Ray's Ride for Life by General
Darkness has settled down in the shadowy Wyoming valley. By the light
of a tiny fire under the bank some twenty forms can be seen stretched
upon the sand,—they are wounded soldiers. A little distance away are
nine others, shrouded in blankets: they are the dead. Huddled in
confused and cowering group are a few score horses, many of them
sprawled upon the sand motionless; others occasionally struggle to
rise or plunge about in their misery. Crouching among the timber,
vigilant but weary, dispersed in a big, irregular circle around the
beleaguered bivouac, some sixty soldiers are still on the active list.
All around them, vigilant and vengeful, lurk the Cheyennes. Every now
and then the bark as of a coyote is heard,—a yelping, querulous
cry,—and it is answered far across the valley or down the stream.
There is no moon; the darkness is intense, though the starlight is
clear, and the air so still that the galloping hoofs of the Cheyenne
ponies far out on the prairie sound close at hand.
"That's what makes it hard," says Ray, who is bending over the
prostrate form of Captain Wayne. "If it were storming or blowing, or
something to deaden the hoof-beats, I could make it easier; but it's
the only chance."
The only chance of what?
When the sun went down upon Wayne's timber citadel, and the final
account of stock was taken for the day, it was found that with
one-fourth of the command, men and horses, killed and wounded, there
were left not more than three hundred cartridges, all told, to enable
some sixty men to hold out until relief could come against an enemy
who encircled them on every side, and who had only to send over to the
neighboring reservation—forty miles away—and get all the cartridges
they wanted. Mr. —— would let their friends have them to kill
"buffalo," though Mr. —— knew there wasn't a buffalo left within
four hundred miles.
They could cut through, of course, and race up the valley to find the
—th, but they would have to leave the wounded and the dismounted
behind,—to death by torture,—so that ended the matter. Only one
thing remained. In some way—by some means—word must be carried to
the regiment. The chances were ten to one against the couriers
slipping out. Up and down the valley, out on the prairie on both sides
of the stream, the Cheyennes kept vigilant watch. They had their hated
enemies in a death-grip, and only waited the coming of other warriors
and more ammunition to finish them—as the Sioux had finished Custer.
They knew, though the besieged did not, that, the very evening before,
the —th had marched away westward, and were far from their comrades.
All they had to do was to prevent any one's escaping to give warning
of the condition of things in Wayne's command. All, therefore, were on
the alert, and of this there was constant indication. The man or men
who made the attempt would have to run the gauntlet. The one remaining
scout who had been employed for such work refused the attempt as
simply madness. He had lived too long among the Indians to dare it,
yet Wayne and Ray and Dana and Hunter, and the whole command, for that
matter, knew that some one must try it. Who was it to be?
There was no long discussion. Wayne called the sulking scout a damned
coward, which consoled him somewhat, but didn't help matters. Ray had
been around the rifle-pits taking observations. Presently he returned,
leading Dandy up near the fire,—the one sheltered light that was
"Looks fine as silk, don't he?" he said, smoothing his pet's glossy
neck and shoulder, for Ray's groom had no article of religion which
took precedence over the duty he owed the lieutenant's horse, and no
sooner was the sun down than he had been grooming him as though still
in garrison. "Give him all the oats you can steal, Hogan; some of the
men must have a hatful left."
Wayne looked up startled.
"Ray, I can't let you go!"
"There's no helping it. Some one must go, and who can you send?"
Even there the captain noted the grammatical eccentricity. What was
surprising was that even there he made no comment thereon. He was
silent. Ray had spoken truth. There was no one whom he could order to
risk death in breaking his way out since the scout had said 'twas
useless. There were brave men there who would gladly try it had they
any skill in such matters, but that was lacking. "If any man in the
company could 'make it,' that man was Ray." He was cool, daring, keen;
he was their best and lightest rider, and no one so well knew the
country or better knew the Cheyennes. Wayne even wished that Ray might
volunteer. There was only this about it,—the men would lose much of
their grit with him away. They swore by him, and felt safe when he was
there to lead or encourage. But the matter was settled by Ray himself.
