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I was not slow to take the hint that was thus thrown out to me.
The Red Rocks constituted a wild and precipitous part of the road where it hollowed down among the woods and hills at the very point near which I knew my friends to be lying ambuscaded.
I did, indeed, make a pause there, as Mattie had satirically wagered, but not for an after-dinner snooze, or to be caught napping, as her companions might have interpreted her meaning.
I merely extended myself by the side of the road, with my pack for a pillow, and, pretending to drowse, patiently waited.
In about an hour there came the tramp of hoofs from the direction of the farm. To my great satisfaction, I perceived that there was but one horse, Jesse James bestriding him, with the fairer of the boys before him.
"Hello, there's Sheeny again!" yelled the little ruffian. "Kill him, Jess ! He took my pistol away from me."
"He, he, he !" I chuckled, coming out into the road as the horse was reined up, and pretending to be greatly amused. "Yesh, my little poy, I took de bistol avay because you vas naughdy. But I ish got somedings nicer in my pack for you."
"Stand aside !" growled Jesse. "I've no time to palaver with you now."
Nevertheless, as the lad kicked and struggled, insisting that I should be permitted to make him a present, the kindly glance of the outlaw testified to the genuineness of his fondness for the lad.
"It ish such a nice leetle poy, Mister Shames," said I. "How vos dot bistol vot I soft to you von time?"
"It's a good one, Sheenyy," said Jesse, slapping his belt, which bristled with revolvers of different patterns. "Here, you young rascal, what are you up to?"
This last was to Tip, as I shall hereafter call the boy, who at that moment, wriggling out of his grasp and slipping down from the horse, came running toward me.
"Give the rascal what you've got for him, then, Sheeny, and be lively about it," continued the outlaw, with an impatient laugh. "I've let the little devil ride over me rough-shod till he thinks -- hello! what do you mean ?"
I had suddenly snatched the boy to my side with my left hand, drawn my revolver with my right, and was "covering" him.
"It means just this!" cried I, in my natural voice, "Judge Rideau wants this grandchild of his, and my search for him, though a long and perilous one, is ended at last. Jesse James, throw up your hands and crawl out of that saddle, or I'll cheat the hangman of his due!"
I apparently had him dead, as the saying goes. I was probably the only living man who had ever got "the drop" on Jesse, the outlaw.
But he didn't weaken a hair's breadth. Quick as a flash his hand flew to his belt, and at the same instant I fired.
The shot struck him fairly in the breast, but without even discommoding him, and then he had me covered in my turn, with his finger on the trigger and a leer of demonical triumph in his eye.
Then I made sure of something that had theretofore been but vaguely rumored -- that Jesse James wore defensive armor under his clothing -- that, in fact, he was as much coward as he was assassin and robber.
Crack! ! went his revolver, directed by the murderous eye that had never been known to miss its deliberate aim, and I, too, stood unharmed.
Then I knew that Mattie must have succeeded in rendering the -charges of his pistols harmless during his sleep.
"Cowardly bravo !" I shouted, drawing my second bead on him. "Your headpiece, at least, is unprotected by hidden armor!"
He reared his horse, though, at the instant of my firing, and the animal went down under the bullet intended for his master.
As Jesse went down with the horse, he emptied the remaining chambers of his revolver at me, but with no more effect than the first.
Then, doubtless, realizing that the weapon had been tampered with, he hurled it at my head, drew and leveled another with the rapidity of thought, and disengaged himself from the fallen horses as if by magic.
At this instant the child, tearing himself from my grasp, ran between us, and straight toward the outlaw, screaming for protection.
Jesse gathered the little fellow up under his left arm, but, in doing so, his new aim was disarranged.
I at once got in another shot -- likewise without effect, since it struck him on the breast -- and sounded the signal for my friends.
Crack ! crack ! crack ! spoke the robber's fresh revolver, as Gorham and Sheppard burst out of the wood at my
back, with the spare horse following them, but never a bullet accompanied the brimstone utterance.
"Curse ye all!" yelled the outlaw. "D'ye think any power on earth can corner Jesse James?"
As he spoke he brandished his useless pistol in our faces, caught up the child aloft with his left hand, after the manner of a Rolla in the play, and darted backward up the steep rocks behind him. In this remarkable attitude, and with the child's body protecting his head and face, he scaled them with incredible rapidity, our shots having no effect on him whatever.
"Fire at his head or cripple him!'' I yelled. "The cowardly cur is ironclad under his shirt!"
But there was imminent danger of killing the child while aiming at the outlaw's head, and thus far we had not succeeded in hitting him in the lower extremities.
Just then Jesse reached the summit of the rocks.
