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The family had lived on their comfortable ranche on the Oxhide for nearly three years. During the whole of this period the valley had been most happily exempt from any raid by the hostile Indians farther west, who for all that time had made incursions into the sparse settlements not a hundred miles away, devastating the country from Nebraska on the north to the border of Texas on the south.

General Sheridan had been ordered by the Government to the command of the Military Department of the Missouri, with headquarters at Fort Leavenworth. The already famous General Custer with his celebrated regiment, the Seventh United States Cavalry, was stationed at Fort Harker, recently established on the Smoky Hill, about four miles from Errolstrath ranche, so the settlers on the Oxhide, and through the valley, felt comparatively safe from any possible raid by the savages into that region.

One beautiful Sunday afternoon in the middle of the May following the autumn in which Joe had received his present of a full Indian dress from the friendly Pawnees, the family were sitting on the veranda of the cabin. Dinner was long since over, and Mr. Thompson was reading aloud from their weekly religious journal, when a horseman suddenly appeared, coming toward the ranche on the trail which led from the mouth of the Oxhide where it empties into the Smoky Hill. He was hatless and coatless, his long hair was streaming in the wind, and his heels were rapping his horse's flanks vigorously, and its breast and shoulders were covered with foam from the desperate gait at which it was urged.

The reading was instantly suspended, and every eye strained toward the unusual object coming toward the house at such a breakneck speed.

"I wonder who that is, and why he rides so fast," inquired Mr. Thompson, addressing himself to no one in the group in particular.

"Something unusual must have occurred," suggested Mrs. Thompson; "some one of the neighbors taken ill suddenly, maybe."

"It's no one we know," spoke up Joe. "I never saw that man before," the individual under discussion having come near enough now for his features to be distinguished, "nor the horse he's on, and I know every man and horse in the whole settlement. There's some trouble not far away, I think, or he would not run his animal that way."

In less than three minutes more, the stranger horseman rode up to the front of the house and jumped off his horse. Hurriedly tying him to the hitching-post, he ran up the steps of the veranda, and in the most excited manner, his eyes wearing a wild look and his breath coming with great difficulty, told Mr. Thompson, who had walked forward to meet him, that the Indians had completely destroyed the little settlement of Spillman Creek that morning about daylight. He alone, as far as he knew, had escaped the massacre. He said that luckily he happened to be down in the timber, getting some wood for his morning fire, and the savages did not see him. He had his pony with him, and when he saw the Indians all dressed in their war-bonnets and hideously painted, he rode to the river and across country as fast as his animal could carry him.

"How many families are there in the settlement?" inquired Mr. Thompson.

"About ten," answered the stranger; "forty individuals, perhaps, and all of them, I feel satisfied, have been murdered and their cabins burnt, because I saw the smoke and flames from the trail on the south side of the Saline as I rode hurriedly on."

"Had you no family?" asked Mrs. Thompson, excitedly, in her sympathy for the unfortunate people who had been so cruelly massacred.

"No, ma'am," answered the stranger. "I was living all alone on my claim, which I had taken up only a week ago, on the edge of the timber. My family are still back in Illinois, thank God! or they, too, with myself, would have been butchered with the rest, for I would never have left them."

"Do you think the savages will continue on their raid, and come further down the Saline valley?" inquired Mr. Thompson, who now for the first time since he had been on his ranche, felt a little alarmed for his family.

"I don't know," was the reply, "but I'm afraid they will. The Elkhorn is fairly settled, but the cabins are widely scattered; the Indians know that, and before the neighbors could rally for mutual defence, the savages might be able to murder them in detail. I have come down here to warn the settlers on this creek, and if I can, to get a party to go to the rescue of those on the Elkhorn. I stopped at Fort Harker on my way and reported to the commanding officer the state of affairs, but he said that he had only part of a company of infantry at the post, all the cavalry being out under General Custer, looking after the Indians 'way up the Smoky Hill. He suggested that I should come here to inform you people of the danger, and that, if I could muster up a crowd of men, he would furnish all the arms and ammunition necessary for them. He also said that General Sheridan was coming to Fort Harker in a few days to establish his headquarters there, and that a general Indian war was imminent."

