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   Chapter 14 THE INTRUDER.

The Phantom of the River By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 11339

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It has been said that Agnes Altman, seated behind the boulder on the edge of the rude fortification near the river, was among the most alert of the pioneers that had taken refuge there until Simon Kenton could open the way for their escape across the Ohio.

To this fact may be ascribed the startling discovery she made that an Indian warrior was crouching on the other side of the boulder, no more than three feet from where she was listening with intensest attention, and in this discovery she preceded all other members of the company.

The Shawanoe, indeed, was so close that it may be said the slight noise he made shut out the rustling of the wind and the rippling of the current against the bank, the overhanging branches and around the twisted roots along shore.

She heard his body move along the surface of the rock, and, pressing her ear against it, caught the slight disturbance more distinctly. A solid substance, as every one knows, is a better conductor of sound than air, and the medium was of more help to her than she dreamed it could be.

What particular thing her mortal enemy was doing she could not surmise, nor did it specially concern her to know at that moment; there could be no doubt that he was in a state of pernicious activity.

The question which the maiden asked herself was, whether she should not acquaint George Ashbridge with what she had learned. He was almost at her elbow, as has been explained, and, brief as was the time, several whispered conferences had taken place.

But, if she should speak or move, the Indian on the other side of the boulder would take the alarm and make off. This, it would seem, was the very thing which a young woman in her situation ought to desire above all others, but Agnes thought the miscreant should not be allowed to escape in that manner, at least not before he and his people had been taught a well-needed lesson.

She concluded to remain quiescent and await developments.

The next thing decided upon may have been characteristic of her age and sex, but, all the same, it was a piece of recklessness almost the equal of the weakness shown when she placed the knife in the hand of The Panther. She decided to peep over the top of the rock and learn what the Shawanoe was doing.

Sufficient moonlight found its way among the branches to permit one to see indistinctly for a few feet. She was confident that she could give their enemy one quick glance and then drop back before he could do her harm.

Her heart beat a little faster than it was wont when, with the silence of a phantom, she began slowly raising her head, with her eyes fixed on the top of the rock, which she touched with her hands. Before she reached the elevation in mind, she discovered the Indian was doing the same thing, and, fortunately for her, was two or three seconds advanced with the action.

The crown of the warrior, with the projecting eagle feathers, were as if they were a part of the darkness itself, so vaguely were they outlined in the gloom, though their identity was as clear to the girl as if the noon-day sun was shining upon the painted features.

The head rose just high enough for the glittering eyes to peer over the horizon of the rock in the endeavor to learn something of the situation within the interior of the "fort."

Agnes was transfixed for a moment. She feared that if she sank lower, or changed her position, the Indian would detect it and use his knife or tomahawk, and the same unspeakable dread prevented her crying out to warn George Ashbridge or any of the others of their peril.

She had no weapon of her own at command, and very probably it would have made no difference if she had, for she was but an infant before this terrible embodiment of strength, treachery and hate. But she felt she must do something to teach the miscreant the risk he ran by his daring act.

Groping silently with her right hand among and under the leaves, she managed to clutch some gravel and dirt, which, with a quick flirt, she intended to fling in the face of the Indian. It would probably cause him some inconvenience and considerable surprise, though the weapon was too insignificant for him to make any use of it.

The result of the novel demonstration can only be guessed, since the opportunity to try it passed at the moment Agnes was ready to make the test. When in the act of drawing back her hand, the head of the Shawanoe vanished as noiselessly as it had obtruded on the scene.

It seems incredible that the savage could have gained any knowledge of the interior of the fortification or of the location of the defenders. The gloom was too deep to permit the use of any vision except that of the owl or cat. He had probably withdrawn to repeat his attempt at some other point.

Again, the marvelous delicacy of hearing told the girl that her enemy was in motion, not directly in front of the boulder, but on the left, in the direction of George Ashbridge. She peered intently at that point, wondering how much longer she ought to remain motionless and mute, and on the point of calling, in a suppressed voice, to her lover, when something whisked by her elbow, too quickly or too dimly seen for her to comprehend at once what it meant.

Then it flashed upon her.

"George!" she called, in an undertone, so full of dread and terror that he was at her side in an instant.

"What's the matter? What has happened?"

"There's an Indian within the inclosure!"

"Impossible! You are mistaken!"

"I saw him this minute."

"Where? Tell me how it was!" he whispered, seizing her hand, and quick to catch her excitement.

"I saw the top of his head pee

ping over this very rock in front of me. I was about to call to you, when he dropped down again. The next moment he passed over the spot where you are. He did it so quickly and silently that I heard nothing, and caught only the most shadowy glimpses of him."

