Read CHAPTER XXIII - THE GATHERING OF THE CLANS of Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders Among the Kentucky Mountaineers, free online book, by Jessie Graham Flower, on ReadCentral.com.

“How long has Tom’s letter been here?” asked Anne, after Grace had explained their situation to her companions.

“Ten days.  Every one seems to be issuing warnings, and Tom is no exception.  Listen to this, will you?  ’Be vigilant!  The white moonlight reigns supreme up here.’”

“What does he mean by that?  Is Tom growing sentimental?” questioned Emma.

“He means there are moonshiners on this ridge of Lieutenant Wingate’s,” answered Miss Briggs.

“Huh!  Brown Eyes, don’t you worry about Tom.  Any fellow who is slick enough to say a thing without saying it, is slick enough to outwit the whole breed of feudists and others up here.”

Grace said she was not worrying, but that they must start as soon as they could replenish their stores.  This they set about doing at once.  New canvas with which to patch up their tents, cartridges for rifle and revolver, and provisions were purchased and lashed to the back of the remaining pack mule, or carried by the Overlanders in small packs on their ponies.  As soon as possible, after studying the marked map that Tom Gray had left them to show the party where to look for his camp, they set out at a jog-trot, with which Washington and his mule had difficulty in keeping up.

That night they camped near the wagon trail, and at daylight resumed their journey.  Late in the afternoon they halted for rest and to study their map and the contour of the mountains at that point.

“It should be somewhere hereabouts,” declared Miss Briggs.  “The landmarks appear to agree with Tom’s markings on the map.  It is my judgment that the wise thing to do would be to make camp near here.”

After consultation it was decided to do this.

The part of the mountains where they were about to camp was the wildest and most rugged of any that they had seen since reaching Kentucky.  Everywhere one saw caves, large and small, and unless one were vigilant he was quite likely to fall into one, for many were mere holes straight down through the rocks, and vine-covered at the top.  The rocks themselves were misshapen, and in some instances hideous when the light of the day faded.

“Hippy, is this your property?” questioned Emma as they sat down to their supper.

“Yes.  Why?”

“You ought to come and spend the rest of your days here.  What a lovely spot over on that knoll for a bungalow.  I think ­”

A distant rifle shot interrupted what Emma was about to say.  It was followed by several others in quick succession, but, while apparently not very far away, no bullets were heard, so the Overland Riders felt that they were not the object of the shooting.

“Beginning already,” muttered Elfreda.

Grace said nothing.  She was listening and wondering if Tom were out there, and if so, if he were in trouble.  However, there was nothing to be done except to wait until morning before pushing their search for him further.  The camp was well guarded that night, but nothing occurred to disturb them.

Shortly after daylight a systematic search was begun for Tom Gray’s camp, the Overlanders separating and going out for individual search, keeping the landmarks near their own camp well in mind.

It was Elfreda Briggs who made the discovery.  She called to Grace, who was near by, to come to her.  Grace uttered an exclamation as she ran up to Miss Briggs, who stood pointing to a little tent nestling at the base of a rocky peak.

“Is that Tom’s tent?” asked Elfreda.

“No, but we will have a look at it.”

The two girls ran eagerly to the little tent, proceeding more cautiously as they came up to it.  The blankets, they found, were rolled neatly, and a pair of boots stood in one corner, while some clothing hung from hooks on a tent-pole.

“This is Tom’s tent.  Oh, I am so glad,” cried Grace.

“Yes.  But where is Tom?”

“It is all right.  He may be away from here for days, sleeping in the open, living as only a woodsman knows how to live.  You know he is making a survey of this tract, and, I presume, doesn’t find it convenient to take his equipment with him.  Now I am content to settle down and wait for him.  In the meantime we can do some exploring on our own account.  I wonder who Tom has with him?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tracks of two different persons right there,” answered Grace, pointing to the ground.  “Where are your eyes, J. Elfreda?”

“Let’s go back,” suggested Miss Briggs, sighing deeply.  “We must let the girls know at once.”

All the Overlanders, except Nora Wingate, were quickly rounded up and told the good news.  Nora was nowhere in sight, but Hippy said she was picking mountain berries about a quarter of a mile to the south of the camp, and that she had probably forgotten what she had been sent out for.  He said, however, that he would go out and look for her.

In the meantime, Nora had been sitting eating the hatful of berries that she had gathered, gazing off over the rugged landscape and enjoying the mountain scenery bathed in the early morning sunlight.  The mountains, in that softening light, lost their hideousness and were really beautiful to look upon.  Nora’s eyes, slowly absorbing the scene before her, suddenly paused in their roving and fixed their gaze on a point some twenty yards below her.  Nora was looking down on the crown of a sombrero.  Below it, the figure that the hat belonged to was invisible in the dense growth of vine and bush.

