"I don't know," she answered gravely. "He had Captain Newhall with him, in quest of somebody who wasn't there."
"Ah, yes, Griggs, the sutler. I heard of it," interposed Folsom, fingering his watchchain.
"Very possibly. The captain was ugly and rude in manner and Major Burleigh very much embarrassed. Indeed, Daddy dear, I should not be greatly surprised if others of your party failed to come."
"Burleigh, do you mean, or his queer guest?"
But Pappoose did not reply. She seemed listening intently, and then with swift, sudden movement darted across to the heavy Navajo blanket portiere that hung at the doorway of a little room back of the library. Her voice was far from cordial as she asked:
"Were you looking for any one, Mrs. Fletcher? I thought you were in your room."
"For Mr. Folsom, please, when he is at leisure," was the answer, in unruffled tones. "I believe it easier to take active part in the preparations than to lie there thinking."
At one the girls were to lunch at the fort, as has been said, and it was time for them to dress. There were other matters on which Elinor much wished to talk with her father and, with more reluctance than she had yet experienced, she left him to hear what Mrs. Fletcher might have to say. The conference was brief enough, whatever its nature, for presently his voice was heard at the foot of the stairs.
"I'm going over to the depot a few minutes, Daught. I wish to see Burleigh. Don't wait for me. Start whenever you are ready. Where do the boys meet you?"
"Here, Daddy, at half-past twelve."
It was high noon now, and the ruddy-faced old fellow grew redder as the summer sun beat down on his gray head, but he strode sturdily down the broad avenue that led to the heart of the bustling new town, turned to the right at the first cross street beyond his own big block, and ten minutes' brisk tramp brought him to the gateway of Burleigh's stockaded inclosure. Two or three employees lounging about the gate were gazing curiously within. Silently they let him pass them by, but a sound of angry voices rose upon the heated air. Just within the gate stood the orderly trumpeter holding two horses by the reins, one of them Marshall Dean's, and a sudden idea occurred to Folsom as he glanced at the open windows of the office building. There was no mistaking the speaker within. It was Burleigh.
"Leave my office instantly, sir, or I'll prefer charges that will stick——"
"Not till I've said what I came to say, Major Burleigh. I've abundant evidence of what you've been saying at my expense. You asserted that I lost my nerve the day we met Red Cloud's band—you who never dared get out of the ambulance until the danger was over. It's common talk in the troop. At Frayne, at Reno, and here at Emory you have maligned me just as you did in the cars to my friend here, Mr. Loomis, and in hearing of my sister. I will not accept your denial nor will I leave your office till you swallow your words."
"Then, by God, I'll have you thrown out, you young whipsnapper!"
And then Folsom, with fear at his heart, ran around to the doorway to interpose. He came too late. There was a sound of a furious scuffle within, a rattling of chairs, a crunching of feet on sanded floor, and as he sprang up the steps he saw Dean easily squirming out from the grasp of some member of the clerical force, who, at his master's bidding, had thrown himself upon the young officer, who then deftly tripped his heels from under him and dropped him on the floor, while Loomis confronted the others who would have made some show of obeying orders. And then there was the whirr of a whip-lash, a crack and snap and swish, and a red welt shot across Burleigh's livid face as he himself staggered back to his desk. With raging tongue and frantic oath he leaped out again, a leveled pistol in his hand, but even before he could pull trigger, or Folsom interpose, Loomis's stick came down like a flash on the outstretched wrist, and the pistol clattered to the floor.
"Good God, boys! what are you doing?" cried the trader, as he hurled himself between them. "Stop this instantly. Sit down, Burleigh. Come out, Dean—come out at once! And you, too, Loomis."
"I'm entirely ready—now," said the cavalry lieutenant, though his eyes were flaming and his lips were rigid. "But whenever Major Burleigh wants to finish this he can find me," and with these words he backed slowly to the door, face to the panting and disordered foe.
"Finish this! you young hound, I'll finish you!" screamed Burleigh, as he shook his clinched fist at the retiring pair.
"Go, boys, go!" implored Folsom. "I'll see you by and by. No—no—sit still, Burleigh. Don't you speak. This must stop right here."
And so the old man's counsels prevailed, and the two friends, with grave, pallid, but determined faces, came out into the sunshine, and with much deliberation and somewhat ostentatious calm proceeded to where the orderly waited with the horses.
"You will see—the ladies out to camp, Loomis?" asked Dean. "I must gallop on ahead."
"Ay, ay, go on, I reckon——"
But on this scene there suddenly appeared a third party, in the partial guise of an officer and the grip of Bacchus. Lurching down the office steps, with flushed face and bloodshot eyes, came Captain Newhall.
"Gen'l'm'n," said he thickly, "le'm 'ntroduce m'self. Haven't th' honor y'r 'quain's. I'm Ca'm New(hic)'ll. Cap'n N-n-(hic)oohaul (this cost prodigious effort and much balancing), an'—an' you sherv'd that f'ler per-per-flicky ri'. He's dam scoun'rl—gen'lemen—an' ole frien' mine."
For an instant he stood swaying unsteadily, with half-extended hand. For an instant the two young officers gazed at him in contempt, then turned abruptly away.
"Good Lord, Marshall," said Loomis, as they cleared the gate, "if that's the only approbation this day's work will bring us what will the results be? You served him right, no doubt, but—" and an ominous shake of the head wound up the sentence.
"But or no but," said Dean, "it's done now, and I'd do it again."
There was no dinner party at Folsom's that evening. At two a messenger trotted out to the post with a note for Miss Folsom to apprise her of the fact, and without a word or change of color she put it into her pocket. The garrison girls were bent on having them spend the afternoon, but presently Miss Folsom found a moment in which to signal to Jess, and at three they were driving home.
"You will surely come out this evening and hear the music and have a dance," were the parting salutations, as with skillful hands the young girl took up the reins.
"We hope to," was her smiling answer. Jess was clinging to her brother's hand as he stood by the wheel, and Loomis had already clambered in beside her.
"Please come, Marshall," pleaded Jessie; but he shook his head.
"I must be at camp this evening, sister mine. We go to stables in an hour. You will come back, Loomis?"
"As soon as I've seen—" and a significant nod supplied the ellipsis.
Something ominous was in the wind and both girls knew it. Loomis, usually gay and chatty, was oddly silent, as the light, covered wagon sped swiftly homeward. Beside the fair charioteer sat a young officer of the infantry who, vastly rejoicing that Dean could not go, had laughingly possessed himself of the vacant place, and to him Miss Folsom had to talk. But they parted from their escorts at the gate and hastened within doors. Just as Elinor expected, papa had not come home. It was nearly six when she saw him striding slowly and thoughtfully up the road, and she met him at the gate.
"Tell me what has happened, Daddy," was her quiet greeting, as she linked her hands over his burly arm, and looking into her uplifted, thoughtful eyes, so full of intelligence and deep affection, he bent and kissed her cheek.
"By Jove, daughter, I believe it's the best thing I can do. Come into the library."
That night the moon beamed brightly down on the wide-spreading valley, glinting on the peaks, still snow-tipped, far in the southern sky, and softening the rugged faces of the nearer range, black with their clustering beard of spruce and pine. The band played sweetly on the broad parade until after the tattoo drums had echoed over the plains and the garrison belles strolled aimlessly in the elfin light—all nature so lavishly inviting, yet so little valued now that nearly every man was gone. Out in the camp of "C" Troop men were flitting swiftly to and fro, horses were starting and stamping at the picket ropes, eager eyes and tilted ears inquiring the cause of all this stir and bustle among the tents. In front of the canvas home of the young commander a grave-faced group had gathered, two gentle girls among them, one with tear-dimmed eyes. Old Folsom stood apart in murmured conference with Griggs, the sutler. The regimental quartermaster was deep in consultation with Dean, the two officers pacing slowly up and down. One or two young people from the garrison had spent a few minutes earlier in the evening striving to be interesting to the girls; but Jessie's tearful eyes and Miss Folsom's grave manner proved hint sufficient to induce them to withdraw, each bidding Dean good night, safe journey and speedy return, and the hand-clasps were kind and cordial. The colonel himself had paid a brief visit to camp, his adjutant in attendance, and had given Mr. Dean ten minutes of talk concerning a country Dean knew all about, but that "Pecksniff" had never seen. "It is a responsibility I own I should have expected to see placed on older shoulders," said he, "but prudence and—and, let me suggest, cool-headedness—will probably carry you through. You will be ready to start——"
"Ready now, sir, so far as that's concerned; but we start at three."
"Oh, ah—yes, of course—well—ah—it leaves me practically with no command, but I'll hope to have you back, Mr. Dean. Good-by." Then as he passed Folsom the colonel whispered: "That's ten thousand dollars as good as thrown away."
"Ten thousand dollars!" answered the trader in reply. "What do you mean?"
"That's what those boys are to run the gauntlet with. My—ah—protests are entirely unavailing."
For a moment Folsom stood there dumb. "Do you mean," he finally cried, "that—that it's beyond Frayne that they're going—that it's money they're to take?"
"Hush! Certainly, but it mustn't be known. Every road agent in Wyoming would be out, and every Indian from the Platte to Hudson's Bay would be on the watch. He's to take ten men and slip through. The money comes out from Burleigh to-night."
