Read WELL WON of Starlight Ranch and Other Stories of Army Life on the Frontier , free online book, by Charles King, on ReadCentral.com.

OR

FROM THE PLAINS TO “THE POINT.”

CHAPTER I.

RALPH MCCREA.

The sun was going down, and a little girl with big, dark eyes who was sitting in the waiting-room of the railway station was beginning to look very tired.  Ever since the train came in at one o’clock she had been perched there between the iron arms of the seat, and now it was after six o’clock of the long June day, and high time that some one came for her.

A bonny little mite she was, with a wealth of brown hair tumbling down her shoulders and overhanging her heavy eyebrows.  She was prettily dressed, and her tiny feet, cased in stout little buttoned boots, stuck straight out before her most of the time, as she sat well back on the broad bench.

She was a silent little body, and for over two hours had hardly opened her lips to any one, ­even to the doll that now lay neglected on the seat beside her.  Earlier in the afternoon she had been much engrossed with that blue-eyed, flaxen-haired, and overdressed beauty; but, little by little, her interest flagged, and when a six-year-old girlie loses interest in a brand-new doll something serious must be the matter.

Something decidedly serious was the matter now.  The train that came up from Denver had brought this little maiden and her father, ­a handsome, sturdy-looking ranchman of about thirty years of age, ­and they had been welcomed with jubilant cordiality by two or three stalwart men in broad-brimmed slouch hats and frontier garb.  They had picked her up in their brawny arms and carried her to the waiting-room, and seated her there in state and fed her with fruit and dainties, and made much of her.  Then her father had come in and placed in her arms this wonderful new doll, and while she was still hugging it in her delight, he laid a heavy satchel on the seat beside her and said, ­

“And now, baby, papa has to go up-town a ways.  He has lots of things to get to take home with us, and some new horses to try.  He may be gone a whole hour, but will you stay right here ­you and dolly ­and take good care of the satchel?”

She looked up a little wistfully.  She did not quite like to be left behind, but she felt sure papa could not well take her, ­he was always so loving and kind, ­and then, there was dolly; and there were other children with their mothers in the room.  So she nodded, and put up her little face for his kiss.  He took her in his arms a minute and hugged her tight.

“That’s my own little Jessie!” he said.  “She’s as brave as her mother was, fellows, and it’s saying a heap.”

With that he set her down upon the bench, and they put dolly in her arms again and a package of apples within her reach; and then the jolly party started off.

They waved their hands to her through the window and she smiled shyly at them, and one of them called to a baggage-man and told him to have an eye on little Jessie in there.  “She is Farron’s kid.”

For a while matters did not go so very badly.  Other children, who came to look at that marvellous doll and to make timid advances, kept her interested.  But presently the east-bound train was signalled and they were all whisked away.

Then came a space of over an hour, during which little Jessie sat there all alone in the big, bare room, playing contentedly with her new toy and chattering in low-toned, murmurous “baby talk” to her, and pointing out the wonderful sunbeams that came slanting in through the dust of the western windows.  She had had plenty to eat and a big glass of milk before papa went away, and was neither hungry nor thirsty; but all the same, it seemed as if that hour were getting very, very long; and every time the tramp of footsteps was heard on the platform outside she looked up eagerly.

Then other people began to come in to wait for a train, and whenever the door opened, the big, dark eyes glanced quickly up with such a hopeful, wistful gaze, and as each new-comer proved to be a total stranger the little maiden’s disappointment was so evident that some kind-hearted women came over to speak to her and see if all was right.

But she was as shy as she was lonely, poor little mite, and hung her head and hugged her doll, and shrank away when they tried to take her in their arms.  All they could get her to say was that she was waiting for papa and that her name was Jessie Farron.

At last their train came and they had to go, and a new set appeared; and there were people to meet and welcome them with joyous greetings and much homely, homelike chatter, and everybody but one little girl seemed to have friends.  It all made Jessie feel more and more lonely, and to wonder what could have happened to keep papa so very long.

Still she was so loyal, so sturdy a little sentinel at her post.  The kind-hearted baggage-man came in and strove to get her to go with him to his cottage “a ways up the road,” where his wife and little ones were waiting tea for him; but she shook her head and shrank back even from him.

Papa had told her to stay there and she would not budge.  Papa had placed his satchel in her charge, and so she kept guard over it and watched every one who approached.

The sun was getting low and shining broadly in through those western windows and making a glare that hurt her eyes, and she longed to change her seat.  Between the sun glare and the loneliness her eyes began to fill with big tears, and when once they came it was so hard to force them back; so it happened that poor little Jessie found herself crying despite all her determination to be “papa’s own brave daughter.”

The windows behind her opened out to the north, and by turning around she could see a wide, level space between the platform and the hotel, where wagons and an omnibus or two, and a four-mule ambulance had been coming and going.

Again and again her eyes had wandered towards this space in hopeful search for father’s coming, only to meet with disappointment.  At last, just as she had turned and was kneeling on the seat and gazing through the tears that trickled down her pretty face, she saw a sight that made her sore little heart bound high with hope.

First there trotted into the enclosure a span of handsome bay horses with a low phaeton in which were seated two ladies; and directly after them, at full gallop, came two riders on spirited, mettlesome sorrels.

Little Jessie knew the horsemen at a glance.  One was a tall, bronzed, dark-moustached trooper in the fatigue uniform of a cavalry sergeant; the other was a blue-eyed, faired-haired young fellow of sixteen years, who raised his cap and bowed to the ladies in the carriage, as he reined his horse up close to the station platform.

He was just about to speak to them when he heard a childish voice calling, “Ralph!  Ralph!” and, turning quickly around, he caught sight of a little girl stretching out her arms to him through the window, and crying as if her baby heart would break.

In less time than it takes me to write five words he sprang from his horse, bounded up the platform into the waiting-room, and gathered the child to his heart, anxiously bidding her tell him what was the trouble.

For a few minutes she could only sob in her relief and joy at seeing him, and snuggle close to his face.  The ladies wondered to see Ralph McCrea coming towards them with a strange child in his arms, but they were all sympathy and loving-kindness in a moment, so attractive was her sweet face.

“Mrs. Henry, this is Jessie Farron.  You know her father; he owns a ranch up on the Chugwater, right near the Laramie road.  The station-master says she has been here all alone since he went off at one o’clock with some friends to buy things for the ranch and try some horses.  It must have been his party Sergeant Wells and I saw way out by the fort.”

He paused a moment to address a cheering word to the little girl in his arms, and then went on:  “Their team had run away over the prairie ­a man told us ­and they were leading them in to the quartermaster’s corral as we rode from the stables.  I did not recognize Farron at the distance, but Sergeant Wells will gallop out and tell him Jessie is all right. Would you mind taking care of her a few minutes?  Poor little girl!” he added, in lower and almost beseeching tones, “she hasn’t any mother.”

Would I mind!” exclaimed Mrs. Henry, warmly.  “Give her to me, Ralph.  Come right here, little daughter, and tell me all about it,” and the loving woman stood up in the carriage and held forth her arms, to which little Jessie was glad enough to be taken, and there she sobbed, and was soothed and petted and kissed as she had not been since her mother died.

Ralph and the station-master brought to the carriage the wonderful doll ­at sight of whose toilet Mrs. Henry could not repress a significant glance at her lady friend, and a suggestive exclamation of “Horrors!” ­and the heavy satchel.  These were placed where Jessie could see them and feel that they were safe, and then she was able to answer a few questions and to look up trustfully into the gentle face that was nestled every little while to hers, and to sip the cup of milk that Ralph fetched from the hotel.  She had certainly fallen into the hands of persons who had very loving hearts.

“Poor little thing!  What a shame to leave her all alone!  How long has her mother been dead, Ralph?” asked the other lady, rather indignantly.

“About two years, Mrs. Wayne.  Father and his officers knew them very well.  Our troop was camped up there two whole summers near them, ­last summer and the one before, ­but Farron took her to Denver to visit her mother’s people last April, and has just gone for her.  Sergeant Wells said he stopped at the ranch on the way down from Laramie, and Farron told him, then, he couldn’t live another month without his little girl, and was going to Denver for her at once.”

“I remember them well, now,” said Mrs. Henry, “and we saw him sometimes when our troop was at Laramie.  What was the last news from your father, Ralph, and when do you go?”

“No news since the letter that met me here.  You know he has been scouting ever since General Crook went on up to the Powder River country.  Our troop and the Grays are all that are left to guard that whole neighborhood, and the Indians seem to know it.  They are ‘jumping’ from the reservation all the time.”

“But the Fifth Cavalry are here now, and they will soon be up there to help you, and put a stop to all that, ­won’t they?”

“I don’t know.  The Fifth say that they expect orders to go to the Black Hills, so as to get between the reservations and Sitting Bull’s people.  Only six troops ­half the regiment ­have come.  Papa’s letter said I was to start for Laramie with them, but they have been kept waiting four days already.”

“They will start now, though,” said the lady.  “General Merritt has just got back from Red Cloud, where he went to look into the situation, and he has been in the telegraph office much of the afternoon wiring to Chicago, where General Sheridan is.  Colonel Mason told us, as we drove past camp, that they would probably march at daybreak.”

“That means that Sergeant Wells and I go at the same time, then,” said Ralph, with glistening eyes.  “Doesn’t it seem odd, after I’ve been galloping all over this country from here to the Chug for the last three years, that now father won’t let me go it alone.  I never yet set eyes on a war party of Indians, or heard of one south of the Platte.”

“All the same they came, Ralph, and it was simply to protect those settlers that your father’s company was there so much.  This year they are worse than ever, and there has been no cavalry to spare.  If you were my boy, I should be worried half to death at the idea of your riding alone from here to Laramie.  What does your mother think of it?”

“It was mother, probably, who made father issue the order.  She writes that, eager as she is to see me, she wouldn’t think of letting me come alone with Sergeant Wells.  Pshaw!  He and I would be safer than the old stage-coach any day.  That is never ‘jumped’ south of Laramie, though it is chased now and then above there.  Of course the country’s full of Indians between the Platte and the Black Hills, but we shouldn’t be likely to come across any.”

There was a moment’s silence.  Nestled in Mrs. Henry’s arms the weary little girl was dropping off into placid slumber, and forgetting all her troubles.  Both the ladies were wives of officers of the army, and were living at Fort Russell, three miles out from Cheyenne, while their husbands were far to the north with their companies on the Indian campaign, which was just then opening.

It was an anxious time.  Since February all of the cavalry and much of the infantry stationed in Nebraska and Wyoming had been out in the wild country above the North Platte River, between the Big Horn Mountains and the Black Hills.  For two years previous great numbers of the young warriors had been slipping away from the Sioux reservations and joining the forces of such vicious and intractable chiefs as Sitting Bull, Gall, and Rain-in-the-face, it could scarcely be doubted, with hostile intent.

Several thousands of the Indians were known to be at large, and committing depredations and murders in every direction among the settlers.  Now, all pacific means having failed, the matter had been turned over to General Crook, who had recently brought the savage Apaches of Arizona under subjection, to employ such means as he found necessary to defeat their designs.

General Crook found the Sioux and their allies armed with the best modern breech-loaders, well supplied with ammunition and countless herds of war ponies, and far too numerous and powerful to be handled by the small force at his command.

One or two sharp and savage fights occurred in March, while the mercury was still thirty degrees below zero, and then the government decided on a great summer campaign.  Generals Terry and Gibbon were to hem the Indians from the north along the Yellowstone, while at the same time General Crook was to march up and attack them from the south.

When June came, four regiments of cavalry and half a dozen infantry regiments were represented among the forces that scouted to and fro in the wild and beautiful uplands of Wyoming, Dakota, and Eastern Montana, searching for the Sioux.

The families of the officers and soldiers remained at the barracks from which the men were sent, and even at the exposed stations of Forts Laramie, Robinson, and Fetterman, many ladies and children remained under the protection of small garrisons of infantry.  Among the ladies at Laramie was Mrs. McCrea, Ralph’s mother, who waited for the return of her boy from a long absence at school.