“Faith, and what’s that?” murmured Nora, half humorously.  “I know.  It’s that husband of mine wanting to give me a scare.  Wait!  I’ll make the rascal jump.”

Nora Wingate groped for and found a small piece of rock, chuckling softly to herself.  Rising cautiously she aimed the rock to fall several feet to one side of the man below her, then reaching her hand far back she let fly, just as she had seen bombers do in France when practicing bomb-throwing.

Nora stood shaking with silent laughter at the fright she was going to give Hippy Wingate.  To her horror, the rock, instead of landing to one side of the man, dropped fairly on the top of his head.  As the stone hit him, the man uttered a grunt, but the Overland girl was too shocked to utter a sound.

The fellow leaped to one side, threw a hand to his head and knocked off his hat in his effort to find out what had hit him, then quickly looked up.

Nora Wingate found herself gazing down, not into the face of Hippy, but into the scowling, rage-contorted features of Lum Bangs.  At that moment, Nora, of her own volition, could not have moved to save her life, but Lum speedily furnished the incentive for her to do so.  Without an instant’s hesitation he fired his rifle from the hip.  The bullet from it cut the leaves not many inches from Nora’s head.

“Hippy!  Oh, Hippy!” she screamed and ran, bullets clipping the leaves close by, which served to lend speed to her flying feet.

Nora, as she ran, kept on shouting for Hippy.  He heard her faintly and started at a run to meet her.

“They are shooting at me.  Hurry!  Run!” urged Nora as he neared her.

“Run?  I guess not,” retorted Hippy.  “Where are they?”

“Up the mountain.  There was only one, but there may be more.”  Nora grabbed her husband’s arm and both started at a brisk trot for the camp.  Reaching there, Nora hurriedly told her companions what had occurred.

“Lum Bangs!” exclaimed Miss Briggs.  “What is he doing here?  The Thompsons must be here.”

Grace shook her head and said she doubted it.

“Julie warned us against the Spurgeons and said they were waiting for us on this ridge,” reminded Grace.  “Still, that doesn’t explain Lum’s presence here, unless he has followed us, seeking revenge.”

“Lum may have turned traitor,” observed Hippy.  “Folks, it is my opinion that we had better prepare for trouble.  I smell it in the air.”

“Don’t you think that it would be wise to protect our equipment?” suggested Anne.

Grace pondered, then announced that for the present they would do nothing beyond looking for a place not only to stow their belongings, but to safeguard themselves in case of trouble.  They found such a place in a cave that Hippy had discovered that morning, the opening to which was on a slight rise of ground, commanding a wide view across the valley below it.

The party investigated the cave, and, finding it suited to their needs, began to move into it.  Tents, mess kits, some food and a few blankets were all that were left in the nearby camp.  Hippy then assumed the duty of guarding the party, but not a sign of life did he discover, nor was there a disturbing sound to be heard.  Supper was eaten in camp before dark and the cook fire then extinguished.

Grace was troubled about Tom, and, as the hours wore on, the thought that perhaps he might have come to some harm, grew upon her.  She got up about midnight, and, leaving her tent, sat down on a rock, chin in hands, more nervous than she remembered ever to have been before.  Hurried footsteps aroused her to instant alertness.

“Is that you, Hippy?” called a low-pitched voice off to the right of her.  It was Nora Wingate’s voice.  Grace had not known she was awake.

“Yes.  Wake the girls, but be quiet about it.  The woods are full of them.”

“Of whom?” demanded Grace, getting quickly to her feet and hurrying to Hippy.

“I don’t know, but I saw several men about two hundred yards from here.  They are creeping up on the camp.  Hurry!  Get the girls into the cave.  I will keep watch here until you get safely to the cave.”

It was but a few minutes later when the Overland girls filed silently from their camp and headed for the cave.  Hippy, rifle in hand, halted just outside the camp and waited.  He did not have long to wait.  A burst of rifle fire woke the mountain echoes, but, being out of the range of fire, he merely crouched down and waited to see what the attackers would do.

In the cave, the Overland girls were peering from the opening, but, by agreement, not a shot was fired by them or by Lieutenant Wingate.

The shooting kept up briskly for several minutes, then died away, and silence settled over the scene.  Hippy remained near the camp so long that the girls began to feel concerned for him.  This was dispelled nearly half an hour later when they discovered him, well bent over to hide his movements, running towards them.

“Whew!  They didn’t do a thing to our tents.  Shot them full of holes,” he exclaimed.  “They are going through everything and they’re getting worried, judging from what I overheard.  We played a neat trick on them,” chuckled the lieutenant.

