was aghast!

He rushed into the tent and snatched up his repeating rifle, which was already loaded; by the time he emerged again he could only hear the distant sound of the fugitive rider pressing the branches through the bush track.

He ran forwards at top speed, but he knew well that unless some accident befell the horse he stood a poor chance of being able to aid his chum. The Indian would know the bush as well as his namesake fox. He would not be likely to take any risk that would imperil his safety or blight any evil purpose that he might harbour.

The boy followed the track, which was well marked. It was the same course that had been taken by Mackintosh and Haggis earlier in the day. For a time it led through an avenue of trees. Then it branched off to the left, where the ground was hard-packed and dry, having[Pg 168] been stripped of vegetation by a bush fire earlier in the year. Here the tracks were less easy to follow, for a steady breeze was blowing, and the imprints of the hoofs were covered almost as quickly as they were made.

It was heart-breaking to have to slacken speed at such a time, when every second might mean disaster to his chum. But what else could he do? And when ultimately the tracks led him to the border of a vast marshland, the lad was obliged to halt in what was almost despair.

"What is to be done now?" he exclaimed to himself. "Poor old Alf! What a fool I was not to be prepared for such a rascal, when once my suspicions were so roused!"

But it was no use sitting down in hopelessness. Such weakness would have nothing to gain and everything to lose. So Bob pulled himself together, as the apt saying has it, and racked his brains to meet the occasion.

Not a sound could he now hear to indicate which way the fugitive had taken. Moreover, the tracks completely disappeared from sight when the boy had taken a few paces into the shallow water and spongy moss.

Plainly the only course was to mark a starting-point[Pg 169] with a stake, and then follow round the margin of the swamp until he discovered the spot where the rider had crossed.

It was a tedious process, but apparently there was no option. So he resumed the weary tour with such hope as he could summon.

Arnold found the tracks after more than two hours' patient searching, as the dusk was beginning to creep over the forest. The footprints were more distinct now than they had been at the other side of the marsh, so the boy was able to make some rapid progress. But, as the darkness fell the work became more difficult. He had to stoop low in order to see the tracks at all, and ultimately he could only follow them on hands and knees—feeling the footprints with his fingers, just as a blind man feels the letters in his book.

He was becoming thoroughly exhausted. Still he plodded on with dogged perseverance. His knees were grazed and his back was aching, especially where the rifle was strapped; and at times he even stumbled and fell in a heap, from which each time he found it more difficult to rise than on the former occasion.

It was indeed a trial that would have taxed the strength and nerves of the strongest. When[Pg 170] we remember what the boy had already undergone that day, we have reason to wonder that he endured so long. Still he persevered. Inch by inch he felt his path in the pitch darkness, crawling through the bush with only hooting owls and whining wolves for company, until at last, worn out and dizzy, his muscles gave way, and he floundered unconscious upon the earth.


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