"Have you any idea how many of the savages there were in the band that raided Spillman Creek settlement?" inquired Mr. Thompson.

"I think there must have been about fifty. I counted their pony tracks in the soft mud at the ford of the Saline where they crossed it; they were very plain, and I was enabled to come close to their probable number. If you could muster twenty or thirty men, well armed, who are brave, and good shots with the rifle, I believe that if they start for the Elkhorn to-day, they could circumvent the savages before they reach the creek, or at least drive them out of the neighborhood. I am ready to go back with them and act as guide, for I know every foot of the country, having spent a whole year out there before I settled upon a location. Who are the best men in this settlement, and where shall I go to warn them?"

"Well," replied Mr. Thompson, "I am willing to go for one. I guess there will be no difficulty in gathering as large a force as is necessary--good shots, too; for no one will hesitate a moment when it comes to defending his family from an Indian raid. It will take a couple of hours to ride around the neighborhood to the several ranches to notify the men. My boys, here, can go to the nearest, while you and I ride to the most remote and get as large a crowd as possible. Boys," continued he, turning to his sons, who stood with eyes wide open and mouth agape as they listened with astonishment to the terrible story of the stranger, "get your ponies at once; saddle them as quickly as ever you did in your lives, and ride to the nearest ranches on the creek; up one side and down the other. Tell all the folks the dreadful news, and tell them to have the men meet here at Errolstrath as quickly as they can, and to bring their rifles with them. All are well armed," said he, turning to the stranger, "and they will respond in a hurry."

"Now," said Mr. Thompson, as the boys jumped off of the veranda to carry out their father's order, "I will go with you to old Tucker's ranche. He is a man of most excellent judgment, and a trapper; has fought Indians all his eventful life on the plains and in the mountains, so we can safely rely on his advice in regard to what is best to be done." Looking at his wife he said, "Won't you get this man a bite to eat while I'm catching another animal for him? Yours is tired out," continued he, addressing the stranger again; "you must have a fresh horse. I've got lots of them."

While Mr. Thompson went to the stable, and the stranger to the spring to wash the dust off himself, Mrs. Thompson, assisted by Gertrude and Kate, made ready a cold lunch for the half-famished man, who told them, when he returned to the dining-room, that he had not eaten a morsel since the evening before.

By the time he had finished his meal, Mr. Thompson returned to the front of the house with two animals, and taking the stranger's horse to the stable, after the saddle had been put on the fresh one, he returned to the house. He gave his wife some advice about the boys and their mission, then he and the stranger mounted their animals and loped off at a good gait for the ranche of old Mr. Tucker, three miles away.

The boys had started some while before their father, as it only required a few minutes to catch and saddle their ponies that were picketed in front of the house, on a patch of buffalo grass not twenty yards away. In less than half an hour they were at the nearest ranche, and had delivered their message. They then rode on and made the rounds of the circuit assigned them, relating the bad news as they travelled from cabin to cabin as quickly as their hardy little Indian ponies could carry them.

While on their mission the boys talked over the story of the massacre, Joe explaining many things in connection with the savage method of making a raid on a white settlement. Those were things which Rob did not fully understand, but with which Joe was familiar, having been told all about them by the friendly Pawnees. He told Rob that he was crazy to go on the little expedition, but did not dare ask permission.

"Father might be willing, maybe," suggested Rob, "though I'm sure that mother and the girls would object."

"I'll bet that I can find the trail of the Cheyennes, for I know better than any one who is going along, that they were Cheyennes who made the attack," said Joe. "That man who came down with the news don't know much about Indians; I could tell that by the way he talked; he's a 'tender-foot.' He admitted to papa he'd only been in the country a very short time."

"By jolly! I'll bet he was scared when he saw those Indians," said Rob; "he wasn't used to such sights!"

