Mr Lane Finds A Solution To His Difficulty
"Here, Bounce! Here Bounce!" called Owen in a loud voice as he rushed from the house, rifle in hand, crossed the barnyard, and ran at full speed toward a strip of woods which joined with the forest. "Here, Bounce!" he continued to call, looking back now and then to see whether the dog was following. But Bounce was in the field with the negro workmen, too far away to hear the voice of his master.
At the edge of the woods Owen found the mangled body of a young lamb. Glancing down a narrow ravine, he saw a wildcat disappear in the thick underbrush not two hundred yards away. This was the marauder for which the boy was looking. It had stolen into the sheep-fold and made off with a lamb in the full light of day.
Owen gave one more anxious look to see whether Bounce was near, then turned and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the bold robber. He shouted as he ran, hoping thereby to frighten the wildcat and force it to climb a tree, when it would be an easy mark for his rifle. But the cat was too experienced a thief to be entrapped so easily. Had Bounce been there he would have driven it into the position Owen wished it. The boy, however, moved too slowly to bring it to bay. For an instant he saw its long, lithe body as the animal leaped upon the trunk of a fallen sycamore, gave a piteous cry and then disappeared again farther down in the ravine.
To run after it or to shout would only terrify it the more. Owen therefore changed his tactics. He left the ravine and walked slowly along the hillside for nearly a mile, pausing every few minutes to examine the tops of the trees, especially those of the tall poplars which seemed to offer a safe hiding place. The pursuit was brought to an abrupt termination by a steep cliff which overlooked the old stage road. A dark object was seen moving among the brush just below him. The boy raised his rifle in readiness to fire, but the undergrowth was so thick that he could not see distinctly. He changed his position and looked again; it was not a wildcat. But what could the object be? A goat? No; there was not one in the neighborhood; besides, the head was more than five feet from the ground. Further inspection showed that the object was a man. Two were there, partly concealed by the bushes. They had masks of rough deer-skin pulled over their faces. This it was that gave the first one the appearance of a goat.
But what were these two men waiting for? Why had they concealed themselves here so close to the road? After a moment's reflection Owen concluded that they intended to rob the stage. They could certainly have chosen no better spot, as it was fully a mile away from the nearest farmhouse and in a place where the stage would necessarily move slowly. The men were well armed; they had posted themselves, too, within ten feet of the road, where they could both spring forward in front of the stage.
Something must be done to give the travelers warning! So thought Owen as he crept away from the cliff. Perhaps the best plan would be to run some distance up the road, wait for the stage, and tell the driver what he had seen. As he paused for a few seconds to deliberate he heard the old stage rumbling down the hillside not a quarter of a mile away. To reach it now and give warning of the danger was impossible, for it was on the opposite side of the ravine. All that he could do was to wait until the stage hove in sight, then yell and fire his rifle to frighten the robbers and let them know that their movements had been watched. On the other hand, he would be perfectly safe; for he could make his escape before the two men had time to climb the steep cliff and pursue him. Owen crawled back to a position where he could watch the bandits without being seen by them.
In the meantime, lumbering slowly along the rough road into the deep ravine, came the old stage, on whose top were two travelers whom Owen recognized as his old friend Coon-Hollow Jim and Squire Grundy. The Squire was gesticulating and talking vociferously in vain endeavors to be heard above the noise of the grinding wheels. Ostensibly he was entertaining the new sheriff; but he was aware of the fact that two lady passengers below were listening to him as he recounted his many deeds of valor in the Indian wars.
He was suddenly interrupted by a scream from one of the ladies as the two robbers stepped forward and ordered the driver to dismount and unhitch his horses. It was no small humiliation for the new sheriff and the boastful Squire when told to take their places near the stage driver and hold their hands above their heads. With them were two other men, the women and three children being left undisturbed. One of the bandits placed himself before the five men, and, pistol in hand, threatened to blow out the brains of the first that attempted to escape, while the other forced the mail-bag open and began to examine its contents.
Squire Grundy trembled from head to foot, for he feared that his guard's pistol, which was pointed at his head, might go off at any minute. Coon-Hollow Jim stood sullen and stolid; he felt that he was more than a match for the two robbers, yet in his present position he was powerless.
But where was Owen? Why did he not give the alarm as he had resolved to do? So frightened and bewildered was he that he remained for some time a passive spectator of the scene. Finally he regained his courage and resolved to assist his old friend Coon-Hollow Jim. Yet which should he do? To kill or wound the robber--his mind revolted from such a plan. To shoot the pistol from his hand--this was an easy task, though to hit it in such a way as to make the ball glance off without the least danger to the passengers--this required the perfection of his skill, but this he resolved to do.
Never did Owen's rifle-craft prove more useful to him than at that moment. Conscious of his power, he raised his rifle. His aim was long and true and steady. Then a sharp, clear ring, followed by the deep, loud report of the highwayman's pistol, discharged by the shock of his bullet. For a moment both robbers and passengers were dazed. No one seemed to know what had happened or to have noticed that a rifle had been fired. But the bewilderment was only for a moment.
Mr. Lane, seeing his guard unarmed and helpless, sprang toward him and seized him in his iron grasp. The other bandit, too, was soon overpowered and made a prisoner.
"Hold them tight! Hold them tight! Ropes to bind them! Ropes to bind them!" exclaimed the excited Squire, keeping at a safe distance from the two robbers.
The driver bound the hands of the two prisoners behind them with strong hemp rope.
"The rogues and thieves!" continued the Squire with much indignation. "The country is full of them! It is as dangerous to travel now as when we had the Indians around, forty years ago!"
