Chapter 2 A shooting match and its consequences—New friends introduced t_he reader—Crusoe and his mother change masters.
Shortly after the incident narrated in the last chapter, the squatters of th_ustang Valley lost their leader. Major Hope suddenly announced his intentio_f quitting the settlement, and returning to the civilised world. Privat_atters, he said, required his presence there—matters which he did not choos_o speak of but which would prevent his returning again to reside among them.
Go he must, and, being a man of determination, go he did; but before going h_istributed all his goods and chattels among the settlers. He even gave awa_is rifle, and Fan, and Crusoe. These last, however, he resolved should g_ogether; and as they were well worth having, he announced that he would giv_hem to the best shot in the valley. He stipulated that the winner shoul_scort him to the nearest settlement eastward, after which he might retur_ith the rifle on his shoulder.
Accordingly, a long level piece of ground on the river’s bank, with _erpendicular cliff at the end of it, was selected as the shooting ground, and, on the appointed day, at the appointed hour, the competitors began t_ssemble.
“Well, lad, first as usual,” exclaimed Joe Blunt, as he reached the ground an_ound Dick Varley there before him.
“I’ve bin here more than an hour lookin’ for a new kind o’ flower that Jac_organ told me he’d seen. And I’ve found it too. Look here; did you ever se_ne like it before?”
Blunt leaned his rifle against a tree, and carefully examined the flower.
“Why, yes, I’ve seed a-many o’ them up about the Rocky Mountains, but neve_ne here-away. It seems to have gone lost itself. The last I seed, if _emimber rightly, wos near the head-waters o’ the Yellowstone River, i_os—jest where I shot a grizzly bar.”
“Was that the bar that gave you the wipe on the cheek?” asked Varley, forgetting the flower in his interest about the bear.
“It was. I put six balls in that bar’s carcase, and stuck my knife into it_eart ten times afore it gave out; an’ it nearly ripped the shirt off my bac_fore I was done with it.”
“I would give my rifle to get a chance at a grizzly!” exclaimed Varley, with _udden burst of enthusiasm.
“Whoever got it wouldn’t have much to brag of,” remarked a burly youn_ackwoodsman, as he joined them.
His remark was true, for poor Dick’s weapon was but a sorry affair. It misse_ire, and it hung fire, and even when it did fire it remained a matter o_oubt in its owner’s mind whether the slight deviations from the direct lin_ade by his bullets were the result of _his_ or _its_ bad shooting.
Further comment upon it was checked by the arrival of a dozen or more hunter_n the scene of action. They were a sturdy set of bronzed, bold, fearless men, and one felt, on looking at them, that they would prove more than a match fo_everal hundreds of Indians in open fight. A few minutes after, the majo_imself came on the ground with the prize rifle on his shoulder, and Fan an_rusoe at his heels—the latter tumbling, scrambling, and yelping after it_other, fat and clumsy, and happy as possible, having evidently quit_orgotten that it had been nearly roasted alive only a few weeks before.
Immediately all eyes were on the rifle, and its merits were discussed wit_nimation.
And well did it deserve discussion, for such a piece had never before bee_een on the western frontier. It was shorter in the barrel and larger in th_ore than the weapons chiefly in vogue at that time, and, besides being o_eautiful workmanship, was silver-mounted. But the grand peculiarity about it, and that which afterwards rendered it the mystery of mysteries to the savages, was, that it had two sets of locks—one percussion, the other flint—so that, when caps failed, by taking off the one set of locks and affixing the others, it was converted into a flint-rifle. The major, however, took care never t_un short of caps, so that the flint locks were merely held as a reserve i_ase of need.
“Now, lads,” cried Major Hope, stepping up to the point whence they were t_hoot, “remember the terms. He who first drives the nail obtains the rifle, Fan, and her pup, and accompanies me to the nearest settlements. Each ma_hoots with his own gun, and draws lots for the chance.”
“Agreed,” cried the men.
“Well, then, wipe your guns and draw lots. Henri will fix the nail. Here i_s.”
The individual who stepped, or rather plunged forward to receive the nail wa_ rare and remarkable specimen of mankind. Like his comrades, he was half _armer and half a hunter. Like them, too, he was clad in deerskin, and wa_all and strong—nay, more, he was gigantic. But, unlike them, he was clumsy, awkward, loose-jointed, and a bad shot. Nevertheless Henri was an immens_avourite in the settlement, for his good-humour knew no bounds. No one eve_aw him frown. Even when fighting with the savages, as he was sometime_ompelled to do in self-defence, he went at them with a sort of jovial rag_hat was almost laughable. Inconsiderate recklessness was one of his chie_haracteristics, so that his comrades were rather afraid of him on the war- trail or in the hunt, where caution, and frequently _soundless_ motion, wer_ssential to success or safety. But when Henri had a comrade at his side t_heck him he was safe enough, being humble-minded and obedient. Men used t_ay he must have been born under a lucky star, for, notwithstanding hi_atural inaptitude for all sorts of backwoods life, he managed to scrambl_hrough everything with safety, often with success, and sometimes with credit.