The colonel turned away, and, beckoning to his staff officer to join us, stumped onward to the garrison. The prolonged wail of the bugle, aided by the rising night wind, sent the solemn strains of taps sailing down the dimly-lighted valley, and with staring eyes old Folsom stood gazing after the departing officers, then whirled about toward the tents. There in front of Dean stood Pappoose, her hands clasped lightly over the hilt of the saber the "striker" had leaned against the lid of the mess chest but a moment before, her lovely face smiling up into the owner's.
"You'll come back by way of Hal's, won't you?" she was blithely saying. "Perhaps I can coax father to take us there to meet you."
"By heaven, Burleigh," muttered the old trader to himself, "are you the deepest man I ever met, or only the most infernal scoundrel?"
A sleepless night had old John Folsom, and with the sun he was up again and hurriedly dressing. Noiseless as he strove to be he was discovered, for as he issued from his room into the dim light of the upper hall there stood Pappoose.
"Poor Jess has been awake an hour," said she. "We've been trying to see the troop through the glass. They must have started before daybreak, for there's nothing on the road to Frayne."
"It disappears over the divide three miles out," he answered vaguely, and conscious that her clear eyes were studying his face. "I didn't sleep well either. We shall be having news from Hal to-day, and the mail rider comes down from Frayne."
She had thrown about her a long, loose wrapper, and her lustrous hair tumbled like a brown-black torrent down over her shoulders and back. Steadfastly the brown eyes followed his every move.
"It is hours to breakfast time, Daddy dear; let me make you some coffee before you go out."
"What? Who said I was going out?" he asked, forcing a smile; then, more gravely: "I'll be back in thirty minutes, dear, but wait a moment I cannot. I want to catch a man before he can possibly ride away."
He bent and kissed her hurriedly, and went briskly down the stairs. In the lower hall he suddenly struck a parlor match that flared up and illumined the winding staircase to the third story. Some thought as sudden prompted her to glance aloft just in time to catch a glimpse of a woman's face withdrawing swiftly over the balcony rail. In her hatred of anything that savored of spying the girl could have called aloud a demand to know what Mrs. Fletcher wanted, but strange things were in the wind, as she was learning, and something whispered silence. Slowly she returned to Jessie's side, and together once more they searched with the glasses the distant trail that, distinctly visible now in the slant of the morning sun, twisted up the northward slopes on the winding way to Frayne. Not a whiff of dust could they see.
Meantime John Folsom strode swiftly down the well-known path to the quartermaster's depot, a tumult of suspicion and conjecture whirling in his brain. As he walked he recalled the many hints and stories that had come to his ears of Burleigh's antecedents elsewhere and his associations here. With all his reputation for enterprise and wealth, there were "shady" tales of gambling transactions and salted mines and watered stocks that attached perhaps more directly to the men with whom he foregathered than to him. "A man is known by the company he keeps," said Folsom, and Burleigh's cronies, until Folsom came to settle in Gate City, had been almost exclusively among the "sharps," gamblers, and their kindred, the projectors and prospectors ever preying on the unwary on the outer wave of progress. Within the past six months he had seen much of him, for Burleigh was full of business enterprises, had large investments everywhere, was lavish in invitation and suggestion, was profuse in offers of aid of any kind if aid were wanted. He had gone so far as to say that he knew from experience how with his wealth tied up in real estate and mines a man often found himself in need of a few thousands in spot cash, and as Folsom was buying and building, if at any time he found himself a little short and needed ten or twenty thousand say, why, Burleigh's bank account was at his service, etc. It all sounded large and liberal, and Folsom, whose lot for years had been cast with a somewhat threadbare array of army people, content with little, impecunious but honest, he wondered what manner of martial man this was. Burleigh did not loudly boast of his wealth and influence, but impressed in some ponderous way his hearers with a sense of both. Yet, ever since that run to Warrior Gap, a change had come over Burleigh. He talked more of mines and money and showed less, and now, only yesterday, when the old man's heart had mellowed to him because he had first held him wholly to blame for Dean's arrest and later found him pleading for the young fellow's release, a strange thing had happened. Burleigh confided to him that he had a simply fabulous opportunity—a chance to buy out a mine that experts secretly told him was what years later he would have called a "bonanza," but that in the late sixties was locally known as a "Shanghai." Twenty-five thousand dollars would do the trick, but his money was tied up. Would Folsom go in with him, put up twelve thousand five hundred, and Burleigh would do the rest? Folsom had been bitten by too many mines that yielded only rattlesnakes, and he couldn't be lured. Then, said Burleigh, wouldn't Folsom go on his note, so that he could borrow at the bank? Folsom seldom went on anybody's note. It was as bad as mining. He begged off, and left Burleigh disappointed, but not disconcerted. "I can raise it without trouble," said he, "but it may take forty-eight hours to get the cash here, and I thought you would be glad to be let in on the ground floor."
"I've been let in to too many floors, major," said he. "You'll have to excuse me." And so Burleigh, with his Louisiana captain, had driven off to the fort, where Newhall asked for Griggs and was importunate, nor did Griggs's whisky, freely tendered to all comers of the commissioned class, tend to assuage his desire. Back had they gone to town, and then came the cataclysm of noon.
In broad daylight, at his official desk, in the presence and hearing of officers, civilians and enlisted men, as the soldier lawyers would have it, a staff official of high rank had been cowhided by a cavalry subaltern, and that subaltern, of all others, the only brother of Folsom's fair guest, Jessie Dean—the boy who had saved the lives of Folsom's son and his son's imperiled household, and had thereby endeared himself to him as had no other young soldier in the service. And now, what fate was staring him in the face? Released from arrest but a day or so before upon the appeal of the officer whom he had so soon thereafter violently assaulted, Marshall Dean had committed one of the gravest crimes against the provisions of the Mutiny Act. Without warrant or excuse he had struck, threatened, assaulted, etc., a superior officer, who was in the discharge of his duty at the time. No matter what the provocation—and in this case it would be held grossly inadequate—there could be only one sentence—summary dismissal from the army. Just as sure as shooting, if Burleigh preferred charges that boy was ruined.
And for mortal hours that afternoon it looked as though nothing could hold Burleigh's hand. The man was livid with wrath. First he would have the youngster's blood, and then he'd dismiss him. Folsom pointed out that he couldn't well do both, and by two o'clock it simmered down to a demand for instant court-martial. Burleigh wrote a furious telegram to Omaha. He had been murderously assaulted in his office by Lieutenant Dean. He demanded his immediate arrest and trial. Folsom pleaded with him to withhold it. Every possible amende would be made, but no! Indeed, not until nearly four o'clock could Folsom succeed in the last resort at his disposal. At that hour he had lent the quartermaster fifteen thousand dollars on his unindorsed note of hand, on condition that no proceedings whatever should be taken against Mr. Dean, Folsom guaranteeing that every amende should be made that fair arbitration could possibly dictate. He had even gone alone to the bank and brought the cash on Burleigh's representation that it might hurt his credit to appear as a borrower. He had even pledged his word that the transaction should be kept between themselves.
And then there had been a scene with that drunken wretch Newhall. What possible hold had he on Burleigh that he should be allowed to come reeling and storming into the office and demanding money and lots of money—this, too, in the presence of total strangers? And Burleigh had actually paid him then and there some hundreds of dollars, to the stupefaction of the fellow—who had come for a row. They got him away somehow, glad to go, possibly, with his unexpected wealth, and Burleigh had explained that that poor devil, when he could be persuaded to swear off, was one of the bravest and most efficient officers in the service, that he was well to do, only his money, too, was tied up in mines; but what was of more account than anything else, he had devotedly and at risk of his own life from infection nursed his brother officer Burleigh through the awful epidemic of yellow fever in New Orleans in '67. He had saved Burleigh's life, "so how can I go back on him now," said he.
All this was the old trader revolving in mind as he hastened to the depot, all this and more. For two days Marshall Dean and "C" troop had stood ready for special service. Rumor had it that the old general himself had determined to take the field and was on his way to Gate City. It was possibly to escort him and his staff the troop was ordered kept prepared to move at a moment's notice. On Burleigh's desk was a batch of telegrams from Department Headquarters. Two came in during their long conference in the afternoon, and the quartermaster had lowered his hand long enough from that lurid welt on his sallow cheek to hurriedly write two or three in reply. One Folsom felt sure was sent in cipher. Two days before, Burleigh had urged him to protest as vehemently as he could against the sending of any money or any small detachment up to the Big Horn, and protested he had strenuously. Two days before, Burleigh said it was as bad as murder to order a paymaster or disbursing officer to the Hills with anything less than a battalion to escort him, and yet within four hours after he was put in possession of nearly all the paper currency in the local bank a secret order was issued sending Lieutenant Dean with ten picked men to slip through the passes to the Platte, away from the beaten road, and up to ten P.M. Dean himself was kept in ignorance of his further destination or the purpose of his going. Not until half-past ten was a sealed package placed in his hands by the post quartermaster, who had himself received it from Major Burleigh and then and there the young officer was bidden by Colonel Stevens, as the medium of the department commander, to ride with all haste commensurate with caution, to ford the Sweetwater above its junction with the Platte, to travel by night if need be and hide by day if he could, to let no man or woman know the purpose of his going or the destination of his journey, but to land that package safe at Warrior Gap before the moon should wane.