As soon as the prisoners were secured all fell to praising Mr. Lane for his bravery. For, in their opinion, he had suddenly sprung upon the highwayman, knocked the pistol from his hands and made him a prisoner.
"That's the boldest, bravest deed that I've witnessed in all my wide experience," said the Squire. "To attack an armed robber who holds a pistol at your breast, to overpower him and take him prisoner unaided--that, sir, is something that has never been done before in this State or country. Then to dodge the bullet! Sheriff, how you dodged the bullet when he fired at you is more than I can understand. I predict a unanimous vote for you in the next election--a unanimous vote, sir. For when the people hear of this day's work they'll have no one else for sheriff of Nelson County." The Squire would have talked for half an hour, but the driver interrupted him, and insisted on starting at once.
The two prisoners were made to take seats on the top of the stage, where Mr. Lane, pistol in hand, sat to guard them; and in a few moments the coach and four disappeared over the hill beyond the ravine. The passengers congratulated themselves on their fortunate escape, little dreaming of the part which Owen had played in the capture of the robbers.
Owen, too, was pleased with the turn which events had taken. His first impulse was to call out to the travelers and explain why the pistol had dropped from the bandit's hand; but when he noted their praise for Mr. Lane, and heard Squire Grundy say that his bravery would win for him the vote of every man in the county, Owen determined then and there to let no one know that a shot from his rifle had brought so much honor on his friend.
For an hour or more neither of the prisoners spoke a word. They wore their masks, too, so that Mr. Lane was ignorant of the fact that the fleshy man before him was the jolly fiddler and marksman whom he had met at the famous shooting-match on Grundy's farm.
Within the stage, the Squire was entertaining the passengers with stories of Indian wars. He had often seen Indians dodge bullets, but Mr. Lane, he thought, was the first white man to perform such a feat. The sheriff was elated as he listened to these words of praise from so great and influential a man as Squire Grundy. In the meantime, he carelessly examined the pistol which he held in his hand. Something had struck the upper part of the rusty barrel; the mark looked like one made by a bullet. Was not this the pistol, too, that had fallen from the robber's hand? While the sheriff was thinking over the matter and trying to find some connection between the mark and the surprise of the prisoners, one of the bandits spoke to him.
"I don't wish," said he, "to ask for anything either for myself or my partner. We've been caught robbing a stage, and must serve our term in the penitentiary; but there is another man in this work, and he must come with us."
"That's right," chimed in his companion, from beneath his mask. "Catch that devil of a Tinker, and you can have all three of us. Me and this hare feller was nothin' but rabbits for goin' into this hare work, and we desarve to be caught in our own traps."
"We didn't intend to rob the stage," continued the first speaker.
"That there may be true," interrupted the sheriff, "but I reckon the law won't look at it in that there way."
"I know it won't! I know it won't!" said the prisoner. "Remember, I am not asking for mercy; only listen to what I have to say, and when you have heard all you will believe me."
Here the stage drew up in front of the Grundy home-stead, an old manor, approached by an avenue of silver poplars, and surrounded by a wide veranda. The Squire bade the passengers good-bye, assuring them at the same time that they were perfectly safe in the company of so brave a man as Sheriff Lane.
"What I have to say is this," resumed the prisoner, when the stage was under way again. "We are not highway robbers. For years we've lived in this part of the country, worked and trapped, and injured no one. But a scoundrel and thief, whom we call Tom the Tinker, persuaded us to go into the whisky business. For three years we made whisky in a cave on the bank of the Beech Fork, about six miles from here. Then we were caught; at least, we thought so. Our object in stopping the stage to-day was to see whether any notice had been sent to Squire Grundy or the sheriff about the matter. You notice that we did not attempt to rob the passengers. Instead of finding the letters, we met the Squire and yourself. I did not know at the time that you were sheriff, but, sheriff or not, we had you just where we wanted you until my pistol went off and fell from my hand. How it happened, I don't know. We're your prisoners, and'll be sent up for five years. But we must have Tom the Tinker with us."
"What made you suspect that your plans were discovered?" asked the sheriff.
"We sent six barrels to Bardstown."
"The day after the news from New Orleans."
"And the driver was foller'd?"
"And left that there team on the road?"
"Yes; he jumped from the wagon when the men came near him, and made his way back to the cave on foot."
"Where's the wagon?"
"Don't know, sir."
"I've been lookin' for that there wagon for two weeks."
"The wagon belonged to the Tinker," said the prisoner. "He is the cause of our ruin, and he must come to the penitentiary with us."
He then proceeded to give the sheriff an accurate description of the cave, with minute details in regard to the path which led to it. The Tinker must be arrested while actually engaged in making whisky; this would insure him a sentence of ten years in the penitentiary.Ground plan of Cave.
--The heavy line marked h, h
, represents the hill running along the Beech Fork, turning abruptly at a and following a small creek.
1. The two giant rocks.
2. Outer chamber.
3. Inner chamber (where the boys spent the night).
4. Passages through which Stayford led the boys.
5. Secret passages which the boys did not see.
6. Secret entrances.
7. The "hold out."
All that day Mr. Lane talked with the prisoner about the capture of Tom the Tinker and the destruction of the illicit distillery. The second prisoner spoke but little. Only after it was quite dark, and the stage approached Louisville, did he remove his mask and make known to his captor who he was. It was a painful task for the good-natured sheriff to hand over the jolly fiddler and marksman to the jail authorities; yet this was his duty, and he did not shrink from it.
"I'll expect to see the Tinker with us before two weeks have passed," said Stayford, as the sheriff turned to leave the jail.
"Yes! bring him on," said Jerry, "and then you can hang all three of us. We is darned fools for bein' caught in our own traps, and desarve to be hanged."