He was already stripping for the race.
"Get those shoes off," he said to the farrier, who came at his
bidding, and Dandy wonderingly looked up from the gunny-sack of oats
in which he had buried his nozzle. "What on earth could that
blacksmith mean by tugging out his shoe-nails?" was his reflection,
though, like the philosopher he was, he gave more thought to his
oats,—an unaccustomed luxury just then.
There seemed nothing to be said by anybody. Wayne rose painfully to
his feet. Hunter stood in silence by, and a few men grouped themselves
around the little knot of officers. Ray had taken off his belt and was
poking out the carbine cartridges from the loops,—there were not
over ten. Then he drew the revolver, carefully examined the chambers
to see that all were filled; motioned with his hand to those on the
ground, saying, quietly, "Pick those up. Y'all may need every one of
'em." The Blue Grass dialect seemed cropping out the stronger for his
preoccupation. "Got any spare Colts?" he continued, turning to Wayne.
"I only want another round." These he stowed as he got them in the
smaller loops on the right side of his belt. Then he bent forward to
examine Dandy's hoofs again.
"Smooth them off as well as you can. Get me a little of that sticky
mud there, one of you men. There! ram that into every hole and smooth
off the surface. Make it look just as much like a pony's as you know
how. They can't tell Dandy's tracks from their own then, don't you
Three or four pairs of hands worked assiduously to do his bidding.
Still, there was no talking. No one had anything he felt like saying
"Who's got the time?" he asked.
Wayne looked at his watch, bending down over the fire.
"Just nine fifteen."
"All right. I must be off in ten minutes. The moon will be up at
Dandy had finished the last of his oats by this time, and was gazing
contentedly about him. Ever since quite early in the day he had been
in hiding down there under the bank. He had received only one trifling
clip, though for half an hour at least he had been springing around
where the bullets flew thickest. He was even pining for his customary
gallop over the springy turf, and wondering why it had been denied him
"Only a blanket and surcingle," said Ray, to his orderly, who was
coming up with the heavy saddle and bags. "We're riding to win
tonight, Dandy and I, and must travel light."
He flung aside his scouting hat, knotted the silk handkerchief he took
from his throat so as to confine the dark hair that came tumbling
almost into his eyes, buckled the holster-belt tightly round his
waist, looked doubtfully an instant at his spurs, but decided to keep
them on. Then he turned to Wayne.
"A word with you, captain."
The others fell back a short distance, and for a moment the two stood
alone speaking in low tones. All else was silent except the feverish
moan of some poor fellow lying sorely wounded in the hollow, or the
occasional pawing and stir among the horses. In the dim light of the
little fire the others stood watching them. They saw that Wayne was
talking earnestly, and presently extended his hand, and they heard
Ray, somewhat impatiently, say, "Never mind that now," and noted that
at first he did not take the hand; but finally they came back to the
group and Ray spoke:
"Now, fellows, just listen a minute. I've got to break out on the
south side. I know it better. Of course there are no end of Indians
out there, but most of the crowd are in the timber above and below.
There will be plenty on the watch, and it isn't possible that I can
gallop out through them without being heard. Dandy and I have got to
sneak for it until we're spotted, or clear of them, then away we go. I
hope to work well out towards the bluffs before they catch a glimpse
of me, then lie flat and go for all I'm worth to where we left the
regiment. Then you bet it won't be long before the old crowd will be
coming down just a humping. I'll have 'em here by six o'clock, if,
indeed, I don't find them coming ahead tonight. Just keep up your
grit, and we'll do our level best, Dandy and I; won't we, old boy?