And all this Burleigh must have known when he, John Folsom, shook his hand at parting after tea that evening, and had then gone hopefully to drive his girls to Emory to see his soldier boy, and found him busy with the sudden orders, received not ten minutes before their coming. Something in Burleigh's almost tremulous anxiety to get that money in the morning, his ill-disguised chagrin at Folsom's refusal, something in the eagerness with which, despite the furious denunciation of the moment before, he jumped at Folsom's offer to put up the needed money if he would withhold the threatened charges—all came back to the veteran now and had continued to keep him thinking during the night. Could it be that Burleigh stood in need of all this money to cover other sums that he had misapplied? Could it be that he had planned this sudden sending of young Dean on a desperate mission in revenge that he could not take officially? There were troops at Frayne going forward in strong force within the week. There were other officers within call, a dozen of them, who had done nowhere near the amount of field service performed by Dean. He, a troop commander just in from long and toilsome marches and from perilous duty, had practically been relieved from the command of his troop, told to take ten men and run the gauntlet through the swarming Sioux. The more Folsom thought the more he believed that he had grave reason for his suspicion, and reason equally grave for calling on the quartermaster for explanation. He reached the corral gate. It was locked, but a little postern in the stockade let him through. One or two sleepy hands appeared about the stables, but the office was deserted. Straight to Burleigh's quarters he went and banged at the door. It took three bangs to bring a servant.
"I wish to see your master at once. Tell him I am here," and as the servant slowly shambled up the stairs, Folsom entered the sitting-room. A desk near the window was open and its contents littered about. The drawers in a heavy bookcase were open and papers were strewn upon the floor. The folding doors to the dining-room were open. Decanters, goblets, cigar stumps and heel taps were scattered over the table. Guest or host, or both, had left things in riotous shape. Then down came the servant, a scared look in his eyes.
"The major isn't in, sir. His bed hasn't been occupied, an' the captain's gone, too. Their uniforms are there, though."
Five minutes later, on a borrowed horse, John Folsom was galloping like mad for home. A door in the high board fence at the rear of his house shot open just as he was darting through the lane that led to the stable. A woman's form appeared in the gap—the last thing that he saw for a dozen hours, for the horse shied violently, hurling the rider headlong to the ground.
At three o'clock in the morning, while the stars were still bright in the eastern sky, the little party of troopers, Dean at the irhead, had ridden away from the twinkling lights of camp, and long before sunrise had crossed the first divide to the north, and alternating trot, lope and walk had put miles between them and Fort Emory before the drums of the infantry beat the call for guard mounting.
At ten o'clock the party halted under some spreading willows, deep in a cleft of the bold, high hills that rolled away toward the Sweetwater valley. Horses were unsaddled and picketed out to graze. A little cook fire was started close to the spring that fed the tiny brook, trickling away down the narrow ravine, and in a few moments the aroma of coffee and of appetizing slices of bacon greeted the welcoming nostrils of the hungry men. The sun that had risen clear and dazzling was now obscured by heavy masses of clouds, and time and again Dean cast anxious eyes aloft, for a storm seemed sweeping eastward from the distant Wahsatch range, and long before the little command had dived downward from the heights into the depths of this wild, romantic and contracted valley, all the rolling upland toward Green River, far to the west, lay under the pall of heavy and forbidding banks of hurrying vapor. Coffee and breakfast finished, Dean climbed the steep bluff overhanging the spring, a faithful sergeant following, and what he saw was sufficient to determine immediate action.
"Saddle up. We'll push ahead at once."
For an instant the veteran trooper looked dissent, but discipline prevailed.
"The lieutenant knows that Carey's not in yet," he ventured to say, as he started back down the narrow game trail which they had climbed.
"Yes; but yonder he comes and so does the storm. We can't be caught in this canon in case of a hard rain. Let Carey have some coffee and a bite, if he feels well enough. Then we'll push on."
Ordinarily when making summer marches over the range, the first "water camp" on the Sweetwater trail was here at Canon Springs. On the road to Frayne, which crossed the brook ten miles to the east, all wagon trains and troops not on forced march made similar camp. In the case of scouting detachments or little parties sent out from Emory, it was always customary to spend the first night and make the first camp on the Box Elder at furthermost, then to push on, ready and refreshed, the following day. Dean well knew that to get the best work out of his horses he should start easily, and up to nine o'clock he had fully intended to make the usual camp at the Springs. But once before, within a few years, a big scouting party camping in the gorge of the Box Elder had been surprised by one of those sudden, sweeping storms, and before they could strike tents, pack up and move to higher ground, the stream took matters into its own hands and spared them all further trouble on that score, distributing camp and garrison equipage for long leagues away to the east. Two miles back, trooper Carey, who had been complaining of severe cramp and pain in the stomach, begged to be allowed to fall out and rest awhile. He was a reliable old soldier when whisky was not winning the upper hand, and this time whisky was not at fault. A dose of Jamaica ginger was the only thing their field pharmacopoeia provided, and Carey rolled out of his saddle and doubled up among the rocks with his hands on the pit of his stomach, grimacing.
"Go back if you think best, or come ahead and catch us at the Springs if well enough," were the orders left him, while the men pushed on, and now, as the lieutenant said, Carey was coming himself. Some of the party were already dozing when the sergeant's sharp order "Saddle up" was given, but a glance at the lowering sky explained it all, and every man was standing to horse and ready when the missing trooper came jogging in among them, white, peaked, but determined. A look of mingled disappointment and relief appeared on his face as he saw the preparations for the start, but his only comment was, "I can make it, sir," as he saluted his young commander. Less than two hours from the time they unsaddled, therefore, the troopers once more mounted, and, following their leader, filed away down the winding gorge. Presently there came the low rumble of thunder, and a sweep of the rising wind. "Trot," said Dean, and without other word the little column quickened the pace.
The ravine grew wider soon and far less tortuous, but was still a narrow and dangerous spot. For a mile or two from the Springs its course was nearly east of north, then it bore away to the northeast, and the Sweetwater trail abruptly left it and went winding up a cleft in the hills to the west. Just as they reached this point the heavens opened and the clouds descended in a deluge of rain. Out came the ponchos, unstrapped from the saddle, and every man's head popped through the slit as the shiny black "shedwater" settled down on his shoulders.
"That outfit behind us will get a soaking if it has been fool enough to follow down to the Springs," said Carey to the sergeant, as they began the pull up the slippery trail.
"What outfit?" asked Dean, turning in the saddle and looking back in surprise.
A blinding flash of lightning, followed almost on the instant by the crack and roar of thunder, put summary stop to talk of any kind. Men and horses bowed their heads before the deluge and the rain ran in streams from the manes and tails. The ascending path turned quickly into a running brook and the black forms of steeds and riders struggled sidewise up the grass-grown slopes in search of higher ground. The heavens had turned inky black. The gloomy ravine grew dark as night. Flash after flash the lightning split the gloom. Every second or two trooper faces gleamed ghastly in the dazzling glare, then as suddenly vanished. Horses slipped or stumbled painfully and, man after man, the riders followed the example of the young soldier in the lead and, dismounting, led their dripping beasts farther up the steep incline. Halfway to the summit, peering through the wind-swept sheets of rain, a palisaded clump of rocks jutted out from the heights and, after a hard climb, the little band found partial shelter from the driving storm, and huddled, awe-stricken, at their base. Still the lightning played and the thunder cannonaded with awful resonance from crag to crag down the deep gorge from which they had clambered, evidently none too soon, for presently, far down the black depths, they could see the Box Elder, under a white wreath of foam, tearing in fury down its narrow bed.
"Beg pardon, lieutenant," shouted the veteran sergeant in the young commander's ear, even in that moment never forgetting the habitual salute, "but if I didn't see the reason for that sudden order to saddle I more than see it now. We would have been drowned like rats down there in the gulch."
"I'm wondering if anybody has drowned like rats," shouted Dean, in reply. "Carey says another party was just behind us. Who could they be?"
But for answer came another vivid, dazzling flash that for an instant blinded all eyes. "By God! but that's a stunner!" gasped a big trooper, and then followed the deafening bang and crash of the thunder, and its echoes went booming and reverberating from earth to heaven and rolling away, peal after peal, down the bluff-bound canon. For a moment no other sound could be heard; then, as it died away and the rain came swashing down in fresh deluge, Carey's voice overmastered the storm.
"That's struck something, sir, right around yonder by the Springs. God help that outfit that came a-gallopin' after me!"
"What was it? Which way were they coming?" Dean managed to ask.
"Right along the bluff, sir, to the east. Seemed like they was ridin' over from the old camp on the Frayne road. There was twenty-five or thirty of 'em, I should say, coming at a lope."
"Cavalry?" asked Dean, a queer look in his face.
"No, sir. They rode dispersed like. They was a mile away when I sighted them, and it was gittin' so black then I don't think they saw me at all. They were 'bout off yonder, half a mile east of the Springs when I dipped down into the ravine, and what seemed queer was that two of them galloped to the edge, dismounted, and were peering down into the gorge like so many Indians, just as though they didn't want to be seen. I was goin' to tell the lieutenant 'bout it first thing if I had found our fellows off their guard, but you were all mounted and just starting."
Instinctively Dean put forth his hand under the dripping poncho and tugged at the straps of his off saddle-bag. No need for dread on that score. The bulky package, wrapped, sealed and corded, was bulging out of the side of his field pouch till it looked as though he had crammed a cavalry boot into its maw.
"Thirty men—mounted?—no wagons or—anything?" he anxiously asked.
"Full thirty, sir, and every man armed with rifle as far as I could see," said Carey, "and if it was us they was after, they'd have had us at their mercy down in that pocket at the Springs."
A shout from one of the men attracted the attention of the leaders. The storm had spent its force and gone rolling away eastward. The thunder was rumbling far over toward the now invisible crest of the Black Hills of Wyoming. The rain sheets had given place to trickling downpour. A dim light was stealing into the blackness of the gorge. Louder and fiercer roared the Box Elder, lashing its banks with foam. And then came the cry again.
