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The Sioux Surrounded








From: A Daughter Of The Sioux

In the hush of the wintry night, under a leaden sky, with snowflakes
falling thick and fast and mantling the hills in fleecy white, Webb's
column had halted among the sturdy pines, the men exchanging muttered,
low-toned query and comment, the horses standing with bowed heads,
occasionally pawing the soft coverlet and sniffing curiously at this
filmy barrier to the bunch grass they sought in vain. They had feasted
together, these comrade troopers and chargers, ere the sun went
down,--the men on abundant rations of agency bacon, flour and brown
sugar, found with black tailed deer and mountain sheep in abundance in
the captured village, and eked out by supplies from the pack train,--the
horses on big "blankets" of oats set before them by sympathetic friends
and masters. Then, when the skies were fairly dark, Webb had ordered
little fires lighted all along the bank of the stream, leaving the men
of Ray's and Billings' troops to keep them blazing through the long
night watches to create the impression among the lurking Sioux that the
whole force was still there, guarding the big village it had captured in
the early afternoon, and then, in silence, the troopers had saddled and
jogged away into the heart of the hills, close on the heels of their
guides.

There had been little time to look over the captures. The main interest
of both officers and men, of course, centred in Mr. Hay, who was found
in one of the tepees, prostrate from illness and half frantic from fever
and strong mental excitement. He had later tidings from Frayne, it
seems, than had his rescuers. He could assure them of the health and
safety of their wives and little ones, but would not tell them what was
amiss in his own household. One significant question he asked: Did any
of them know this new Major Flint? No? Well, God help Flint, if ever he,
Hay, got hold of him.

"He's delirious," whispered Webb, and rode away in that conviction,
leaving him to Ray and Billings.

Three miles out, on the tortuous trail of the pursued, the column halted
and dismounted among the pines. Then there was brief conference, and the
word "Mount" was whispered along the Beecher squadron, while Blake's men
stood fast. With a parting clasp of the hand Webb and "Legs" had
returned to the head of their respective commands, "Legs" and his
fellows to follow steadily the Indian trail through the twisting ravines
of the foothills; Webb to make an all-night forced march, in wide
detour and determined effort, to head off the escaping warriors before
they could reach the rocky fastnesses back of Bear Cliff. Webb's chief
scout "Bat," chosen by General Crook himself, had been a captive among
the Sioux through long years of his boyhood, and knew the Big Horn
range as Webb did the banks of the Wabash. "They can stand off a
thousand soldiers," said the guide, "if once they get into the rocks.
They'd have gone there first off only there was no water. Now there's
plenty snow."

So Blake's instructions were to follow them without pushing, to let them
feel they were being pursued, yet by no means to hasten them, and, if
the general's favorite scout proved to be all he promised as guide and
pathfinder, Webb might reasonably hope by dint of hard night riding, to
be first at the tryst at break of day. Then they would have the
retreating Sioux, hampered by their few wounded and certain prisoners
whom they prized, hemmed between rocky heights on every side, and sturdy
horsemen front and rear.

It was eight by the watch at the parting of the ways. It was 8:30 when
Blake retook the trail, with Sergeants Schreiber and Winsor, the latter
borrowed from Ray, far in the van. Even had the ground been hard and
stony these keen-eyed soldier scouts could have followed the signs
almost as unerringly as the Indians, for each had had long years of
experience all over the West; but, despite the steadily falling snow,
the traces of hoofs and, for a time, of travois poles could be readily
seen and followed in the dim gray light of the blanketed skies.
Somewhere aloft, above the film of cloud, the silvery moon was shining,
and that was illumination more than enough for men of their years on the
trail.

For over an hour Blake followed the windings of a ravine that grew
closer and steeper as it burrowed into the hills. Old game trails are as
good as turnpikes in the eyes of the plainsman. It was when the ravine
began to split into branches that the problem might have puzzled them,
had not the white fleece lain two inches deep on the level when "Lo"
made his dash to escape. Now the rough edges of the original impression
were merely rounded over by the new fallen snow. The hollows and ruts
and depressions led on from one deep cleft into another, and by midnight
Blake felt sure the quarry could be but a few miles ahead and Bear Cliff
barely five hours' march away. So, noiselessly, the signal "Halt!" went
rearward down the long, dark, sinuous column of twos, and every man
slipped out of saddle--some of them stamping, so numb were their feet.
With every mile the air had grown keener and colder. They were glad when
the next word whispered was, "Lead on" instead of "Mount."

