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The Ordeal By Fire

From: A Daughter Of The Sioux

That action had been resolved upon, and prompt action, was now apparent.
Stabber, fighting chief though he had been in the past, had had his
reason for opposing the plans of this new and vehement leader; but
public sentiment, stirred by vehement oratory, had overruled him, and he
had bolted the field convention in a fury. Lame Wolf, a younger chief
than Stabber, had yet more power among the Ogalallas, being Red Cloud's
favorite nephew, and among the Indians at least, his acknowledged
representative. Whenever called to account, however, for that nephew's
deeds, the wary old statesman promptly disavowed them. It was in search
of Lame Wolf, reasoned Ray, that Stabber had sped away, possibly hoping
to induce him to call off his followers. It was probably the deeper
strategy of Stabber to oppose no obstacle to Ray's advance until the
little troop was beyond the Elk Tooth ridge, where, on utterly
shelterless ground, the Indian would have every advantage. He knew Ray
of old; knew well that, left to himself, the captain would push on in
the effort to rescue the stage people and he and his command might
practically be at the mercy of the Sioux, if only the Sioux would
listen and be patient. Stabber knew that to attack the troopers now
entrenching at the cottonwoods meant a desperate fight in which the
Indians, even if ultimately triumphant, must lose many a valued brave,
and that is not the thoroughbred Indian's view of good generalship.
Stabber was old, wily and wise. The new chief, whoever he might be,
seemed possessed of a mad lust for instant battle, coupled with a
possible fear that, unless the golden moment were seized, Ray might be
reinforced and could then defy them all. Indeed there were veteran
campaigners among the troopers who noted how often the tall red chief
pointed in sweeping gesture back to Moccasin Ridge--troopers who even at
the distance caught and interpreted a few of his words. "That's it,
sir," said Winsor, confidently to Ray. "He says 'more soldiers coming,'
and--I believe he knows."

At all events he had so convinced his fellows and, even before Stabber
reached the middle tooth--where sat a little knot of mounted Indians,
signalling apparently to others still some distance to the north,--with
a chorus of exultant yells, the long, gaudy, glittering line of braves
suddenly scattered and, lashing away to right and left, dozens of them
darted at top speed to join those already disposed about that big
circle, while others still, the main body, probably seventy strong,
after some barbaric show of circus evolutions about their leader, once
more reined up for some final injunctions from his lips. Then, with a
magnificent gesture of the hand, he waved them on and, accompanied by
only two young riders, rode swiftly away to a little swell of the
prairie just out of range of the carbines, and there took his station to
supervise the attack.

"Damn him!" growled old Winsor. "He's no charger like Crazy Horse. He's
a Sitting Bull breed of general--like some we had in Virginia," he
added, between his set teeth, but Ray heard and grinned in silent
appreciation. "Set your sights and give 'em their first volley as they
reach that scorched line," he called to the men along the northward
front, and pointed to a stretch of prairie where the dry grass had
lately been burned away. "Five hundred yards will do it. Then aim low
when they rush closer in."

"Look at the middle tooth, captain," came the sudden hail from his left.
"Mirror flashes! See!" It was Field who spoke, and life and vim had
returned to his voice and color to his face. He was pointing eagerly
toward the highest of the knobs, where, all on a sudden, dazzling little
beams of light shot forth toward the Indians in the lowlands, tipping
the war bonnet and lance of many a brave with dancing fire. Whatever
their purport, the signals seemed ignored by the Sioux, for presently
two riders came sweeping down the long slope, straight for the point
where sat Red Fox, as, for want of other name, we must for the present
call him--who, for his part, shading his eyes with his hand, sat gazing
toward the westward side of his warrior circle, evidently awaiting some
demonstration there before giving signal for action elsewhere. Obedient
to his first instructions, the main body had spread out in long,
irregular skirmish rank, their mettlesome ponies capering and dancing in
their eagerness. Chanting in chorus some shrill, weird song, the line
was now slowly, steadily advancing, still too far away to warrant the
wasting of a shot, yet unmistakably seeking to close as much as possible
before bursting in with the final charge.