"I tell you it is, by God! for there goes another!"
All eyes followed the direction of the pointing finger. All eyes saw, even though dimly, the saddled form of a horse plunging and struggling in the flood, making vain effort to clamber out, then whirling helplessly away—swept out of sight around the shoulder of bluff, and borne on down the tossing waves of the torrent. Men mean no irreverence when they call upon their Maker at such times, even in soldier oath. It is awe, not blasphemy.
"By God, lieutenant, that's what we'd a been doing but for your order." It was the sergeant who spoke.
And at that very hour there was excitement at Fort Emory. At eight o'clock the colonel was on his piazza looking with gloomy eyes over the distant rows of empty barracks. The drum-major with the band at his heels came stalking out over the grassy parade, and the post adjutant, girt with sash and sword-belt, stood in front of his office awaiting the sergeant-major, who was unaccountably delayed. Reduced to a shadow, the garrison at Fort Emory might reasonably have been excused, by this time, from the ceremony of mounting a guard, consisting practically of ten privates, three of whom wore the cavalry jacket; but old "Pecksniff" was determined to keep up some show of state. He could have no parade or review, but at least he could require his guard to be mounted with all the pomp and ceremony possible. He would have ordered his officers out in epaulets and the full dress "Kossuth" hat of the period, but epaulets had been discarded during the war and not yet resumed on the far frontier. So the rank and file alone were called upon to appear in the black-feathered oddity a misguided staff had designed as the headgear of the array. "Pecksniff's" half-dozen doughboys, therefore, with their attendant sergeants and corporals in the old fashioned frock and felt, and a still smaller squad of troopers in yellow-trimmed jackets and brass-mounted forage caps, were drawn up at the edge of the parade awaiting the further signal of adjutant's call, while the adjutant himself swore savagely and sent the orderly on the run for the sergeant-major. When that clock-governed functionary was missing something indeed must be going wrong.
Presently the orderly came running back.
"Sergeant Dineen isn't home, sir, and his wife says he hasn't been back since the lieutenant sent him in town with the last dispatch."
"Tell the first sergeant of "B" Company, then, to act as sergeant-major at once," said the adjutant, and hurried over to his colonel. "Dineen's not back, sir," he reported at the gate. "Can anything be wrong?"
"I ordered him to bring with him the answer to my dispatch to the general, who wired to me from the railway depot at Cheyenne. Probably he's been waiting for that, and the general's away somewhere. We ought to have an operator here day and night," said Pecksniff petulantly. But the irritation in his eyes gave way to anxiety when at that moment the sutler's buggy was seen dashing into the garrison at headlong speed, his smart trotter urged almost to a run. Griggs reined up with no little hard pulling at the colonel's gate, and they could see a dozen yards off that his face was pale.
"Have you any idea, colonel," he began the moment the officers reached him, "where Major Burleigh can be? He left the depot somewhere about three o'clock this morning with that Captain Newhall. He hasn't returned and can't be found. Your sergeant-major was waylaid and robbed some time after midnight, and John Folsom was picked up senseless in the alley back of his house two hours ago. What does it all mean?"
That storm-burst along the range had turned for twenty-four hours every mountain stream into a foaming torrent for a hundred miles. Not a bridge remained along the Platte. Not a ford was fordable within two days' march of either Emory or Frayne. Not a courier crossed the Box Elder, going either way, until the flood went down, and then it transpired that a tide in the affairs of men had also turned, and that there was trouble ahead for some who had thought to find plain sailing. For two days watchers along the lower Box Elder dragged out upon the shallows the bodies of horses that once upon a time might have borne the "U. S." brand, but were not girthed with cavalry saddles now. Nor were there lacking other bodies to prove that the victims of the sudden storm were not Uncle Sam's men, much as two, at least, of the drowned had been wanted by Federal authorities but a week before. What the denizens of Gate City and Fort Emory dreaded and expected to bear was that Dean and his little party had been caught in the trap. But, living or dead, not a sign of them remained along the storm-swept ravine. What most people of Gate City and Fort Emory could not understand was the evidence that a big gang of horse thieves, desperadoes and renegades had suddenly appeared about the new town, had spurred away northward in the night, had kept the Frayne road till they reached the Box Elder, riding hard long after sun-up, and there, reinforced, they had gone westward to the Sweetwater trail, and, old frontiersmen though they were, had been caught in the whirl of water at Canon Springs, losing two of their number and at least a dozen of their horses. What could have lured them into that gloomy rift at such a time? What inspiration had led Dean out of it?
Singly or in little squads, many of them afoot, bedraggled, silent, chagrined, the "outfit," described by Trooper Carey had slunk away from the neighborhood of the Box Elder as soon as the storm subsided. Solemnly, as befitted soldiers, silent and and alert despite their dripping accoutrements, the little detachment of cavalry had pushed ahead, riding by compass over the drenched uplands, steering for the Sweetwater. Late in the afternoon the skies had cleared, the sun came out, and they camped in a bunch of cottonwoods on the old Casper trail and slept the sleep of the just and the weary. Early next day they hastened on, reaching the usually shallow stream, with Devil's Gate only a few miles away, before the setting of a second sun. Here they feasted and rested well, and before the dawn was fairly red on the third day out from Emory they were breasting the turbid waters and by noon had left the valley far to the south and were well out toward the Big Horn country, where it behooved them to look warily ahead, for from every ridge, though far to the west of their probable raiding ground, Dean and his men could expect to encounter scouting parties of the Indians at any moment, and one false step meant death.
The third night passed without alarm, though every eye and ear was strained. The morning of the fourth day dawned and the sun soon tinged the misty mountain tops to the far north, and Dean saw before him an open rolling country, over which it would be impossible to march without attracting Indian eyes, if Indian eyes there were within twenty miles. And with proper caution he ordered his men to keep in concealment, horses grazing under guard in a deep depression near a stream, men dozing soundly by turns until the twilight came, and then the stars—their night lights for a long, long march. Dawn of the fifth day found them huddled in a deep ravine of the southern foothills, with Warrior Gap not thirty miles away, and now, indeed, was prudence necessary, for the faint light showed the fresh prints of innumerable pony hoofs on every side. They were close on Machpealota's lurking braves. Which would see the other first?
It must have been somewhere toward five o'clock in the afternoon that Dean, searching with his field glass the sunlit slopes far out to the east, heard the voice of his sergeant close at hand and turned to answer. Up to this moment, beyond the pony tracks, not a sign had they seen of hostile Indians, but the buffalo that had appeared in scattered herds along their line of march were shy and scary, and old hands said that that meant they had recently been hunted hard. Moreover, this was not a section favored of the buffalo. There was much alkali and sage brush along their trail, and only here and there in scanty patches any of the rich, nutritious bunch grass which the roving animals so eagerly sought. The day had been hot and almost cloudless. The shimmer of heat along the lazy roll of the land to the south had often baffled their blinking eyes. But now the sun was well to the west, and the refraction seemed diminishing, and away over to the northeast a dull-colored cloud seemed slowly rising beyond the ridges. It was this that Sergeant Bruce was studying when he murmured to his young commander:
"I think that means a big herd on the run, sir, and if so Indians started them."
One or two troopers, dozing close at hand, sprawled full length upon the ground, with their faces buried in, or hidden by, their blue-sleeved arms, slowly rolled over and came crouching up alongside. Dean dropped his glasses and peered in the direction indicated by his comrade of humbler rank. Dust cloud it was beyond a doubt, and a long peep through the binocular proved that it was slowly sailing across the horizon in a northerly direction. Did that mean that the red hunters were driving the great quarry toward the village of the Sioux, or that the young men were out in force, and with the full complement of squaws and ponies, were slaughtering on the run. If the former, then Dean and his party would be wise to turn eastward and cross the trail of the chase. If the latter they would stand better chance of slipping through to the Gap by pushing northward, deeper in among the pine-crested heights.
Behind the watchers, well down in the ravine, the horses were placidly nibbling at the scant herbage, or lazily sprawling in the sun, each animal securely hoppled, and all carefully guarded by the single trooper, whose own mount, ready saddled, circled within the limits of the stout lariat, looped about his master's wrist. All spoke of caution, of lively sense of danger and responsibility, for they of the little detachment were picked men, who had ridden the warpath too long not to realize that there was no such thing as trusting to luck in the heart of the Indian country, especially when Machpealota with his Ogallalla braves was out for business. The cautious movements of the group along the bank had quickly been noted by the wakeful ones among the troopers, and presently the entire party, excepting only the herd guard, had crouched up alongside, and with the comradeship born of such perilous service, were now discussing the situation in low, confidential tones.
For half an hour they lay there, studying the signs to the northeast. The dun colored cloud hung low over the earth for a distance of several miles. The herd was evidently one of unusual size even for those days when the buffalo swarmed in countless thousands, and finally the sergeant spoke again.
"It's a big hunt, lieutenant. Whatever may be going on about the Gap they've found time to send out young men enough to round up most of the buffalo north of the Platte and drive them in toward the mountains. It's combining pleasure with business. They don't feel strong enough in number, perhaps, to make another attempt on troops armed with breech-loaders, so while they're waiting until their reinforcements come, or their own breech-loaders, they are herding the buffalo where they can get them when they want them later on. We are in big luck that no stragglers are anywhere around us; if they were it wouldn't take such fellows long to spy us out."
