27. In Desperate Plight
At daylight the truth was known. The greatest Indian rising of two decades had begun.
The Bad-Lands had entered upon a period of slaughter, of wanton massacre, which was to form one of the bloodiest pages in the history of Indian warfare.
The first to realize the full terror of the situation were the troops in the small trader's fort overlooking the Reservations. They awoke to find themselves hemmed in by a vast army of red-skinned warriors, entirely cut off from the outside world. The climax of their discovery was reached when an attempt was made to dispatch a telegraphic message to headquarters. The wire was cut.
The next to grasp the situation were the citizens of Beacon Crossing. The railroad track was destroyed, and all telegraphic communication was cut off. A horde of warriors from Pine Ridge Reservation, some thousands strong, threatened the township from the east, thus cutting them off from the settlers on the plains.
The full knowledge of these things came in driblets to the refugees gathering at White River Farm, filtering through piece by piece as each party came in. But as yet not an Indian had shown himself in the vicinity of the farm. Already twelve families had sought the shelter of Rube's stockade. And all was in readiness for the siege.
The morning passed, and still two families lying farther out than all the others had not yet arrived. It was an anxious waiting.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when at last one of the missing parties appeared on the horizon. It was at once seen that the two vehicles were being driven at a desperate pace. They were approaching from the north, and even at that distance the lookout could see the drivers flogging their horses into a furious gallop.
Seth passed the order to stand by. The defenders responded, and the stockade immediately bristled with rifles.
The wagons came on. Then suddenly a small party of Indians appeared over the horizon, racing in hot pursuit. But evidently the view of the farm altered their plans, for they reined in, halted, and, a moment later, wheeling about, vanished whence they came.
Seth, watching from the top of the stockade, realized something of the significance of their movements. And far graver fears than the manoeuvre seemed to warrant assailed him.
The late arrivals brought further bad tidings. The Indians on the Cheyenne River Reservation were out, and working in concert with the others. It is a bad business when Indian tribes band together against a common foe. There was consternation among the women when they heard the news. The men smiled grimly, but there was no lightness in their hearts.
The time of waiting dragged wearily. Every one within the stockade felt the suspense to be far worse than the fiercest fighting. The intangible threat of this unnatural calm was dreadful. Still, the respite was not without its uses. Defences were strengthened with earthworks hastily thrown up on the inside of the stockade, and the upper rooms of the house were made ready for a selected firing party, whilst the women made every preparation for the comfort of their men.
Nevil Steyne moved about bearing his share in the labors. He was morosely silent, and his presence caused much speculation amongst those who knew nothing of what had happened on the previous night. Seth's replies when questioned on the subject were evasive. Rube and Parker were no wiser than the rest, except that Seth had told them that Nevil was his prisoner, and must on no account be allowed to escape.
The gray spring twilight had settled over the plains. Still the last family, Joe Smith and his belongings, had not come in. Seth intended to give them their chance up to the very last, before he finally closed the gates. As the sun dropped he dispatched four mounted men to act as vedettes. They took up their positions a mile out from the farm, with orders to fire two shots in quick succession on sight of any Indians, and then to ride in with all speed.
After delivering his instructions he took up his position upon the stockade and watched them go. He was very anxious for the safety of Joe Smith; his place was nearly ten miles out, and away to the northeast. He knew that if the northern Indians were out it was quite possible that the old man had been cut off.
Now, as the day drew to a close, something of the gloomy prospect before them all seemed to have entered his soul. He was no alarmist, but he knew only too well the meaning of a big general Indian rising. The horrors he had witnessed in his early days were strong upon him, and the presence of all these white women under his charge weighed sorely. Nor did he glean much satisfaction from the thought that, at least, should disaster fall upon them he still had power to punish the man whom he knew to be the author of all this trouble. It would be poor consolation.
The darkness was growing. Now the reflection of Indian fires could be seen in almost every direction. There seemed to be a perfect ring of them, in the distance, around the farm.
He was disturbed in his gloomy reverie by the sound of some one scrambling up the newly-made earthworks to his side. It was Rosebud.
She took her seat at his side in silence. She was clad in her old prairie riding-habit of canvas, strong and rough, and eminently suited to the present condition of things. They had hardly met since the first alarm, so busy had everybody been. But now that all was ready the final lull before the breaking of the storm had provided even the busiest with leisure. The girl's first words came abruptly, and displayed her wonderful faith in the man to whom they all looked for help and protection.
"Shall we pull through, Seth?" she asked.
"Can't say, Rosie."
The man's reply was spoken slowly.
"Poor auntie!" Rosebud went on. "I can't help thinking of her. I wish I'd never said anything about 'scalping' to her. But she's very good and brave. She hasn't complained, and she's worked as hard as anybody. Do you know, I believe, now she's got over the first shock of it, she rather enjoys it. What do you think she said to me half an hour ago? She said, with such a smile, 'When I get home I shall have something to tell them. I'm keeping a diary.' Like a fool I said, 'You aren't home yet, auntie.' I said it without thinking. What do you suppose she replied?"