And still the red leader sat at gaze, oblivious for the moment of
everything around him, ignoring the coming of orders possibly from Lame
Wolf himself. Suddenly the silver armlets once more gleamed on high.
Then, clapping the palm of his right hand to his mouth, Red Fox gave
voice to a ringing war whoop, fierce, savage and exultant, and, almost
at the instant, like the boom and rumble that follows some vivid
lightning flash, the prairie woke and trembled to the thunder of near a
thousand hoofs. From every point of the compass--from every side,
yelling like fiends of some orthodox hell, down they came--the wild
warriors of the frontier in furious rush upon the silent and almost
peaceful covert of this little band of brothers in the dusty garb of
blue. One, two, three hundred yards they came, centering on the leafy
clump of cottonwoods, riding at tearing gallop, erect, defiant, daring
at the start, and giving full voice to their wild war cry. Then bending
forward, then crouching low, then flattening out like hunted squirrel,
for as the foremost in the dash came thundering on within good carbine
range, all on a sudden the watch dogs of the little plains fort began to
bark. Tiny jets of flame and smoke shot from the level of the
prairie, from over dingy mounds of sand, from behind the trunks of
stunted trees, from low parapet of log or leather. Then the entire grove
seemed veiling itself in a drifting film of blue, the whole charging
circle to crown itself with a dun cloud of dust that swept eastward over
the prairie, driven by the stiff, unhampered breeze. The welkin rang
with savage yell, with answering cheer, with the sputter and crackle of
rifle and revolver, the loud bellow of Springfield, and then, still
yelping, the feathered riders veered and circled, ever at magnificent
speed, each man for himself, apparently, yet all guided and controlled
by some unseen, yet acknowledged, power; and, in five minutes, save
where some hapless pony lay quivering and kicking on the turf, the low
ground close at hand was swept clean of horse or man. The wild attack
had been made in vain. The Sioux were scampering back, convinced, but
not discomfited. Some few of their number, borne away stunned and
bleeding by comrade hands from underneath their stricken chargers,--some
three or four, perhaps, who had dared too much,--were now closing their
eyes on the last fight of their savage lives.

To Ray and to many of his men it was all an old story. Stabber would
never have counselled or permitted attack on seasoned troopers, fighting
behind even improvised shelter. Something, perhaps, had occurred to
blind his younger rival to the peril of such assault, and now, as three
or four little parties were seen slowly drifting away toward the ridge,
burdened by some helpless form, other couriers came thundering down at
Red Fox, and wild excitement prevailed among the Elk Teeth. More signals
were flashing. More Indians came popping into view, their feathered
bonnets streaming in the rising wind, and about the prairie wave, where
the savage general had established field headquarters, a furious
conference was going on. Stabber had again interposed, and with grim but
hopeful eyes, Ray and his fellows watched and noted. Every lull in the
fight was so much gain for them.

"Twelve fifty-two," said the dark-eyed commander, swinging his watch
into the pocket of his hunting shirt, and sliding backward into the
stream bed. "All serene so far. Watch things on this front, Field, while
I make the rounds and see how we came out."

"All serene so far" it was! Not a man hurt. Two of the sorrels had been
hit by flying bullets and much amazed and stung thereat, but neither was
crippled. Bidding their guards to dig for water that might soon be
needed, Ray once more made his way to the northward side and rejoined
Field and Winsor.

In an almost cloudless sky of steely blue the sun had just passed the
meridian and was streaming hotly down on the stirring picture. Northward
the ridge line and the long, gradual slope seemed alive with swarms of
Indian warriors, many of them darting about in wild commotion. About the
little eminence where Stabber and the Fox had again locked horns in
violent altercation, as many as a hundred braves had gathered. About the
middle knob, from whose summit mirror flashes shot from time to time,
was still another concourse, listening, apparently, to the admonitions
of a leader but recently arrived, a chieftain mounted on an American
horse, almost black, and Ray studied the pair long and curiously through
his glasses. "Lame Wolf, probably," said he, but the distance was too
great to enable him to be certain. What puzzled him more than anything
was the apparent division of authority, the unusual display of discord
among the Sioux. These were all, doubtless, of the Ogalalla tribe, Red
Cloud's own people, yet here were they wrangling like ward "heelers" and
wasting precious time. Whatever his antecedents this new comer had been
a powerful sower of strife and sedition, for, instead of following
implicitly the counsels of one leader, the Indians were divided now
between three.

