When Will awoke in the cold dawn he found the herd still passing, though it showed signs of diminution in both breadth and density. After breakfast he climbed the cottonwood again, and took another long and searching look through the glasses.
"I can't yet see the end of the advancing herd under the rim of the horizon," he announced when he descended, "but, as you can tell from the ground, it's thinning out."
"Which means thar'll no longer be a river cutting us off from the hoss Indians on the south," said the Little Giant, "an' which means, too, that it's time fur us to light out from here an' foller the trail."
Curving considerably toward the north for fear of the Indian hunters, who were likely to be where the buffaloes were, they rode at a good pace over the plain, the pack horses and mules following readily without leading. Their curve finally took them so far toward the north that the swells of the plain hid the buffalo herd—only Will's glasses disclosing traces of the dust cloud—and the thunder of its passage no longer reached their ears.
Near sundown they came to a low ridge covered with bushes, and deciding that it was an excellent place for a camp they rode into the thick of it until sure also from the presence of tree growth that they would find water not far away. Will was the first to dismount and as he went over the crest and down the slope in search of a stream or pool, he uttered a cry of horror.
He had come upon a sight, alas! too familiar at that time upon the plains. Scattered about a little grassy opening were seven or eight human skeletons, picked so clean by the wolves that they were white and glistening. But the lad knew that wolves had not caused their deaths. Bullet, arrow and lance had done the work. He shuddered again and again, but he was too much of the mountain ranger and plainsman now to turn aside because of horror.
He concluded that the skeletons represented perhaps two families, surprised and slaughtered by the Sioux. Several of them were small, evidently those of children, and he arrived at the number two because he saw in the bushes near by two of the great wagons of the emigrant camp, overturned and sacked. Just beyond was a small, clear stream which obviously had caused the victims to stop there.
Will walked back slowly and gravely to his comrades.
"Did you find water, young William?" asked the Little Giant jovially.
"I did," replied the lad briefly.
"Then why does that gloom set upon your brow?"
"Because I found something else, too."
"What else do we need? Water fur ourselves an' the animals is all we want."
"But I found something else, I tell you, Tom Bent, and it was not a sight pleasant to see."
The Little Giant noticed the shudder in the lad's tones, and he asked more seriously:
"Signs of hostile bands comin', young William?"
"No, not that, but signs where they have passed, skeletons of those whom they have slain, just beyond the bushes there, picked clean, white and glistening. Come with me and see!"
The others, who heard, went also, and the men looked reflectively at the scene.
"I've seen its like often," said Boyd. "The emigrants push on, straight into the Indian country. Neither hardships, nor troops, nor the Indians themselves can stop 'em. Wherever a party is cut off, two come to take its place. I guess this group was surprised, and killed without a chance to fight back."
"How do you know that?" asked Will.
"'Cause the wagons are turned over. That shows that the horses were still hitched to 'em, when the firin' from ambush began, and in their frightened struggles tipped 'em on one side. Suppose we go through 'em."
"What for, Jim?"
"This must have been done at least a couple of months ago. The weather-beaten canvas covers and the general condition of the wagons show that. War not being then an open matter the Indians might have hurried away without making a thorough overhauling. Then, too, it might have been done by wandering Piegans or Blackfeet or Northern Cheyennes, who, knowing they were on Sioux territory, were anxious to get away with their spoil as quickly as they could."
"Good sound reasonin', Jim," said the Little Giant, "an' we'll shorely take a good look through them wagons."
The wagons, as usual with those crossing the plains, contained many little boxes and lockers and secret places, needful on such long journeys, and they searched minutely through every square inch of the interior space. The Indians had not been so bad at the sack themselves, but they found several things of value, some medicines in a small locker, two saws, several gimlets and other tools, and under a false bottom in one of the wagons, which the sharp eye of the Little Giant detected, a great mat filled with coffee, containing at least one hundred pounds.
They could have discovered nothing that would have pleased them more, since coffee was always precious to the frontiersman, and together they uttered a shout of triumph. Then they divided it among their own sacks and continued the search looking for more false bottoms. They were rewarded in only a single instance and in that they found an excellent pocket compass, which they assigned to Bent.