“Don’t crow,” advised Emma Dean.  “It isn’t daylight yet.  I will con-centrate.  I con-centrated all the time you were away, and you came back, didn’t you?”

“‘Con-centrate’ on those ruffians and drive them away; ‘con-centrate’ on Tom Gray; ‘con-centrate’ on the Mystery Man ­’con-centrate’ on anybody, but for the love of Mike don’t let loose any of that ’imponderable quantity’ on me,” begged Lieutenant Wingate.

Hippy advised the girls to lie down on their blankets and try to sleep, saying that he would keep awake and watch at the cave entrance, but none of them felt the slightest desire for sleep, especially when the rifle fire opened up again.  They wondered if the attackers were shooting at shadows.  Not more than a dozen shots were fired and these at intervals, after which there was no more shooting during the rest of the night.

At daybreak Hippy dozed off, first nodding to Nora to take the watch for him, which she did.  The others of the party were sitting on the rocky floor of the cave leaning against the wall, also dozing.  Nora, for a short time, sat watching her husband who was snoring loudly; then she got up and peered out at the reddening sky.  Unthinkingly, she stepped from the cave and stood inhaling deeply of the fragrant morning air.

Nora suddenly uttered a cry and clapped a hand to her left cheek.  At the same instant, it seemed, the report of a rifle woke the echoes.

Hippy, awake and on his feet in an instant, jerked Nora back into the cave, but not before a bullet had flattened itself against the rocks close to his head.

“Lie down and keep tight to the sides of the cave!” he commanded.  “They know where we are now.  Fine!  Fine!  Emma Dean could do no worse.”

No more shots were fired for fully an hour, then suddenly bullets began to pour into the cave, some hitting the sides and, ricochetting, wailed on into the dark depths of the cavern, making any part of the gloomy place unsafe.  The best the Overlanders could do was to keep down and lie close to the wall.

Nora had had a narrow escape from death at the first shot, though, while she had not been hit, the bullet had grazed her cheek, leaving a red mark across it.

Frequent volleys into the cave, after several hours, set the nerves of each of the Overland Riders on edge.  Hippy was eager to take a hand in the fray, but the girls forbade it, advising him that he would merely be making a mark of himself, whereas it were doubtful if he could see a single one of their assailants.

“Yes, but suppose they keep us here for days?” objected Lieutenant Wingate.

“We have plenty of food,” answered Anne.

“And precious little water,” added Grace Harlowe.  “My advice is to wait and watch.  At night they are certain to come up closer to the mouth of the cave.  Perhaps we may be able to get a shot at them then without exposing ourselves.  Surely, if they try to enter here we can quickly drive them back.”

The rest of the afternoon up to three o’clock was spent in dodging bullets.  Exactly on the hour of three there came an interruption that startled every one of the cave dwellers.  A rattling fire sprang up, but no bullets came their way.  Hippy held up his hand for silence, and listened.

“Two gangs are at it and they must be shooting at each other.  I’m going out to have a look!” cried Hippy.

“Look!  Look!” cried Emma, whose curiosity had led her to follow Lieutenant Wingate.

Men were seen running down below them.  On the opposite mountainside, just across the narrow valley that lay a short distance from the mouth of the cave, they saw skulking figures.  Now and then one would drop to his knees and shoot at the fleeing figures in the valley.

The fleeing men in the valley, after reaching the positions they were seeking, faced their adversaries on the mountainside and began firing up at them.

“It is the feud!” cried Miss Briggs.

“That’s right.  I have it!” exclaimed Hippy.  “This is the twenty-second of the month.  The Spurgeons were going to sail into the Thompsons on the twenty-third, but Jed Thompson has beat them to it by a day, and attacked them on the twenty-second.  Good generalship!”

“I call it terrible,” murmured Anne Nesbit.

From their elevated position, the Overland Riders were able to observe the battle in all its details, and it was a thrilling sight.  They saw men fall, but whether from bullet or from stumbling the Overlanders did not know, for, in most instances, the fallen ones soon got to their feet and joined in the fight.  Now and then, however, one remained where he had dropped.

“I think the party on the mountainside is the Thompson party,” announced Grace, who had been observing through her binoculars.  “I am positive that I recognize Jed.”

“Then the Spurgeons are on the run.  Look at that, will you!” cried Lieutenant Wingate.

The supposed Spurgeons were now dashing down the valley, here and there making a stand and shooting up at their enemies, who were pouring down a hot fire on them.  The shooting soon began to die down, with an occasional shot from the Thompson feudists, probably long-range shots at the fleeing figures of the Spurgeons.

