The Last Trail

Produced by Suzanne Shell, Audrey Longhurst, Tom Allen and
the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

ZANE GREY

The Last Trail

MCMIX

CHAPTER I

Twilight of a certain summer day, many years ago, shaded softly down
over the wild Ohio valley bringing keen anxiety to a traveler on the
lonely river trail. He had expected to reach Fort Henry with his party
on this night, thus putting a welcome end to the long, rough,
hazardous journey through the wilderness; but the swift, on-coming
dusk made it imperative to halt. The narrow, forest-skirted trail,
difficult to follow in broad daylight, apparently led into gloomy
aisles in the woods. His guide had abandoned him that morning, making
excuse that his services were no longer needed; his teamster was new
to the frontier, and, altogether, the situation caused him much
uneasiness.

“I wouldn’t so much mind another night in camp, if the guide had not
left us,” he said in a low tone to the teamster.

That worthy shook his shaggy head, and growled while he began
unhitching the horses.

“Uncle,” said a young man, who had clambered out from the wagon, “we
must be within a few miles of Fort Henry.”

“How d’ye know we’re near the fort?” interrupted the teamster, “or
safe, either, fer thet matter? I don’t know this country.”

“The guide assured me we could easily make Fort Henry by sundown.”

“Thet guide! I tell ye, Mr. Sheppard——”

“Not so loud. Do not alarm my daughter,” cautioned the man who had
been called Sheppard.

“Did ye notice anythin’ queer about thet guide?” asked the teamster,
lowering his voice. “Did ye see how oneasy he was last night? Did it
strike ye he left us in a hurry, kind of excited like, in spite of his
offhand manner?”

“Yes, he acted odd, or so it seemed to me,” replied Sheppard. “How
about you, Will?”

“Now that I think of it, I believe he was queer. He behaved like a man
who expected somebody, or feared something might happen. I fancied,
however, that it was simply the manner of a woodsman.”

“Wal, I hev my opinion,” said the teamster, in a gruff whisper. “Ye
was in a hurry to be a-goin’, an’ wouldn’t take no advice. The
fur-trader at Fort Pitt didn’t give this guide Jenks no good send off.
Said he wasn’t well-known round Pitt, ‘cept he could handle a
knife some.”

“What is your opinion?” asked Sheppard, as the teamster paused.

“Wal, the valley below Pitt is full of renegades, outlaws an’
hoss-thieves. The redskins ain’t so bad as they used to be, but these
white fellers are wusser’n ever. This guide Jenks might be in with
them, that’s all. Mebbe I’m wrong. I hope so. The way he left us
looks bad.”

“We won’t borrow trouble. If we have come all this way without seeing
either Indian or outlaw—in fact, without incident—I feel certain we
can perform the remainder of the journey in safety.” Then Mr. Sheppard
raised his voice. “Here, Helen, you lazy girl, come out of that wagon.
We want some supper. Will, you gather some firewood, and we’ll soon
give this gloomy little glen a more cheerful aspect.”

As Mr. Sheppard turned toward the canvas-covered wagon a girl leaped
lightly down beside him. She was nearly as tall as he.

“Is this Fort Henry?” she asked, cheerily, beginning to dance around
him. “Where’s the inn? I’m so hungry. How glad I am to get out of
that wagon! I’d like to run. Isn’t this a lonesome, lovely spot?”

A camp-fire soon crackled with hiss and sputter, and fragrant
wood-smoke filled the air. Steaming kettle, and savory steaks of
venison cheered the hungry travelers, making them forget for the time
the desertion of their guide and the fact that they might be lost. The
last glow faded entirely out of the western sky. Night enveloped the
forest, and the little glade was a bright spot in the gloom.

The flickering light showed Mr. Sheppard to be a well-preserved old
man with gray hair and ruddy, kindly face. The nephew had a boyish,
frank expression. The girl was a splendid specimen of womanhood. Her
large, laughing eyes were as dark as the shadows beneath the trees.

Suddenly a quick start on Helen’s part interrupted the merry flow of
conversation. She sat bolt upright with half-averted face.

“Cousin, what is the matter?” asked Will, quickly.

Helen remained motionless.

“My dear,” said Mr. Sheppard sharply.

“I heard a footstep,” she whispered, pointing with trembling finger
toward the impenetrable blackness beyond the camp-fire.

All could hear a soft patter on the leaves. Then distinct footfalls
broke the silence.

The tired teamster raised his shaggy head and glanced fearfully around
the glade. Mr. Sheppard and Will gazed doubtfully toward the foliage;
but Helen did not change her position. The travelers appeared stricken
by the silence and solitude of the place. The faint hum of insects,
and the low moan of the night wind, seemed accentuated by the almost
painful stillness.

“A panther, most likely,” suggested Sheppard, in a voice which he
intended should be reassuring. “I saw one to-day slinking along
the trail.”

“I’d better get my gun from the wagon,” said Will.

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