Read CHAPTER X - HOW GEORGE SAVED THE CAMP. of George at the Fort Life Among the Soldiers , free online book, by Harry Castlemon, on ReadCentral.com.

The troopers went into camp about midnight, having been nineteen hours in the saddle, during which time they had marched more than seventy miles.  They halted on the bank of a small stream near a ford over which the Indians had passed during their retreat.  The trail was plain, and some of the troopers, who did not know quite as much about trailing as they thought they did, declared that they were close upon the heels of the raiders.

“How is that, George?” asked Bob Owens, who had been detailed as one of the corporals of the guard.  “Some of the boys say that if we should follow the Indians for an hour or two longer we would be within sight of their camp-fires.”

“What makes them think so?” asked George.

“Because they have found tracks with the sand still running into them.  Is that one of the signs by which to tell the age of a trail?”

“Under some circumstances, yes; in the present case, no.  You could tell the age of a trail in that way if the ground around it had not been disturbed.  This country about here is all quicksand, and you can take your stand almost anywhere along the banks of this stream, and by jumping up and down shake the ground for ten feet on all sides of you.  When our heavy column crossed the ford and climbed this bank, it shook the earth, and that was what set the sand to running down into the tracks.”

“I declare!” exclaimed Bob, gazing admiringly at his friend; “is there anything a trailer isn’t obliged to know?”

“If he wants to be an expert he must keep his eyes and ears wide open, and pay strict attention to little things which almost anybody else would consider to be beneath his notice.  It is wonderful what proficiency a person who has a talent for such things can acquire by practice.  For example, this scout of ours could learn more about a trail in two minutes than I could in an hour.  But he is fearfully jealous,” added George with a laugh, “and you ought to have seen how mad I made him while we were passing through that belt of post-oaks this afternoon.  Seeing that Captain Clinton was waiting very impatiently for information, I volunteered the statement that the hostiles had passed that way early on Thursday morning, and that Mr. Wentworth was not the only one who had suffered at their hands.  The captain asked Mose what he thought of that, and Mose replied, ’I think jest this here, cap:  if that kid is agoin’ to lead this yere party he had better say so, an’ I will go back to the post.  He’s a’most too fresh, an’ he’d better go back in the woods an’ practise at holdin’ his chin.’  But he did not contradict my statement, and that was all the evidence I needed to prove that I was right in what I said.  The tracks here on the bank are not as fresh as you suppose.  If they were wet, it would be a sign that the Indians crossed the ford since three o’clock this afternoon.”

“Why since three o’clock?” asked Bob.

“Because the sun went under a cloud at that hour, and hasn’t showed himself since to dry off the water that the horses and cattle brought out of the stream on their feet and legs.”

While the two boys were talking in this way George was getting ready to go to bed.  The camp was located at the foot of a perpendicular bluff which was perhaps twenty feet in height.  On the top of this bluff the horses were picketed, and beyond them were the sentinels who were to look out for the safety of the animals and keep guard over their slumbering companions.  Everything outside of the circle of light made by the camp-fires was concealed by the most intense darkness.  Not even a star twinkled in the sky.  George spread his blankets in a sheltered nook at the foot of the bluff and courted the “drowsy god” in vain.  He was tired and his eyes were heavy, but he could not go to sleep.  After rolling and tossing about for nearly two hours, he became too nervous to remain inactive any longer, so he slung his rifle on his back and climbed to the top of the bluff, where he found Bob Owens and two other non-commissioned officers sitting beside a fire and conversing in low tones.  At another fire a short distance away sat Lieutenant Earle, the officer of the guard, nodding over his pipe.

“Hallo!” exclaimed Bob, “what brought you out here?”

“Oh, I want somebody to talk to,” replied George, throwing himself on the ground by his friend’s side, “Somehow, I can’t sleep, and that’s a new thing for me.”

“You are not afraid of the hostiles, are you?” asked a corporal from the other side of the fire.

“Oh no, because I know that we have nothing to fear from them on such a night as this.  If there were any hostiles in the neighborhood, they might slip up and steal a few horses, if they thought they could get away with their booty, but they wouldn’t attack a party of the size of ours and bring on an open fight.  It is too dark.”