A manly, sturdy fellow was Ralph, full of health and vigor, due in great part to the open-air life he had led in his early boyhood.  He had “backed” an Indian pony before he was seven, and could sit one like a Comanche by the time he was ten.  He had accompanied his father on many a long march and scout, and had ridden every mile of the way from the Gila River in Arizona, across New Mexico, and so on up into Nebraska.

He had caught brook trout in the Cache la Poudre, and shot antelope along the Loup Fork of the Platte.  With his father and his father’s men to watch and keep him from harm, he had even charged his first buffalo herd and had been fortunate enough to shoot a bull.  The skin had been made into a robe, which he carefully kept.

Now, all eager to spend his vacation among his favorite haunts, ­in the saddle and among the mountain streams, ­Ralph McCrea was going back to his army home, when, as ill-luck would have it, the great Sioux war broke out in the early summer of our Centennial Year, and promised to greatly interfere with, if it did not wholly spoil, many of his cherished plans.

Fort Laramie lay about one hundred miles north of Cheyenne, and Sergeant Wells had come down with the paymaster’s escort a few days before, bringing Ralph’s pet, his beautiful little Kentucky sorrel “Buford,” and now the boy and his faithful friend, the sergeant, were visiting at Fort Russell, and waiting for a safe opportunity to start for home.

Presently, as they chatted in low tones so as not to disturb the little sleeper, there came the sound of rapid hoof-beats, and Sergeant Wells cantered into the enclosure and, riding up to the carriage, said to Ralph, ­

“I found him, sir, all safe; but their wagon was being patched up, and he could not leave.  He is so thankful to Mrs. Henry for her kindness, and begs to know if she would mind bringing Jessie out to the fort.  The men are trying very hard to persuade him not to start for the Chug in the morning.”

“Why not, sergeant?”

“Because the telegraph despatches from Laramie say there must be a thousand Indians gone out from the reservation in the last two days.  They’ve cut the wires up to Red Cloud, and no more news can reach us.”

Ralph’s face grew very pale.

“Father is right in the midst of them, with only fifty men!”

CHAPTER II.

CAVALRY ON THE MARCH.

It was a lovely June morning when the Fifth Cavalry started on its march.  Camp was struck at daybreak, and soon after five o’clock, while the sun was still low in the east and the dew-drops were sparkling on the buffalo grass, the long column was winding up the bare, rolling “divide” which lay between the valleys of Crow and Lodge Pole Creeks.  In plain view, only thirty miles away to the west, were the summits of the Rocky Mountains, but such is the altitude of this upland prairie, sloping away eastward between the two forks of the Platte River, that these summits appear to be nothing more than a low range of hills shutting off the western horizon.

Looking southward from the Laramie road, all the year round one can see the great peaks of the range ­Long’s and Hahn’s and Pike’s ­glistening in their mantles of snow, and down there near them, in Colorado, the mountains slope abruptly into the Valley of the South Platte.

Up here in Wyoming the Rockies go rolling and billowing far out to the east, and the entire stretch of country, from what are called the “Black Hills of Wyoming,” in contradistinction to the Black Hills of Dakota, far east as the junction of the forks of the Platte, is one vast inclined plane.

The Union Pacific Railway winds over these Black Hills at Sherman, ­the lowest point the engineers could find, ­and Sherman is over eight thousand feet above the sea.

From Sherman, eastward, in less than an hour’s run the cars go sliding down with smoking brakes to Cheyenne, a fall of two thousand feet.  But the wagon-road from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie twists and winds among the ravines and over the divides of this lofty prairie; so that Ralph and his soldier friends, while riding jauntily over the hard-beaten track this clear, crisp, sunshiny, breezy morning, were twice as high above the sea as they would have been at the tiptop of the Catskills and higher even than had they been at the very summit of Mount Washington.

The air at this height, though rare, is keen and exhilarating, and one needs no second look at the troopers to see how bright are their eyes and how nimble and elastic is the pace of their steeds.

The commanding officer, with his adjutant and orderlies and a little group of staff sergeants, had halted at the crest of one of these ridges and was looking back at the advancing column.  Beside the winding road was strung a line of wires, ­the military telegraph to the border forts, ­and with the exception of those bare poles not a stick of timber was anywhere in sight.

The whole surface is destitute of bush or tree, but the thick little bunches of gray-green grass that cover it everywhere are rich with juice and nutriment.  This is the buffalo grass of the Western prairies, and the moment the horses’ heads are released down go their nozzles, and they are cropping eagerly and gratefully.

Far as the eye can see to the north and east it roams over a rolling, tumbling surface that seems to have become suddenly petrified.  Far to the south are the snow-shimmering peaks; near at hand, to the west, are the gloomy gorges and ravines and wide wastes of upland of the Black Hills of Wyoming; and so clear is the air that they seem but a short hour’s gallop away.

There is something strangely deceptive about the distances in an atmosphere so rare and clear as this.

A young surgeon was taking his first ride with a cavalry column in the wide West, and, as he looked back into the valley through which they had been marching for over half an hour, his face was clouded with an expression of odd perplexity.

“What’s the matter, doctor?” asked the adjutant, with a grin on his face.  “Are you wondering whether those fellows really are United States regulars?” and the young officer nodded towards the long column of horsemen in broad-brimmed slouch hats and flannel shirts or fanciful garb of Indian tanned buckskin.  Even among the officers there was hardly a sign of the uniform or trappings which distinguish the soldiers in garrison.

“No, it isn’t that.  I knew that you fellows who had served so long in Arizona had got out of the way of wearing uniform in the field against Indians.  What I can’t understand is that ridge over there.  I thought we had been down in a hollow for the last half-hour, yet look at it; we must have come over that when I was thinking of something else.”

“Not a bit of it, doctor,” laughed the colonel.  “That’s where we dismounted and took a short rest and gave the horses a chance to pick a bit.”

“Why, but, colonel! that must have been two miles back, ­full half an hour ago:  you don’t mean that ridge is two miles away?  I could almost hit that man riding down the road towards us.”

“It would be a wonderful shot, doctor.  That man is one of the teamsters who went back after a dropped pistol.  He is a mile and a half away.”

The doctor’s eyes were wide open with wonder.

“Of course you must know, colonel, but it is incomprehensible to me.”

“It is easily proved, doctor.  Take these two telegraph poles nearest us and tell me how far they are apart.”

The doctor looked carefully from one pole to another.  Only a single wire was strung along the line, and the poles were stout and strong.  After a moment’s study he said, “Well, they are just about seventy-five yards apart.”

“More than that, doctor.  They are a good hundred yards.  But even at your estimate, just count the poles back to that ridge ­of course they are equidistant, or nearly so, all along ­and tell me how far you make it.”

The doctor’s eyes began to dilate again as he silently took account of the number.

“I declare, there are over twenty to the rear of the wagon-train and nearly forty across the ridge!  I give it up.”

“And now look here,” said the colonel, pointing out to the eastward where some lithe-limbed hounds were coursing over the prairie with Ralph on his fleet sorrel racing in pursuit.  “Look at young McCrea out there where there are no telegraph poles to help you judge the distance.  If he were an Indian whom you wanted to bring down what would you set your sights at, providing you had time to set them at all?” and the veteran Indian fighter smiled grimly.

The doctor shook his head.

“It is too big a puzzle for me,” he answered.  “Five minutes ago I would have said three hundred at the utmost, but I don’t know now.”

“How about that, Nihil?” asked the colonel, turning to a soldier riding with the head-quarters party.

Nihil’s brown hand goes up to the brim of his scouting hat in salute, but he shook his head.

“The bullet would kick up a dust this side of him, sir,” was the answer.

“People sometimes wonder why it is we manage to hit so few of these Cheyennes or Sioux in our battles with them,” said the colonel.  “Now you can get an idea of one of the difficulties.  They rarely come within six hundred yards of us when they are attacking a train or an infantry escort, and are always riding full tilt, just as you saw Ralph just now.  It is next to impossible to hit them.”

“I understand,” said the doctor.  “How splendidly that boy rides!”

“Ralph?  Yes.  He’s a genuine trooper.  Now, there’s a boy whose whole ambition is to go to West Point.  He’s a manly, truthful, dutiful young fellow, born and raised in the army, knows the plains by heart, and just the one to make a brilliant and valuable cavalry officer, but there isn’t a ghost of a chance for him.”

“Why not?”

“Why not?  Why! how is he to get an appointment?  If he had a home somewhere in the East, and his father had influence with the Congressman of the district, it might be done; but the sons of army officers have really very little chance.  The President used to have ten appointments a year, but Congress took them away from him.  They thought there were too many cadets at the Point; but while they were virtuously willing to reduce somebody else’s prerogatives in that line, it did not occur to them that they might trim a little on their own.  Now the President is allowed only ten ‘all told,’ and can appoint no boy until some of his ten are graduated or otherwise disposed of.  It really gives him only two or three appointments a year, and he has probably a thousand applicants for every one.  What chance has an army boy in Wyoming against the son of some fellow with Senators and Representatives at his back in Washington?  If the army could name an occasional candidate, a boy like Ralph would be sure to go, and we would have more soldiers and fewer scientists in the cavalry.”

By this time the head of the compact column was well up, and the captain of the leading troop, riding with his first lieutenant in front of his sets of fours, looked inquiringly at the colonel, as though half expectant of a signal to halt or change the gait.  Receiving none, and seeing that the colonel had probably stopped to look over his command, the senior troop leader pushed steadily on.

Behind him, four abreast, came the dragoons, ­a stalwart, sunburned, soldierly-looking lot.  Not a particle of show or glitter in their attire or equipment.  Utterly unlike the dazzling hussars of England or the European continent, when the troopers of the United States are out on the broad prairies of the West “for business,” as they put it, hardly a brass button, even, is to be seen.

The colonel notes with satisfaction the nimble, active pace of the horses as they go by at rapid walk, and the easy seat of the men in their saddles.

First the bays of “K” Troop trip quickly past; then the beautiful, sleek grays of “B,” Captain Montgomery’s company; then more bays in “I” and “A” and “D,” and then some sixty-five blacks, “C” Troop’s color.

There are two sorrel troops in the regiment and more bays, and later in the year, when new horses were obtained, the Fifth had a roan and a dark-brown troop; but in June, when they were marching up to take their part in the great campaign that followed, only two of their companies were not mounted on bright bay horses, and one and all they were in the pink of condition and eager for a burst “’cross country.”

It was, however, their colonel’s desire to take them to their destination in good trim, and he permitted no “larking.”

They had several hundred miles of weary marching before them.  Much of the country beyond the Platte was “Bad Lands,” where the grass is scant and poor, the soil ashen and spongy, and the water densely alkaline.  All this would tell very sensibly upon the condition of horses that all winter long had been comfortably stabled, regularly groomed and grain-fed, and watered only in pure running streams flushed by springs or melting snow.

It was all very well for young Ralph to be coursing about on his fleet, elastic sorrel, radiant with delight as the boy was at being again “out on the plains” and in the saddle; but the cavalry commander’s first care must be to bring his horses to the scene of action in the most effective state of health and soundness.  The first few days’ marching, therefore, had to be watched with the utmost care.

As the noon hour approached, the doctor noted how the hills off to the west seemed to be growing higher, and that there were broader vistas of wide ranges of barren slopes to the east and north.

The colonel was riding some distance ahead of the battalion, his little escort close beside, and Ralph was giving Buford a resting spell, and placidly ambling alongside the doctor.

Sergeant Wells was riding somewhere in the column with some chum of old days.  He belonged to another regiment, but knew the Fifth of old.  The hounds had tired of chasing over a waterless country, and with lolling tongues were trotting behind their masters’ horses.

The doctor was vastly interested in what he had heard of Ralph, and engaged him in talk.  Just as they came in sight of the broad, open valley in which runs the sparkling Lodge Pole, a two-horse wagon rumbled up alongside, and there on the front seat was Farron, the ranchman, with bright-eyed, bonny-faced little Jessie smiling beside him.

“We’ve caught you, Ralph,” he laughed, “though we left Russell an hour or more behind you.  I s’pose you’ll all camp at Lodge Pole for the night.  We’re going on to the Chug.”

