California Joe, the Mysterious Plainsman


AFTER his first cry of horror at what he saw in the cavern, when his little fire blazed up, Joe uttered a light laugh, for he was not one to be nonplused for any length of time.

"Holy smoke ! I but the dead folks did scare me for a minute," he said, and then coolly glanced around upon what he so suddenly and unexpectedly met his gaze and disturbed his equanimity for the once.

What he saw were rows of corpses in an almost mummy state of dryness, ranged along upon scaffolding on either side of the cavern.

He knew that he was in an Indian burying ground, and from what he understood of those red-skins in the canyon, he was aware that it was not a belonging of their tribe, even if they knew aught of its existence, which was doubtful.

"I'd like to give 'em a scam that would last 'em," said Joe and he at once became lost in thought a sure sign with him that he was plotting mischief.

At last he laughed, and that settled it that he had decided what to do. The air of the charnel house was loathsome in the extreme, but for this Joe did not then care.

Looking up the ravine, to see that the Indians were not in sight, he swung his blanket before him to catch the arrows they might fire at him, and at once set to work.

Throwing his lasso up over a pole of the scaffolding, he clambered up alongside of the dead Indians and took a quiet survey of them by the light of his fire.

He saw that they were ranged in rows upon each side of the cavern, the platform of poles upon which they were placed beginning about fifteen feet back from the entrance.

Selecting a dozen of the worst-looking corpses -those from which the flesh had fallen from their skulls, leaving the bony face bare and white-Joe lowered them to the floor of the cavern with his lasso, one end of which he then made fast to the pole on one side nearest the entrance and descending himself, he next fastened the lariat to the opposite side.

With strips of buckskin and blankets, the belongings of the red- skins, he then began to tie the corpses upon the lariat, so that they seemed to be standing up.

Here and there he placed a pole at the back of a corpse to keep the lariat from sagging too much, and soon had his ghastly row of dead bodies extending across the cavern.

It certainly was a hideous sight, but it amused Joe immensely, and he then gathered enough wood from the scaffold poles to make a large fire. This he built in a niche of the cavern in such a way that he could wholly shut out the light with his blankets, to the bottom of which he attached lines made of buckskin and carried them to the scaffolding overhead, where he took up his position, with his rifle and revolvers ready.

It was now dark outside, and Joe knew that his foes only waited its gloom to creep upon him.

He understood Indian cunning enough to see that they meant for him to believe that they had gone, as they did not show themselves again; but he knew that they would not depart, leaving their dead comrade in the ravine for him to scalp when they had left the canyon.

Lighting his fire, and seeing that its blaze was wholly concealed by the blankets, Joe drew himself upon the scaffold and perched there, his weapons lying before him ready for use, and one hand holding the lines attached to the bottom of the blankets, the other grasping the lariat which, by pulling upon it would make the ghastly corpses seem to dance.

With a patience not surpassed b Job, the boy waited, watched and listened.

Without he could see that it was light enough for him to discover any one approaching the cavern, and there he kept his eyes.

Presently a dark form came before his gaze, and then another, and another.

They trod as softly as a panther creeping upon its prey, and soon a score or more stood in silence before the cavern entrance.

Their bodies were bent, their heads pressed forward in the act of listening, and as still as bronze statues they stood.

That was Joe's moment to begin his performance, and a strong pull, with one hand upon the lariat, set the row of corpses to away and nod, while with a quick jerk upon the lines he sent a blaze of light into the cavern, revealing the ghastly sight to the gaze of the red- skins, just as they were about to spring into the dark cavern with their knives in hand to meet whatever foe they there might find.

But that which their eyes fell upon, illumined by the red glare of the firelight, was more than superstitious natures could stand, and they darted from the place with howls of terror, and fled with the speed of the wind down the canyon, each red-skin striving to lead in the mad race from the death cavern.

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