“All over,” announced Hippy.  “We can now safely go out.  I am going over to see what the camp looks like.”

The girls said they too would go.  They did not believe that their presence had been discovered by the Thompson fighters, but in this, however, they were mistaken.  Keen eyes had espied them watching the battle from the mouth of the cave, and even then some of the Thompson party was on its way to look the Overlanders over.

Washington Washington, who, during the firing on the cave, had remained flat on his stomach on the floor, a finger in either ear, trembling with fright, now assured that he had nothing more to fear, darted on ahead, eager to get to his mule.  He gained the camp a few minutes ahead of the Overland party.  They saw him coming back, wide-eyed, his feet barely touching the ground as he ran.

“What is it, Laundry?” called Hippy.

Washington’s lips refused to frame the words that he was trying to utter.  The Overlanders started forward at a run, bringing up abruptly as they gained their camping place.  Not a vestige of it, save the ashes of their cook fire, remained.  Everything was gone.

“De hosses!” exploded Washington.

“They’re gone!” cried Emma Dean, who, following Washington’s warning, had run to the tethering place.

They were not all “gone,” however.  The Overland Riders found that one pony had been, shot through the head, and that the mule had shared a like fate.  The other animals had disappeared, probably driven away by Bat Spurgeon and his gang of ruffians.

“Howd’, folks,” greeted Jed Thompson, fairly bursting into the camp.  “You-all don’t know whether that critter Spurgeon has been heyeh, does ye?”

“Just cast your eagle eyes about and see if you don’t think it looks as if somebody had been here, old top,” answered Hippy Wingate, taking in the camp and the tethering ground with a wave of the hand.

“Our ponies are gone.  Now we’ve got to walk all the way home,” wailed Emma.

“‘Con-centrate,’ little one,” advised Hippy.

“Never mind ’bout the hosses.  We-uns’ll fix ye up.  Spurgeon and Lum Bates got er-way.  They come this-a-way an’ Ah reckon they’re hidin’ in a cave.  Shore they ain’t in that place where you was?” demanded Jed.

“If ye ain’t sartin, better look an’ see.  We’ll be goin’ through t’other holes right smart.  Mah men is doin’ it now!”

“Bates?” wondered Hippy.

“The houn’ went back on we-uns.  It was this-a-way.  Lum opined as we ought ter follow ye and clean yer outfit up, but Ah said as after you-uns had done what you-all had done fer Liz an’ Sue, there wan’t nothin’ doin’.  That was the last Ah seen of the houn’ dawg.  Ah know he was with Spurgeon ’cause Ah put er bullet through his shoulder ter-day.”

“Sorry I couldn’t have had a crack at him myself,” muttered Hippy.

“It was Lum that pestered ye so.  Ah set him on ye an’ put up that bear story, but you-all didn’t swaller it,” he added, nodding to Hippy.  “Say, Loot’nant, are ye sartin you-all ain’t Jim Townsend?”

“Well,” reflected Hippy, “I may say I am reasonably certain that I’m not.”

“You folks wait here till we-uns come back.  Mebby ’twon’t be till mornin’, fer we’ve got t’ git that houn’, Lum, an’ Bat Spurgeon, else they won’t be no livin’ round heyeh.  This yer property?” with a sweeping wave of the hand.

Hippy nodded.

“Good thing we-uns cleaned out the Spurgeons then.  Won’t be none o’ ’em ’round when you moves up heyeh.  Bye.”  And Jed left them at a trot.

“I am going to investigate our cave.  You can come along if you want to, but if that fellow with the explosive name ­Bangs ­should chance to be there I’ll tell you in advance you better make tracks lively, for there surely will be some shooting,” warned Hippy.

Torches were prepared and Washington reluctantly led the way into the cave with one, Hippy walking behind him with drawn revolver, the Overland girls bringing up the rear a few yards from Lieutenant Wingate.

Not having explored the cave very far, they were amazed at its depth; in fact they had gone on, it seemed, a good mile and were still looking for the end.

“I don’t believe there is any one in here,” Hippy was saying.  “We might as well go back.”

“Ahem!”

“Who said that?” demanded Hippy.

“Ahem!”

Washington Washington uttered a yell and bolted back for the opening of the cave, taking his torch with him, leaving the Overlanders in the blackest darkness they had ever experienced.

“I make the near blind to see, and the seeing to see in the dark as in the daylight.  I am the benefactor of all-uns of the mountains.  Specs, ladies and gentlemen ­fit you with specs that will enable you to penetrate even the darkness of the under-earth.  Nick-nacks, threads, needles, but principally specs and good cheer,” announced a voice that seemed to come right up out of the earth before them.