To see Henri stalk a deer was worth a long day’s journey. Joe Blunt used t_ay he was “all jints together, from the top of his head to the sole of hi_occasin.” He threw his immense form into the most inconceivable contortions, and slowly wound his way, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes flat, through bush and brake, as if there was not a bone in his body, and withou_he slightest noise. This sort of work was so much against his plungin_ature, that he took long to learn it, but when, through hard practice and th_oss of many a fine deer, he came at length to break himself in to it, h_radually progressed to perfection, and ultimately became the best stalker i_he valley. This, and this alone, enabled him to procure game, for, bein_hort-sighted, he could hit nothing beyond fifty yards, except a buffalo or _arn door.
Yet that same lithe body, which seemed as though totally unhinged, could n_ore be bent, when the muscles were strung, than an iron post. No one wrestle_ith Henri unless he wished to have his back broken. Few could equal and non_ould beat him at running or leaping except Dick Varley. When Henri ran a rac_ven Joe Blunt laughed outright, for arms and legs went like independen_lails. When he leaped, he hurled himself into space with a degree of violenc_hat seemed to insure a somersault—yet he always came down with a crash on hi_eet. Plunging was Henri’s forte. He generally lounged about the settlement, when unoccupied, with his hands behind his back, apparently in a reverie, an_hen called on to act, he seemed to fancy he must have lost time, and coul_nly make up for it by _plunging_. This habit got him into many awkwar_crapes, but his herculean power as often got him out of them. He was _rench-Canadian, and a particularly bad speaker of the English language.
We offer no apology for this elaborate introduction of Henri, for he was a_ood-hearted a fellow as ever lived, and deserves special notice.
But to return. The sort of rifle practice called “driving the nail,” by whic_his match was to be decided, was, and we believe still is, common among th_unters of the far west. It consisted in this,—an ordinary large-headed nai_as driven a short way into a plank or a tree, and the hunters, standing at _istance of fifty yards or so, fired at it until they succeeded in driving i_ome. On the present occasion the major resolved to test their shooting b_aking the distance seventy yards.
Some of the older men shook their heads.
“It’s too far,” said one; “ye might as well try to snuff the nose o’ _osquito.”
“Jim Scraggs is the only man as’ll hit that,” said another.
The man referred to was a long, lank, lantern-jawed fellow with a cross- grained expression of countenance. He used the long, heavy, Kentucky rifle, which, from the ball being little larger than a pea, was called a pea-rifle.
Jim was no favourite, and had been named Scraggs by his companions on accoun_f his appearance.
In a few minutes the lots were drawn, and the shooting began. Each hunte_iped out the barrel of his piece with his ramrod as he stepped forward; then, placing a ball in the palm of his left hand, he drew the stopper of hi_owder-horn with his teeth, and poured out as much powder as sufficed to cove_he bullet. This was the regular _measure_ among them. Little time was lost i_iring, for these men did not “hang” on their aim. The point of the rifle wa_lowly raised to the object, and, the instant the sight covered it, the bal_ped to its mark. In a few minutes the nail was encircled by bullet-holes, scarcely two of which were more than an inch distant from the mark, an_ne—fired by Joe Blunt—entered the tree close beside it.
“Ah, Joe!” said the major, “I thought you would have carried off the prize.”
“So did not I, sir,” returned Blunt, with a shake of his head. “Had it a-bin _alf-dollar at a hundred yards, I’d ha’ done better, but I never _could_ hi_he nail. It’s too small to _see_.”
“That’s cos ye’ve got no eyes,” remarked Jim Scraggs, with a sneer, as h_tepped forward.
All tongues were now hushed, for the expected champion was about to fire. Th_harp crack of the rifle was followed by a shout, for Jim had hit the nail- head on the edge, and part of the bullet stuck to it.
“That wins if there’s no better,” said the major, scarce able to conceal hi_isappointment. “Who comes next?”
To this question Henri answered by stepping up to the line, straddling hi_egs, and executing preliminary movements with his rifle, that seemed t_ndicate an intention on his part to throw the weapon bodily at the mark. H_as received with a shout of mingled laughter and applause. After gazin_teadily at the mark for a few seconds, a broad grin overspread hi_ountenance, and, looking round at his companions, he said—“Ha! mes boys, _annot behold de nail at all!”
“Can ye ‘behold’ the _tree_?” shouted a voice, when the laugh that followe_his announcement had somewhat abated.
“Oh! oui,” replied Henri quite coolly; “I can see _him_ , an’ a goot small bi_f de forest beyond.”
“Fire at it, then. If ye hit the tree ye desarve the rifle—leastwise ye ough_o get the pup.”
Henri grinned again, and fired instantly, without taking aim.
The shot was followed by an exclamation of surprise, for the bullet was foun_lose beside the nail!
“It’s more be good luck than good shootin’,” remarked Jim Scraggs.
“Possiblement,” answered Henri modestly, as he retreated to the rear and wipe_ut his rifle; “mais I have kill most of my deer by dat same goot luck.”
“Bravo! Henri,” said Major Hope as he passed; “you _deserve_ to win, anyhow.
“Dick Varley,” cried several voices; “where’s Varley? Come on, youngster, an’ take yer shot.”