"Oh, I'll get home all right. Mr. Seth 'll see to that."
But Seth was impervious to the compliment. The girl smilingly watched his sombre face out of the corners of her eyes. There was no responsive smile.
"It's jest them things make it hard," he said, with something very like a sigh.
Rosebud's face had become serious. Her thoughts were hard at work.
"Is it as bad as that?" she asked presently.
"'Tain't no use lookin' at it easy. We're facin' the music--hard--this time. But we ain't done yet. Not by a sight. It's kind o' lucky we've laid in a big store of ammunition an' things."
It was dark by now, except for the glow of Indian fires, which gave a weird light on all sides.
Rosebud drew closer to the man's side. Her action passed unnoticed. His eyes were intent upon the dark horizon. He was watching, watching, with every faculty alert. He was listening, his ears ready to catch the faintest sound.
"It would be all right if only they could have sent word to the headquarters of the troops, I s'pose," the girl said thoughtfully. "Just fancy the Indians cutting the telegraph wires and destroying the railway."
"Yup. Guess they've had all winter to get things settled," Seth responded indifferently, while he turned a keen ear to windward.
"What are you listening for?" asked Rosebud, quickly.
"General's out scoutin'."
"Good old General!"
"Yes, he'll locate the Injuns when they git around."
But just then Rosebud was thinking of other things.
"Why can't you find some one who will try to get through to the troops? I mean the headquarters?"
Seth shook his head. "Can't spare a single man," he said conclusively. "I 'lows no white folk 'ud get through anyways. An' we ain't got an Injun, an' if we had I wouldn't trust him no more'n I'd trust a 'rattler.' No, Rosie, gal, we've got to fight this out on our own. An' make no sort o' mistake we're goin' to fight good an' hard. I've figgered to hold this place fer two weeks an' more. That's how I've figgered."
It was the final repetition which filled Rosebud with misgivings. She realized the man's doubt. Suddenly she slipped a hand through his arm, and it gently closed over one of his. Her soft eyes were raised to his face as she put another question in a low tone.
"And if we go under, Seth?"
The man moved uneasily, but the little hand retained its hold of his.
Seth cleared his throat, but remained silent.
"What then?" the girl persisted.
"Don't ask me."
"I've thought once or twice of my poor father and mother," Rosebud said presently. "I was wondering what happened to them at--at the end."
Seth eyed the girl for a second. His face was troubled.
"I've a notion he was killed by the Injuns," he said.
"Can't jest say. I don't fancy, though, he let the brutes worrit her any."
There was another pause. With an involuntary movement Rosebud's hand tightened trustfully upon his.
"I think father was right--to do that," she said simply.
The man nodded.
The next moment he was kneeling, his body bending forward, and his eyes straining in the direction of the horizon.
"What is it?" the girl asked.
"Ther's something movin'."
But Rosebud could hear nothing. Still she was content to accept his assurance.
"It's wheels," he said after a few moments.
"Is it Joe Smith's outfit?"
They both listened. The girl could now hear the faintest possible rattle of wheels. Suddenly she turned upon him. Her breath was coming quickly. She was smiling, and her eyes were soft under cover of the dim starlight.
"Seth, I want you to let me do something. In the old days you used to be my dear old 'daddy.' You used to scold me when I did wrong. You used to get angry with me, and I used to get more angry with you. Since I've grown up, of course, things have changed, haven't they?"
"Yes." The man looked into her face wonderingly.
"Well, daddy dear," the girl laughed nervously. "Maybe when the trouble begins I shan't see much of you. You'll be busy, and so will I. It's peace now, and I just want you to fall back into the old way. I want you for my 'daddy'--my dear, dear old 'daddy'--just for these few minutes. I want to be the silly scatterbrain I used to be."
"I ain't a heap at guessin', Rosie," Seth said doubtfully, but smiling tenderly at the upturned face.
"No, you never were." Rosebud gave a queer little laugh. "Well, I just want you to let me ride out and meet dear old Mrs. Smith. You know what a nervous old dear she is. I just thought if I rode out it might brighten her up. You see, she'd think the danger less, if a woman came to meet her."
"Wal, I won't say you no, gal," Seth replied gravely. "Guess it ain't right. But ther' ain't a heap of danger. Y' see in them old days I most gener'ly let you do as you notioned," he finished up with a shadowy smile.
"Dear old daddy!" Rosebud squeezed his arm with both her hands.
"Ther' be off, an' git your plug saddled, or mebbe I'll change my mind." The man could stand the temptation no longer. He gently released himself, and the girl moved as though to descend. But she altered her mind. Fortunately neither could see the other's face distinctly.
"Seth," she said, with forced brightness, "in the old days when I asked your permission for anything and you gave it to me you--you didn't let me go like that. It was customary for me to show my gratitude--like--like this."
She suddenly leant forward and imprinted a swift kiss on the man's thin cheek. And before he could reply, or even move, she had clambered down from the wall and made off. Nor was it until he heard her horse galloping out of the stockade, which occurred suspiciously soon after her leaving him, that he became aware that his cheek was wet with tears that had not been of his shedding.