“Hadn’t you better see the colonel about that?” asked Ralph, anxiously.

“Oh, it’s all right!  I got telegrams from Laramie and the Chug, both, just before we left Russell.  Not an Indian’s been heard of this side of the Platte, and your father’s troop has just got in to Laramie.”

“Has he?” exclaimed Ralph, with delight.  “Then he knows I’ve started, and perhaps he’ll come on to the Chug or Eagle’s Nest and meet me.”

“More’n likely,” answered Farron.  “You and the sergeant had better come ahead and spend the night with me at the ranch.”

“I’ve no doubt the colonel will let us go ahead with you,” answered Ralph, “but the ranch is too far off the road.  We would have to stay at Phillips’s for the night.  What say you, sergeant?” he asked, as Wells came loping up alongside.

“The very plan, I think.  Somebody will surely come ahead to meet us, and we can make Laramie two days before the Fifth.”

“Then, good-by, doctor; I must ask the colonel first, but we’ll see you at Laramie.”

“Good-by, Ralph, and good luck to you in getting that cadetship.”

“Oh, well!  I must trust to luck for that.  Father says it all depends on my getting General Sheridan to back me.  If he would only ask for me, or if I could only do something to make him glad to ask; but what chance is there?”

What chance, indeed?  Ralph McCrea little dreamed that at that very moment General Sheridan ­far away in Chicago ­was reading despatches that determined him to go at once, himself, to Red Cloud Agency; that in four days more the general would be there, at Laramie, and that in two wonderful days, meantime ­but who was there who dreamed what would happen meantime?

CHAPTER III.

DANGER IN THE AIR.

When the head of the cavalry column reached the bridge over Lodge Pole Creek a march of about twenty-five miles had been made, which is an average day’s journey for cavalry troops when nothing urgent hastens their movements.

Filing to the right, the horsemen moved down the north bank of the rapidly-running stream, and as soon as the rearmost troop was clear of the road and beyond reach of its dust, the trumpets sounded “halt” and “dismount,” and in five minutes the horses, unsaddled, were rolling on the springy turf, and then were driven out in herds, each company’s by itself, to graze during the afternoon along the slopes.  Each herd was watched and guarded by half a dozen armed troopers, and such horses as were notorious “stampeders” were securely “side-lined” or hobbled.

Along the stream little white tents were pitched as the wagons rolled in and were unloaded; and then the braying mules, rolling and kicking in their enjoyment of freedom from harness, were driven out and disposed upon the slopes at a safe distance from the horses.  The smokes of little fires began to float into the air, and the jingle of spoon and coffee-pot and “spider” and skillet told that the cooks were busy getting dinner for the hungry campaigners.

Such appetites as those long-day marches give!  Such delight in life and motion one feels as he drinks in that rare, keen mountain air!  Some of the soldiers ­old plainsmen ­are already prone upon the turf, their heads pillowed on their saddles, their slouch hats pulled down over their eyes, snatching half an hour’s dreamless sleep before the cooks shall summon them to dinner.

One officer from each company is still in saddle, riding around the horses of his own troop to see that the grass is well chosen and that his guards are properly posted and on the alert.  Over at the road there stands a sort of frontier tavern and stage station, at which is a telegraph office, and the colonel has been sending despatches to Department Head-Quarters to announce the safe arrival of his command at Lodge Pole en route for Fort Laramie.  Now he is talking with Ralph.

“It isn’t that, my boy.  I do not suppose there is an Indian anywhere near the Chugwater; but if your father thought it best that you should wait and start with us, I think it was his desire that you should keep in the protection of the column all the way.  Don’t you?”

“Yes, sir, I do.  The only question now is, will he not come or send forward to the Chug to meet me, and could I not be with mother two days earlier that way?  Besides, Farron is determined to go ahead as soon as he has had dinner, and ­I don’t like to think of little Jessie being up there at the Chug just now.  Would you mind my telegraphing to father at Laramie and asking him?”

“No, indeed, Ralph.  Do so.”

And so a despatch was sent to Laramie, and in the course of an hour, just as they had enjoyed a comfortable dinner, there came the reply, ­

“All right.  Come ahead to Phillips’s Ranch.  Party will meet you there at eight in the morning.  They stop at Eagle’s Nest to-night.”

Ralph’s eyes danced as he showed this to the colonel who read it gravely and replied, ­

“It is all safe, I fancy, or your father would not say so.  They have patrols all along the bank of the Platte to the southeast, and no Indians can cross without its being discovered in a few hours.  I suppose they never come across between Laramie and Fetterman, do they, Ralph?”

“Certainly not of late years, colonel.  It is so far off their line to the reservations where they have to run for safety after their depredations.”

“I know that; but now that all but two troops of cavalry have gone up with General Crook they might be emboldened to try a wider sweep.  That’s all I’m afraid of.”

“Even if the Indians came, colonel, they’ve got those ranch buildings so loop-holed and fortified at Phillips’s that we could stand them off a week if need be, and you would reach there by noon at latest.”

“Yes.  We make an early start to-morrow morning, and ’twill be just another twenty-five miles to our camp on the Chug.  If all is well you will be nearly to Eagle’s Nest by the time we get to Phillips’s, and you will be at Laramie before the sunset-gun to-morrow.  Well, give my regards to your father, Ralph, and keep your eye open for the main chance.  We cavalry people want you for our representative at West Point, you know.”

“Thank you for that, colonel,” answered Ralph, with sparkling eyes.  “I sha’n’t forget it in many a day.”

So it happened that late that afternoon, with Farron driving his load of household goods; with brown-haired little Jessie lying sound asleep with her head on his lap; with Sergeant Wells cantering easily alongside and Ralph and Buford scouting a little distance ahead, the two-horse wagon rolled over the crest of the last divide and came just at sunset in sight of the beautiful valley with the odd name of Chugwater.

Farther up the stream towards its sources among the pine-crested Black Hills, there were many places where the busy beavers had dammed its flow.  The Indians, bent on trapping these wary creatures, had listened in the stillness of the solitudes to the battering of those wonderful tails upon the mud walls of their dams and forts, and had named the little river after its most marked characteristic, the constant “chug, chug” of those cricket-bat caudals.

On the west of the winding stream, in the smiling valley with tiny patches of verdure, lay the ranch with its out-buildings, corrals, and the peacefully browsing stock around it, and little Jessie woke at her father’s joyous shout and pointed out her home to Ralph.

There where the trail wound away from the main road the wagon and horsemen must separate, and Ralph reined close alongside and took Jessie in his arms and was hugged tight as he kissed her bonny face.  Then he and the sergeant shook hands heartily with Farron, set spurs to their horses, and went loping down northeastward to the broader reaches of the valley.

On their right, across the lowlands, ran the long ridge ending in an abrupt precipice, that was the scene of the great buffalo-killing by the Indians many a long year ago.  Straight ahead were the stage station, the forage sheds, and the half dozen buildings of Phillips’s.  All was as placid and peaceful in the soft evening light as if no hostile Indian had ever existed.

Yet there were to be seen signs of preparation for Indian attack.  The herder whom the travellers met two miles south of the station was heavily armed and his mate was only short rifle-shot away.  The men waved their hats to Ralph and his soldier comrade, and one of them called out, “Whar’d ye leave the cavalry?” and seemed disappointed to hear they were as far back as Lodge Pole.

At the station, they found the ranchmen prepared for their coming and glad to see them.  Captain McCrea had telegraphed twice during the afternoon and seemed anxious to know of their arrival.

“He’s in the office at Laramie now,” said the telegraph agent, with a smile, “and I wired him the moment we sighted you coming down the hill.  Come in and send him a few words.  It will please him more than anything I can say.”

So Ralph stepped into the little room with its solitary instrument and lonely operator.  In those days there was little use for the line except for the conducting of purely military business, and the agents or operators were all soldiers detailed for the purpose.  Here at “The Chug” the instrument rested on a little table by the loop-hole of a window in the side of the log hut.  Opposite it was the soldier’s narrow camp-bed with its brown army blankets and with his heavy overcoat thrown over the foot.  Close at hand stood his Springfield rifle, with the belt of cartridges, and over the table hung two Colt’s revolvers.

All through the rooms of the station the same war-like preparations were visible, for several times during the spring and early summer war parties of Indians had come prowling up the valley, driving the herders before them; but, having secured all the beef cattle they could handle, they had hurried back to the fords of the Platte and, except on one or two occasions, had committed no murders.

Well knowing the pluck of the little community at Phillips’s, the Indians had not come within long rifle range of the ranch, but on the last two visits the warriors seemed to have grown bolder.  While most of the Indians were rounding up cattle and scurrying about in the valley, two miles below the ranch, it was noted that two warriors, on their nimble ponies, had climbed the high ridge on the east that overlooked the ranches in the valley beyond and above Phillips’s, and were evidently taking deliberate note of the entire situation.

One of the Indians was seen to point a long, bare arm, on which silver wristlets and bands flashed in the sun, at Farron’s lonely ranch four miles up-stream.

That was more than the soldier telegrapher could bear patiently.  He took his Springfield rifle out into the fields, and opened a long range fire on these adventurous redskins.

The Indians were a good mile away, but that honest “Long Tom” sent its leaden missiles whistling about their ears, and kicking up the dust around their ponies’ heels, until, after a few defiant shouts and such insulting and contemptuous gestures as they could think of, the two had ducked suddenly out of sight behind the bluffs.

All this the ranch people told Ralph and the sergeant, as they were enjoying a hot supper after the fifty-mile ride of the day.  Afterwards the two travellers went out into the corral to see that their horses were secure for the night.

Buford looked up with eager whinny at Ralph’s footstep, pricked his pretty ears, and looked as full of life and spirit as if he had never had a hard day’s gallop in his life.  Sergeant Wells had given him a careful rubbing down while Ralph was at the telegraph office, and later, when the horses were thoroughly cool, they were watered at the running stream and given a hearty feed of oats.

Phillips came out to lock up his stable while they were petting Buford, and stood there a moment admiring the pretty fellow.

“With your weight I think he could make a race against any horse in the cavalry, couldn’t he, Mr. Ralph?” he asked.

“I’m not quite sure, Phillips; the colonel of the Fifth Cavalry has a horse that I might not care to race.  He was being led along behind the head-quarters escort to-day.  Barring that horse Van, I would ride Buford against any horse I’ve ever seen in the service for any distance from a quarter of a mile to a day’s march.”

“But those Indian ponies, Mr. Ralph, couldn’t they beat him?”

“Over rough ground ­up hill and down dale ­I suppose some of them could.  I saw their races up at Red Cloud last year, and old Spotted Tail brought over a couple of ponies from Camp Sheridan that ran like a streak, and there was a Minneconjou chief there who had a very fast pony.  Some of the young Ogallallas had quick, active beasts, but, take them on a straight-away run, I wouldn’t be afraid to try my luck with Buford against the best of them.”

“Well, I hope you’ll never have to ride for your life on him.  He’s pretty and sound and fast, but those Indians have such wind and bottom; they never seem to give out.”

A little later ­at about half after eight o’clock ­Sergeant Wells, the telegraph operator, and one or two of the ranchmen sat tilted back in their rough chairs on the front porch of the station enjoying their pipes.  Ralph had begun to feel a little sleepy, and was ready to turn in when he was attracted by the conversation between the two soldiers; the operator was speaking, and the seriousness of his tone caused the boy to listen.

“It isn’t that we have any particular cause to worry just here.  With our six or seven men we could easily stand off the Indians until help came, but it’s Farron and little Jessie I’m thinking of.  He and his two men would have no show whatever in case of a sudden and determined attack.  They have not been harmed so far, because the Indians always crossed below Laramie and came up to the Chug, and so there was timely warning.  Now, they have seen Farron’s place up there all by itself.  They can easily find out, by hanging around the traders at Red Cloud, who lives there, how many men he has, and about Jessie.  Next to surprising and killing a white man in cold blood, those fellows like nothing better than carrying off a white child and concealing it among them.  The gypsies have the same trait.  Now, they know that so long as they cross below Laramie the scouts are almost sure to discover it in an hour or two, and as soon as they strike the Chug Valley some herders come tumbling in here and give the alarm.  They have come over regularly every moon, since General Crook went up in February, until now.”