Dean swept the ridge line with his glass. No sign of life nearer than that far-away, betraying dust cloud. No symptom of danger anywhere within their ken. He was thinking at the moment of that precious package in his saddle-bags and the colonel's words impressing him with the sense of responsibility the night they parted at Fort Emory. To-morrow, by sunrise, if fortune favored him, he could turn it over to the commanding officer at the new stockade, and then if the Indians were not gathered in force about the post and actually hostile, he could slip out again at night and make swift dash for the Platte and the homeward way, and then within the week rejoin his sister at Fort Emory—his sister and "Pappoose." Never before had the Indian pet name carried such significance as now. Night and day those soft, dark eyes—that beautiful face—haunted his thoughts and filled his young heart with new and passionate longing. It was hard to have to leave the spot her presence made enchanted ground. Nothing but the spur of duty, the thrill of soldier achievement and stirring venture could have reconciled him to that unwelcome order.
In one week now, if fortune favored and heaven spared, he could hope to look again into the eyes that had so enchained him, but if there should interpose the sterner lot of the frontier, if the Sioux should learn of his presence, he who had thwarted Burning Star and the brothers of poor Lizette in their schemes of vengeance, he at whose door the Ogallallas must by this time have laid the death of one of their foremost braves, then indeed would there be no hope of getting back without a battle royal. There was only one chance of safety—that the Indians should not discover their presence. If they did and realized who the intruders were, Jessie Dean might look in vain for her brother's return. Pappoose would never hear the love words that, trembling on his lips the night he left her, had been poured out only to that unresponsive picture. Two ways there were in which the Indians could know of his presence. One by being informed through some half-breed spy, lurking about Frayne; but then who would be dastard enough to send such word? The other by being seen and recognized by some of the Ogallalla band, and thus far he believed they had come undetected, and it was now after five o'clock—after five o'clock and all was well. In a few hours they could again be on their starlit way. With the morrow they should be safely within the gates of the new stockade at Warrior Gap.
Turning with hope and relief in his face to speak to Sergeant Bruce, who lay there at his elbow, he saw the blue-sleeved arm stretching forth in warning to lie low, and with grave eyes the veteran was gazing straight at a little butte that rose from the rolling surface not more than half a mile away to the southeast.
"Lieutenant," he whispered, "there are Indians back of that hill at this minute, and it isn't buffalo they're laying for."
Dean was brave. He had been tried and his mettle was assured, and yet he felt the sudden chill that coursed his veins. "How can they have seen us," he murmured.
"May have struck our trail out to the southwest," said Bruce slowly, "or they may have been told of our coming and are stalking us. They've got a heavy score to settle with this troop, you know."
For a moment only the breathing of the little party could be heard. All eyes were fixed upon the distant mound. At last Dean spoke again.
"When did you see them first and how many are there?"
"Near ten minutes ago. I saw something fluttering swift along the sky line just beyond that divide to the south. It skimmed like a bird, all but the quick bobbing up and down that made me sure there was a galloping pony under it. Then another skimmed along. It was the bunch of feathers and red flannel on their lances, and my belief is that they struck our trail back here somewhere, and that there's only a small party, and they don't know just who we are and they want to find out."
"You're right. Look!" was Dean's sudden answer, for at the very instant there rode boldly, calmly into full view two young Indians, who with cool deliberation came jogging on at gentle speed, straight toward the concealed bivouac of the troopers. Instantly Bruce reached for his carbine, and two or three of the men went sliding or crouching backward down the slope as though in quest of their arms. Full eight hundred yards away were the riders at the moment, coming side by side in apparent unconcern.
"Don't," muttered Dean, with hand outstretched. "They look anything but hostile."
"That's when they're most likely to be full of hell, sir," was the prompt answer. "See! others are watching behind that knoll," and indeed as Bruce declared, a feather-decked head or two could be detected through the glass, peering over the summit.
"Warn them to halt, then," cried Dean. "But we cannot fire unless they provoke it."
Bruce was on his feet in a second. Standing erect and facing straight toward the coming pair, he raised his right hand, palm to the front, to the full length of his arm, and slowly motioned "stand." Every plainsman knows the signal. In well-acted surprise, the Indians reined their ponies flat back, and, shading their eyes with their hands a moment, remained motionless. Then, as with one accord, each tossed aside his rifle, and one of them further lifted high and displayed a revolver. This, too, he tossed out on the turf, and now with both arms bare and extended on high, with empty hands outspread, they slowly advanced as though saying "See, we are without arms. We come as brothers."
But the sergeant never hesitated. Almost on tiptoe he repeated the signal "halt," and half-turned imploringly to his officer.
"It's all a bluff, sir. They want to crawl upon us, see who and how many we are. Let some of us fire warning shots or come they will, and the moment they find out who we are, away they'll ride to bring Red Cloud and all his bucks about our ears."
"I cannot fire," was the answer. "That's their flag of truce and we must not ignore it. Let them come, sergeant; I'll meet them."
Remonstrance on part of his men would have been a violation of their rules of order. Obedient to the lieutenant's instructions, Sergeant Bruce, with evident reluctance, lowered his hand. Whoever these Indians were they well understood the principles that governed civilized warfare. They well knew that the white soldiers would respect a flag of truce, though in their own vernacular they referred to the sacred emblem only as a "fool flag," and sometimes used it, as did the Modocs five years later, to lure officers into ambush and deliberately murder them. They knew the white soldiers would take no advantage of foemen gathered for a conference or parley, and thus far the Sioux themselves had observed the custom which the Modocs basely violated when in cold blood they slaughtered General Canby and the peace commissioners sent to treat with them. Confidently, therefore, came the two young warriors, but as Dean raised himself from the ground and was about to step forward, the sergeant spoke:
"Beg pardon, sir, but these fellows know all our officers. They would recognize you at once. The word would go to Red Cloud faster than any pony could gallop. Let me meet them, or let one of the men."
The ponies were coming at the lope now, and not an instant was to be lost. The safety of his command might possibly depend on their not being recognized as of the troop before whose carbines Chaska, brother to Lizette, had met his death.
"Perhaps you're right," said Dean. "Halt them again. Conroy, you go with Sergeant Bruce."
Eagerly a young trooper, carbine in hand, sprang up and stood by the sergeant's side as the latter repeated his warning signal. Obediently, yet not too promptly, showing evident desire to get where they could peer over into the ravine and count the number of the white men and horses, the Indians again drew rein, this time barely one hundred yards away. Then Bruce and Conroy, holding up their emptied hands, strode forward along the grassy slope, making the further sign, "Dismount."
In those days few of our cavalry wore, when on Indian campaign, the forage-cap with its crossed sabres and distinguishing letters. Nothing in the dress or accoutrements of the two men thus advancing to meet the Indian emissaries would give to the latter any clew as to the troop or regiment to which they belonged. Could they see the horses, however, the matter would be settled at once. The U. S. brand, with that of the number of the regiment and letter of the troop showed on every cavalry mount in the service, and the Ogallallas knew the earmarks of two, at least, of our cavalry regiments in '68 as well as they did the cut of their own hair. But in the modesty of the non-commissioned officer Bruce had underrated his own prominence in Indian eyes. Not only did these keen observers know every officer by sight, and have for him some distinguishing name of their own, but many a trooper, easily singled out from his fellows because of his stature, or the color of his hair, or some other physical peculiarity, was as well known as his captain or lieutenant, and Bruce, ex-trooper of the Scots Greys, and now a model sergeant of Yankee cavalry, was already a marked man in the eyes of the southern Sioux. Brule, Minneconjou and Ogallalla knew him well—his aquiline beak, to which the men would sometimes slyly allude, having won him the Indian appellative of Posh Kopee or Big Nose.
Before the two parties came within fifty yards of each other, therefore, watchers along the ravine saw the quick exchange of significant glances between the young braves. "Twig that?" whispered Trooper Blaine, in low, emphatic tone. "Those fellows know 'Scotty' just as well as we do."
All the same, leaving their trained ponies to nibble at the scanty bunch grass, the two came straight forward with extended hands and cordial "How, colah!" on their lips, one of them adding, in agency English, "Want talk chief. Indian poor. Heap sick." (And here he clasped his stomach with both hands.) "Want coffee, sugar, bread."
"All right," said Bruce promptly, noting the while how the roving black eyes searched the edge of the ravine. "Stay here. Don't come nearer. You got buffalo meat?"
A grunt was the reply of one, a guttural "Buffalo, yes," the answer of the other.
"Bring tongues, then," and Bruce touched his own. "Five," and he threw forward the outspread right hand, rapidly touching in succession the thumb and four fingers. "We give both hands full—coffee, sugar, hardtack," and Bruce illustrated as he spoke. "That's all!" he finished abruptly, with the well-known Indian sign that plainly tells "I have spoken—there is nothing more to say," then calmly turned his back and, bidding Conroy follow, started to return to his comrades at the ravine.
But Indian diplomacy was unsatisfied. The Sioux had found "Big Nose" to be one of the soldiers in the field. He, at least, was of the hated troop that fought and chased Burning Star and killed Chaska. The trail told them there were nearly a dozen in the party, all on shod horses, with two in lead-spare mounts or pack-horses, doubtless—so they had extra rations and had come far; but why were they going this way, so far west of the usual road to the Big Horn posts? Why were they so few in number? Where were the rest? Why were they hiding here in the ravine, instead of marching? Answer to this last question was easy enough. It was to keep out of sight of Indian eyes and needed no excuse. There was something behind this mysterious presence of ten or twelve soldiers in the southern foothills, and Machpealota would expect of his scouts full information, hence the instant movement on the part of one of the two braves to follow.