Their gleanings finished, they made camp and passed a peaceful night, resuming the journey early the next morning. They would have buried the bones of the slain, as they had spades and picks for mining work, but they felt they should not linger, as they were now in country infested by the Sioux and it was not well to remain long in one place. Hence, they rode away under an early sun, and soon the memory of the slaughter by the little stream faded from their minds. Events were too great and pressing for them to dwell long upon anything detached from their own lives.
On the second day afterward they curved back toward the south and struck the great buffalo trail. But the herd, which did have an end after all, had now passed, and they saw only stragglers. As the trail led into the northwest and their own trail must be more nearly west, they crossed it and did not stop until half the night had gone, as they knew the Indians were most to be dreaded near the herd or in its path.
When they camped now Will could no longer see the White Dome, which had followed them so long, watching over them like a great and majestic friend. He missed that lofty white signal in the sky, feeling as if a good omen had gone, and that the signs would not now be so favorable. But the depression was only momentary. He had cultivated too strong and courageous a will ever to allow himself to be depressed long.
At noon they were far from the hills and out on the open plains, which spread swell on swell before them, seemingly to infinity, with only a lone tree here and there, and at rare intervals a sluggish stream an inch or two deep and dangerous with quicksands. The water of these little creeks was not good, touched at times with alkali, but they made the horses and mules drink it, saving the pure supply they carried for a period of greater need.
Will used his glasses almost continually, watching for a possible enemy or anything else that might appear upon the plain, and he saw occasional groups of the buffalo, a dozen or so, at which he expressed surprise.
"And why are you surprised, young William?" asked Brady. "Don't you know enough of this mighty West not to be surprised at anything?"
"I saw so many millions in that herd going into the northwest," replied the lad, "that I thought it must have included all the buffaloes in the world. Yet here are more, scattered in little groups."
"And there are other herds millions strong far down in the south, and still others just as strong, Montana way. It may be in this great hunt of ours that we can live on the buffalo, just as the Indians do."
They slept that night on the open plain, warm in their blankets and lulled by the eternal winds, and the next morning they were off again at the first upshoot of dawn. It now grew very warm, the sun's rays coming down vertically, while the plain itself seemed to act as a burnished shield, reflecting them and doubling the heat. Careful of their animals, they gave them a long rest at noon, and then resumed the march at a slow pace. Before sundown Will saw through his glasses a long line of trees, apparently cottonwoods, running almost due north and south.
"Means a creek," said the Little Giant, "a creek mebbe a leetle bigger than them make-believe creeks we've crossed. I like the plains. They kinder git hold o' you with thar sweep an' thar freedom, but I ain't braggin' any 'bout thar water courses. I've seen some o' the maps in which the rivers cut big an' black an' bold an' long 'cross the plains, same ez ef they wuz ragin' an' t'arin' Ohios an' Missips, an' then I've seen the rivers tharselves, more sand than water. An' I love fine, clear streams, runnin' fast, but you hev to go into the mountains to git 'em, whar, ez you've seen, Will, thar are lots o' sparklin' leetle ones, clean full o' pure water, silver, or blue, or gold, or gray, 'cordin' to the way the sun shines. But I say ag'in when braggin' o' the great plains I keep dark 'bout the rivers an' lakes."
The cottonwoods were six or seven miles away, and when they reached them they found all of the Little Giant's predictions to be true. The stream, a full foot in depth, flowed between banks higher than usual, and its waters, cold and sweet, were entirely devoid of alkali. Following it some distance, they found sloping banks free from the danger of quicksand, and crossed to the other side, where they made a camp among the cottonwoods.
Will, weary from the long ride, went to sleep as soon as dusk came, but he was awakened somewhere near the middle of the night by the hand of Boyd on his shoulder.
"What is it?" he asked, sitting up and not yet wholly awake.