True to its practice, the prairie wind was sweeping stronger and
stronger with every moment, as the sun-warmed strata over the wide,
billowing surface sought higher levels, and the denser, cooler current
from the west came rushing down. And now all sounds of the debate were
whisked away toward the breaks of the South Shyenne,[*] and it was no
longer possible for old Sioux campaigners to catch a word of the
discussion. The leaves of the cottonwoods whistled in the rising gale,
and every time a pony crossed the stream bed and clambered the steep
banks out to the west, little clouds of dun-colored dust came sailing
toward the grove, scattered and spent, however, far from the lair of the

[* Oddly enough, that method of spelling the river's name became

But, while the discussion seemed endless among the Indians on the
northward side, never for a moment was the vigilance of the circle
relaxed. South, east and west the slopes and lowlands were dotted with
restless horsemen, and from young Clayton came the word that through his
glass he could make out three or four warriors far away toward the
Moccasin Ridge. "That's good," said Ray. "It means they, too, are
looking for a column coming out from Frayne. But where on earth did all
these rascals come from? There must be four hundred now in sight."

Well might he ask and marvel! Stabber's little village had never more
than fifty warriors. Lame Wolf's band was counted at less than two
hundred and forty fighting men, and these, so said the agents of the
omniscient Bureau, were all the Ogalallas away from the shelter of the
reservation when the trouble started. No more should be allowed to go,
was the confident promise, yet a fortnight nearly had elapsed since the
frontier fun began. News of battle sweeps with marvellous speed through
Indian haunted lands, and here were warriors by the score, come to
strengthen the hands of kindred in the field, and, more were coming. The
mirror signals plainly told them that. Yet it was now well nigh one
o'clock and not another hostile move was made. Fox then was being held
by stronger hands. It meant that Lame Wolf had listened to reason,--and
Stabber, and would permit no fresh attack until his numbers should be so
increased that resistance would practically be vain. It meant even
more--that the Indian leader in chief command felt sure no force was
yet within helping distance of the corralled troopers. He could,
therefore, take his time.

But this was a theory Ray would not whisper to his men. He knew Webb. He
knew Webb would soon read the signs from the north and be coming to his
relief, and Ray was right. Even as he reasoned there came a message from
across the grove. Lieutenant Clayton said the Indians he had seen away
to the south were racing back. "Thank God!" was the murmured answer no
man heard. "Now, lads, be ready!" was the ringing word that roused the
little troop, like bugle call "To Arms." And even as eager faces lifted
over the low parapets to scan the distant foe, fresh signals came
flashing down from the northward ridge, fresh bands of warriors came
darting to join the martial throng about the still wrangling chieftains,
and then, all on a sudden, with mighty yelling and shrill commotion,
that savage council burst asunder, and, riding at speed, a dozen braves
went lashing away to the westward side, while with fierce brandishing of
arms and shields and much curveting and prancing of excited ponies, the
wild battle lines were formed again. The Sioux were coming for the
second trial.

"Meet them as before! Make every shot tell!" were the orders passed from
man to man and heard and noted amidst the whistling of the wind and the
sounds of scurry and commotion at the front. Then, silent and crouching
low, the soldiers shoved the brown barrels of their carbines forth again
and waited. And then the grim silence of the little fortress was
broken, as, with startling, sudden force there went up a shout from the
westward side:--

"My God, boys, they're setting fire to the prairie!"

Ray sprang to his feet and gazed. Away out to the west and southwest,
whence came the strong breeze blowing from the Sweetwater Hills, half a
dozen dark, agile forms, bending low, were scudding afoot over the
sward, and everywhere they moved there sprang up in their tracks little
sheets of lambent flame, little clouds of bluish, blinding smoke, and
almost in less time than it takes to tell it, a low wall of fire,
started in a dozen places, reaching far across the low ground, fencing
the valley from stream bed to the southward slopes, crowned by its
swift-sailing crest of hot, stifling fume, came lapping and seething and
sweeping across the level, licking up the dry buffalo grass like so much
tow, mounting higher and fiercer with every second, and bearing down
upon the little grove and its almost helpless defenders in fearful
force, in resistless fury--a charge no bullet could stop, an enemy no
human valor could hope to daunt or down.