Impressively, Bruce turned again and waved him back. "Go, get buffalo tongue," said he, "or no trade. Keep away from our tepees," and he drew with his spurred boot-heel a jagged line across the turf. "Your side," said he, indicating the slope to the southeast of the line. "This—ours. That's all!" And this time the Indian knew he must come no nearer.
"I've got 'em talking trade, lieutenant," reported Bruce, the instant he reached Dean's side. "We don't need the tongues, but we've got more coffee and sugar than we are apt to want, and at least we can keep them interested until dark, then we can slip away. Of course, they've sent word to their main body that we're over here, but I believe they can't come in force before night."
"They knew you, sergeant, and they know it is probably our troop," said he. "There must be only a small party near us. Make your trade, but while you're doing it we'll saddle. I mean to get out of this and into the thick of the timber before they can surround us. Stand 'em off, now, while we get ready."
Promises must be kept when made to an Indian, even if they are otherwise sometimes broken. In ten minutes, with coffee, sugar and hardtack in their hands, the sergeant and his comrades were back at the front. One brave was still there, the other had vanished. Five minutes, neither party saying a word, the troopers waited; then Bruce turned to Conroy. "I knew they had nothing to trade. Take this sack with you and fall back. Tell our fellows to keep me well covered till I follow." The instant the soldier started with the sack swung over his shoulder, the Indian, who had been squatted on the turf, sprang up and began rapid expostulation in fluent Ogallalla. "It's no use, young man," interposed Bruce. "Your chum there has no buffalo tongues, and he knew it. Here's some hardtack for you," and he spread one liberally with sugar and handed it to the ever-receptive paw, outstretched to grasp it. A glance over the shoulder showed that Conroy was nearly at the edge. Then, quietly, Bruce, too, began to retire. He had not got ten paces, still facing his unwelcome visitor, when the Indian gave a shrill, sudden cry and tossed up his hands. Not a second too soon Bruce turned and darted for cover. The Indian flung himself flat on the turf and rolled away into a depression where he could find partial shelter from bullets from the ravine, whence he evidently looked for them, and out from behind the knoll, bridles held high, "quirts" lashing at their ponies' flanks, darted half a dozen painted savages, tearing down upon the spot at the top speed of their agile mounts. Only two men remained on watch at the moment, Dean and one trooper. Most of the others, already in saddle, were filing away up the game trail that threaded the windings of the ravine, the two lead horses with them, while a few yards behind the young officer and his comrade, halfway down the reverse slope, two others, afoot, handled the reins of their own horses and those of the lieutenant and men still held at the edge. It was an exciting moment. Bruce had only a hundred yards to run before he could get under cover, and there was no chance of their hitting him at that range, yet a puff of smoke rose from the knoll, and a bullet, nearly spent, came tumbling and singing up the turf, and the dashing warriors, yelling wildly, applauded the shot. Bruce took matters coolly. Leaping behind the shelter of the ledge, he reached for his carbine, and in a moment more, as the pursuing Indians came lashing within long range, four seasoned cavalry carbines, each with a keen eye at the sight and a steady finger at the trip, were leveled on the coming foe. Dean's young heart beat hard, it must be owned, for hitherto the Indians had been fighting in retreat or on the defensive, while now they came as though confident of success; but there was soldier exultation and something like savage joy mingling with the thrill of excitement.
"There's more behind those beggars, sir," growled Conroy, a veteran at Indian work, "but they'll sheer off when they get within three hundred yards." On they came, shields and lances dangling, ponies on the keen jump, feathers and pennons streaming on the wind. But, just as Conroy said, no sooner was Bruce safely under cover and they felt themselves drawing within dangerous range than, fan-like, they opened out to right and left, and, yelling still like fiends, veered in wide circle from their line of attack, and ducking over their ponies' shoulders, clinging with one leg to the upright part of the cantle, they seemed to invite the fire of their white foe—and got it. A daring fellow in the lead came streaking slantwise across the front, as though aiming to pick up the comrade lurking in the dip of the prairie-like slope, and Conroy's carbine was the first to bark, followed almost instantly by Dean's. The scurrying pony threw up his wall-eyed head and lashed with his feathered tail, evidently hit, but not checked, for under the whip he rushed gamely on until another bullet, whistling within a foot of his neck, warned the red rider that he was far too close for safety, for with halting gait the pony turned and labored off the field, and presently was seen to be staggering. "Score one for our side," laughed the Irishman, in glee. "Now's your time, sergeant."
But Bruce, reloading, was gazing sternly at the distant knoll. The other warriors, riding right and left, were now chasing crosswise over the billowy slopes, keeping up a fire of taunt and chaff and shrill war-cries, but never again venturing within three hundred yards—never wasting a shot.
"I thought so," suddenly cried the sergeant. "They're signaling from the knoll. They never would have attacked with so few, unless there were dozens more within sight. Now's our time, lieutenant. We can mount and ride like hell to the timber—I beg your pardon, sir," he broke off suddenly. "I didn't mean to say what the lieutenant should do."
"No apologies," laughed Dean, his eyes snapping with the vim of the fight. "Glad you see the truth of what I said. Come on. Mount quickly, men."
Two minutes more and the entire party of blue-coats were spurring swiftly northward up the winding gorge, the pack-horses lumbering alongside. Eagerly Dean and Bruce in the lead looked right and left for a game trail leading up the slope, for well they knew that the moment their reinforcements came the warriors would dash into the ravine and, finding their antagonists fled, would pursue along the banks. It would never do to be caught in such a trap. A gallop of a quarter of a mile and, off to the right, a branch ravine opened out to higher ground, and into this the leaders dove and, checking speed, rode at the trot until the ascent grew steep. Five minutes more and they were well up toward the head of the gulch and presently found themselves nearly on a level with the hillsides about them. Here, too, were scattered pine-trees and a few scrub-oak. The timber, then, was close at hand. Signaling halt to the climbing column, Dean and Bruce, springing from saddle, scrambled up the bank to their right and peered cautiously back down over the tumbling waves of the foothills, and what they saw was enough to blanch the cheek of even veteran Indian fighters.
Far over to the east, beyond an intervening ridge and under the dun cloud of dust, the earth was black for miles with herds of running buffalo. Far down to the southeast, here, there and everywhere over the land, the slopes were dotted with little knots of Indian braves—they could be nothing else—all riding like mad, coming straight toward them. Machpealota probably had launched his whole force on the trail of the luckless troopers.
That night there was rejoicing at the new stockade. For over a week not a courier had managed to slip through in either direction. Alarmed for the safety of the little garrison, the commanding officer of the post away up at the gorge of the Big Horn River had sent two troops of cavalry to scout the slopes of the mountains and look into the state of affairs at Warrior Gap. They found countless fresh pony tracks all along the foothills east of the Greasy Grass and in the valleys of the many forks of the Deje Agie—the Crow name for Tongue River—but not an Indian did they see. They marched in among the welcoming officers and men at the bustling post to find themselves hailed as heroes. "We've been cut off from the world for at least ten days," said the commandant. "Our couriers have been killed, captured or driven back. Even our half-breed scouts refuse to make further trial. They say Red Cloud's people cover the land in every direction. Our woodchoppers only work under heavy guard. The contractors, freighters and workmen threaten to strike unless they get their money. The sutler refuses them further credit. The quartermaster has paid out every cent and says his requisition for ten thousand dollars was ordered filled, and the money ought to have been here a week ago. All will have to stop if the money doesn't come. We're safe enough. The Sioux don't dare come within range of our breech-loaders. But we can't finish the barracks in time for winter at this rate."
A stout-hearted soldier was the commanding officer at Warrior Gap. He had with him now four strong companies of infantry and a troop of horse. He had, he said, but one anxiety, so far as holding the fort was concerned—some few of the officers and quite a number of the soldiers, as has been told, were burdened with their wives and children. If these could only be moved under strong guard to Frayne on the Platte, he could snap his fingers in the face of Red Cloud and his whole gang until they too got breech-loaders. "It's only a question of time!" said he. "Sooner or later the Interior Department will be fool enough to arm the redskins all over the land with magazine rifles, and then there will be lively work for the war office. Any day," said he, further, "we may expect the coming of a whole regiment from the Platte posts, and then Mr. Lo will have to light out. Meantime, if we hadn't this trouble about the workmen, and could get rid of the women and children, we'd be all right."
So back to the Big Horn rode the squadron to report all safe at Warrior Gap, barring the blockade, and almost on the same date out there started from Laramie, on the long march up the Platte and over across the sage-covered deserts, a strong force of foot and dragoons; and up from the Sweetwater, far to the southwest, came this venturesome little party of ten, bringing the much-demanded money, and all the while, with his far-riding, far-seeing scouts in every direction, Machpealota, perched in the mountains back of the building post, warily watched the dispositions and daily work, and laid his plans accordingly. Not a warrior was permitted to show himself near the stockade, but in a sleepless cordon, five miles out, they surrounded the Gap. Not a messenger had managed to elude their vigilance by day, not one had succeeded in slipping into the little camp by night. Yet, with every succeeding morn the choppers and fatigue parties pushed farther out from the stockade, in growing sense of security, and the Indians let them come.