Now, I want to see Dana a minute and the other wounded fellows," and
he went and bent down over them, saying a cheery word to each; and
rough, suffering men held out feeble hands to take a parting grip, and
looked up into his brave young eyes. He had long known how the rank
and file regarded him, but had been disposed to laugh it off. Tonight
as he stopped to say a cheering word to the wounded, and looked down
at some pale, bearded face that had stood at his shoulder in more than
one tight place in the old Apache days in Arizona, and caught the same
look of faith and trust in him, something like a quiver hovered for a
minute about his lips, and his own brave eyes grew moist. They knew he
was daring death to save them, but that was a view of the case that
did not seem to occur to him at all. At last he came to Dana lying
there a little apart. The news that Ray was going to "ride for them"
had been whispered all through the bivouac by this time, and Dana
turned and took Ray's hand in both his own.
"God speed you, old boy! If you make it all safe, get word to mother
that I didn't do so badly in my first square tussle, will you?"
"If I make it, you'll be writing it yourself this time tomorrow night.
Even if I don't make it, don't you worry, lad. The Colonel and
Stannard ain't the fellows to let us shift for ourselves with the
country full of Cheyennes. They'll be down here in two days, anyhow.
Good-by, Dana; keep your grip and we'll larrup 'em yet."
Then he turned back to Wayne, Hunter, and the doctor.
"One thing occurs to me, Hunter. You and six or eight men take your
carbines and go up-stream with a dozen horses until you come to the
rifle-pits. Be all ready. If I get clear through you won't hear any
row, but if they sight or hear me before I get through, then, of
course, there will be the biggest kind of an excitement, and you'll
hear the shooting. The moment it begins, give a yell; fire your guns,
go whooping up the stream with the horses as though the whole crowd
were trying to cut out that way, but get right back. The excitement
will distract them and help me. Now, good-by, and good luck to you,
"Ray, will you have a nip before you try it? You must be nearly used
up after this day's work." And he held out his flask to him.
"No. I had some hot coffee just ten minutes ago, and I feel like a
four-year-old. I'm riding new colors; didn't you know it? By jove!" he
added, suddenly, "this is my first run under the Preakness blue." Even
then and there he thought too quickly to speak her name. "Now then,
some of you crawl out to the south edge of the timber with me, and lie
flat in the prairie and keep me in sight as long as you can." He took
one more look at his revolver. "I'm drawing to a bob-tail. If I fail,
I'll bluff; if I fill, I'll knock spots out of any threes in the
Three minutes more and the watchers at the edge of the timber have
seen him, leading Dandy by the bridle, slowly, stealthily, creeping
out into the darkness; a moment the forms of man and horse are
outlined against the stars: then are swallowed up in the night. Hunter
and the sergeants with him grasp their carbines and lie prone upon the
turf, watching, waiting.
In the bivouac is the stillness of death. Ten soldiers—carbines in
hand—mounted on their unsaddled steeds are waiting in the darkness at
the upper rifle-pits for Hunter's signal. If he shouts, every man is
to yell and break for the front. Otherwise, all are to remain quiet.
Back at the watch-fire under the bank Wayne is squatting, watch in one
hand, pistol in the other. Near by lie the wounded, still as their
comrades just beyond,—the dead. All around among the trees and in the
sand pits up- and down-stream, fourscore men are listening to the
beating of their own hearts. In the distance, once in a while, is
heard the yelp of coyote or the neigh of Indian pony. In the distance,
too, are the gleams of Indian fires, but they are beyond the positions
occupied by the besieging warriors. Darkness shrouds them. Far aloft
the stars are twinkling through the cool and breezeless air. With
wind, or storm, or tempest, the gallant fellow whom all hearts are
following would have something to favor, something to aid; but in this
almost cruel stillness nothing under God can help him,—nothing but
darkness and his own brave spirit.
"If I get through this scrape in safety," mutters Wayne between his
set teeth, "the —th shall never hear the last of this work of Ray's."