“Why, that is just the reason they would attack us,” exclaimed the corporal, who, although he had often been on a scout, had never participated in a battle.  “They rely upon the darkness to cover their movements and to assist them in effecting a surprise.  I have read it a hundred times.”

“Ah, yes,” replied George-“story-book Indians make attacks at all hours of the day and night, but live Plains Indians don’t.  The reason for it is this:  They believe that they will go into the happy hunting-grounds with just the same surroundings that attend their departure from this world.  If an Indian is crippled or blind or ill, he will be just the same Indian in the spirit-land.  If he dies from the effects of disease, he will suffer from that disease for ever; but if he is killed in battle on a pleasant day, and while he is in the possession of all his strength and faculties, he will go straight to the Indian’s heaven under the most favorable circumstances.”

“Suppose he is killed on a rainy day?” said the corporal on the other side of the fire.

“Or a snowy one?” chimed in a sergeant.

“Then he is doomed to paddle through rain or snow through all eternity,” replied George; “and that he doesn’t like either is proved by the fact that he will not stir out of camp while it is raining or snowing if he can help it.  If an Indian is hanged, like Captain Jack or those thirty-seven warriors who were executed at Mankato in 1863 for participation in the Sioux massacre, he loses all chance of ever seeing the happy hunting-grounds.  So he does if he is scalped; and that’s the reason Indians make such efforts to carry off the body of a fallen comrade.  A Plains Indian never willingly goes into a fight during the night.  If he did, he would make it much warmer for us here on the frontier than he does now.  He may make use of a night like this to get into position for an attack, but if left to himself he will not raise the war-whoop before daylight, because he believes that if he is killed during the dark he will be condemned to pass all eternity in darkness.”

“Well, that is something I never knew before,” said the corporal, “and I have been on the Plains a good many years.  Now that I think of it-”

“Corporal of the guard, N!” came the call through the dense darkness, whereupon Bob Owens jumped to his feet.

“What’s the trouble out there, I wonder?” said he.

“Go and see,” replied the sergeant with a sleepy yawn:  “that’s the only way to find out.”

“Sergeant,” said the officer of the guard, “if those horses have had grass enough, have them brought in and tied to the stable-lines.  Look well to their fastenings.”

“Corporal of the guard, N!” came the call again; and this time it was uttered in a louder and more earnest tone.

Bob, who was walking toward post N with a very deliberate step, now broke into a run, and George jumped up and followed him.  A fortunate thing it was for that camp and its inmates that he did so.  His thorough acquaintance with the ways of some of the inhabitants of the Plains enabled him to prevent a catastrophe which would certainly have resulted in a serious loss of life, and brought Captain Clinton’s scout to an inglorious end then and there.  When he and the corporal reached post N they found the sentry on duty there lying flat on his stomach and gazing earnestly toward the horizon.

“What’s the matter, Sprague?” demanded Bob.

“I don’t know, I am sure,” replied the sentry.  “If the hostiles had made up their minds to pay us a visit, they wouldn’t make such a racket as that, would they?  There! don’t you hear it?  Something’s coming this way, I tell you, and coming on a keen jump, too.”

The three held their breath and listened intently.  A second later the breeze brought to their ears the sound that had attracted the attention of the sentry-a deep, rumbling sound, faint and far off, but increasing perceptibly in volume.  It resembled the constant muttering of distant thunder, but they all knew it was not that.  Bob’s face brightened at once, but George’s grew pale.  The corporal did not know the danger that threatened them, but his companion did; he had heard something like it before.  He had heard it on the night that Fletcher and his band of raiders stampeded his stock, and he had thrown himself into an old buffalo-wallow and allowed three hundred frantic cattle to gallop over his head.

“Why, it must be cavalry from Fort Tyler,” said Bob at length.-“But I’ll tell you what’s a fact, boys,” he added, as a fresh gust of wind brought the sound more plainly to his ears:  “there must be lots of them, for I never heard such a roar of hoofs before.  They are coming this way, too.  I hope they’ll not run over us.”

