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Bad News From The Front








From: A Daughter Of The Sioux

It might well be imagined that a man returning from such a morning's
work as had been Blake's could be excused from duty the rest of the day.
He and his little party had had a spirited running fight of several
hours with an evasive and most exasperating trio of warriors, better
mounted for swift work than were the troopers. He had managed eventually
to bring down one of the Indians who lingered a little too long within
short range of the carbines, but it was the pony, not the rider, that
they killed. Meanwhile other Indians had appeared on distant divides,
and one feathered brave had galloped down to meet his comrades, and fire
a few shots at the pursuing pale faces. But at no time, until near their
supports and far from the fort, had the Sioux halted for a hand to hand
fight, and Blake's long experience on the frontier had stood him in good
stead. He saw they were playing for one of two results;--either to lure
him and his fellows in the heat of pursuit far round to the northwest,
where were the united hundreds of Lame Wolf and Stabber stalking that
bigger game, or else to tempt Blake himself so far ahead of his fellows
as to enable them to suddenly whirl about, cut him off, and, three on
one, finish him then and there; then speed away in frenzied delight,
possessors of a long-coveted scalp.

They well knew Blake,--almost as well as they did Ray. Many a year he
had fought them through the summer and fed them through the winter.
They, their squaws and pappooses, had fattened on his bounty when the
snows were deep and deer were gone, and their abundant rations had been
feasted or gambled away. Many of their number liked him well, but now
they were at the war game again, and, business is business with the
aborigines. Blake was a "big chief," and he who could wear at his belt
the scalp of so prominent a pale face leader would be envied among his
people. "Long Legs," as they called him, however, was no fool. Brave and
zealous as he was, Blake was not rash. He well knew that unless he and
his few men kept together they would simply play into the hands of the
Indians. It would have been easy for him, with his big racer, to
outstrip his little party and close with the Sioux. Only one of the
troopers had a horse that could keep pace with Pyramus, but nothing he
could gain by such a proceeding would warrant the desperate risk.
Matchless as we have reason to believe our men, we cannot so believe our
mounts. Unmatched would better describe them. Meisner's horse might have
run with the captain's, until crippled by the bullets of the Sioux, but
Bent's and Flannigan's were heavy and slow, and so it resulted that the
pursuit, though determined, was not so dangerous to the enemy but that
they were able to keenly enjoy it, until the swift coming of Kennedy
and his captive comrade turned the odds against them, for then two of
Blake's horses had given out through wounds and weakness, and they had
the pursuers indeed "in a hole."

That relief came none too soon. Blake and his fellows had been brought
to a stand; but now the Sioux sped away out of range; the crippled party
limped slowly back to the shelter of Frayne, reaching the post long
hours after their spirited start, only to find the women and children,
at least, in an agony of dread and excitement, and even Dade and his
devoted men looking grave and disturbed. Unless all indications failed,
Ray and his people must have been having the fight of their lives. Two
couriers had galloped back from Moccasin Ridge to say that Major Webb's
scouts could faintly hear the sound of rapid firing far ahead, and that,
through the glass, at least a dozen dead horses or ponies could be seen
scattered over the long slope to the Elk Tooth range, miles further on.
Webb had pushed forward to Ray's support, and Blake, calling for fresh
horses for himself and two of his men, bade the latter get food and
field kits and be ready to follow him. Then he hastened to join his
devoted young wife, waiting with Mrs. Ray upon the piazza. Dade, who had
met him at the ford, had still much to tell and even more to hear; but
at sight of those two pale, anxious faces, lifted his cap and called out
cheerily, "I hand him over to you, Mrs. Blake, and will see him later,"
then turned and went to his own doorway, and took Esther's slender form
in his strong arms and kissed the white brow and strove to think of
something reassuring to say, and never thought to ask Blake what he had
in that fine Indian tobacco pouch swinging there at his belt, for which
neglect the tall captain was more than grateful. It was a woman's
letter, as we know, and that, he argued, should be dealt with only in a
woman's way.