Full a week before the Laramie column could possibly reach the mountains, however, Red Cloud was warned of their coming, their numbers, and composition—so many horse soldiers, so many "heap walks." Unmolested, the squadron from Fort C. F. Smith, the Big Horn River post, was permitted to retrace its steps. In fancied safety, born of confidence in that wonderful new breech-loader, the little command at the Gap was lulled to indifference to their surroundings. Then, sending large numbers of his young men to round up the buffalo toward the Platte, but keeping still his stern and vengeful eye upon the prey almost at his feet, the red chief made his final and fatal plans.
* * * * *
There came a cloudless morning when the cavalry troop escorted a young officer up the rocky heights to the west, finding everywhere indications of recent Indian occupancy, but not a redskin barred their way. Without opposition of any kind, without so much as a glimpse of the foe, were they permitted to climb to Signal Rock, and from that point, with powerful glasses, the officers swept the glorious range of foothills, the deep valley of the Tongue, the banks of the Piney and the Crazy Woman, the far-spreading upland prairie rolling away like some heaving ocean suddenly turned to earth, east and southeast to the dim horizon, and there they saw, or thought they saw, full explanation of their recent freedom from alarm of any kind. There to the south, full thirty miles away, the land was overlaid by a dull, heavy, dun-colored cloud, and traversed by black streaks or blotches that were recognized at once as running buffalo. Red Cloud and his braves then were drawn away in search of other game, and, light of heart and foot, the troopers trotted back to the waiting stockade, to meet there late that evening, as the weird tattoo of the drums and fifes was echoing back from the rocky heights, the first messenger through in nearly fifteen days-a half-breed Sioux from the distant posts along the Platte, bearing a written message from the commanding officer at Frayne, which the veteran commandant at Warrior Gap read with infinite comfort:
"Seven companies of infantry and three more troops of cavalry are on the way and should reach you by Saturday week. The General seems thoroughly alive to the situation, and we, too, are hoping for orders to move out and help you give that infernal old scoundrel the thrashing he deserves. All has been quiet hereabouts since that one party made its dash on Hal Folsom's ranch. Of course you know the story of Lizette, and of course Red Cloud must have known that Burning Star was head devil in that enterprise, though Chaska was the victim. I take much comfort in the fact that it was I who sent young Dean and his troop round by way of the Laramie. Folsom and his people would have been murdered to a man if I hadn't, and yet I hear that absurd old ass at Emory put Dean in arrest for not coming directly home. Pecksniff should have been retired ten years ago—for imbecility.
"We had a tremendous storm in the mountains to the south two days ago, and a courier has just galloped out from Emory, inquiring for news of Dean. It seems he was sent with a big sum in currency for your quartermaster, and ordered to slip through by way of the Sweetwater, as Red Cloud was known to be covering the direct road. Somehow it leaked out before he started, and a gang of desperadoes gathered to jump him at Canon Springs. The storm jumped them, for two of their dead and a dozen horses were rolled out on the flats. Dean must have got through all right, for Bat saw their trail fifteen miles above us. Of course, he'll have to make night marches; but, unless Red Cloud gets wind of his coming and corrals him, he should reach you almost as soon as this. Michel, the bearer, has your dispatches and orders. Retained copies are here. Good luck, old man, and may we meet within the fortnight and wind up Red Cloud once and for all time."
This was all, but more than enough. Riding night and day in wide detour, Michel had made his way to the lately beleaguered spot, and what he brought was joyous news, indeed. Within the coming week the post would have no more to fear. Within a day or two the contractors, then, would have their money, and that would tap the sutler's stores and joy would reign supreme. Enviously the soldiers eyed the artisans. Not for weeks could their paymaster be looked for, while the funds for the civilians might reach them on the morrow, provided Red Cloud did not interfere. He couldn't and wouldn't, said the commander, because he and his braves were all off to the southeast, hunting buffalo. He could and might, said Michel that night at ten o'clock, after taps had sent the garrison to bed, for by the time he left Frayne there were other riders up from Gate City and all that garrison had learned that Lieutenant Dean was taking something like fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks up to the Gap, with only ten men to guard it, and Major Burleigh was wild with anxiety lest he shouldn't get through, and had been nearly crazy since he heard of Dean's narrow escape at Canon Springs. The officer of the day who heard this story took it, with the teller, to the post commander, and that veteran sat up late and cross-questioned long. Michel's English might be broken, but not his statement. The last arrival at Frayne before he left was one of Major Burleigh's own men from Gate City. He said the General and his staff were expected at Emory the next day, investigating matters, for old Stevens had got stampeded because his sergeant-major was assaulted and old Mr. Folsom knocked out and a drunken captain by the name of Newhall had been making trouble, and it had all told on Major Burleigh, who had taken to his bed with nervous prostration.
So, while the garrison went to rest happy, the commanding officer waked long, and finally slept soundly and might have slept late, but that just at dawn, full half an hour before the time for reveille, there came a sharp knocking at the door of his log-hut, and the imperative voice of the officer of the day.
"Colonel! colonel, I say! There's sharp firing out here in the hills to the south!"
The peaks to the west were just tinging with purple and red, reflected from the eastward sky, and a faint light was beginning to steal down into the deep valley in which the cantonment lay sleeping, when the veteran commander came hurrying out, half-dressed, and hied him, with his attendant officer, to the southern angle of the stockade. There on the narrow ledge or platform built under the sharp tops of the upright logs, were grouped the silent, grave-faced guard, a dozen men intently listening. Thither presently came running others of the officers or men, suddenly awakened by sense of something unusual going on. Far away among the wooded heights to the south, echoing from the rocky palisades to the west, could be heard the pop, pop of distant musketry, punctuated sometimes with louder bang as of large caliber rifles closer at hand. Little time was there in which to hazard opinion as to the cause. One or two men, faint-hearted at the thought of the peril of Indian battle and hopeful of influencing the judgment of their superiors, began the murmur of "Big hunt," "Buffalo drive," etc., glancing furtively at the colonel the while as though to observe the effect. But an imperative "Silence, you idiots!" from the officer of the day put sudden end to their conjectures. Only a moment did the commander listen. Then, quick and startling, came the order, "Sound to arms!" and within the minute the stirring peal of the cavalry trumpet was answered by the hoarse thunder of the snare-drum, beating the long roll. Out from their "dog tents" and half-finished log huts came the bewildered men. Often as the alarm had sounded on the frontier there was a thrill and ring about it this time that told of action close at hand. Out from the little huts, hurrying into their frock coats and belting on their swords as they glared about them for the cause of the uproar, came the officers, old and young, most of them veterans of many hard-fought fields of the war days—one or two, only, youngsters fresh from the Point. At many a doorway and unglazed window appeared the pallid faces of women and children, some of them weeping in mingled fright and distress. In front of the log guardhouse the sergeant quickly formed the two reliefs not on post. On their designated parades the companies rapidly fell in, while stern-voiced non-commissioned officers rebuked the laggards and aided them into their belts, and each first sergeant took rapid note of his men. No need to call the roll, a skulker would have been detected and kicked into the ranks at the instant. Over under the rough board shelter of the quartermaster's employees the workmen came tumbling out in shirt sleeves, many of them running to the nearest officer and begging for a gun and a place in the fight, for now the firing was loud and lively. Down by the swift-flowing stream the tethered horses of the cavalry plunged and neighed in excitement, and the mules in the quartermaster's corral set up their irrepressible bray. For five minutes there was clamor, but no confusion. Then disciplined silence reigned again, all but the nearing volleying at the south. Presently, at rapid trot the cavalry, some fifty strong, came clattering up the stony trail from the stream, and with carbines advanced disappeared through the main gateway in a cloud of dust. Two companies were told off to man the loopholes of the stockade. Two others under the command of a senior captain faced by the right flank, and in double-quick time danced away in the wake of the cavalry. Eagerly the watchers climbed the wooden walls or to the tower of the half-finished guardhouse, and, as the red light strengthened in the east and the mountain sides became revealed, studied with their glasses or with straining eyes the southward vista through the hills. They saw the troop form line to the front at the gallop as it swept out over the open ground four hundred yards away, saw its flankers scurry to the nearest shoulder of bluff, saw their excited signals and gesticulations, and presently a sheaf of skirmishers shot forward from the advancing line and breasted the low ridge eight hundred yards out from the fort, and then there came floating back the sound of ringing, tumultuous cheer as the skirmishers reached the crest and darted headlong at some unseen object beyond, and after them went the reserve, cheering too. And now the sound of firing became fierce and incessant, and messengers came galloping back to the commander of the steadily advancing infantry, and they, too, were seen to throw forward heavy skirmish lines and then resume the march. And then, down over the ridge came a little knot of horsemen, made up of three men riding close together, the outer ones supporting between them the comrade in the center. Before they were within four hundred yards the young adjutant, gazing through his glasses at the colonel's side, exclaimed: "It's Dean—dead or wounded!" and one of the surgeons rushed forward to meet the party. "He's weak, sir, almost gone from loss of blood," exclaimed Trooper Conroy, himself bleeding from a gash along the cheek. A faint smile drifted over the young fellow's pallid face, as the adjutant, too, galloped up. A feeble hand indicated the bulging saddle pocket. A faint voice faltered, "There's ten thousand dollars in that packet. We had to fight our way through," and then the brave blue eyes closed and strong arms lifted the almost lifeless form from the saddle as Marshall swooned away.