“Well, they will run over us,” said George, speaking quickly but calmly, “unless you take immediate steps to prevent it.  They are not cavalry; they are buffaloes.”

“Oh! ah!” exclaimed Bob.

“Humph!” ejaculated the sentry, jumping to his feet.-“Don’t tell the boys what I called you out for, will you, corporal?  To tell the truth, I was just a little bit-”

He finished the sentence by shrugging his shoulders, and Bob, who knew what he meant by that, was about to assure him that he would say nothing in the hearing of the “boys” that would enable them to “get the laugh” on him, when George Ackerman broke in with-

“You had good reason to be alarmed, and this is not a matter to be dropped with an ‘ah!’ and an ‘oh!’ and a ‘humph!’ You are in great danger, if you only knew it.  Those buffaloes are stampeded, and will not stop until they are all out of breath.”

“Well, if they don’t want to stop, let them run,” said Bob.  “Who cares?  They don’t owe us anything.  They will of course turn aside when they see us.”

“But they will not see you unless you do something to attract their attention,” exclaimed George impatiently.  “They will be in among us in five minutes more, and men and horses will be trampled into the ground like blades of grass.  Wake up and do something, can’t you?  The safety of the camp depends upon you, and if you don’t move, I will.”

“Great Moses!” ejaculated Bob.  He was thoroughly aroused by the earnest words of his companion, but having never been placed in a situation like this before, he did not know how to act.  “You don’t mean that-I never heard of-”

“Yes, I do mean that they will trample the whole camp to death unless you prevent it; and I don’t care whether you ever heard of such a thing being done or not,” cried George, seizing the corporal by the arm and shaking him as if he wanted to put a little energy into him.

“But what shall I do?  Shall I order up the reserve and get the horses out of the way?”

“You haven’t got time to get them out of the way.  The buffaloes will be upon us before you could take half a dozen of them to a place of safety.  Arouse the camp the first thing, and then call up a few good men to go out and split the herd the moment it comes in sight.”

Bob, who was still in the dark, was about to ask how he should go to work to “split” the herd after he had selected the men, but George did not give him the opportunity.  The rumbling of the approaching hoofs grew louder and louder, and every moment was precious.  It sounded before them and to the right and left of them, indicating that the herd was an immense one, and that it was advancing with a front broad enough to overwhelm the entire camp.  Knowing that no more time could be wasted in debating the matter, George unslung his Winchester and fired two shots into the air.  The effect was almost magical.  The camp, which had been so quiet a second before, was aroused into instant life and activity.  Loud cries of “Indians!” and “Fall in!” arose on the still air, followed by blasts from the bugle and stern notes of command.  The officer of the guard was promptly on the ground, and to him Bob reported that a herd of stampeded buffaloes was bearing down upon them.  The announcement startled the lieutenant, but he acted with the greatest coolness.  As fast as the men came up he ordered them back to take care of the horses-all except a dozen or so of the best soldiers known to him, whom he ordered to follow him.  By the time he had taken up his position, which was on a little rise of ground about fifty yards from post N, Captain Clinton came up.  Taking in at a glance the arrangements which his subordinate had made to avert the terrible danger that threatened the camp, he left him and his picked men to carry out those arrangements or perish in the attempt, while he hastened back to see that the horses were well secured.

“Steady!” commanded Lieutenant Earle, speaking in his loudest tones, in order to make his voice heard above the roar of the threatening hoofs, which sounded like the noise made by an approaching hurricane.  “We are here to conquer or die.  If we don’t split that herd they will trample us out of sight in the ground.  We can do it if we are only cool enough to hold our position.  Don’t fire until I give the word, and then put in the shots as rapidly as you know how.”

Bob’s hair fairly stood on end, and not even the calm bearing of George Ackerman, who was constantly by his side and who knew their danger better than he did, or the lieutenant’s assurance that the herd could be split if they did their full duty, could relieve Bob’s mind of the positive conviction that he and his comrades were doomed to certain and speedy death.  But his courage never faltered, and to show that he did not intend to allow himself to be outdone in steadiness even by a shoulder-strap, he walked up and kneeling beside his officer (the men in the front rank were all kneeling, so that those in the rear rank could shoot over their heads) waited for the order to fire.