"Quiet!" whispered Boyd. "Reach for your rifle, and then don't stir. The Sioux are out on the plain to the west, in front of us. Tom, who was on watch, heard 'em, and then he saw 'em. There's a band of at least fifty on their ponies. We think they know we're here. Likely they heard our animals moving about."
The lad's heart contracted. It seemed a hideous irony of fate that, after having escaped so many dangers by their skill and courage, blind chance should bring such a great menace against them here upon the plains. He drew himself from his blankets, and propping himself upon his elbows pushed forward his repeating rifle. Then he changed his mind, put down his rifle again, and brought to his eyes the precious glasses, with which he seldom parted.
He was able to see through the cottonwoods and in the moonlight the Sioux band, about a third of a mile away, gathered in a group on the crest of a swell, strong warriors, heavily painted, nearly all of them wearing splendid war bonnets. They were sitting on their ponies and two, whom Will took to be chiefs, were talking together.
"What do you make out, young William?" asked the Little Giant.
"A conference, I suppose."
"Then they know beyond a doubt that we're here," said Boyd. "They must have heard the stamp of a horse or a mule. It's bad luck, but we've had so much of the good that we've got to look for a little of the bad. What more do you see through those glasses of yours, Will?"
"Ten men from the band have gone to the right, and ten have gone to the left. All are bent low on their ponies, and they are moving slowly. Some carry lances and some rifles."
"That settles it. They're sure we're here and they mean to take us. What about those who are left in the center?"
"They've come a little nearer, but not much."
"Waiting for the two wings to close in before they attack. That's your crafty Indian. They never waste their own lives if they can help it, nor does an Indian consider it any disgrace to run when the running is of profit. I don't know but what they're right. Can you still see the two wings, Will?"
"The one on the left is hid by a swell, but the other on the right is bearing in toward the creek."
"Then we'd better make our field of battle and fortify as fast as we can."
The horses and mules were tethered in the lowest ground they could find among the cottonwoods near the edge of the creek, where the four hoped they would escape the bullets. Then they built in all haste a circular breastwork of fallen wood and of their own packs.
"Thar's one satisfaction 'bout it," said the Little Giant grimly. "Ef we're besieged here a long time we'll hev water only a few feet away. Many a man on the plains could hev held his own ag'inst the painted imps ef he could hev reached water. What do you see now, young William?"
"Both horns of their crescent. They're on top of the swells, but have come almost to the cottonwoods. Do you look for 'em to cross the creek?"
"Sooner or later they will, an' we'll have to guard from all directions, but I reckon the attack jest now will come straight in front an' 'long the stream on the flanks."
"And the hardest push will be on the flanks?"
"Yes, that would be good strategy. They mean, while the warriors in front are keeping us busy, to press in from both sides. What do you see now, young William?"
"The forces on the flanks have passed out of sight among the cottonwoods, and the one in front is still advancing slowly. The warriors there seem to be armed chiefly with bows and arrows."
"Meant mostly to draw our attention. The rifles are carried by the men on the flanks. B'ars out what we said 'bout thar plan. These warriors, like some others we met, hev got to learn a lot 'bout the new an' pow'ful repeatin' rifles. Do you think, Jim, them in front hev now rid within range?"
"In a minute or two they'll be within your range, Giant."
"Then do you think I'd better?"
"Yes. They've made their semi-circle for attack. Tell 'em in mighty plain language they oughtn't to do such a thing without consulting us."
"Give 'em a hint, so to speak, Jim?"
"That's what I mean."
The Little Giant levelled his rifle at the approaching horsemen. The moonlight was silvery and brilliant, giving him fine chance for aim, and not in vain had his friend, Boyd, called him the greatest shot in the West. The rifle cracked, there was a little spit of fire in the moonlight, and the foremost Indian fell from his pony. The band uttered a single shout of rage, but did not charge. Instead, the warriors drew back hastily.
"That settles it," said Brady. "It's just a feint in front, but they didn't dream we could reach 'em at such long range. We've got to do our main watching now among the cottonwoods, up and down the stream. Of course, they'll dismount there, and try to creep up on us. Will, you keep an eye on those warriors out there and we'll take care of the cottonwoods, but everybody stay down as close as possible. We're only four and we can't afford the loss of a single man."
