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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Ride through the Valley of Death

By Charles King (1844–1933)

[Born in Albany, N. Y., 1844. Died in Milwaukee, Wi., 1933. Marion’s Faith. 1886.]

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 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 encircling 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. —— and their friends 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 permitted.

“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 command 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 see?”

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 just then.

“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 eleven.”

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 that day.

“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 to-night, 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 to-night. Just you 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 face. He had long known how the rank and file regarded him, but had been disposed to laugh it off. To-night 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 to-morrow 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, crowd,”

“Ray, will you have a nip before you try it? You must be nearly used up after this day’s work.” And Wayne 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 there and then 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 on 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 Cheyenne outfit.”

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, carbine in hand, mounted on their unsaddled steeds, are waiting in the darkness at the upper rifle-pits for Hunter’s signal. If he shout, every man is to yell and break for the front. Otherwise, all is 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 far 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 it.”

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 has 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 foot-dash, yelling like demons, of the men at the west end 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 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 coulée, and inferred that some one 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 soger; 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 put it.

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 plainscraft 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 vice, 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 gully than he rises and rapidly pushes on up the dry sandy bed. Thank heaven! there are no stones. A minute more and he is crawling again, for the hoof-beats no longer drown the faint sound of Dandy’s movements. A few seconds 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 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 arroya 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 way 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 south westward under the guiding rein. Another minute and he is at the arroya 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.