The operator went on impressively: 

“The moon’s almost on the wane, and they haven’t shown up yet.  Now, what worries me is just this.  Suppose they should push out westward from the reservation, cross the Platte somewhere about Bull Bend or even nearer Laramie, and come down the Chug from the north.  Who is to give Farron warning?”

“They’re bound to hear it at Laramie and telegraph you at once,” suggested one of the ranchmen.

“Not necessarily.  The river isn’t picketed between Fetterman and Laramie, simply because the Indians have always tried the lower crossings.  The stages go through three times a week, and there are frequent couriers and trains, but they don’t keep a lookout for pony tracks.  The chances are that their crossing would not be discovered for twenty-four hours or so, and as to the news being wired to us here, those reds would never give us a chance.  The first news we got of their deviltry would be that they had cut the line ten or twelve miles this side of Laramie as they came sweeping down.

“I tell you, boys,” continued the operator, half rising from his chair in his earnestness, “I hate to think of little Jessie up there to-night.  I go in every few minutes and call up Laramie or Fetterman just to feel that all is safe, and stir up Lodge Pole, behind us, to realize that we’ve got the Fifth Cavalry only twenty-five miles away; but the Indians haven’t missed a moon yet, and there’s only one more night of this.”

Even as his hearers sat in silence, thinking over the soldier’s words, there came from the little cabin the sharp and sudden clicking of the telegraph.  “It’s my call,” exclaimed the operator, as he sprang to his feet and ran to his desk.

Ralph and Sergeant Wells were close at his heels; he had clicked his answering signal, seized a pencil, and was rapidly taking down a message.  They saw his eyes dilate and his lips quiver with suppressed excitement.  Once, indeed, he made an impulsive reach with his hand, as if to touch the key and shut off the message and interpose some idea of his own, but discipline prevailed.

“It’s for you,” he said, briefly, nodding up to Ralph, while he went on to copy the message.

It was a time of anxious suspense in the little office.  The sergeant paced silently to and fro with unusual erectness of bearing and a firmly-compressed lip.  His appearance and attitude were that of the soldier who has divined approaching danger and who awaits the order for action.  Ralph, who could hardly control his impatience, stood watching the rapid fingers of the operator as they traced out a message which was evidently of deep moment.

At last the transcript was finished, and the operator handed it to the boy.  Ralph’s hand was trembling with excitement as he took the paper and carried it close to the light.  It read as follows: 

“RALPH MCCREA, Chugwater Station: 

“Black Hills stage reports having crossed trail of large war party
going west, this side of Rawhide Butte.  My troop ordered at once in
pursuit.  Wait for Fifth Cavalry.

“GORDON MCCREA.”

“Going west, this side of Rawhide Butte,” said Ralph, as calmly as he could.  “That means that they are twenty miles north of Laramie, and on the other side of the Platte.”

“It means that they knew what they were doing when they crossed just behind the last stage so as to give no warning, and that their trail was nearly two days old when seen by the down stage this afternoon.  It means that they crossed the stage road, Ralph, but how long ago was that, do you think, and where are they now?  It is my belief that they crossed the Platte above Laramie last night or early this morning, and will be down on us to-night.”

“Wire that to Laramie, then, at once,” said Ralph.  “It may not be too late to turn the troop this way.”

“I can only say what I think to my fellow-operator there, and can’t even do that now; the commanding officer is sending despatches to Omaha, and asking that the Fifth Cavalry be ordered to send forward a troop or two to guard the Chug.  But there’s no one at the head-quarters this time o’ night.  Besides, if we volunteer any suggestions, they will say we were stampeded down here by a band of Indians that didn’t come within seventy-five miles of us.”

“Well, father won’t misunderstand me,” said Ralph, “and I’m not afraid to ask him to think of what you say; wire it to him in my name.”

There was a long interval, twenty minutes or so, before the operator could “get the line.”  When at last he succeeded in sending his despatch, he stopped short in the midst of it.

“It’s no use, Ralph.  Your father’s troop was three miles away before his message was sent.  There were reports from Red Cloud that made the commanding officer believe there were some Cheyennes going up to attack couriers or trains between Fetterman and the Big Horn.  He is away north of the Platte.”

Another few minutes of thoughtful silence, then Ralph turned to his soldier friend, ­

“Sergeant, I have to obey father’s orders and stay here, but it’s my belief that Farron should be put on his guard at once.  What say you?”

“If you agree, sir, I’ll ride up and spend the night with him.”

“Then go by all means.  I know father would approve it.”

CHAPTER IV.

CUT OFF.

It was after ten o’clock when the waning moon came peering over the barrier ridge at the east.  Over an hour had passed since Sergeant Wells, on his big sorrel, had ridden away up the stream on the trail to Farron’s.

Phillips had pressed upon him a Henry repeating rifle, which he had gratefully accepted.  It could not shoot so hard or carry so far as the sergeant’s Springfield carbine, the cavalry arm; but to repel a sudden onset of yelling savages at close quarters it was just the thing, as it could discharge sixteen shots without reloading.  His carbine and the belt of copper cartridges the sergeant left with Ralph.

Just before riding away he took the operator and Ralph to the back of the corral, whence, far up the valley, they could see the twinkling light at Farron’s ranch.

“We ought to have some way of signalling,” he had said as they went out of doors.  “If you get news during the night that the Indians are surely this side of the Platte, of course we want to know at once; if, on the other hand, you hear they are nowhere within striking distance, it will be a weight off my mind and we can all get a good night’s rest up there.  Now, how shall we fix it?”

After some discussion, it was arranged that Wells should remain on the low porch in front of Farron’s ranch until midnight.  The light was to be extinguished there as soon as he arrived, as an assurance that all was well, and it should not again appear during the night unless as a momentary answer to signals they might make.

If information were received at Phillips’s that the Indians were south of the Platte, Ralph should fire three shots from his carbine at intervals of five seconds; and if they heard that all was safe, he should fire one shot to call attention and then start a small blaze out on the bank of the stream, where it could be plainly seen from Farron’s.

Wells was to show his light half a minute when he recognized the signal.  Having arrived at this understanding, the sergeant shook the hand of Ralph and the operator and rode towards Farron’s.

“What I wish,” said the operator, “is that Wells could induce Farron to let him bring Jessie here for the night; but Farron is a bull-headed fellow and thinks no number of Indians could ever get the better of him and his two men.  He knows very little of them and is hardly alive to the danger of his position.  I think he will be safe with Wells, but, all the same, I wish that a troop of the Fifth Cavalry had been sent forward to-night.”

After they had gone back to the office the operator “called up” Laramie.  “All quiet,” was the reply, and nobody there seemed to think the Indians had come towards the Platte.

Then the operator signalled to his associate at Lodge Pole, who wired back that nobody there had heard anything from Laramie or elsewhere about the Indians; that the colonel and one or two of his officers had been in the station a while during the evening and had sent messages to Cheyenne and Omaha and received one or two, but that they had all gone out to camp.  Everything was quiet; “taps” had just sounded and they were all going to bed.

“Lodge Pole” announced for himself that some old friends of his were on the guard that night, and he was going over to smoke a pipe and have a chat with them.

To this “Chug” responded that he wished he wouldn’t leave the office.  There was no telling what might turn up or how soon he’d be wanted.

But “Lodge Pole” said the operators were not required to stay at the board after nine at night; he would have the keeper of the station listen for his call, and would run over to camp for an hour; would be back at half-past ten and sleep by his instrument.  Meantime, if needed, he could be called in a minute, ­the guard tents were only three hundred yards away, ­and so he went.

Ralph almost wished that he had sent a message to the colonel to tell him of their suspicions and anxiety.  He knew well that every officer and every private in that sleeping battalion would turn out eagerly and welcome the twenty-five-mile trot forward to the Chug on the report that the Sioux were out “on the war-path” and might be coming that way.

Yet, army boy that he was, he hated to give what might be called a false alarm.  He knew the Fifth only by reputation, and while he would not have hesitated to send such a message to his father had he been camped at Lodge Pole, or to his father’s comrades in their own regiment, he did not relish the idea of sending a despatch that would rout the colonel out of his warm blankets, and which might be totally unnecessary.

So the telegraph operator at Lodge Pole was permitted to go about his own devices, and once again Ralph and his new friend went out into the night to look over their surroundings and the situation.

The light still burned at Farron’s, and Phillips, coming out with a bundle of kindling-wood for the little beacon fire, chuckled when he saw it, ­

“Wells must be there by this time, but I’ll just bet Farron is giving the boys a little supper, or something, to welcome Jessie home, and now he’s got obstinate and won’t let them douse the glim.”

“It’s a case that Wells will be apt to decide for himself,” answered Ralph.  “He won’t stand fooling, and will declare martial law. ­There!  What did I tell you?”

The light went suddenly out in the midst of his words.  They carried the kindling and made a little heap of dry sticks out near the bank of the stream; then stood a while and listened.  In the valley, faintly lighted by the moon, all was silence and peace; not even the distant yelp of coyote disturbed the stillness of the night.  Not a breath of air was stirring.  A light film of cloud hung about the horizon and settled in a cumulus about the turrets of old Laramie Peak, but overhead the brilliant stars sparkled and the planets shone like little globes of molten gold.

Hearing voices, Buford, lonely now without his friend, the sergeant’s horse, set up a low whinny, and Ralph went in and spoke to him, patting his glossy neck and shoulder.  When he came out he found that a third man had joined the party and was talking eagerly with Phillips.

Ralph recognized the man as an old trapper who spent most of his time in the hills or farther up in the neighborhood of Laramie Peak.  He had often been at the fort to sell peltries or buy provisions, and was a mountaineer and plainsman who knew every nook and cranny in Wyoming.

Cropping the scant herbage on the flat behind the trapper was a lank, long-limbed horse from which he had just dismounted, and which looked travel-stained and weary like his master.  The news the man brought was worthy of consideration, and Ralph listened with rapt attention and with a heart that beat hard and quick, though he said no word and gave no sign.

“Then you haven’t seen or heard a thing?” asked the new-comer.  “It’s mighty strange.  I’ve scoured these hills ­man and boy ­nigh onto thirty years and ought to know Indian smokes when I see ’em.  I don’t think I can be mistaken about this.  I was way up the range about four o’clock this afternoon and could see clear across towards Rawhide Butte, and three smokes went up over there, sure.  What startled me,” the trapper continued, “was the answer.  Not ten miles above where I was there went up a signal smoke from the foot-hills of the range, ­just in here to the northwest of us, perhaps twenty miles west of Eagle’s Nest.  It’s the first time I’ve seen Indian smokes in there since the month they killed Lieutenant Robinson up by the peak.  You bet I came down. Sure they haven’t seen anything at Laramie?”

“Nothing.  They sent Captain McCrea with his troop up towards Rawhide just after dark, but they declare nothing has been seen or heard of Indians this side of the Platte.  I’ve been talking with Laramie most of the evening.  The Black Hills stage coming down reported trail of a big war party out, going west just this side of the Butte, and some of them may have sent up the smokes you saw in that direction.  I was saying to Ralph, here, that if that trail was forty-eight hours old, they would have had time to cross the Platte at Bull Bend, and be down here to-night.”

“They wouldn’t come here first.  They know this ranch too well.  They’d go in to Eagle’s Nest to try and get the stage horses and a scalp or two there.  You’re too strong for ’em here.”

“Ay; but there’s Farron and his little kid up there four miles above us.”

“You don’t tell me!  Thought he’d taken her down to Denver.”

“So he did, and fetched her back to-day.  Sergeant Wells has gone up there to keep watch with them, and we are to signal if we get important news.  All you tell me only adds to what we suspected.  How I wish we had known it an hour ago!  Now, will you stay here with us or go up to Farron’s and tell Wells what you’ve seen?”

“I’ll stay here.  My horse can’t make another mile, and you may believe I don’t want any prowling round outside of a stockade this night.  No, if you can signal to him go ahead and do it.”