Nearer came the terror-stricken buffaloes, louder grew the thunder of their hoofs, and, as if to add to the horror of the situation and to test the courage of the lieutenant and his devoted little band to the very utmost, the horses behind them began to grow unmanageable from fright and to struggle desperately to escape from their fastenings.

At length, after a few moments of dreadful suspense, the time for action arrived.  A rapidly-moving mass, which was plainly visible, owing to the fact that it was blacker than the darkness of the night, burst into view and bore down upon the camp and its little band of defenders.  So loud was the noise made by their hoofs at this moment that the troopers did not hear the order to fire, which the lieutenant shouted out with all the power of his lungs; but they saw the flash of his revolver, and lost no time in opening a hot fire upon that portion of the herd which was directly in front of them.  To Bob it seemed that the rapid discharges of their breech-loaders had no effect whatever.  The black mass before him was as black and as dense, apparently, as it was when he first saw it, but, strange to say, instead of plunging upon him and his companions and trampling them out of all semblance to humanity, it seemed to remain stationary, although the deafening roar of those countless hoofs told him that the frantic herd had not in the least slackened its pace.  In fact, his eyes and ears seemed to have suddenly become at “outs,” for they did not endorse each other as they usually did.  His eyes told him that his carbine was fired rapidly, for they showed him the flashes that followed the pulling of the trigger; but his ears took no note of the fact, for he could not hear the faintest report.  The reason for this was, that the herd, having been split in two by the first volley, was moving by on each side of them with a roar and a rush that would have drowned the discharge of a section of artillery.

How long the buffaloes were in passing Bob never knew, for he took no note of time.  It was probably not more than two or three minutes, but during that brief period he passed through an ordeal that he never could think of afterward without feeling the cold chills creep all over him.  But he did not flinch, and neither did his companions.  When the last of the buffaloes passed to the right and left of them, and the lieutenant jumped up and stretched his arms and legs as if to assure himself that he had not been stepped on anywhere, he found that not one of his men had moved from his place.  The front rank was still kneeling, the rear rank was standing, and they were both as well aligned as they were before the firing commenced.

After ordering the front rank to rise, and bestowing upon them all a few hearty words of commendation, the lieutenant marched his men back to the camp, where they found some of their companions under arms, and the rest engaged in bringing in the horses and making them fast to the stable-lines.  The animals were in such a state of alarm, and showed so strong a desire to run off with the retreating buffaloes, that Captain Clinton thought it advisable to put a strong guard over them for the rest of the night, with instructions to examine their fastenings every few minutes.  When this guard had been detailed and the sentries had been changed, the rest of the troopers went back to their blankets.

Bob and George were proud of the part they had acted in saving the camp from destruction, and consequently when they spread their blankets beside one of the fires they were somewhat provoked to hear the man who was piling fresh fuel upon it attribute their narrow escape to “luck.”  But still there was nothing very surprising in this, for it not infrequently happens that a soldier stationed in one end of a camp does not know what is going on in the other end of it, especially in times of excitement.  The same thing happens in a fight.  A soldier may be able to give a clear statement of the part his company took in it, but he knows nothing of the general plan of the battle or of the number of the killed, wounded, captured or missing, until he has had time to talk the matter over with his comrades or to read a published account of it.  During the war it was a common saying among the soldiers in the field that they never knew anything about the fights they had been in until they saw the papers.

“I have been on the Plains nearly three years,” said the trooper who was punching up the fire, “and that was the first time I ever saw a herd of stampeded buffaloes.”

“I never saw one,” said another trooper.  “I heard this one, but my horse kept me so busy that I couldn’t take time to look at it.”