Will was lying almost flat, and he could put away the glasses, fastening them securely over his shoulder, as the warriors in front were plainly visible now to the naked eye. They were beyond the range of the deadly repeating rifles, but the moonlight was so intense that he saw them distinctly, even imagining that he could discern their features, and his fancy certainly did not diminish the horror and repulsion they inspired.
They rode slowly back and forth, shaking long lances or waving heavy war clubs, and suddenly they burst into a series of yells that made the lad's blood run cold. At length he distinguished the word, "winihinca" shouted over and over again. Boyd, lying beside him, was laughing low.
"What does 'winihinca' mean, and why do you laugh?" asked Will.
"'Winihinca' is the Sioux word for women," replied the hunter, "and they're trying to taunt us because we're lying in hiding. It will take more than a taunt or two to draw us out of these cottonwoods. They can shout 'winihinca' all night if they wish."
But the warriors riding back and forth in the moonlight on the crest of the low swell were good shouters. Yellers, Will would have called them. Their throats and lungs seemed to be as tough as the inside of a bear's hide, and also they threw into their work a zest and flavor that showed they were enjoying it. Presently their yelling changed its key note, and Will discerned the word, "wamdadan." Again the hunter lying by his side laughed low.
"What does 'wamdadan' mean?" he asked. "Just now we were 'winihinca' and now we are 'wamdadan.'"
"We've gone down in the scale," replied Boyd. "In fact, we've sunk pretty far. A little while ago we were women, but now we are worms. 'Wamdadan' means worm. We're 'wamdadans' because we won't come out of our burrows and stand up straight and tall, where the Sioux can shoot us to pieces at their leisure."
"I intend to remain a 'wamdadan' as long as I can," said Will. "If lying close to the earth, burrowing into it in fact, makes you a worm then a worm am I for the present."
"No, you're not. You were for a while, but they've changed their cry now. Listen closely! Can't you make out a new word?"
"Now that you call my attention to it, I do. It sounds like 'canwanka.'"
"'Canwanka' it is. That's the new name they're calling us and it's not complimentary. 'Canwanka' means coward. First we were women, then worms and now cowards, because we won't give up the aid of our fortifications and allow ourselves to be overpowered by the Sioux numbers. Do you hear anything among the cottonwoods on the creek, Giant?"
"Nothing yet, Jim. They keep up such an infernal yelling out thar in front that it will drown out any light sound."
"Doubtless that's what it's for."
"I think so, too. You don't hev to see them imps among the cottonwoods to know what they're up to. They hev dismounted on both wings, an' they're creepin' forward from the north an' from the south close to the banks o' the creek, hopin' to ketch us nappin'."
The Little Giant was facing the south and suddenly his figure became taut.
"See something?" whispered Boyd.
"I think so, but I ain't quite sure yet. Yes, it's the head o' a warrior, stickin' up 'bout a foot from the ground, an' he'll be the fust to go."
Will was startled by the sharp crack of a rifle almost at his elbow, and he heard the Little Giant's sigh of satisfaction.
"Straight an' true," muttered the terrible marksman.
Then the rifle of Brady, who faced the south, spoke also and his aim was no less deadly. Boyd, meanwhile, held his fire, as the advancing bands among the cottonwoods sank from view. But the band in front in the open uttered a tremendous shout and galloped about wildly. Will, watching them cautiously, thought one of the riders in his curvetings had come within range, and, taking good aim, he fired. The rider fell to the ground, and his pony ran away over the plain.
"Good shot, Will," said Boyd approvingly. "And it speaks all the better for you because you were watching for your chance and were ready when it came."
After such a hint the shouting band drew back and shouted less. Then the four listened with all their ears for any sound that might pass among the cottonwoods, though they felt that the attack would not come again there for a long time, as the first result had been so deadly. Will took advantage of the interlude, and, creeping past the barrier they had built, went among the horses and mules, soothing them with low voice and stroke of hand. They pressed against him, pushed their noses into his palm, and showed a confidence in him that did not fail to move the lad despite the terrible nature of their situation.