“What say you, Ralph?”

Ralph thought a moment in silence.  If he fired his three shots, it meant that the danger was imminent, and that they had certain information that the Indians were near at hand.  He remembered to have heard his father and other officers tell of sensational stories this same old trapper had inflicted on the garrison.  Sergeant Wells himself used to laugh at “Baker’s yarns.”  More than once the cavalry had been sent out to where Baker asserted he had certainly seen a hundred Indians the day before, only to find that not even the vestige of a pony track remained on the yielding sod.  If he fired the signal shots it meant a night of vigil for everybody at Farron’s and then how Wells would laugh at him in the morning, and how disgusted he would be when he found that it was entirely on Baker’s assurances that he had acted!

It was a responsible position for the boy.  He would much have preferred to mount Buford and ride off over the four miles of moonlit prairie to tell the sergeant of Baker’s report and let him be the judge of its authenticity.  It was lucky he had that level-headed soldier operator to advise him.  Already he had begun to fancy him greatly, and to respect his judgment and intelligence.

“Suppose we go in and stir up Laramie, and tell them what Mr. Baker says,” he suggested; and, leaving the trapper to stable his jaded horse under Phillips’s guidance, Ralph and his friend once more returned to the station.

“If the Indians are south of the Platte,” said the operator, “I shall no longer hesitate about sending a despatch direct to the troops at Lodge Pole.  The colonel ought to know.  He can send one or two companies right along to-night.  There is no operator at Eagle’s Nest, or I’d have him up and ask if all was well there.  That’s what worries me, Ralph.  It was back of Eagle’s Nest old Baker says he saw their smokes, and it is somewhere about Eagle’s Nest that I should expect the rascals to slip in and cut our wire.  I’ll bet they’re all asleep at Laramie by this time.  What o’clock is it?”

The boy stopped at the window of the little telegraph room where the light from the kerosene lamp would fall upon his watch-dial.  The soldier passed on around to the door.  Glancing at his watch, Ralph followed on his track and got to the door-way just as his friend stretched forth his hand to touch the key.

“It’s just ten-fifty now.”

“Ten-fifty, did you say?” asked the soldier, glancing over his shoulder.  “Ralph!” he cried, excitedly, “the wire’s cut!

“Where?” gasped Ralph.  “Can you tell?”

“No, somewhere up above us, ­near the Nest, probably, ­though who can tell?  It may be just round the bend of the road, for all we know.  No doubt about there being Indians now, Ralph, give ’em your signal.  Hullo!  Hoofs!”

Leaping out from the little tenement, the two listened intently.  An instant before the thunder of horse’s feet upon wooden planking had been plainly audible in the distance, and now the coming clatter could be heard on the roadway.

Phillips and Baker, who had heard the sounds, joined them at the instant.  Nearer and nearer came a panting horse; a shadowy rider loomed into sight up the road, and in another moment a young ranchman galloped up to the very doors.

“All safe, fellows?  Thank goodness for that!  I’ve had a ride for it, and we’re dead beat. Indians? Why, the whole country’s alive with ’em between here and Hunton’s.  I promised I’d go over to Farron’s if they ever came around that way, but they may beat me there yet.  How many men have you here?”

“Seven now, counting Baker and Ralph; but I’ll wire right back to Lodge Pole and let the Fifth Cavalry know.  Quick, Ralph, give ’em your signal now!”

Ralph seized his carbine and ran out on the prairie behind the corral, the others eagerly following him to note the effect.  Bang! went the gun with a resounding roar that echoed from the cliffs at the east and came thundering back to them just in time to “fall in” behind two other ringing reports at short, five-second intervals.

Three times the flash lighted up the faces of the little party; set and stern and full of pluck they were.  Then all eyes were turned to the dark, shadowy, low-lying objects far up the stream, the roofs of Farron’s threatened ranch.

Full half a minute they watched, hearts beating high, breath coming thick and fast, hands clinching in the intensity of their anxiety.

Then, hurrah!  Faint and flickering at first, then shining a few seconds in clear, steady beam, the sergeant’s answering signal streamed out upon the night, a calm, steadfast, unwavering response, resolute as the spirit of its soldier sender, and then suddenly disappeared.

“He’s all right!” said Ralph, joyously, as the young ranchman put spurs to his panting horse and rode off to the west.  “Now, what about Lodge Pole?”

Just as they turned away there came a sound far out on the prairie that made them pause and look wonderingly a moment in one another’s eyes.  The horseman had disappeared from view.  They had watched him until he had passed out of sight in the dim distance.  The hoof-beats of his horse had died away before they turned to go.

Yet now there came the distant thunder of an hundred hoofs bounding over the sod.

Out from behind a jutting spur of a bluff a horde of shadows sweep forth upon the open prairie towards the trail on which the solitary rider has disappeared.  Here and there among them swift gleams, like silver streaks, are plainly seen, as the moonbeams glint on armlet or bracelet, or the nickel plating on their gaudy trappings.

Then see! a ruddy flash! another! another! the muffled bang of fire-arms, and the vengeful yell and whoops of savage foeman float down to the breathless listeners at the station on the Chug.  The Sioux are here in full force, and a score of them have swept down on that brave, hapless, helpless fellow riding through the darkness alone.

Phillips groaned.  “Oh, why did we let him go?  Quick, now!  Every man to the ranch, and you get word to Lodge Pole, will you?”

“Ay, ay, and fetch the whole Fifth Cavalry here at a gallop!”

But when Ralph ran into the telegraph station a moment later, he found the operator with his head bowed upon his arms and his face hidden from view.

“What’s the matter, ­quick?” demanded Ralph.

It was a ghastly face that was raised to the boy, as the operator answered, ­

“It ­it’s all my fault.  I’ve waited too long. They’ve cut the line behind us!

CHAPTER V.

AT FARRON’S RANCH.

When Sergeant Wells reached Farron’s ranch that evening little Jessie was peacefully sleeping in the room that had been her mother’s.  The child was tired after the long, fifty-mile drive from Russell, and had been easily persuaded to go to bed.

Farron himself, with the two men who worked for him, was having a sociable smoke and chat, and the three were not a little surprised at Wells’s coming and the unwelcome news he bore.  The ranchman was one of the best-hearted fellows in the world, but he had a few infirmities of disposition and one or two little conceits that sometimes marred his better judgment.  Having lived in the Chug Valley a year or two before the regiment came there, he had conceived it to be his prerogative to adopt a somewhat patronizing tone to its men, and believed that he knew much more about the manners and customs of the Sioux than they could possibly have learned.

The Fifth Cavalry had been stationed not far from the Chug Valley when he first came to the country, and afterwards were sent out to Arizona for a five-years’ exile.  It was all right for the Fifth to claim acquaintance with the ways of the Sioux, Farron admitted, but as for these fellows of the ­th, ­that was another thing.  It did not seem to occur to him that the guarding of the neighboring reservations for about five years had given the new regiment opportunities to study and observe these Indians that had not been accorded to him.

Another element which he totally overlooked in comparing the relative advantages of the two regiments was a very important one that radically altered the whole situation.  When the Fifth was on duty watching the Sioux, it was just after breech-loading rifles had been introduced into the army, and before they had been introduced among the Sioux.

Through the mistaken policy of the Indian Bureau at Washington this state of affairs was now changed and, for close fighting, the savages were better armed than the troops.  Nearly every warrior had either a magazine rifle or a breech-loader, and many of them had two revolvers besides.  Thus armed, the Sioux were about ten times as formidable as they had been before, and the task of restraining them was far more dangerous and difficult than it had been when the Fifth guarded them.

The situation demanded greater vigilance and closer study than in the old days, and Farron ought to have had sense enough to see it.  But he did not.  He had lived near the Sioux so many years; these soldiers had been near them so many years less; therefore they must necessarily know less about them than he did.  He did not take into account that it was the soldiers’ business to keep eyes and ears open to everything relating to the Indians, while the information which he had gained came to him simply as diversion, or to satisfy his curiosity.

So it happened that when Wells came in that night and told Farron what was feared at Phillips’s, the ranchman treated his warning with good-humored but rather contemptuous disregard.

“Phillips gets stampeded too easy,” was the way he expressed himself, “and when you fellows of the Mustangs have been here as long as I have you’ll get to know these Indians better.  Even if they did come, Pete and Jake here, and I, with our Henry rifles, could stand off fifty of ’em.  Why, we’ve done it many a time.”

“How long ago?” asked the sergeant, quietly.

“Oh, I don’t know.  It was before you fellows came.  Why, you don’t begin to know anything about these Indians!  You never see ’em here nowadays, but when I first came here to the Chug there wasn’t a week they didn’t raid us.  They haven’t shown up in three years, except just this spring they’ve run off a little stock.  But you never see ’em.”

You may never see them, Farron, but we do, ­see them day in and day out as we scout around the reservation; and while I may not know what they were ten years ago, I know what they are now, and that’s more to the purpose.  You and Pete might have stood off a dozen or so when they hadn’t ‘Henrys’ and ‘Winchesters’ as they have now, but you couldn’t do it to-day, and it’s all nonsense for you to talk of it.  Of course, so long as you keep inside here you may pick them off, but look out of this window!  What’s to prevent their getting into your corral out there, and then holding you here!  They can set fire to your roof over your head, man, and you can’t get out to extinguish it.”

“What makes you think they’ve spotted me, anyhow?” asked Farron.

“They looked you over the last time they came up the valley, and you know it.  Now, if you and the men want to stay here and make a fight for it, all right, ­I’d rather do that myself, only we ought to have two or three men to put in the corral, ­but here’s little Jessie.  Let me take her down to Phillips’s; she’s safe there.  He has everything ready for a siege and you haven’t.”

“Why, she’s only just gone to sleep, Wells; I don’t want to wake her up out of a warm bed and send her off four miles a chilly night like this, ­all for a scare, too.  The boys down there would laugh at me, ­just after bringing her here from Denver, too.”

“They’re not laughing down there this night, Farron, and they’re not the kind that get stampeded either.  Keep Jessie, if you say so, and I’ll stay through the night; but I’ve fixed some signals with them down at the road and you’ve got to abide by them.  They can see your light plain as a beacon, and it’s got to go out in fifteen minutes.”

Farron had begun by pooh-poohing the sergeant’s views, but he already felt that they deserved serious consideration.  He was more than half disposed to adopt Wells’s plan and let him take Jessie down to the safer station at Phillips’s, but she looked so peaceful and bonny, sleeping there in her little bed, that he could not bear to disturb her.  He was ashamed, too, of the appearance of yielding.

So he told the sergeant that while he would not run counter to any arrangement he had made as to signals, and was willing to back him up in any project for the common defence, he thought they could protect Jessie and the ranch against any marauders that might come along.  He didn’t think it was necessary that they should all sit up.  One man could watch while the others slept.

As a first measure Farron and the sergeant took a turn around the ranch.  The house itself was about thirty yards from the nearest side of the corral, or enclosure, in which Farron’s horses were confined.  In the corral were a little stable, a wagon-shed, and a poultry-house.  The back windows of the stable were on the side towards the house, and should Indians get possession of the stable they could send fire-arrows, if they chose, to the roof of the house, and with their rifles shoot down any persons who might attempt to escape from the burning building.

This fault of construction had long since been pointed out to Farron, but the man who called his attention to it, unluckily, was an officer of the new regiment, and the ranchman had merely replied, with a self-satisfied smile, that he guessed he’d lived long enough in that country to know a thing or two about the Indians.

Sergeant Wells shook his head as he looked at the stable, but Farron said that it was one of his safe-guards.

“I’ve got two mules in there that can smell an Indian five miles off, and they’d begin to bray the minute they did.  That would wake me up, you see, because their heads are right towards me.  Now, if they were way across the corral I mightn’t hear ’em at all.  Then it’s close to the house, and convenient for feeding in winter.  Will you put your horse in to-night?”

Sergeant Wells declined.  He might need him, he said, and would keep him in front of the house where he was going to take his station to watch the valley and look out for signals.  He led the horse to the stream and gave him a drink, and asked Farron to lay out a hatful of oats.  “They might come in handy if I have to make an early start.”