“I had a fair view of it,” said the one who had first spoken.  “My horse was quiet enough after I got the bit between his teeth, so that I could manage him, and I stood up there by that farther fire and took it all in.  I tell you, it was a sight!-a regular cataract of buffaloes a hundred feet wide, tumbling over a bank twenty feet high.  I have always heard that when buffaloes become frightened and get to running they turn aside for nothing; but this night’s experience gives the lie to all such stories, don’t it?  When they saw our camp they turned to the right and left, and crossed the stream above and below us, and never did us the least damage.  Luck was on our side, wasn’t it?”

“’Luck’!” repeated Bob in a tone of disgust; “I guess not.  There were about a dozen men, of whom George Ackerman and I made two, who stood between you fellows and certain death.  If we hadn’t held our ground as if we had grown there, there wouldn’t have been one of you left to tell the story of this night’s work.”

The troopers lying about the fire were greatly astonished at these words, and called for an immediate explanation.  Bob told the story in a few words, adding, as he directed the attention of his auditors to George Ackerman, who was lying at his ease on his blanket,

“There’s the fellow you have to thank for your ‘luck.’  Sprague heard them coming, and so did I after he called me out to his post, but we didn’t know what it was until Ackerman told us.  He was the one who alarmed the camp.  I know I did something toward splitting that herd, for I could see the fire come out of my carbine and my cartridge-box is empty, but I never heard a report.  I didn’t hear anything but the thunder of those hoofs, and I shall hear it to my dying day.”

“I wonder what started them?” said one of the troopers, after he and his companions had asked a few questions concerning the behavior of the various members of the squad.  “Indians?”

“Probably they did,” answered a sergeant, who just then came up to the fire to light his pipe, being unable to go to sleep until he had taken a smoke to quiet his nerves.

“Probably the Indians had nothing to do with it,” said George.  “Don’t you know that a herd of buffaloes will feed within a mile or two of an Indian camp for days at a time, while half a dozen white men would scare them out of the country in less than an hour?  Well, it’s a fact.”

“What is the reason for it?” asked Bob.

“The reason is to be found in the different modes of hunting them.  The Indian, who depends largely upon them for food and clothing, kills no more of them during a run than the squaws can take care of.  He hunts them almost altogether with the bow and arrow, which are not only very effective weapons at short range, but they make no noise to scare away the game.  He hunts according to long-established rules, none but the best men in the tribe being permitted to take part in a run, and in this way the game is secured before the buffaloes get frightened enough to break into a stampede.  The white man, who hunts principally for profit, keeps up the killing as long as he can hold the herd within range of his gun.  He follows them persistently during the daytime, and at night lies in wait to shoot them as they come to the streams to quench their thirst.  A buffalo is a very stupid animal, but, after all, it doesn’t take him long to get some things through his head.”

“Fresh, purty fresh!” murmured a voice.

George looked over his shoulders and saw the scout lying close by on his blanket.  He had come up to the fire and arranged his bed without attracting the attention of any one.

“Do you think there is nobody in this party who knows anything except yourself?” demanded George.

“Well, no; judgin’ by the way you sling your chin, you know it all,” replied the scout.

“What do you suppose first put this herd in motion?” asked one of the troopers, who had not yet gained all the information he wanted.

“That’s a question that nobody can answer unless he was on the ground and saw them start,” answered George.-“You’ll not dispute that, will you, Mose?-Our Texas cattle will often get stampeded by the sight of a little cloud of dust that is suddenly raised by the wind; or some night a careless herdsman may step between them and the fire and throw his shadow upon them; or some of the young and foolish members of a drove will fall to skylarking, and that will frighten the others, and the first thing you know they are all off like the wind.  Buffaloes have just as little sense.  My herdsman has told me that he has seen hundreds of them, when they were suffering for water, walk into a stream that was literally choked with the bodies of their companions who had been caught in the quicksand.”

“Say,” growled a drowsy trooper from his blanket, “suppose you boys go somewhere and hire a hall?”

George laughed, and, taking the hint thus delicately thrown out, brought his lecture on buffaloes to a close.  The remembrance of the thrilling scene through which he had just passed did not keep him awake.  On the contrary, sleep came to his eyes almost immediately, and the last sound he heard as he was about to pass into the land of dreams was the subdued voice of the scout murmuring, “Fresh, very fresh!”