By this time they were far up among the pine-fringed heights, with the
broad valley of the Big Horn lying outspread to the west, invisible as
the stars above, and neither by ringing shot nor winged arrow had the
leaders known the faintest check. It seemed as though the Indians, in
their desperate effort to carry off the most important or valued of
their charges, were bending all their energies to expediting the
retreat. Time enough to turn on the pursuers when once the rocks had
closed about them,--when the wounded were safe in the fastnesses, and
the pursuers far from supports. But, at the foot of a steep ascent, the
two leading scouts,--rival sergeants of rival troops but devoted friends
for nearly twenty years,--were seen by the next in column, a single
corporal following them at thirty yards' distance, to halt and begin
poking at some dark object by the wayside. Then they pushed on again. A
dead pony, under a quarter inch coverlet of snow, was what met the eyes
of the silently trudging command as it followed. The high-peaked wooden
saddle tree was still "cinched" to the stiffening carcass. Either the
Indians were pushed for time or overstocked with saddlery. Presently
there came a low whistle from the military "middleman" between the
scouts and a little advance guard. "Run ahead," growled the sergeant
commanding to his boy trumpeter. "Give me your reins." And, leaving his
horse, the youngster stumbled along up the winding trail; got his
message and waited. "Give this to the captain," was the word sent back
by Schreiber, and "this" was a mitten of Indian tanned buckskin, soft
and warm if unsightly, a mitten too small for a warrior's hand, if ever
warrior deigned to wear one,--a mitten the captain examined curiously,
as he ploughed ahead of his main body, and then returned to his
subaltern with a grin on his face:

"Beauty draws us with a single hair," said he, "and can't shake us even
when she gives us the mitten. Ross," he added, after a moment's thought,
"remember this. With this gang there are two or three sub-chiefs that we
should get, alive or dead, but the chief end of man, so far as 'K'
Troop's concerned, is to capture that girl, unharmed."

And just at dawn, so gray and wan and pallid it could hardly be told
from the pale moonlight of the earlier hours, the dark, snake-like
column was halted again, nine miles further in among the wooded heights.
With Bear Cliff still out of range and sight, something had stopped the
scouts, and Blake was needed at the front. He found Schreiber crouching
at the foot of a tree, gazing warily forward along a southward-sloping
face of the mountain that was sparsely covered with tall, straight
pines, and that faded into mist a few hundred yards away. The
trail,--the main trail, that is,--seemed to go straight away eastward,
and, for a short distance, downward through a hollow or depression;
while, up the mountain side to the left, the north, following the spur
or shoulder, there were signs as of hoof tracks, half sheeted by the
new-fallen snow, and through this fresh, fleecy mantlet ploughed the
trooper boots in rude, insistent pursuit. The sergeants' horses were
held by a third soldier a few yards back behind the spur, for Winsor was
"side scouting" up the heights.

The snowfall had ceased for a time. The light was growing broader every
moment, and presently a soft whistle sounded somewhere up the steep, and
Schreiber answered. "He wants us, sir," was all he said, and in five
minutes they had found him, sprawled on his stomach on a projecting
ledge, and pointing southeastward, where, boldly outlined against the
gray of the morning sky, a black and beetling precipice towered from
the mist-wreathed pines at its base. Bear Cliff beyond a doubt!

"How far, sergeant?" asked the captain, never too reliant on his powers
of judging distance.

"Five miles, sir, at least; yet some three or four Indians have turned
off here and gone--somewhere up there." And, rolling half over, Winsor
pointed again toward a wooded bluff, perhaps three hundred feet higher
and half a mile away. "That's probably the best lookout this side of the
cliff itself!" he continued, in explanation, as he saw the puzzled look
on the captain's face. "From there, likely, they can see the trail over
the divide--the one Little Bat is leading the major and, if they've made
any time at all, the squadron should be at Bear Cliff now."