"I know you now, Bill Lawson!" he shouted, shaking the terrified boy aloft. "I'd die before I'd part with this boy! Tell Judge Rideau that he shall never have him -- not for all the gold he's worth. Tell him "
But at this instant I took the risk and fired.
My bullet broke the wrist that upheld the boy. The latter, with a scream, came falling down the precipice, after a mad but ineffectual effort on the part of Jesse to catch him, and George Sheppard spurred up to the foot of the cliff just in time to catch the light body, uninjured in his arms.
The baffled outlaw gave a sort of roar, like that of a wounded wild beast, and the face that he turned toward us, with his clenched hands -- one of them now helpless -- brushed against his temples, was the most wrathful and demoniac that could be conceived of. No need now to surmise the genuineness of his love for the perverted child that we had at last torn from his savage embrace.
Despair and suffering, equally with wrath and hate, were the ingredients of that terrible expression which his face presented to us at parting.
He suddenly tore a great fragment from the heap of rocks around him with one hand -- his muscular power was on a par with his activity -- and hurled it down at us. Then, as we easily dodged the flying mass, emptying our revolvers ineffectually at him as we did so, he sprang back among the trees and bushes fringing the edge of the precipice, and disappeared.
"Quick, boys!" I exclaimed, springing on the horse that had been provided for me, and taking Tip before me, in spite of his screams and kicks. "So far so good. But the noise of the firing must have reached the farmhouse, and the women of these families, as you know, are as good fighters as the men."
"True for you, Lawson!" said Sheppard, as we began to move off. "And the worst of it is that we can't fight the women as we would the men. It doesn't look right."
My apprehensions were verified in an instant. Just as we struck into a trot, there was the crack of a rifle behind us, and a bullet whistled over our heads.
We turned to see the women of the farmhouse clustering at the head of the hollow, with Mrs. Samuels and Mrs. Younger at their head, rifles in hand. But, as they were all on foot, we only laughed at their demonstration, and were soon beyond the reach of their bullets, however well directed.
The last we saw of them was when we had reached a rise in the road at a point whence we could look back upon the scene of our recent skirmish. The scene then presented to us was rather amusing than otherwise. The women and girls (Mattie among them) were gathered disconsolately in the hollow; but Bloss, the enthusiastic remaining "twin," was also there, and, having ripped up my abandoned pack with his infantile bowieknife, was "going for" its multifarious but not very valuable contents with the zest of an uncaged monkey in the pantry.
Tip continued to kick and squall, and would doubtless have proved even less unmanageable, could he have seen or suspected the delectable occupation of his late companion in deviltry. But he soon tired himself out. Before we reached the end of our journey, he even began to listen with wonder and curiosity to what I poured into his ears about his real name, parentage, and extraction, and the splendid home that was waiting for him in his grandfather's house.
"Well, by jingo !" exclaimed the ax-outlaw, George Sheppard, when we were well on our homeward way, "when I was in the gang, there used to be some sidewhisperin' about Jess' bearin' a charmed life, but I never expected then to find out how it was. Charmed, indeed! You bet ! Mebbe that bullet of mine in the neck struck just a leetle too low down -- say, on the hard rim of a steel undershirt, or somethin' of the sort."
"He was protected by something of the kind to-day, sure as a gun !" said Jack Gorham. "But Jess can't always be provided in that way. I've known men who have seen him go in a-swimmin' directly after a hard scrimmage, with bullets thick'n bees at a swarmin', and nothing of that kind was noticed on him. I fancy he merely takes to concealed armor occasionally, when he thinks there's danger of his being tackled by odds, with none of his gang at his back."
I was also of this opinion. We all agreed, however, that Jesse James had been singularly fortunate in taking his precaution on that day in particular. It had proved his sole offset to the trick that had been played upon him by Mattie Collins in my interest.
It was long after dark when we returned to Independence. But I at once telegraphed to Judge Rideau, requesting him to come on from Booneville at the earliest moment. Then, seeking apartments at the hotel, I sent for Aunt Cynthy, who came to me without delay.
Cynthy's incredulity gave way to rapture, and her identification of the lost one found was immediate and complete. Judge Rideau arrived on the following day. Tip, in a much better humor, was at once placed in his charge. I received my promised reward, in which both Gorham and Sheppard steadfastly refused to share, an act of kind feeling on their part which I never forgot, and which I was happily enabled to reciprocate in kind at a subsequent period. Aunt Cynthy was also rewarded, and taken into the judge's service. Accompanied by her and his new-found grandchild, the old gentleman returned to Booneville on the same day.
Next week's issue (No. 2) will contain "Jesse James' Legacy; or, The Border Cyclone."