Read CHAPTER XXIX of The Watchers of the Plains A Tale of the Western Prairies , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

HARD PRESSED

During those first terrible days of the Indian outbreak the horrors that befell could only be guessed at. The government, the people living without the danger zone, gradually learned the full details, but those most concerned only knew what was happening in their immediate neighborhood. Every one, even those who had made a life-study of their red-skinned neighbors, were taken unawares. The methods of the untried chieftain had proved themselves absolutely Napoleonic.

There could be no doubt that the whole campaign was the result of long and secret preparation. But it had been put into execution at the psychological moment, which was its warrant of success. That this moment had been unpremeditated, and that something very like chance alone had precipitated matters, afforded neither hope nor consolation.

And this chance. A frail white woman; Rosebud’s return to the farm her visit in Nevil Steyne’s company to the Reservation. For a few moments the wild, haughty chieftain had stood observing her as she rode through the encampment; and in those few moments the mischief was done.

The old trading fort offered little resistance to the Indian attack, and the handful of troops within it very little more. Being soldiers they were treated to the Indians’ first attention. An overwhelming horde of picked warriors was sent to deal with them, and, by the end of the second day, the massacre and sacking of the post were accomplished.

In this way a large reinforcement was added to the party threatening Beacon Crossing. Intoxicated with their first success the whole army rushed upon the unfortunate township. And all the more fierce was the onslaught for the reason that the attack was made up of rival tribes.

The Rosebuds had wiped out the troops, and, in consequence, the men of Pine Ridge, fired by jealousy, advanced like a raging torrent mad with the desire for slaughter. Utterly unprepared for such rapid movements, the men at the Crossing, unorganized, hardly realizing what had happened, fell easy victims.

The township, like the fort, was wiped from the fair face of the budding prairie-land. The horrors of the massacre were too terrible to be dealt with here. Every man, woman, and child now living in the country has heard the tales of that awful week. Few people escaped, and those only by taking to the Black Hills, where they suffered untold privations from want and exposure.

Having thus disposed of the two principal centres from which interference might spring, the Indians proceeded to devote themselves to the individual settlers upon the prairie. Not a farm escaped their attention. North and south, east and west, for miles and miles the red tide swept over the face of the plains, burning, sacking, murdering.

A track of blood was left behind them wherever they went. Charred monuments marked the tombs of hardy settlers caught in the red flood; where peace and prosperity had so recently reigned, now were only ruin and devastation.

With each succeeding day the horror grew. The northern Indians threw in their lot with their warlike Sioux brothers, and all the smaller and more distant tribes, numerically too weak for initiative, hastened to the bloody field of battle. The rebellion grew; it spread over the country like a running sore. The Bad Lands were maintaining their title.

At first the news that filtered through to the outside world was meagre, and devoid of reliable detail. Thus it happened that only a few troops were hurried to the scene of action. It was not until these, like the handful at the fort, had served to swell the roll of massacre, and the fact became known that the northern posts, where large forces were always kept in readiness, were cut off from all communications, that the world learned the full horror that had befallen the Indian territory of Dakota.

Through these days the one place to hold out against the fierce onslaught of an overwhelming foe was the fortified farm of White River. But it was in a desperate plight.

So far only the foresight of the defenders had saved them. The vast strength of the stockade and the inner earthworks, hurriedly thrown up at the last moment, and the unswerving devotion of the little band of settlers within its shelter, had formed a combination of stout resistance. But as the time passed, and each day brought with it its tally of casualties, the position became more and more desperate.

With each attack the fortifications suffered. Twice the ramparts were breached, and only nightfall had saved the situation. At long range fighting the white defenders had the best of it, but hand to hand the issue was reversed. Each day saw one or two of the white men laid low, and the burden of the rest proportionately increased. Thus, out of a total of thirty available men and youths, at the end of six days the force was reduced by nearly a third.

But worst of all was the strain. Every man within the stockade, and for that matter, most of the women, too, knew that the pressure could not endure much longer without disastrous results. Ammunition was plentiful, provisions also, and the well supplied all the water necessary. It was none of these; it was the nerve strain, the lack of proper rest and sleep. The men only snatched odd half hours in the daytime. At night every eye and ear had to be alert.

Seth and Parker headed everything. In the councils they were the leaders, just as they were in the fighting. And on them devolved the full control of affairs, from the distribution of rations, in which Ma Sampson and Miss Parker were their lieutenants, to the regulations for the sanitation of the fort.