"If I get through this night," mutters Ray to himself, far out on the
prairie now, where he can hear tramping hoofs and guttural voices, "it
will be the best run ever made for the Sanford blue, though I do make
Nearly five minutes have passed, and the silence has been unbroken by
shot or shout. The suspense is becoming unbearable in the bivouac,
where every man is listening, hardly daring to draw breath. At last
Hunter, rising to his knees, which are all a-tremble with excitement,
mutters to Sergeant Roach, who is still crouching beside him,—
"By Heaven! I believe he'll slip through without being seen."
Hardly had he spoken when far, far out to the southwest two bright
flashes leap through the darkness. Before the report can reach them
there comes another, not so brilliant. Then, the ringing bang, bang of
two rifles, the answering crack of a revolver.
"Quick, men. Go!" yells Hunter, and darts headlong through the timber
back to the stream. There is a sudden burst of shots and yells and
soldier cheers; a mighty crash and sputter and thunder of hoofs up the
stream-bed; a few of the men at the west end, yelling like demons,
dash in support of the mounted charge in the bed of the stream. For a
minute or two the welkin rings with shouts, shots (mainly those of the
startled Indians), then there is as sudden a rush back to cover,
without a man or horse hurt or missing. In the excitement and darkness
the Cheyennes could only fire wild, but now the night air resounds
with taunts and yells and triumphant war-whoops. For full five minutes
there is a jubilee over the belief that they have penned in the white
soldiers after their dash for liberty. Then, little by little, the
yells and taunts subside. Something has happened to create discussion
in the Cheyenne camps, for the crouching soldiers can hear the
liveliest kind of a pow-wow far up-stream. What does it mean? Has Ray
slipped through, or—have they caught him?
Despite pain and weakness, Wayne hobbles out to where Sergeant Roach
is still watching and asks for tidings.
"I can't be sure, captain; one thing's certain, the lieutenant rode
like a gale. I could follow the shots a full half-mile up the valley,
where they seemed to grow thicker, and then stop all of a sudden in
the midst of the row that was made down here. They've either given it
up and have a big party out in chase, or else they've got him. God
knows which. If they've got him, there'll be a scalp-dance over there
in a few minutes, curse them!" And the sergeant choked.
Wayne watched some ten minutes without avail. Nothing further was seen
or heard that night to indicate what had happened to Ray except once.
Far up the valley he saw a couple of flashes among the bluffs; so did
Roach, and that gave him hope that Dandy had carried his master in
safety that far at least.
He crept back to the bank and cheered the wounded with the news of
what he had seen. Then another word came in ere long. An old sergeant
had crawled out to the front, and could hear something of the shouting
and talking of the Indians. He could understand a few words only,
though he had lived among the Cheyennes nearly five years. They can
barely understand one another in the dark, and use incessant
gesticulation to interpret their own speech; but the sergeant gathered
that they were upbraiding somebody for not guarding a coulee, and
inferred that someone had slipped past their pickets or they wouldn't
be making such a row.
That the Cheyennes did not propose to let the besieged derive much
comfort from their hopes was soon apparent. Out from the timber up the
stream came sonorous voices shouting taunt and challenge, intermingled
with the vilest expletives they had picked up from their cowboy
neighbors, and all the frontier slang in the Cheyenne vocabulary.
"Hullo! sogers; come out some more times. We no shoot. Stay there: we
come plenty quick. Hullo! white chief, come fight fair; soger heap
'fraid! Come, have scalp-dance plenty quick. Catch white soldier; eat
him heart bime by."
"Ah, go to your grandmother, the ould witch in hell, ye
musthard-sthriped convict!" sings out some irrepressible Paddy in
reply, and Wayne, who is disposed to serious thoughts, would order
silence, but it occurs to him that Mulligan's crude sallies have a
tendency to keep the men lively.
"I can't believe they've got him," he whispers to the doctor. "If they
had they would soon recognize him as an officer and come bawling out
their triumph at bagging a chief. His watch, his shoes, his spurs, his
underclothing, would all betray that he was an officer, though he
hasn't a vestige of uniform. Pray God he is safe!"