However lightly Farron might estimate the danger, his men regarded it as a serious matter.  Having heard the particulars from Sergeant Wells, their first care was to look over their rifles and see that they were in perfect order and in readiness for use.  When at last Farron had completed a leisurely inspection of his corral and returned to the house, he found Wells and Pete in quiet talk at the front, and the sergeant’s horse saddled close at hand.

“Oh, well!” he said, “if you’re as much in earnest as all that, I’ll bring my pipe out here with you, and if any signal should come, it’ll be time enough then to wake Jessie, wrap her in a blanket, and you gallop off to Phillips’s with her.”

And so the watchers went on duty.  The light in the ranch was extinguished, and all about the place was as quiet as the broad, rolling prairie itself.  Farron remained wakeful a little while, then said he was sleepy and should go in and lie down without undressing.  Pete, too, speedily grew drowsy and sat down on the porch, where Wells soon caught sight of his nodding head just as the moon came peeping up over the distant crest of the “Buffalo Hill.”

How long Farron slept he had no time to ask, for the next thing he knew was that a rude hand was shaking his shoulder, and Pete’s voice said, ­

“Up with you, Farron!  The signal’s fired at Phillips’s.  Up quick!”

As Farron sprang to the floor, Pete struck a light, and the next minute the kerosene lamp, flickering and sputtering at first, was shining in the eastward window.  Outside the door the ranchman found Wells tightening his saddle-girths, while his horse, snorting with excitement, pricked up his ears and gazed down the valley.

“Who fired?” asked Farron, barely awake.

“I don’t know; Ralph probably.  Better get Jessie for me at once.  The Indians are this side of the Platte sure, and they may be near at hand.  I don’t like the way Spot’s behaving, ­see how excited he is.  I don’t like to leave you short-handed if there’s to be trouble.  If there’s time I’ll come back from Phillips’s.  Come, man!  Wake Jessie.”

“All right.  There’s plenty of time, though.  They must be miles down the valley yet.  If they’d come from the north, the telegraph would have given warning long ago.  And Dick Warner ­my brother-in-law, Jessie’s uncle ­always promised he’d be down to tell me first thing, if they came any way that he could hear of it.  You bet he’ll be with us before morning, unless they’re between him and us now.”

With that he turned into the house, and in a moment reappeared with the wondering, sleepy-eyed, half-wakened little maid in his strong arms.  Wells was already in saddle, and Spot was snorting and prancing about in evident excitement.

“I’ll leave the ‘Henry’ with Pete.  I can’t carry it and Jessie, too.  Hand her up to me and snuggle her well in the blanket.”

Farron hugged his child tight in his arms one moment.  She put her little arms around his neck and clung to him, looking piteously into his face, yet shedding no tears.  Something told her there was danger; something whispered “Indians!” to the childish heart; but she stifled her words of fear and obeyed her father’s wish.

“You are going down to Phillips’s where Ralph is, Jessie, darling.  Sergeant Wells is going to carry you.  Be good and perfectly quiet.  Don’t cry, don’t make a particle of noise, pet.  Whatever you do, don’t make any noise.  Promise papa.”

As bravely as she had done when she waited that day at the station at Cheyenne, the little woman choked back the rising sob.  She nodded obedience, and then put up her bonny face for her father’s kiss.  Who can tell of the dread, the emotion he felt as he clung to the trusting little one for that short moment?

“God guard you, my baby,” he muttered, as he carefully lifted her up to Wells, who circled her in his strong right arm, and seated her on the overcoat that was rolled at his pommel.

Farron carefully wrapped the blanket about her tiny feet and legs, and with a prayer on his lips and a clasp of the sergeant’s bridle hand he bade him go.  Another moment, and Wells and little Jessie were loping away on Spot, and were rapidly disappearing from view along the dim, moonlit trail.

For a moment the three ranchmen stood watching them.  Far to the northeast a faint light could be seen at Phillips’s, and the roofs and walls were dimly visible in the rays of the moon.  The hoof-beats of old Spot soon died away in the distance, and all seemed as still as the grave.  Anxious as he was, Farron took heart.  They stood there silent a few moments after the horseman, with his precious charge, had faded from view, and then Farron spoke, ­

“They’ll make it all safe.  If the Indians were anywhere near us those mules of mine would have given warning by this time.”

The words were hardly dropped from his lips when from the other side of the house ­from the stable at the corral ­there came, harsh and loud and sudden, the discordant bray of mules.  The three men started as if stung.

“Quick!  Pete.  Fetch me any one of the horses.  I’ll gallop after him.  Hear those mules?  That means the Indians are close at hand!” And he sprang into the house for his revolvers, while Pete flew round to the stable.

It was not ten seconds before Farron reappeared at the front door.  Pete came running out from the stable, leading an astonished horse by the snaffle.  There was not even a blanket on the animal’s back, or time to put one there.

Farron was up and astride the horse in an instant, but before he could give a word of instruction to his men, there fell upon their ears a sound that appalled them, ­the distant thunder of hundreds of bounding hoofs; the shrill, vengeful yells of a swarm of savage Indians; the crack! crack! of rifles; and, far down the trail along which Wells had ridden but a few moments before, they could see the flash of fire-arms.

“O God! save my little one!” was Farron’s agonized cry as he struck his heels to his horse’s ribs and went tearing down the valley in mad and desperate ride to the rescue.

Poor little Jessie!  What hope to save her now?

CHAPTER VI.

A NIGHT OF PERIL.

For one moment the telegraph operator was stunned and inert.  Then his native pluck and the never-say-die spirit of the young American came to his aid.  He rose to his feet, seized his rifle, and ran out to join Phillips and the few men who were busily at work barricading the corral and throwing open the loop-holes in the log walls.

Ralph had disappeared, and no one knew whither he had gone until, just as the men were about to shut the heavy door of the stable, they heard his young voice ring cheerily out through the darkness, ­

“Hold on there!  Wait till Buford and I get out!”

“Where on earth are you going?” gasped Phillips, in great astonishment, as the boy appeared in the door-way, leading his pet, which was bridled and saddled.

“Going?  Back to Lodge Pole, quick as I can, to bring up the cavalry.”

“Ralph,” said the soldier, “it will never do.  Now that Wells is gone I feel responsible for you, and your father would never forgive me if anything befell you.  We can’t let you go?”

Ralph’s eyes were snapping with excitement and his cheeks were flushed.  It was a daring, it was a gallant, thought, ­the idea of riding back all alone through a country that might be infested by savage foes; but it was the one chance.

Farron and Wells and the men might be able to hold out a few hours at the ranch up the valley, and keep the Indians far enough away to prevent their burning them out.  Of course the ranch could not stand a long siege against Indian ingenuity, but six hours, or eight at the utmost, would be sufficient time in which to bring rescue to the inmates.  By that time he could have an overwhelming force of cavalry in the valley, and all would be safe.

If word were not sent to them it would be noon to-morrow before the advance of the Fifth would reach the Chug.  By that time all would be over with Farron.

Ralph’s brave young heart almost stopped beating as he thought of the hideous fate that awaited the occupants of the ranch unless help came to them.  He felt that nothing but a light rider and a fast horse could carry the news in time.  He knew that he was the lightest rider in the valley; that Buford was the fastest horse; that no man at the station knew all the “breaks” and ravines, the ridges and “swales” of the country better than he did.

Farron’s lay to the southwest, and thither probably all the Indians were now riding.  He could gallop off to the southeast, make a long detour, and so reach Lodge Pole unseen.  If he could get there in two hours and a half, the cavalry could be up and away in fifteen minutes more, and in that case might reach the Chug at daybreak or soon afterwards.

One thing was certain, that to succeed he must go instantly, before the Indians could come down and put a watch around Phillips’s.

Of course it was a plan full of fearful risk.  He took his life in his hands.  Death by the cruelest of tortures awaited him if captured, and it was a prospect before which any boy and many a man might shrink in dismay.

But he had thought of little Jessie; the plan and the estimation of the difficulties and dangers attending its execution had flashed through his mind in less than five seconds, and his resolution was instantly made.  He was a soldier’s son, was Ralph, and saying no word to any one he had run to the stable, saddled and bridled Buford, and with his revolver at his hip was ready for his ride.

“It’s no use of talking; I’m going,” was all he said.  “I know how to dodge them just as well as any man here, and, as for father, he’d be ashamed of me if I didn’t go.”

Waiting for no reply, ­before they could fully realize what he meant, ­the boy had chirruped to his pawing horse and away they darted round the corner of the station, across the moonlit road, and then eastward down the valley.

“Phillips,” exclaimed the soldier, “I never should have let him go.  I ought to have gone myself; but he’s away before a man can stop him.”

“You’re too heavy to ride that horse, and there’s none other here to match him.  That boy’s got the sense of a plainsman any day, I tell you, and he’ll make it all right.  The Indians are all up the valley and we’ll hear ’em presently at Farron’s.  He’s keeping off so as to get round east of the bluffs, and then he’ll strike across country southward and not try for the road until he’s eight or ten miles away.  Good for Ralph!  It’s a big thing he’s doing, and his father will be proud of him for it.”

But the telegraph operator was heavy-hearted.  The men were all anxious, and clustered again at the rear of the station.  All this had taken place in the space of three minutes, and they were eagerly watching for the next demonstration from the marauders.

Of the fate of poor Warner there could be little doubt.  It was evident that the Indians had overwhelmed and killed him.  There was a short struggle and the rapidly concentrating fire of rifles and revolvers for a minute or two; then the yells had changed to triumphant whoops, and then came silence.

“They’ve got his scalp, poor fellow, and no man could lend a hand to help him.  God grant they’re all safe inside up there at Farron’s,” said one of the party; it was the only comment made on the tragedy that had been enacted before them.

“Hullo!  What’s that?”

“It’s the flash of rifles again.  They’ve sighted Ralph!” cried the soldier.

“Not a bit of it.  Ralph’s off here to the eastward.  They’re firing and chasing up the valley.  Perhaps Warner got away after all. Look at ’em!  See!  The flashes are getting farther south all the time!  They’ve headed him off from Farron’s, whoever it is, and he’s making for the road.  The cowardly hounds!  There’s a hundred of ’em, I reckon, on one poor hunted white man, and here we are with our hands tied!”

For a few minutes more the sound of shots and yells and thundering hoofs came vividly through the still night air.  All the time it was drifting away southward, and gradually approached the road.  One of the ranchmen begged Phillips to let him have a horse and go out in the direction of the firing to reconnoitre and see what had happened, but it would have been madness to make the attempt, and the request was met with a prompt refusal.

“We shall need every man here soon enough at the rate things are going,” was the answer.  “That may have been Warner escaping, or it may have been one of Farron’s men trying to get through to us or else riding off southward to find the cavalry.  Perhaps it was Sergeant Wells.  Whoever it was, they’ve had a two- or three-mile chase and have probably got him by this time.  The firing in that direction is all over.  Now the fun will begin up at the ranch.  Then they’ll come for us.”

“It’s my fault!” groaned the operator.  “What a night, ­and all my fault!  I ought to have told them at Lodge Pole when I could.”

“Tell them what?” said Phillips.  “You didn’t know a thing about their movements until Warner got here!  What could you have said if you’d had the chance?  The cavalry can’t move on mere rumors or ideas that any chance man has who comes to the station in a panic.  It has just come all of a sudden, in a way we couldn’t foresee.

“All I’m worrying about now is little Jessie, up there at Farron’s.  I’m afraid Warner’s gone, and possibly some one else; but if Farron can only hold out against these fellows until daylight I think he and his little one will be safe.  Watch here, two of you, now, while I go back to the house a moment.”

And so, arms at hand and in breathless silence, the little group watched and waited.  All was quiet at the upper ranch.  Farron’s light had been extinguished soon after it had replied to the signal from below, but his roofs and walls were dimly visible in the moonlight.  The distance was too great for the besiegers to be discerned if any were investing his place.