All the time Nevil Steyne was never lost sight of. He was driven to fight beside his leader with Rube close behind him ready for any treachery. He knew that Seth knew him, knew his secret, knew his relations with the Indians, and he quite understood that his only hope lay in implicit obedience, and a watchful eye for escape. His nature was such that he had no qualms of conscience in regard to opposing his red-skinned friends. That part he accepted philosophically. He had so long played a game of self-seeking treachery that his present condition came quite easily to him.

For Seth, who shall say what that dreadful period of suspense must have been? He went about his work with his usual quiet, thoughtful face, a perfect mask for that which lay behind it. There was no change of manner or expression. Success or disaster could not alter his stern, unyielding ways. He fought with the abandon and desperation of any Indian warrior when it came to close quarters, returning to his quiet, alert manner of command the moment the fighting was over. He was uncomplaining, always reassuring those about him, and carrying in his quiet personality something that fired his companions to exertions which no words of encouragement could have done.

Yet he was passing through an agony of heart and mind such as few men are submitted to. Rosebud had gone, vanished, and no one could answer the question that was forever in his mind. He had looked for her return when Joe Smith’s party came in, only to be confounded by the fact that she had not even been seen by them. That night he had risked everything for her. He scouted till dawn, visiting Wanaha’s hut, but only to find it deserted. Finally he returned to the farm, a broken-hearted man, bitter with the reflection that he alone was to blame for what had happened.

The girl’s loss cast a terrible gloom over the whole fort. It was only her sense of responsibility which saved Ma from breaking down altogether. Rube said not a word, but, like Seth, he perhaps suffered the more.

It was on the seventh day that a curious change came over the situation. At first it was greeted with delight, but after the novelty had passed, a grave suspicion grew in the minds of the worn and weary defenders. There was not a shot fired. The enemy had withdrawn to their distant camps, and a heavy peace prevailed. But the move was so unaccountable that all sought the reason of it.

Counsel was taken by the heads of the defence, and the feeling of uneasiness grew. The more experienced conceived it to be the herald of a final, overwhelming onslaught. The younger preferred optimistic views, which they found unconvincing. However, every one took care that advantage was taken of the respite.

Seth had his supper in one of the upper rooms in company with Parker and Nevil Steyne. He sat at the open window watching, watching with eyes straining and nerves painfully alert. Others might rest, he could not, dared not.

The sun dipped below the horizon. The brief spring twilight changed from gold to gray. A footstep sounded outside the door of the room where the three men were sitting. A moment later Mrs. Rickards came in. Rosebud’s cousin had changed considerably in those seven days. Her ample proportions were shrunken. Her face was less round, but had gained in character. The education of a lifetime had been crowded into the past week for her. And it had roused a spirit within her bosom, the presence of which she had not even suspected.

“Rube wants you, Seth,” she announced. “He’s on the north side of the stockade. It’s something particular, I think,” she added. “That’s why he asked me to tell you.”

With a few words of thanks, Seth accompanied her from the room and moved down-stairs. It was on their way down that Mrs. Rickards laid a hand, already work-worn, upon the man’s arm.

“They’re advancing again. Seth, shall we get out of this trouble?”

The question was asked without any expression of fear, and the man knew that the woman wanted a plain, truthful answer.

“It don’t seem like it,” he answered quietly.

“Yet, I kind o’ notion we shall.” Then after a pause he asked, “What’s your work now?”

“The wounded.”

“Ah! Did you ever fire a gun, ma’am?”

“No.”

“Have you a notion to try?”

“If necessary.”

“Mebbe it’s going to be.”

“You can count on me.”

Wondering at the change in this Englishwoman, her companion left her to join Rube.

He found the whole garrison agog with excitement and alarm. There was a large gathering at the north side of the stockade, behind the barn and outbuildings. Even in the swift falling darkness it was evident that a big move was going on in the distant Indian camps. Nor did it take long to convince everybody that the move was in the nature of an advance.

After a long and earnest scrutiny through a pair of old field-glasses, Seth, followed by Rube, made a round of the fortifications. The movement was going on in every direction, and he knew that by morning, at any rate, they would have to confront a grand assault. He had completed the round, and was in the midst of discussing the necessary preparations with Rube, still examining the outlook through the glasses, when suddenly he broke off with a sharp ejaculation. The next moment he turned to the old man below him.

“Take these glasses, Rube,” he said rapidly, “an’ stay right here. Guess I’m goin’ to drop over. I’ll be back in awhiles. There’s somethin’ movin’ among the grass within gunshot.”