They were crawling to him by this time, Blake and Schreiber, among the
stunted cedars that grew thickly along the rocky ledge. Winsor, flat
again on his stomach, sprawled like a squirrel close to the brink. Every
moment as the skies grew brighter the panorama before them became more
extensive, a glorious sweep of highland scenery, of boldly tossing
ridges east and south and west--the slopes all mantled, the trees all
tipped, with nature's ermine, and studded now with myriad gems, taking
fire at the first touch of the day god's messenger, as the mighty king
himself burst his halo of circling cloud and came peering over the low
curtain far at the eastward horizon. Chill and darkness and shrouding
vapor vanished all in a breath as he rose, dominant over countless
leagues of wild, unbroken, yet magnificent mountain landscape.

"Worth every hour of watch and mile of climb!" muttered Blake. "But it's
Indians, not scenery, we're after. What are we here for, Winsor?" and
narrowly he eyed Ray's famous right bower.

"If the major got there first, sir,--and I believe he did,--they have to
send the prisoners and wounded back this way."

"Then we've got 'em!" broke in Schreiber, low-toned, but exultant. "Look
sir," he added, as he pointed along the range. "They are signalling
now."

From the wooded height ten hundred yards away, curious little puffs of
smoke, one following another, were sailing straight for the zenith, and
Blake, screwing his field glasses to the focus, swept with them the
mountain side toward the five-mile distant cliff, and presently the
muscles about his mouth began to twitch--sure sign with Blake of
gathering excitement.

"You're right, sergeant," he presently spoke, repressing the desire to
shout, and striving, lest Winsor should be moved to invidious
comparisons, to seem as nonchalant as Billy Ray himself. "They're
coming back already." Then down the mountain side he dove to plan and
prepare appropriate welcome, leaving Winsor and the glasses to keep
double powered watch on the situation.

Six-fifty of a glorious, keen November morning, and sixty troopers of
the old regiment were distributed along a spur that crossed, almost at
right angles, the line of the Indian trail. Sixty fur-capped,
rough-coated fellows, with their short brown carbines in hand, crouching
behind rocks and fallen trees, keeping close to cover and warned to
utter silence. Behind them, two hundred yards away, their horses were
huddled under charge of their disgusted guards, envious of their fellows
at the front, and cursing hard their luck in counting off as number
four. Schreiber had just come sliding, stumbling, down from Winsor's
perch to say they could hear faint sound of sharp volleying far out to
the eastward, where the warriors, evidently, were trying to "stand off"
Webb's skirmish line until the travois with the wounded and the escort
of the possible prisoners should succeed in getting back out of harm's
way and taking surer and higher trail into the thick of the wilderness
back of Bear Cliff. "Some of 'em must come in sight here in a minute,
sir," panted the veteran sergeant. "We could see them plainly up
there--a mule litter and four travois, and there must be a dozen in
saddle."

A dozen there were, for along the line of crouching men went sudden
thrill of excitement. Shoulders began to heave; nervous thumbs bore down
on heavy carbine hammers, and there was sound of irrepressible stir and
murmur. Out among the pines, five hundred yards away, two mounted
Indians popped suddenly into view, two others speedily following, their
well-nigh exhausted ponies feebly shaking their shaggy, protesting
heads, as their riders plied the stinging quirt or jabbed with cruel
lance; only in painful jog trot could they zig zag through the trees.
Then came two warriors, leading the pony of a crippled comrade. "Don't
fire--Don't harm them! Fall back from the trail there and let them in.
They'll halt the moment they see our tracks! Get 'em alive, if
possible!" were Blake's rapid orders, for his eyes were eagerly fixed on
other objects beyond these dejected leaders--upon stumbling mules,
lashed fore and aft between long, spliced saplings and bearing thus a
rude litter--Hay's pet wheelers turned to hospital use. An Indian boy,
mounted, led the foremost mule; another watched the second; while, on
each side of the occupant of this Sioux palanquin, jogged a blanketed
rider on jaded pony. Here was a personage of consequence--luckier much
than these others following, dragged along on travois whose trailing
poles came jolting over stone or hummock along the rugged path. It was
on these that Blake's glittering eyes were fastened. "Pounce on the
leaders, you that are nearest!" he ordered, in low, telling tones, the
men at his left; then turned to Schreiber, crouching close beside him,
the fringe of his buckskin hunting shirt quivering over his bounding
heart. "There's the prize I want," he muttered low. "Whatever you do,
let no shot reach that litter. Charge with me the moment the leaders
yell. You men to the right," he added, slightly raising his voice, "be
ready to jump with me. Don't shoot anybody that doesn't show fight. Nab
everything in sight."