The quiet lasted only a few moments.  Then suddenly there came from up the valley and close around those distant roofs the faint sound of rapid firing.  Paled by the moonlight into tiny, ruddy flashes, the flame of each report could be seen by the sharper eyes among the few watchers at Phillips’s.  The attack had indeed begun at Farron’s.

One of the men ran in to tell the news to Phillips, who presently came out and joined the party.  No sign of Indians had yet been seen around them, but as they crouched there by the corral, eagerly watching the flashes that told of the distant struggle, and listening to the sounds of combat, there rose upon the air, over to the northward and apparently just at the base of the line of bluffs, the yelps and prolonged bark of the coyote.  It died away, and then, far on to the southward, somewhere about the slopes where the road climbed the divide, there came an answering yelp, shrill, querulous, and prolonged.

“Know what that is, boys?” queried Phillips.

“Coyotes, I s’pose,” answered one of the men, ­a comparatively new hand.

“Coyotes are scarce in this neighborhood nowadays.  Those are Sioux signals, and we are surrounded.  No man in this crowd could get out now.  Ralph ain’t out a moment too soon.  God speed him!  If Farron don’t owe his life and little Jessie’s to that boy’s bravery, it’ll be because nobody could get to them in time to save them.  Why didn’t he send her here?”

Bad as was the outlook, anxious as were all their hearts, what was their distress to what it would have been had they known the truth, ­that Warner lay only a mile up the trail, stripped, scalped, gashed, and mutilated!  Still warm, yet stone dead!  And that all alone, with little Jessie in his arms, Sergeant Wells had ridden down that trail into the very midst of the thronging foe!  Let us follow him, for he is a soldier who deserves the faith that Farron placed in him.

For a few moments after leaving the ranch the sergeant rides along at rapid lope, glancing keenly over the broad, open valley for any sign that might reveal the presence of hostile Indians, and then hopefully at the distant light at the station.  He holds little Jessie in firm but gentle clasp, and speaks in fond encouragement every moment or two.  She is bundled like a pappoose in the blanket, but her big, dark eyes look up trustfully into his, and once or twice she faintly smiles.  All seems so quiet; all so secure in the soldier’s strong clasp.

“That’s my brave little girl!” says the sergeant.  “Papa was right when he told us down at Russell that he had the pluckiest little daughter in all Wyoming.  It isn’t every baby that would take a night ride with an old dragoon so quietly.”

He bends down and softly kisses the thick, curling hair that hangs over her forehead.  Then his keen eye again sweeps over the valley, and he touches his charger’s flank with the spur.

Looks all clear,” he mutters, “but I’ve seen a hundred Indians spring up out of a flatter plain than that.  They’ll skulk behind the smallest kind of a ridge, and not show a feather until one runs right in among them.  There might be dozens of them off there beyond the Chug at this moment, and I not be able to see hair or hide of ’em.”

Almost half way to Phillips’s, and still all is quiet.  Then he notes that far ahead the low ridge, a few hundred yards to his left, sweeps round nearly to the trail, and dips into the general level of the prairie within short pistol-shot of the path along which he is riding.  He is yet fully three-quarters of a mile from the place where the ridge so nearly meets the trail, but it is plainly visible now in the silvery moonlight.

“If they should have come down, and should be all ranged behind that ridge now, ’twould be a fearful scrape for this poor little mite,” he thinks, and then, soldier-like, sets himself to considering what his course should be if the enemy were suddenly to burst upon him from behind that very curtain.

“Turn and run for it, of course!” he mutters.  “Unless they should cut me off, which they couldn’t do unless some of ’em were far back along behind the ridge.  Hullo!  A shadow on the trail!  Coming this way.  A horseman.  That’s good!  They’ve sent out a man to meet me.”

The sound of iron-shod hoofs that came faintly across the wide distance from the galloping shadow carried to the sergeant’s practised ear the assurance that the advancing horseman was not an Indian.  After the suspense of that lonely and silent ride, in the midst of unknown dangers, Wells felt a deep sense of relief.

“The road is clear between here and Phillips’s, that’s certain,” he thought.  “I’ll take Jessie on to the station, and then go back to Farron’s.  I wonder what news that horseman brings, that he rides so hard.”

Still on came the horseman.  All was quiet, and it seemed that in five minutes more he would have the news the stranger was bringing, ­of safety, he hoped.  Jessie, at any rate, should not be frightened unless danger came actually upon them.  He quickened his horse’s gait, and looked smilingly down into Jessie’s face.

“It’s all right, little one!  Somebody is coming up the trail from Phillips’s, so everything must be safe,” he told her.

Then came a cruel awakening.  Quick, sudden, thrilling, there burst upon the night a mad chorus of shouts and shots and the accompaniment of thundering hoofs.  Out from the sheltering ridge by dozens, gleaming, flashing through the moonlight, he saw the warriors sweep down upon the hapless stranger far in front.

He reined instantly his snorting and affrighted horse, and little Jessie, with one low cry of terror, tried to release her arms from the circling blanket and throw them about his neck; but he held her tight.  He grasped the reins more firmly, gave one quick glance to his left and rear, and, to his dismay, discovered that he, too, was well-nigh hemmed in; that, swift and ruthless as the flight of hawks, a dozen warriors were bounding over the prairie towards him, to cut off his escape.

He had not an instant to lose.  He whirled his practised troop horse to the right about, and sent him leaping madly through the night back for Farron’s ranch.

Even as he sped along, he bent low over his charger’s neck, and, holding the terror-stricken child to his breast, managed to speak a word to keep up her courage.

“We’ll beat them yet, my bonny bird!” he muttered, though at that instant he heard the triumphant whoops that told him a scalp was taken on the trail behind him, though at that very instant he saw that warriors, dashing from that teeming ridge, had headed him; that he must veer from the trail as he neared the ranch, and trust to Farron and his men to drive off his pursuers.

Already the yells of his pursuers thrilled upon the ear.  They had opened fire, and their wide-aimed bullets went whizzing harmlessly into space.  His wary eye could see that the Indians on his right front were making a wide circle, so as to meet him when close to the goal, and he was burdened with that helpless child, and could not make fight even for his own life.

Drop her and save himself?  He would not entertain the thought.  No, though it be his only chance to escape!

His horse panted heavily, and still there lay a mile of open prairie between him and shelter; still those bounding ponies, with their yelping, screeching riders, were fast closing upon him, when suddenly through the dim and ghostly light there loomed another shadow, wild and daring, ­a rider who came towards him at full speed.

Because of the daring of the feat to ride thus alone into the teeth of a dozen foemen, the sergeant was sure, before he could see the man, that the approaching horseman was Farron, rushing to the rescue of his child.

Wells shouted a trooper’s loud hurrah, and then, “Rein up, Farron!  Halt where you are, and open fire!  That’ll keep ’em off!”

Though racing towards him at thundering speed, Farron heard and understood his words, for in another moment his “Henry” was barking its challenge at the foe, and sending bullet after bullet whistling out across the prairie.

The flashing, feather-streaming shadows swerved to right and left, and swept away in big circles.  Then Farron stretched out his arms, ­no time for word of any kind, ­and Wells laid in them the sobbing child, and seized in turn the brown and precious rifle.

“Off with you, Farron!  Straight for home now.  I’ll keep ’em back.”  And the sergeant in turn reined his horse, fronted the foe, and opened rapid fire, though with little hope of hitting horse or man.

Disregarding the bullets that sang past his ears, he sent shot after shot at the shadowy riders, checked now, and circling far out on the prairie, until once more he could look about him, and see that Farron had reached the ranch, and had thrown himself from his horse.

Then slowly he turned back, fronting now and then to answer the shots that came singing by him, and to hurrah with delight when, as the Indians came within range of the ranch, its inmates opened fire on them, and a pony sent a yelping rider flying over his head, as he stumbled and plunged to earth, shot through the body.

Then Wells turned in earnest and made a final dash for the corral.  Then his own good steed, that had borne them both so bravely, suddenly wavered and tottered under him.  He knew too well that the gallant horse had received his death-blow even before he went heavily to ground within fifty yards of the ranch.

Wells was up in an instant, unharmed, and made a rush, stooping low.

Another moment, and he was drawn within the door-way, panting and exhausted, but safe.  He listened with amazement to the outward sounds of shots and hoofs and yells dying away into the distance southward.

“What on earth is that?” he asked.

“It’s that scoundrel, Pete.  He’s taken my horse and deserted!” was Farron’s breathless answer.  “I hope they’ll catch and kill him!  I despise a coward!”

CHAPTER VII.

THE RESCUE.

All the time, travelling at rapid lope, but at the same time saving Buford’s strength for sudden emergency, Ralph McCrea rode warily through the night.  He kept far to east of the high ridge of the “Buffalo Hill,” ­Who knew what Indian eyes might be watching there? ­and mile after mile he wound among the ravines and swales which he had learned so well in by-gone days when he little dreamed of the value that his “plainscraft” might be to him.

For a while his heart beat like a trip-hammer; every echo of his courser’s footfall seemed to him to be the rush of coming warriors, and time and again he glanced nervously over his shoulder, dreading pursuit.  But he never wavered in his gallant purpose.

The long ridge was soon left to his right rear, and now he began to edge over towards the west, intending in this way to reach the road at a point where there would lie before him a fifteen-mile stretch of good “going ground.”  Over that he meant to send Buford at full speed.

Since starting he had heard no sound of the fray; the ridge and the distance had swallowed up the clamor; but he knew full well that the raiding Indians would do their utmost this night to burn the Farron ranch and kill or capture its inmates.  Every recurring thought of the peril of his beleaguered friends prompted him to spur his faithful steed, but he had been reared in the cavalry and taught never to drive a willing horse to death.

The long, sweeping, elastic strides with which Buford bore him over the rolling prairie served their needs far better than a mad race of a mile or two, ending in a complete break-down, would have done.

At last, gleaming in the moonlight, he sighted the hard-beaten road as it twisted and wound over the slopes, and in a few moments more rode beneath the single wire of the telegraph line, and then gave Buford a gentle touch of the steel.  He had made a circuit of ten miles or more to reach this point, and was now, he judged, about seven miles below the station and five miles from Farron’s ranch.

He glanced over his right shoulder and anxiously searched the sky and horizon.  Intervening “divides” shut him off from a view of the valley, but he saw that as yet no glare of flames proceeded from it.

“Thus far the defence has held its own,” he said, hopefully, to himself.  “Now, if Buford and I can only reach Lodge Pole unmolested there may yet be time.”

Ascending a gentle slope he reined Buford down to a walk, so that his pet might have a little breathing spell.  As he arrived at the crest he cast an eager glance over the next “reach” of prairie landscape, and then ­his heart seemed to leap to his throat and a chill wave to rush through his veins.

Surely he saw a horseman dart behind the low mound off to the west.  This convinced him that the Indians had discovered and pursued him.  After the Indian fashion they had not come squarely along his trail and thus driven him ahead at increased speed, but with the savage science of their warfare, they were working past him, far to his right, intending to head him off.

To his left front the country was clear, and he could see over it for a considerable distance.  The road, after winding through some intermediate ravines ahead, swept around to the left.  He had almost determined to leave the trail and make a bee-line across country, and so to outrun the foeman to his right, when, twice or thrice, he caught the gleam of steel or silver or nickel-plate beyond the low ground in the very direction in which he had thought to flee.

His heart sank low now, for the sight conveyed to his mind but one idea, ­that the gleams were the flashing of moonbeams on the barbaric ornaments of Indians, as he had seen them flash an hour ago when the warriors raced forth into the valley of the Chug.  Were the Indians ahead of him then, and on both sides of the road?

One thing he had to do, and to do instantly:  ride into the first hollow he could find, dismount, crawl to the ridge and peer around him, ­study which way to ride if he should have to make a race for his own life now, ­and give Buford time to gather himself for the effort.

The boy’s brave spirit was wrought well-nigh to the limit.  His eyes clouded as he thought of his father and the faithful troop, miles and miles away and all unconscious of his deadly peril; of his anxious and loving mother, wakeful and watching at Laramie, doubtless informed of the Indian raid by this time; powerless to help him, but praying God to watch over her boy.