"Good lads!" he whispered when he left them and crawled back within the barricade.
"How're they behavin'?" asked the Little Giant.
"Fine," responded Will. "Human beings couldn't do better. They're standing well under fire, when they're not able to fire back."
"Which gives more credit to them than to us, because we can and do fire back."
"Will," said Boyd, "you resume your watch of that band in front while we devote all our attention to the cottonwoods. It's a good thing we've got this creek with the high banks back of us. Now, we're in for a long wait. When warriors are besieging, they always try to wear out the patience of those they besiege and tempt 'em into some rash act."
"Those in front are riding beyond the swell and out of sight," said Will.
The Little Giant laughed with the most intense satisfaction.
"They're skeered o' our rifles," he said. "We've got lightnin' that strikes at pretty long range, an' they ain't so shore that it ain't a lot longer than it is."
Will had learned the philosophy of making himself comfortable whenever he could, and lying with his hand on one arm he watched the cottonwoods, trusting meanwhile more to ear than to eye. Since the Indians in front, disappearing over the swell, had ceased to shout, the night became quiet. The wind was light and the cottonwoods did not catch enough of it to give back a song, while the creek was too sluggish to murmur as it flowed. His comrades also were moveless, although he knew that they were watching.
He looked up at the heavens, and the moon and the stars were so bright that they seemed to be surcharged with silver. The whole world, in such misty glow, was supremely beautiful, and it was hard to realize, as he lay there in silence and peace, that they were surrounded by savage foes, seeking their lives, men who, whatever their primitive virtues, knew little of mercy. He understood and respected the wish of the Sioux and the other tribes to preserve for themselves the great buffalo ranges and the mountains, but he was not able to feel very friendly toward them when they lay in the cottonwoods not far away, seeking his scalp and his life, or, if taken alive, to subject him to all the hideous tortures that primeval man has invented. The distant view of the Indian as a wronged individual often came into violent contact with another view of him near at hand, seeking to inflict a death with hideous pain.
The night did not darken as it wore on, still starred brilliantly and lighted by a full, silver moon, which seemed to Will on these lone plains of the great West to have a size and splendor that he had never noticed in the East. He and the Little Giant now faced the north, while Boyd and Brady, of the Biblical voice and speech, looked toward the south. All of them, when they gazed that way, could see the plain from which the force, intending to attract their attention by shouting and yelling, had retreated. But they knew the danger was still to be apprehended from the cottonwoods, and despite the long stillness they never ceased to watch with every faculty they could bring to bear.
The dip in which the horses and mules stood was only a short distance from the little fortification and unless the Sioux in attacking came very near their bullets were likely to pass over the heads of the animals. The four, resolved not to abandon the horses and mules under any circumstances, nevertheless felt rather easy on that score.
About three o'clock in the morning some shots were fired from the cottonwoods in the south, but they flew wild and the four did not reply.
"They came from a distance," said Boyd. "They're probably intended to provoke our fire and tell just where we're lying."
After a while more shots were fired, now from the north, but as they were obviously intended for the same purpose the four still remained quiet. A little later Will heard a movement, a stamping of hoofs among the animals, indicating alarm, and once more he crawled out of the breastwork to soothe them.
The horses and mules responded as always to his whispered words of encouragement and strokings of manes and noses, and he was about to return when his attention was attracted by a slight noise in the bushes on the farther side of the animals. Every motive of frontier caution and thoroughness inclined him to see what it was. It might be and most probably was a coyote hiding there in fear, but that did not prevent him from stooping low and entering the bushes.
The growth of scrub, watered by seepage from the stream, was rather dense, and he pushed his way in gently, lest a rustling of twigs and leaves reach the Sioux, lurking among the cottonwoods. He did not hear the noise again, and he went a little farther. Then he heard a sound by his side almost as light as that of a leaf that falls, and he whirled about, but it was too late. A war club descended upon his head and he fell unconscious to the ground.