"Whoo-oop!" All in a second the mountain woke, the welkin rang, to a
yell of warning from the lips of the leading Sioux. All in a second
they whirled their ponies about and darted back. All in that second
Blake and his nearmost sprang to their feet and flung themselves forward
straight for the startled convoy. In vain the few warriors bravely
rallied about their foremost wounded; the unwieldy litter could not turn
about; the frantic mules, crazed by the instant pandemonium of shouts
and shots,--the onward rush of charging men,--the awful screams of a
brace of squaws, broke from their leading reins; crashed with their
litter against the trees, hurling the luckless occupant to earth. Back
drove the unhit warriors before the dash of the cheering line. Down went
first one pony, then a second, in his bloody tracks. One after another,
litter, travois, wounded and prisoner, was clutched and seized by
stalwart hands, and Blake, panting not a little, found himself bending
staring over the prostrate form flung from the splintered wreck of the
litter, a form writhing in pain that forced no sound whatever from
between grimly clinching teeth, yet that baffled effort, almost superb,
to rise and battle still--a form magnificent in its proportions, yet
helpless through wounds and weakness. Not the form Blake thought to see,
of shrinking, delicate, dainty woman, but that of the furious warrior
who thrice had dared him on the open field--the red brave well known to
him by sight and deed within the moon now waning, but, only within the
day gone by, revealed to him as the renegade Ralph Moreau,--Eagle Wing
of the Ogalalla Sioux.

Where then was Nanette?

"Look out for this man, corporal!" he called, to a shouting young
trooper. "See that no harm comes to him." Then quickly he ran on to the
huddle of travois. Something assured him she could not be far away.
The first drag litter held another young warrior, sullen and speechless
like the foremost. The next bore a desperately wounded brave whose
bloodless lips were compressed in agony and dumb as those of the dead.
About these cowered, shivering and whimpering, two or three
terror-stricken squaws, one of them with a round-eyed pappoose staring
at her back. A pony lay struggling in the snow close by. Half a dozen
rough soldier hands were dragging a stricken rider from underneath. Half
a dozen more were striving to control the wild plungings of another
mettlesome little beast, whose rider, sitting firmly astride, lashed
first at his quivering flank and then at the fur gauntleted hands,--even
at the laughing, bearded faces--sure sign of another squaw, and a game
one. Far out to the front the crackle of carbine and rifle told that
Webb was driving the scattered braves before him,--that the comrade
squadron was coming their way,--that Bear Cliff had been sought by the
Sioux in vain,--that Indian wiles and strategy, Indian pluck and staying
power, all had more than met their match. Whatever the fate of Lame
Wolf's fighting force, now pressed by Henry's column, far in the
southward hills, here in sight of the broad Big Horn valley, the white
chief had struck a vital blow. Village, villagers, wounded and prisoners
were all the spoil of the hated soldiery. Here at the scene of Blake's
minor affair there appeared still in saddle just one undaunted,
unconquered amazon whose black eyes flashed through the woolen hood that
hid the rest of her face, whose lips had uttered as yet no sound, but
from whom two soldiers recoiled at the cry of a third. "Look at the hand
of her, fellers! It's whiter than mine!"

"That's all right, Lanigan," answered the jovial voice of the leader
they loved and laughed with. "Hold that pony steady. Now, by
your-ladyship's leave," and two long, sinewy arms went circling about
the shrinking rider's waist, and a struggling form was lifted
straightway out of saddle and deposited, not too gracefully, on its
moccasined feet. "We will remove this one impediment to your speech,"
continued Blake, whereat the muffling worsted was swiftly unwound, "and
then we will listen to our meed of thanks. Ah, no wonder you did not
need a side-saddle that night at Frayne. You ride admirably a
califourchon. My compliments, Mademoiselle La Fleur; or should I
say--Madame Moreau."

For all answer Blake received one quick, stinging slap in the face from
that mittenless little right hand.





Next: Thanksgiving At Frayne

Previous: A Slap For The Major



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