He looked aloft at the starry heavens and lifted his heart in one brief prayer:  “God guard and guide me.  I’ve tried to do my duty as a soldier’s son.”  And somehow he felt nerved and strengthened.

He grasped the handle of his cavalry revolver as he guided Buford down to the right where there seemed to be a hollow among the slopes.  Just as he came trotting briskly round a little shoulder of the nearest ridge there was a rush and patter of hoofs on the other side of it, an exclamation, half-terror, half-menace, a flash and a shot that whizzed far over his head.  A dark, shadowy horseman went scurrying off into space as fast as a spurred and startled horse could carry him; a broad-brimmed slouch hat was blown back to him as a parting souvenir, and Ralph McCrea shouted with relief and merriment as he realized that some man ­a ranchman doubtless ­had taken him for an Indian and had “stampeded,” scared out of his wits.

Ralph dismounted, picked up the hat, swung himself again into saddle, and with rejoicing heart sped away again on his mission.  There were still those suspicious flashes off to the east that he must dodge, and to avoid them he shaped his course well to the west.

Let us turn for a moment to the camp of the cavalry down in Lodge Pole Valley.  We have not heard from them since early evening when the operator announced his intention of going over to have a smoke and a chat with some of his friends on guard.

“Taps,” the signal to extinguish lights and go to bed, had sounded early and, so far as the operator at Lodge Pole knew when he closed his instrument, the battalion had gladly obeyed the summons.

It happened, however, that the colonel had been talking with one of his most trusted captains as they left the office a short time before, and the result of that brief talk was that the latter walked briskly away towards the bivouac fires of his troop and called “Sergeant Stauffer!”

A tall, dark-eyed, bronzed trooper quickly arose, dropped his pipe, and strode over to where his captain stood in the flickering light, and, saluting, “stood attention” and waited.

“Sergeant, let the quartermaster-sergeant and six men stay here to load our baggage in the morning.  Mount the rest of the troop at once, without any noise, ­fully equipped.”

The sergeant was too old a soldier even to look surprised.  In fifteen minutes, with hardly a sound of unusual preparation, fifty horsemen had “led into line,” had mounted, and were riding silently off northward.  The colonel said to the captain, as he gave him a word of good-by, ­

“I don’t know that you’ll find anything out of the way at all, but, with such indications, I believe it best to throw forward a small force to look after the Chug Valley until we come up.  We’ll be with you by dinner-time.”

Two hours later, when the telegraph operator, breathless and excited, rushed into the colonel’s tent and woke him with the news that his wire was cut up towards the Chug, the colonel was devoutly thankful for the inspiration that prompted him to send “K” Troop forward through the darkness.  He bade his adjutant, the light-weight of the officers then on duty, take his own favorite racer, Van, and speed away on the trail of “K” Troop, tell them that the line was cut, ­that there was trouble ahead; to push on lively with what force they had, and that two more companies would be hurried to their support.

At midnight “K” Troop, riding easily along in the moonlight, had travelled a little over half the distance to Phillips’s ranch.  The lieutenant, who with two or three troopers was scouting far in advance, halted at the crest of a high ridge over which the road climbs, and dismounted his little party for a brief rest while he went up ahead to reconnoitre.

Cavalrymen in the Indian country never ride into full view on top of a “divide” until after some one of their number has carefully looked over the ground beyond.

There was nothing in sight that gave cause for long inspection, or that warranted the officer’s taking out his field-glasses.  He could see the line of hills back of the Chugwater Valley, and all was calm and placid.  The valley itself lay some hundreds of feet below his point of observation, and beginning far off to his left ran northeastward until one of its branches crossed the trail along which the troop was riding.

Returning to his party, the lieutenant’s eye was attracted, for the fifth or sixth time since they had left Lodge Pole, by little gleams and flashes of light off in the distance, and he muttered, in a somewhat disparaging manner, to some of the members of his own troop, ­

“Now, what the dickens can those men be carrying to make such a streak as that?  One would suppose that Arizona would have taken all the nonsense out of ’em, but that glimmer must come from bright bits or buckles, or something of the kind, for we haven’t a sabre with us.  What makes those little flashes, sergeant?” he asked, impatiently.

“It’s some of the tin canteens, sir.  The cloth is all worn off a dozen of ’em, and when the moonlight strikes ’em it makes a flash almost like a mirror.”

“Indeed it does, and would betray our coming miles away of a moonlit night.  We’ll drop all those things at Laramie.  Hullo!  Mount, men, lively!”

The young officer and his party suddenly sprang to saddle.  A clatter of distant hoofs was heard rapidly approaching along the hard-beaten road.  Nearer, nearer they came at tearing gallop.  The lieutenant rode cautiously forward to where he could peer over the crest.

“Somebody riding like mad!” he muttered.  “Hatless and demoralized.  Who comes there?” he shouted aloud.  “Halt, whoever you are!”

Pulling up a panting horse, pale, wide-eyed, almost exhausted, a young ranchman rode into the midst of the group.  It was half a minute before he could speak.  When at last he recovered breath, it was a marvellous tale that he told.

“The Chug’s crammed with Indians.  They’ve killed all down at Phillips’s, and got all around Farron’s, ­hundreds of ’em.  Sergeant Wells tried to run away with Jessie, but they cut him off, and he’d have been killed and Jessie captured but for me and Farron.  We charged through ’em, and got ’em back to the ranch.  Then the Indians attacked us there, and there was only four of us, and some one had to cut his way out.  Wells said you fellows were down at Lodge Pole, but he da’sn’t try it.  I had to.”  Here “Pete” looked important, and gave his pistol-belt a hitch.

“I must ‘a’ killed six of ’em,” he continued.  “Both my revolvers empty, and I dropped one of ’em on the trail.  My hat was shot clean off my head, but they missed me, and I got through.  They chased me every inch of the way up to a mile back over yonder.  I shot the last one there.  But how many men you got?”

“About fifty,” answered the lieutenant.  “We’ll push ahead at once.  You guide us.”

“I ain’t going ahead with no fifty.  I tell you there’s a thousand Indians there.  Where’s the rest of the regiment?”

“Back at Lodge Pole.  Go on, if you like, and tell them your story.  Here’s the captain now.”

With new and imposing additions, Pete told the story a second time.  Barely waiting to hear it through, the captain’s voice rang along the eager column, ­

“Forward, trot, march!”

Away went the troop full tilt for the Chug, while the ranchman rode rearward until he met the supporting squadron two hours behind.  Ten minutes after parting with their informant, the officers of “K” Troop, well out in front of their men, caught sight of a daring horseman sweeping at full gallop down from some high bluffs to their left and front.

“Rides like an Indian,” said the captain; “but no Sioux would come down at us like that, waving a hat, too.  By Jupiter!  It’s Ralph McCrea!  How are you, boy?  What’s wrong at the Chug?”

“Farron’s surrounded, and I believe Warner’s killed!” said Ralph, breathless.  “Thank God, you’re here so far ahead of where I expected to find you!  We’ll get there in time now;” and he turned his panting horse and rode eagerly along by the captain’s side.

“And you’ve not been chased?  You’ve seen nobody?” was the lieutenant’s question.

“Nobody but a white man, worse scared than I was, who left his hat behind when I ran upon him a mile back here.”

Even in the excitement and urgent haste of the moment, there went up a shout of laughter at the expense of Pete; but as they reached the next divide, and got another look well to the front, the laughter gave place to the grinding of teeth and muttered malediction.  A broad glare was in the northern sky, and smoke and flame were rolling up from the still distant valley of the Chug, and now the word was “Gallop!”

Fifteen minutes of hard, breathless riding followed.  Horses snorted and plunged in eager race with their fellows; officers warned even as they galloped, “Steady, there!  Keep back!  Keep your places, men!” Bearded, bright-eyed troopers, with teeth set hard together and straining muscles, grasped their ready carbines, and thrust home the grim copper cartridges.  On and on, as the flaring beacon grew redder and fiercer ahead; on and on, until they were almost at the valley’s edge, and then young Ralph, out at the front with the veteran captain, panted to him, in wild excitement that he strove manfully to control, ­

“Now keep well over to the left, captain!  I know the ground well.  It’s all open.  We can sweep down from behind that ridge, and they’ll never look for us or think of us till we’re right among them.  Hear them yell!”

“Ay, ay, Ralph!  Lead the way.  Ready now, men!” He turned in his saddle.  “Not a word till I order ‘Charge!’ Then yell all you want to.”

Down into the ravine they thunder; round the moonlit slope they sweep; swift they gallop through the shadows of the eastward bluffs; nearer and nearer they come, manes and tails streaming in the night wind; horses panting hard, but never flagging.

Listen!  Hear those shots and yells and war-whoops!  Listen to the hideous crackling of the flames!  Mark the vengeful triumph in those savage howls!  Already the fire has leaped from the sheds to the rough shingling.  The last hope of the sore-besieged is gone.

Then, with sudden blare of trumpet, with ringing cheer, with thundering hoof and streaming pennon and thrilling rattle of carbine and pistol; with one magnificent, triumphant burst of speed the troop comes whirling out from the covert of the bluff and sweeps all before it down the valley.

Away go Sioux and Cheyenne; away, yelling shrill warning, go warrior and chief; away, down stream, past the stiffening form of the brave fellow they killed; away past the station where the loop-holes blaze with rifle-shots and ring with exultant cheers; away across the road and down the winding valley, and so far to the north and the sheltering arms of the reservation, ­and one more Indian raid is over.

But at the ranch, while willing hands were dashing water on the flames, Ralph and the lieutenant sprang inside the door-way just as Farron lifted from a deep, cellar-like aperture in the middle of the floor a sobbing yet wonderfully happy little maiden.  She clung to him hysterically, as he shook hands with one after another of the few rescuers who had time to hurry in.

Wells, with bandaged head and arm, was sitting at his post, his “Henry” still between his knees, and he looked volumes of pride and delight into his young friend’s sparkling eyes.  Pete, of course, was nowhere to be seen.  Jake, with a rifle-bullet through his shoulder, was grinning pale gratification at the troopers who came in, and then there was a moment’s silence as the captain entered.

Farron stepped forward and held forth his hand.  Tears were starting from his eyes.

“You’ve saved me and my little girl, captain.  I never can thank you enough.”

“Bosh!  Never mind us.  Where’s Ralph McCrea?  There’s the boy you can thank for it all. He led us!”

And though hot blushes sprang to the youngster’s cheeks, and he, too, would have disclaimed any credit for the rescue, the soldiers would not have it so.  ’Twas Ralph who dared that night-ride to bring the direful news; ’twas Ralph who guided them by the shortest, quickest route, and was with the foremost in the charge.  And so, a minute after, when Farron unclasped little Jessie’s arms from about his own neck, he whispered in her ear, ­

“’Twas Ralph who saved us, baby.  You must thank him for me, too.”

And so, just as the sun was coming up, the little girl with big, dark eyes whom we saw sitting in the railway station at Cheyenne, waiting wearily and patiently for her father’s coming, and sobbing her relief and joy when she finally caught sight of Ralph, was once more nestling a tear-wet face to his and clasping him in her little arms, and thanking him with all her loyal, loving heart for the gallant rescue that had come to them just in time.

Four days later there was a gathering at Laramie.  The general had come; the Fifth were there in camp, and a group of officers had assembled on the parade after the brief review of the command.  The general turned from his staff, and singled out a captain of cavalry who stood close at hand.

“McCrea, I want to see that boy of yours.  Where is he?”

An orderly sped away to the group of spectators and returned with a silent and embarrassed youth, who raised his hat respectfully, but said no word.  The general stepped forward and held out both his hands.

“I’m proud to shake hands with you, young gentleman.  I’ve heard all about you from the Fifth.  You ought to go to West Point and be a cavalry officer.”

“There’s nothing I so much wish, general,” stammered Ralph, with beaming eyes and burning cheeks.

“Then we’ll telegraph his name to Washington this very day, gentlemen.  I was asked to designate some young man for West Point who thoroughly deserved it, and is not this appointment well won?”