Sorely puzzled as Blake had been by the discovery, he had been able on
the long homeward march,--walking until in sight of Frayne and safety,
then galloping ahead on the corporal's horse,--to think it out, as he
said, in several ways. Miss Flower had frequently ridden up the valley
and visited the Indian village across the Platte. Miss Flower might
easily have dropped that note, and some squaw, picking it up, had
surrendered it to the first red man who demanded it, such being the
domestic discipline of the savage. The Indian kept it, as he would any
other treasure trove for which he had no use, in hopes of reward for its
return, said Blake. It was queer, of course, that the Indian in whose
pouch it was found should have been so fluent a speaker of English, yet
many a Sioux knew enough of our tongue to swear volubly and talk ten
words of vengeance to come. There were several ways, as Blake reasoned,
by which that letter might have got into the hands of the enemy. But at
any rate, with everything said, it was a woman's letter. He had no right
to read it. He would first confide in his wife, and, if she said so, in
Mrs. Ray. Then what they decided should decide him.

But now came a new problem. Despite the long morning of peril and chase
and excitement, there was still much more ahead. His men were in saddle;
his troop was afield; the foe was in force on the road to the north; the
battle, mayhap, was on at the very moment, and Frayne and home was no
place for him when duty called at the distant front. Only, there was
Nan, silent, tremulous, to be sure, and with such a world of piteous
dread and pleading in her beautiful eyes. It was hard to have to tell
her he must go again and at once, hard to have to bid her help him in
his hurried preparations, when she longed to throw herself in his arms
and be comforted. He tried to smile as he entered the gate, and thereby
cracked the brittle, sun-dried court plaster with which a sergeant had
patched his cheek at the stables. The would-be glad-some grin started
the blood again, and it trickled down and splashed on his breast where
poor Nan longed to pillow her bonny head, and the sight of it, despite
her years of frontier training, made her sick and faint. He caught her
in his left arm, laughing gayly, and drew her to the other side. "Got
the mate to that scoop of Billy's," he cried, holding forth his other
hand to Mrs. Ray. "'Tisn't so deep, perhaps, but 'twill serve, 'twill
do, and I'll crow over him to-night. Come in with us, Mrs. Ray. I--I've
something to show you."

"One minute," said that wise young matron. "Let me tell the children
where to find me. Sandy and Billy are on post at the telescope. They
wouldn't leave it even for luncheon." With that she vanished, and
husband and wife were alone.

"You must go, Gerald," she sobbed--"I know it, but--isn't there some
way?--Won't Captain Dade send more men with you?"

"If he did, Nan, they'd only hamper me with horses that drag behind. Be
brave, little woman. Webb has swept the way clear by this time! Come, I
need your help."

And the door closed on the soldier and his young wife. They never saw
that Nanette Flower, in saddle, was riding swiftly up the row, and, for
the first time since her coming to Frayne, without an escort. Dade
reappeared upon his front gallery in time to greet her, but Esther,
after one quick glance, had darted again within. Dade saw unerringly
that Miss Flower was in no placid frame of mind. Her cheeks were pale;
her mouth had that livid look that robbed her face of all beauty; but
her eyes were full and flashing with excitement.

"What news, captain?" she hailed, and the joyous, silvery ring had gone
from her voice. "They tell me Captain Blake is back--two horses
crippled, two men hit, including himself."

"His own share is a scratch he wouldn't think of mentioning outside the
family, Miss Flower," answered Dade, with grim civility. He had his
reasons for disapproving of the young woman; yet they were not such as
warranted him in showing her the least discourtesy. He walked to his
gate and met her at the curb beyond and stood stroking the arching neck
of her spirited horse--"Harney" again.

"Did they--were there any Indians--killed?" she asked, with anxiety
scarcely veiled.

"Oh, they downed one of them," answered the captain, eying her closely
the while and speaking with much precision, "a fellow who cursed them
freely in fluent English." Yes, she was surely turning paler.--"A bold,
bad customer, from all accounts. Blake thought he must be of Lame Wolf's
fellows, because he--seemed to know Kennedy so well and to hate him.
Kennedy has only just come down from Fort Beecher, where Wolf's people
have been at mischief."

"But what became of him? What did they do with him?" interrupted the
girl, her lips quivering in spite of herself.

"Oh,--left him, I suppose," answered the veteran, with deliberate
design. "What else could they do? There was no time for ceremony. His
fellow savages, you know, can attend to that."