A day had dawned on the Big Horn never to be forgotten by those who watched the conflict from the stockade, never to be recalled by those who went forth to fight. Broad daylight had come and the sun was peeping over the far horizon as strong arms bore the unconscious officer within the post, and the commander eagerly questioned the men who came with him. Their story was quickly told. They had fled before overpowering numbers of the Sioux the night before, had made their way through the timber in the darkness and come ahead all night, groping their way from ridge to ridge until at the peep of day they found themselves in sight of familiar landmarks, and could see the gleam of the waters of the Fork dancing away under the dawn. And then, as they essayed to ride on they found the Indians all around them. Whichever way they turned the foe appeared, but only in scattered parties and small numbers. Not once did more than half a dozen appear in sight, and then confident of speedy succor from the fort, they had decided to make a dash for it, and so rode boldly out into the open. But now a score of warriors popped up and barred the way, while others far out at flank or rear kept up long range fire. One man was shot through the body and fainted and had to be borne along. Then the lieutenant was shot in the leg, but no one knew it until they saw his boot was running over with blood, and he was growing ghastly white, even though he kept encouraging and directing. But when at last the cavalry met them and brushed the Indians away from the front, Captain Drum, who rode at their head, ordered Mr. Dean taken right into the post while he dashed on to punish the Sioux, "and he is giving them hell, too," said the excited trooper, "for there couldn't have been more than a hundred Indians all told."
Ah, not in sight, perhaps, poor lads!—not in sight of horse, foot or fort; for if there were only a hundred, how came it that the fire grew fiercer still, and that presently every musket in the infantry skirmish line, too, was blazing on the foe. By this time cavalry and infantry both had disappeared over the curtaining ridge, and the colonel's face grew grave and haggard as he listened. Three-fifths of his little garrison were out there battling against unknown numbers. They had gone to rescue the detachment and bring it safely in. That rescue was accomplished. The precious package for which so much had been risked was here—but what detained the command? Why did they not return? Beyond doubt far more Indians were out there now than when first the firing began. "Gallop out, Mr. Adjutant, and tell the major to withdraw his line and fall back on the stockade," was the order—and with a lump in his throat the young officer mounted again and started. He was a pet in the garrison, only in his second year of commission. They saw him gallop through the gate, saw him ride gallantly straight for the curtaining ridge beyond which the smoke was rising heavily now, saw him breasting the slope, his orderly following, saw him almost reach it, and then suddenly the prairie seemed to jet fire. The foremost horse reared, plunged, and went rolling over and over. They saw—plainly saw through their glasses, and a shriek of agony and horror went up from among the women at the sight—half a dozen painted savages spring out from behind the ledge, some on pony back, some afoot, and bear down on the stricken form of the slender young rider now feebly striving to rise from the turf; saw the empty hand outstretched, imploring mercy; saw jabbing lances and brandished war-clubs pinning the helpless boy to earth and beating in the bared, defenseless head; saw the orderly dragged from under his struggling horse and butchered by his leader's side; saw the bloody knives at work tearing away the hot red scalps, then ripping off the blood-soaked clothing, and, to the music of savage shouts of glee and triumph, hacking, hewing, mutilating the poor remains, reckless of the bullets that came buzzing along the turf from the score of Springfields turned loose at the instant among the loopholes of the stockade. It was eight hundred yards away in the dazzling light of the rising sun. Old Springfields did not carry as do the modern arms. Soldiers of those days were not taught accurate shooting as they are now. It was too far for anything but chance, and all within a minute or two the direful tragedy was over, and the red warriors had darted back behind the ridge from which they came.
"My God! sir," gasped the officer who stood at the side of the awe-stricken post commander, "I believe it's Red Cloud's entire band, and they've got our poor boys surrounded! Can't we send help?"
"Send help! Merciful heaven, man, who's to help us? Who's to protect these poor women and children if we go? I have but two companies left. It's what those fiends are hoping—have been planning—that I'll send out my last man to the aid of those already gone, and then they'll dart in on the fort, and what will become of these?"
Great drops of sweat were pouring down the colonel's face as he turned and pointed to the huts where now, clinging to one another in terror, many poor wives and children were gathered, and the air was filled with the sobbing of the little ones. Up from the stockade came two young officers, their faces set and rigid, their eyes blazing. "In God's name, colonel," cried the foremost, "let me take my men and clear that ridge so that our people can get back. One charge will do it, sir."
But solemnly the commander uplifted his hand. "Listen," said he, "the battle is receding. They are driving our poor fellows southward, away from us. They are massed between them and us. It would only be playing into their hands, my boy. It's too late to help. Our duty now is here."
"But good God, sir! I can't stay without raising a hand to help. I beg—I implore!"
"Go back to your post at once, sir. You may be needed any minute. Look there! Now!"
And as he spoke the colonel pointed to the southeast. Over the scene beyond the divide to the south hung the bank of pale-blue smoke. Out on the slope lay the ghastly remains of the young adjutant and his faithful comrade who, not ten minutes before, had galloped forth in obedience to their orders and met their soldier fate. Out to the southeast the ridge fell gradually away into the general level of the rolling prairie, and there, full a thousand yards distant, there suddenly darted into view three horsemen, troopers evidently, spurring madly for home.
"They've cut their way through! Thank God!" almost screamed the spectators at the parapet. But their exultation died an instant later. Over the ridge, in swift pursuit came a dozen painted, feathered braves, their ponies racing at lightning speed, their arrows and bullets whizzing along the line of flight. The horse of the foremost trooper was staggering, and suddenly went plunging headlong, sending his rider sprawling far out on the turf. He was up in a second, dire peril nerving him to desperate effort. His comrades veered at his cry for help and glanced back over their shoulders. One, unnerved at sight of the dashing foemen in pursuit, clapped spurs again, and bending low, rode madly on. The other, gallant fellow! reined about in wide, sweeping circle, and turned back to meet his running comrade. They saw him bend to lend a helping hand, saw him bend still lower as three of the Indians leaped from their ponies and, kneeling, loosed their rifles all at once; saw him topple out of saddle, and his stricken horse, with flapping rein, trot aimlessly about a moment before he, too, went floundering in his tracks; saw the other soldier turn to face his fate by his dying comrade's side, fighting to the last, overwhelmed and borne down by the rush of red warriors. Strong men turned aside in agony, unable to look on and see the rest—the brutal, pitiless clubbing and stabbing, the fearful hacking of lance and knife—but others still, in the fascination of horror, gazed helplessly through the smoke drifting upward from the blazing loopholes, and once a feeble cheer broke forth as one shot took effect and a yelling Indian stretched out dead upon the sward. Then for a brief moment all eyes centered on the sole survivor who came sweeping down the slope, straight for the stockade. Almost it seemed as though he might yet escape, despite the fact that his horse, too, was lurching and stumbling and his pursuers were gaining rapidly, defiant of the fire of the little fort. Reckless of order and discipline, a dozen soldiers nearest the gate rushed out upon the open bench, shouting encouragement and sending long range, chance shots. But with every stride the fleeing steed grew weaker, stumbled painfully and slackened speed, and soon they saw him slowing down despite the frantic jabbing of the spurs, and with drooped head and bleeding nostrils giving up the fight. And then, at sound of the triumphant yells and jeers of his pursuers, the poor wretch in saddle threw one fearful glance behind him, one despairing look toward the comrades and the refuge still a quarter of a mile away, and with shaking hand he turned the brown revolver on his own temple and pulled trigger, and then went tumbling earthward, a corpse. There at least was one scalp the Sioux could covet in vain, for with shouts of vengeance, the little squad of infantry, deaf to all orders or the clamor of the bugle recall, dashed out over the level bench, firing furiously as they ran, and, whether from the superstitious awe with which the Indians view the suicide, or the dread of close combat with the gallant band of blue-coats, the mounted warriors turned and scurried away across the prairie, and were presently out of range beyond the ridge again. Then, and not till they had reached and lifted and borne the lifeless form of the trooper, did the little party condescend to answer the repeated summons from the fort. Then at last they slowly returned, unrebuked, for no man had the heart to chide their daring.
Only once more was there further sight of the one-sided battle. Half a mile or more beyond the bare divide there rose against the southern sky a bold, oblong height or butte, studded with bowlders and stunted pine, and watchers at the fort became aware as the sun climbed higher that the smoke cloud, thinning gradually but perceptibly, was slowly drifting thither. The fire, too, grew faint and scattering. The war-whoops rang and re-echoed among the rocks, but all sound of cheering had long since died away. At last, an hour after the fury of the fight began, the colonel, gazing in speechless grief, through his field-glass, muttered to the officer at his side:
"Some of them are still left. They are fighting for their lives along that butte."
Only a few, though. One by one the dark dots among the bowlders ceased to stir and move about. Little by little the fire slackened, and all but occasional scattered shots died utterly away. Then other forms, feathered and bedizened, were seen rushing in numbers up the distant hillside, and that meant all was over, and the brutal knives were busily at work. Little by little all sound of conflict, all sight of combatants, disappeared entirely, and the unclouded sunshine streamed down upon a scene on which the silence of death indeed had fallen. When at last, late that afternoon, the watchers reported a vast body of Indians drifting away eastward toward the distant Powder River, and venturesome scouts stole out to reconnoiter, backed by skirmish lines from the stricken post, they found the grassy slopes beyond that curtaining ridge one broad field of death, strewn with the stripped and hacked and mangled forms of those who had so gallantly dashed forth to the aid of comrade soldiery at the break of day, so torn and mutilated and disfigured that only a limited few were ever identified. Officers and men, one after another, had died in their tracks, victims of Red Cloud and the Ogallalla Sioux.
And all for what? Late that night the quartermaster in wild agitation sought his colonel's door, a package in his hands. "For God's sake, sir, look at this!" he cried.