"Quick, men!" yelled Ray. "Out with you, you on the west front! Stay you
here, you others! Watch the Sioux! They'll be on us in an instant!" And
away he sped from the shelter of the bank, out from the thick of the
cottonwoods, out to the open prairie, straight toward the coming torrent
of flame still, thank God, full seven hundred yards away, but leaping
toward them with awful strides. Out with him rushed Field, and out from
Clayton's front sped half a dozen old hands, every man fumbling for his
match box; out until they had reached a line with their captain, already
sprawled upon the turf, and there, full an hundred yards from the grove,
they spread in rude skirmish line and, reckless of the mad chorus of
yells that came sweeping down the wind, reckless of the clamor of the
coming charge, reckless of the whistling lead that almost instantly
began nipping and biting the turf about them, here, there and
everywhere, they, too, had started little fires; they, too had run their
line of flame across the windward front; they, too, had launched a wall
of flame sailing toward the grove, and then, back through blinding smoke
they ran for their saddle blankets, just as the sharp sputter of shots
burst forth on the northward side, and the Sioux, with magnificent dash,
came thundering within range.

Then followed a thrilling battle for life--two red enemies now enrolled
against the blue. "Fight fire with fire" is the old rule of the prairie.
Ray had promptly met the on-coming sweep of the torrent by starting a
smaller blaze that should at least clear the surface close at hand, and,
by eating off the fuel, stop, possibly, the progress of the greater

But the minor blaze had also to be stopped lest it come snapping and
devouring within the grove. It is no easy matter to check a prairie fire
against a prairie gale when every human aid is summoned. It is desperate
work to try to check one when to the fires of nature are added the
furious blaze of hostile arms, every rifle sighted by savage, vengeful
foe. "Check it, lads, ten yards out!" shouted Ray, to his gallant
fellows, now lost in the smoke, while he again rushed across the front
to meet the charging Sioux. With his brave young face all grime, Field
was already at work, guiding, urging, aiding his little band. "Both
hands! Both hands!" he cried, as, wielding his folded blanket, he smote
the fringe of flame. "Stamp it out! Great God! Wing, are you hit?"

For answer the sergeant by his side went plunging down, face foremost,
and little Trooper Denny, rushing to aid his young officer in the effort
to raise the stricken man, as suddenly loosed his hold and, together
again, these two sworn comrades of many a campaign lay side by side, as
they had lain in camp and bivouac all over the wide frontier, and poor
Denny could only gasp a loyal word of warning to his officer. "Get back,
sir; for God's sake, get back!" ere the life blood came gushing from his
mouth. Bending low, Field grabbed the faithful fellow in his strong arms
and, calling to the nearmost men to look to Wing, bore his helpless
burden back through stifling smoke clouds; laid him on the turf at the
foot of a cottonwood, then ran again to the perilous work of fighting
the flame, stumbling midway over another prostrate form. "Both hands!
Both hands!" he yelled as again his blanket whirled in air; and so, by
dint of desperate work, the inner line of flame at last was stayed, but
every man of the gallant little squad of fire fighters had paid the
penalty of his devotion and felt the sting of hissing lead--Field the
last of all. Westward now, well nigh an hundred yards in width, a broad,
black, smoking patch stretched across the pathway of the swift-coming
wall of smoke and flame, a safeguard to the beleaguered command worth
all the soldier sacrifice it cost. In grand and furious sweep, the
scourge of the prairie sent its destroying line across the wide level to
the south of the sheltering grove, but in the blood and sweat of heroic
men the threatening flames of the windward side had sputtered out. The
little garrison was safe from one, at least, of its dread and merciless
foes, though five of its best and bravest lay dead or dying, and others
still sore stricken, in the midst of the smoking grove.

"Field, old boy," said Ray, with brimming eyes, as he knelt and clasped
the hand of the bleeding lad, while the Sioux fell back in wrath and
dismay from the low-aimed, vengeful fire of the fighting line. "This
means the Medal of Honor for you, if word of mine can fetch it!"

Next: Wounded Body And Soul

Previous: A Fight With A Fury

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