For a moment she sat there rigid, her black eyes staring straight into
the imperturbable face of the old soldier. No one had ever accused Dade
of cruelty or unkindness to man or woman, especially to woman; yet here
he stood before this suffering girl and, with obvious intent, pictured
to her mind's eye a warrior stricken and left unburied or uncared for on
the field. Whatever his reasons, he stabbed and meant to stab, and for
just one moment she seemed almost to droop and reel in saddle; then,
with splendid rally, straightened up again, her eyes flashing, her lip
curling in scorn, and with one brief, emphatic phrase ended the
interview and, whirling Harney about, smote him sharply with her whip,
and darted away:--

"True!" said she. "Civilized warfare!"

"If that girl isn't more than half savage," said Dade, to himself, as
Harney tore away out of the garrison on the road to the ford, "I am more
than half Sioux. Oh, for news of Ray!"

Ray indeed! It was now nearly four o'clock. Telegrams had been coming
and going over the Laramie wire. "The Chief," as they called their
general, with only one of his staff in attendance, had reached Cheyenne
on time, and, quitting the train, declining dinner at the hotel and
having but a word or two with the "Platform Club,"--the little bevy of
officers from Fort Russell whose custom it was to see the westbound
train through almost every day--had started straightway for Laramie
behind the swiftest team owned by the quartermaster's department, while
another, in relay, awaited him at the Chugwater nearly fifty miles out.
Driving steadily through the starlit night, he should reach the old
frontier fort by dawn at the latest, and what news would Dade have to
send him there? Not a word had he uttered to either the officers who
respectfully greeted, or reporters who eagerly importuned, him as to the
situation at Frayne; but men who had served with him in Arizona and on
the Yellowstone many a year before, knew well that grave tidings had
reached him. Dade had, in fact, supplemented Webb's parting despatch
with another saying that Blake's little party, returning, had just been
sighted through the telescope nine miles out, with two men afoot. But
not until the general reached Lodge Pole Creek did the message meet him,
saying that Webb's advance guard could hear the distant attack on Ray.
Not until he reached the Chugwater in the early night could he hope to
hear the result.

It was nightfall when the awful suspense of the garrison at Frayne was
even measurably lifted. Blake, with three troopers at his back, had then
been gone an hour, and was lost in the gloaming before Dr. Tracy's
orderly, with a face that plainly told the nervous tension of his two
hours' ride, left his reeking, heaving horse at the stables and climbed
the steep path to the flagstaff, the shortest way to the quarters of the
commanding officer. Despite the gathering darkness, he had been seen by
a dozen eager watchers and was deluged with questions by trembling,
tearful women and by grave, anxious men.

"There's been a fight; that's all I know," he said. "I was with the pack
mules and the ambulances and didn't get to see it. All I saw was dead
ponies way out beyond Ten Mile Ridge. Where's the major?--I mean the
captain?" No! the orderly didn't know who was killed or wounded, or that
anybody was killed and wounded. All he knew was that Dr. Tracy came
galloping back and ordered the ambulances to scoot for the front and him
to spur every bit of the way back to Frayne with the note for Captain
Dade.

All this was told as he eagerly pushed his way along the board walk;
soldiers' wives hanging on his words and almost on him; officers' wives
and daughters calling from the galleries or running to the gates, and
Dade heard the hubbub almost as quickly as did Esther, who hurried to
the door. By the light of the hall lamp the commander read the pencilled
superscription of the gummed envelope and the word "Immediate" at the
corner. The same light fell on a dozen anxious, pleading faces beyond
the steps. His hand shook in spite of himself, and he knew he could not
open and read it in their presence. "One moment," he said, his heart
going out to them in sympathy as well as dread. "You shall hear in one
moment," and turned aside into the little army parlor.

But he could not turn from his wife and child. They followed and stood
studying his pale face as he read the fateful words that told so little,
yet so much:--

Reached Ray just in time. Sharp affair. Dr. Waller will have to
come at once, as Tracy goes on with us to rescue stage people at
Dry Fork. Better send infantry escort and all hospital attendants
that can be possibly spared; also chaplain. Sergeants Burroughs and
Wing, Corporal Foot and Troopers Denny, Flood, Kerrigan and
Preusser killed. Many wounded--Lieutenant Field seriously.

WEBB.





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Previous: More Strange Discoveries



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