The youth came forward with evident reluctance. “It’s of no manner o’ use,” h_hispered to Joe Blunt as he passed, “I can’t depend on my old gun.”
“Never give in,” whispered Blunt encouragingly. Poor Varley’s want o_onfidence in his rifle was merited, for, on pulling the trigger, th_aithless lock missed fire.
“Lend him another gun,” cried several voices. “’Gainst rules laid down b_ajor Hope,” said Scraggs.
“Well, so it is; try again.”
Varley did try again, and so successfully, too, that the ball hit the nail o_he head, leaving a portion of the lead sticking to its edge.
Of course this was greeted with a cheer, and a loud dispute began as to whic_as the better shot of the two.
“There are others to shoot yet,” cried the major. “Make way. Look out.”
The men fell back, and the few hunters who had not yet fired took their shots, but without coming nearer the mark.
It was now agreed that Jim Scraggs and Dick Varley, being the two best shots, should try over again; and it was also agreed that Dick should have the use o_lunt’s rifle. Lots were again drawn for the first shot, and it fell to Dick, who immediately stepped out, aimed somewhat hastily, and fired.
“Hit again!” shouted those who had run forward to examine the mark. “ _Half_he bullet cut off by the nail-head!”
Some of the more enthusiastic of Dick’s friends cheered lustily, but the mos_f the hunters were grave and silent, for they knew Jim’s powers, and fel_hat he would certainly do his best. Jim now stepped up to the line, and, looking earnestly at the mark, threw forward his rifle.
At that moment our friend Crusoe—tired of tormenting his mother—waddle_tupidly and innocently into the midst of the crowd of men, and, in so doing, received Henri’s heel and the full weight of his elephantine body on its fore- paw. The horrible and electric yell that instantly issued from his agonise_hroat could only be compared, as Joe Blunt expressed it, “to the last dyin’ screech o’ a bustin’ steam biler!” We cannot say that the effect wa_tartling, for these backwoodsmen had been born and bred in the midst o_larms, and were so used to them that a “bustin’ steam biler” itself, unles_t had blown them fairly off their legs, would not have startled them. But th_ffect, such as it was, was sufficient to disconcert the aim of Jim Scraggs, who fired at the same instant, and missed the nail by a hair’s-breadth.
Turning round in towering wrath, Scraggs aimed a kick at the poor pup, which, had it taken effect, would certainly have terminated the innocent existence o_hat remarkable dog on the spot, but quick as lightning Henri interposed th_utt of his rifle, and Jim’s shin met it with a violence that caused him t_owl with rage and pain.
“Oh! pardon me, broder,” cried Henri, shrinking back, with the drolles_xpression of mingled pity and glee.
Jim’s discretion, on this occasion, was superior to his valour; he turned awa_ith a coarse expression of anger and left the ground.
Meanwhile the major handed the silver rifle to young Varley. “It couldn’t hav_allen into better hands,” he said. “You’ll do it credit, lad, I know tha_ull well, and let me assure you it will never play you false. Only keep i_lean, don’t overcharge it, aim true, and it will never miss the mark.”
While the hunters crowded round Dick to congratulate him and examine th_iece, he stood with a mingled feeling of bashfulness and delight at hi_nexpected good fortune. Recovering himself suddenly he seized his old rifle, and, dropping quietly to the outskirts of the crowd, while the men were stil_usy handling and discussing the merits of the prize, went up, unobserved, t_ boy of about thirteen years of age, and touched him on the shoulder.
“Here, Marston, you know I often said ye should have the old rifle when I wa_ich enough to get a new one. Take it _now_ , lad. It’s come to ye sooner tha_ither o’ us expected.”
“Dick,” said the boy, grasping his friend’s hand warmly, “yer true as heart o_ak. It’s good of ’ee, that’s a fact.”
“Not a bit, boy; it costs me nothin’ to give away an old gun that I’ve no us_or, an’s worth little, but it makes me right glad to have the chance to d_t.”
Marston had longed for a rifle ever since he could walk, but his prospects o_btaining one were very poor indeed at that time, and it is a question whethe_e did not at that moment experience as much joy in handling the old piece a_is friend felt in shouldering the prize.
A difficulty now occurred which had not before been thought of. This was n_ess than the absolute refusal of Dick Varley’s canine property to follow him.
Fan had no idea of changing masters without her consent being asked, or he_nclination being consulted.
“You’ll have to tie her up for a while, I fear,” said the major.
“No fear,” answered the youth. “Dog natur’s like human natur’!”
Saying this he seized Crusoe by the neck, stuffed him comfortably into th_osom of his hunting shirt, and walked rapidly away with the prize rifle o_is shoulder.
Fan had not bargained for this. She stood irresolute, gazing now to the righ_nd now to the left, as the major retired in one direction and Dick wit_rusoe in another. Suddenly Crusoe, who, although comfortable in body, was il_t ease in spirit, gave utterance to a melancholy howl. The mother’s lov_nstantly prevailed. For one moment she pricked up her ears at the sound, an_hen, lowering them, trotted quietly after her new master, and followed him t_is cottage on the margin of the lake.