"Can it be possible? I cannot dispute you, and yet-"

A tall figure, walking erect, assumed form in the gloom, and was upon the startled lovers before they were aware of it.

Young Ashbridge was in the act of bringing his rifle to a level, when Weber Hastings spoke.

"Not too fast, younkers. I'm afeared I didn't do the best thing in the world, when I placed you two so near each other."

"No matter where you placed her," replied the youth, "you did a good thing for the rest. She has sharper eyes than any of us, for she has seen what nobody else saw."

"What's that? What's that?"

"Within the last three minutes," said Agnes, "one of the Shawanoes passed by this boulder behind which I have been sitting, and is now somewhere within the inclosure. Oh, I wonder if he means any harm to your folks, George, or mine!"

And spurred by her new terror she hurried across the brief intervening space to where her mother and Miss Altman were sitting trembling, and occasionally whispering in the darkness.

Thank heaven! no harm had befallen them, and since there was no call for her to return to George Ashbridge and Weber Hastings, she remained with those that were so near and dear to her.

"Them varmints are gettin' pow'rful sassy," was the comment of Hastings, who, now that the truth was known, seemed to lose all the excitement he had first shown. "You don't think the gal was mistook?"

"I am sure she was not."

"So am I; stay right here where you be, while I look around for that varmint; keep a lookout yourself, for he may try to sneak out this way."

"All I want is a chance at him."

"That's right-helloa!"

It so happened that Jim Deane, fully recovered from the effects of the rattlesnake antidote he had taken earlier in the evening, was on guard at a point almost opposite where Agnes Altman had made her alarming discovery. Instead of being sheltered by boulders and rocks, he had lain down behind some branches and logs, which he himself had helped place in position weeks before, when he and his companions were caught in their desperate straits.

Stretched at full length upon his face, with one hand grasping the barrel of his rifle in front and hearing nothing, he felt something softly touch his foot. The ranger did not speak or move a limb, but with rare cleverness, suspected the astonishing truth; one of the Shawanoe had entered the fort and was making a tour of inspection. The miscreant would offer harm to no one until he had gathered the knowledge he sought. Then he doubtless meant to deal some swift, terrible blows with his knife, and make off before anything could be done in the way of punishment.

The ranger turned his head and peered over his shoulder behind him. Lying flat on the ground, while the one that had touched him was on his feet, the advantage was with the white man. The almost impalpable outlines of a crouching figure that had paused upon touching his foot was revealed, and all doubt vanished from the mind of Deane.

His posture, as will be perceived, was an awkward one compared with that of the Shawanoe. It was necessary for the white man to change it before he could assume the offensive, and during the making of that change was the time for the hostile to get in his effective work.

The possibility of his doing so caused no hesitation on the part of Jim Deane. He flirted himself upon his back, snapped his feet beneath his body, and came to a standing position in a twinkling. In the act of doing so, he cocked his rifle.

The click of the hammer warned the intruder of his danger. His situation was not one in which to make a fight, and he turned to flee. The white man heard him, and dashed through the gloom to gain sufficient sight to warrant a shot. The fugitive must have been as familiar with the ground as was his pursuer, for he showed no hesitation as to his course, nor did he give any evidence of blundering.

He was so near the side of the inclosure that he had to run but a few steps when he made a leap which lifted him several feet above the obstruction, and it was this temporary elevation which gave the ranger the chance he was seeking. At the moment the figure was at the highest point of the arch, with his feet gathered beneath him, the ranger brought his gun to his shoulder and let fly.

A flash, a resounding report, a rasping shriek that resounded through the woods, and the Shawanoe sprawled forward on his face, with his hands clutching the leaves and dirt, and then all was still.

"That 'ere varmint ought to have knowed that 'cause a man happens to git bit by a rattler and takes an over-dose of antidote, it ain't no reason for stubbin' your toe agin him, and thinkin' he's forgot how to shoot off a gun."

"You managed that purty well, Jim," quietly remarked Weber Hastings, appearing that moment at his elbow. "Glad to see you don't forget to reload as quick as you kin."

"I larned that long ago; wonder if there are any more of the varmints 'bout."

"If there is, they'll be a little more keerful, but there's no saying what'll be the next thing-sh!"

Through the arches of the forest stole the soft, tremulous notes of a night bird-so faintly heard that even the trained ears of the ranger could do no more than guess the distance.

"That's Kenton," he remarked, in a guarded voice; "I'm powerful glad of it, for now something will be done."

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