Will you follow Ray and see? Curiosity is what lures the fleetest deer
to death, and a more dangerous path than that which Ray has taken one
rarely follows. Will you try it, reader—just you and I? Come on,
then. We'll see what our Kentucky boy "got in the draw," as he would
Ray's footfall is soft as a kitten's as he creeps out upon the
prairie; Dandy stepping gingerly after him, wondering but obedient.
For over a hundred yards he goes, until both up- and down-stream he
can almost see the faint fires of the Indians in the timber. Farther
out he can hear hoof-beats and voices, so he edges along westward
until he comes suddenly to a depression, a little winding "cooley"
across the prairie, through which in the early spring the snows are
carried off from some ravine among the bluffs. Into this he
noiselessly feels his way and Dandy follows. He creeps along to his
left and finds that its general course is from the southwest. He knows
well that the best way to watch for objects in the darkness is to lie
flat on low ground so that everything approaching may be thrown
against the sky. His plain-craft tells him that by keeping in the
water-course he will be less apt to be seen, but will surely come
across some lurking Indians. That he expects. The thing is to get as
far through them as possible before being seen or heard, then mount
and away. After another two minutes' creeping he peers over the
western bank. Now the fires up-stream can be seen in the timber, and
dim, shadowy forms pass and repass. Then close at hand come voices and
hoof-beats. Dandy pricks up his ears and wants to neigh, but Ray grips
his nostrils like a vise, and Dandy desists. At rapid lope, within
twenty yards, a party of half a dozen warriors go bounding past on
their way down the valley, and no sooner have they crossed the gulley
than he rises and rapidly pushes on up the dry sandy bed. Thank
heaven! there are no stones. A minute more and right in front of him,
not a stone's throw away, he hears the deep tones of Indian voices in
conversation. Whoever they may be they are in the "cooley" and
watching the prairie. They can see nothing of him, nor he of them.
Pass them in the ten-foot-wide ravine he cannot. He must go back a
short distance, make a sweep to the east so as not to go between those
watchers and the guiding fires, then trust to luck. Turning stealthily
he brings Dandy around, leads back down the ravine for some thirty
yards, then turns to his horse, pats him gently one minute; "Do your
prettiest for your colors, my boy," he whispers; springs lightly,
noiselessly to his back, and at cautious walk comes up on the level
prairie, with the timber behind him three hundred yards away.
Southward he can see the dim outline of the bluffs. Westward—once
that little arroyo is crossed—he knows the prairie to be level and
unimpeded, fit for a race; but he needs to make a detour to pass the
Indians guarding it, get away beyond them, cross it to the west far
behind them, and then look out for stray parties. Dandy ambles lightly
along, eager for fun and little appreciating the danger. Ray bends
down on his neck, intent with eye and ear. He feels that he has got
well out east of the Indian picket unchallenged, when suddenly voices
and hoofs come bounding up the valley from below. He must cross their
front, reach the ravine before them, and strike the prairie beyond.
"Go, Dandy!" he mutters with gentle pressure of leg, and the sorrel
bounds lightly away, circling southwestward under the guiding rein.
Another minute and he is at the arroyo and cautiously descending, then
scrambling up the west bank, and then from the darkness comes savage
challenge, a sputter of pony hoofs. Ray bends low and gives Dandy one
vigorous prod with the spur, and with muttered prayer and clinched
teeth and fists he leaps into the wildest race for his life.
Bang! bang! go two shots close behind him. Crack! goes his pistol at a
dusky form closing in on his right. Then come yells, shots, the uproar
of hoofs, the distant cheer and charge at camp, a breathless dash for
and close along under the bluffs where his form is best concealed, a
whirl to the left into the first ravine that shows itself, and despite
shots and shouts and nimble ponies and vengeful foes, the Sanford
colors are riding far to the front, and all the racers of the
reservations cannot overhaul them.