With a cheery “aye,” Rube clambered to the top of the stockade as the younger man disappeared on the other side.

Seth landed on his hands and knees and moved out in that manner. Whatever his quarry the plainsman’s movements would have been difficult of detection, for he crept along toward his goal with that rapid, serpentine movement so essentially Indian.

Rube watched him until darkness hid him from view. Then, stooping low, and scanning the sky-line a few minutes later, he distinctly made out the silhouette of two men standing talking together.

Seth found himself confronting an Indian. The man was plastered with war-paint, and his befeathered head was an imposing sight. But, even in the darkness, he recognized the broad face and slit-like eyes of the scout, Jim Crow. He was fully armed, but the white man’s gun held him covered. In response to the summons of the threatening weapon, the man laid his arms upon the ground. Then he stood erect, and, grinning in his habitual manner, he waved an arm in the direction of the moving Indians.

“Wal?” inquired Seth, coldly.

“I, Jim Crow, come. I know heap. Fi’ dollar an’ I say.”

Seth thought rapidly. And the result was another sharp inquiry.

“What is it?”

“Fi’ dollar?”

“If it’s worth it, sure, yes.”

“It heap worth,” replied the scout readily.

Seth’s comment was short.

“You’re a durned scoundrel anyway.”

But Jim Crow was quite unabashed.

“See, it this,” he said, and for the moment his face had ceased to grin. “I see much. I learn much. See.” He waved an arm, comprehensively taking in the whole countryside. “White men all dead all kill. Beacon it gone. Fort it gone. Farm all gone. So. Miles an’ miles. They all kill. Soldiers, come by south. They, too, all kill. Indian man everywhere. So. To-morrow they eat up dis farm. So. They kill all.”

“Wal?” Seth seemed quite unconcerned by the man’s graphic picture.

At once Jim Crow assumed a look of cunning. His eyes became narrower slits than ever.

“So. It dis way,” he said, holding up a hand and indicating each finger as he proceeded to make his points. “Black Fox him angry. Much. Big soldier men come from north. They fight very fierce, an’ tousands of ’em. They drive Indian back, back. Indian man everywhere kill. So. They come. Chief him much angry. Him say, ‘They come. But I kill all white men first.’ So to-morrow he burn the farm right up, an’ kill everybody much dead.”

“And the soldiers are near?”

The white man’s words were coldly inquiring, but inwardly it was very different. A mighty hope was surging through him. The awful suspense had for the moment dropped from his sickening heart, and he felt like shouting aloud in his joy. The Indian saw nothing of this, however.

“Yes, they near. So. One sun.”

Seth heard the news and remained silent. One day off! He could hardly realize it. He turned away and scanned the horizon. Jim Crow grew impatient.

“An’ the fidollar?”

There was something so unsophisticated in the man’s rascality that Seth almost smiled. He turned on him severely, however.

“You’ve been workin’ with your countrymen, murderin’ an’ lootin’, an’ now you see the game’s up you come around to me, ready to sell ’em same as you’d sell us. Say, you’re a durned skunk of an Indian!”

“Jim Crow no Indian. I, Jim Crow, scout,” the man retorted.

Seth eyed him.

“I see. You figger to git scoutin’ agin when this is through. Say, you’re wuss’n I thought. You’re wuss’n ”

He broke off, struck with a sudden thought. In a moment he had dropped his tone of severity.

“See, I’m goin’ to hand you twenty dollars,” he said, holding the other’s shifty eyes with his own steady gaze, “if you’ve a notion to earn ’em an’ act squar’. Say, I ken trust you if I pay you. You ain’t like the white Injun, Nevil Steyne, who’s bin Black Fox’s wise man so long. After he’d fixed the mischief he gits around to us an’ turns on the Indians. He’s fought with us. An’ he’s goin’ to fight with us to-morrow. He’s a traitor to the Indians. You belong to the whites, and you come to help us when you can. Now, see here. You’re goin’ to make north hard as hell ’ll let you, savee? An’ if the soldiers git here at sundown to-morrow night, I’m goin’ to give you twenty dollars, and I’ll see you’re made head scout agin.”

Seth waited for his answer. It came in a great tone of self-confidence.

“I, Jim Crow, make soldiers dis night. So.”

“Good. You act squar’. You ain’t no traitor to the white man, same as Nevil Steyne’s traitor to the Indian, which I guess Black Fox likely knows by this time.”

“Yes. Black Fox know.”