"How he must have ridden his horse," said Joe. "I never saw an animal so frothy in my life before; did you, Rob? You could have scraped a wash-tub of lather off him!"

"If the Cheyennes have left any kind of a trail after them, I can tell just how many there were of them," continued Joe, "but they are ahead of all other Indians in covering up their tracks; old Yellow Calf has told me so a dozen times. I expect that it was Charley Bent's band of Dog soldiers that made the raid."

"What are Dog soldiers?" inquired Rob.

"Why, the young bucks of a tribe who will not obey the orders of their chief; renegades who will not be controlled by any custom. Those Indians who have not done anything yet to make them warriors, and who go off on their own hook to murder and steal, and to fire the cabins of the poor settlers, thinking that if they can get a few scalps of women and children they will be recognized by the rest of the tribe as braves. Sometimes there are 'Squaw-men' among them, that is, white men who have married Indian women; generally bad men who have committed some crime where they used to live and dare not go back to where they came from."

"Who is Charley Bent?" asked Rob. "That is not an Indian name, surely!"

"I know it isn't," answered Joe. "He's a half breed; half white and half Cheyenne. His mother was a Cheyenne squaw, and his father was Colonel Bent, one of the most celebrated frontiersmen of his time. Charley was well educated in St. Louis, but when he returned to his father's home, at Bent's Fort, way up the Arkansas River, in what is now Colorado, he threw off the white man's dress and manner of living, joined the Indians, and became, in his devilishness, the worst savage to be found in the whole Indian country. The United States Government has offered a thousand dollars for him, dead or alive. Somebody will catch him yet; the army scouts are after him red hot, so the Pawnees told me."

"I wish the Pawnees, lots of 'em, were back on the creek, Joe," said Rob, continuing the lively conversation they had been keeping up ever since they started from the ranche; "wouldn't they like such a chance to go after their old enemies?"

"I expect they will be here sooner than usual, this coming autumn; one of the boys told me so when the band left; but it will be four months yet before we may look for them."

"Are you going to ask to go with the party to the Elkhorn, Joe?" asked Rob of his brother.

"No, I think not. I intend to be still unless some of the crowd drop a hint they'd like to have me along; then I'll speak out."

By four o'clock the boys returned to the ranche, having warned twelve families of the impending danger. All the men expressed their readiness to go with Mr. Thompson and the others to circumvent the savages on their raid. When Joe and Rob had turned their ponies out to graze and went back to the house again, they found a dozen men there already, waiting for the return of their father and the stranger. The anxious group sat on the veranda, discussing the state of affairs, suggesting to each other what course should be pursued concerning those settlers who would have to remain in the valley with their wives and children. Uncle Dick Smith, as he was familiarly called, an old man with white hair and long white beard, who had had some experience with the savages in his earlier days in Wisconsin, suggested that while the scouting party were absent, Job Wilkersin's stone corral would be the best place for the settlers to rendezvous in case the Indians came down into the valley of the Oxhide. After some discussion, however, it was agreed to let the question remain open until Mr. Thompson and the other men should arrive.

A short time before sundown a group of horsemen could be seen coming down the trail from the north. They were those for whom the crowd at Errolstrath were anxiously looking. When they rode up to the house, headed by Mr. Thompson, they dismounted, fastened their horses to trees, and after a hurried meal which the girls had been getting ready during their father's absence, they all adjourned to the lawn outside of the veranda, and the subject was renewed as to what those should do who were compelled to remain behind on the Oxhide. Mr. Wilkersin was among them, and as he stated his house was the largest in the neighborhood, and his big stone corral a grand place for defence in case the savages continued on their raid, it was agreed to rendezvous there. Twenty determined men in the corral could keep off a hundred Indians, and besides there was food enough at his house for every one who should go there. He further said that he would be glad to assist his friends thus much in trying times like these.

Rob, who was familiar with the location of every cabin in the settlement, was immediately despatched on a fresh horse to call on the people and communicate the result of the conference. He was to tell them where to go in the event of the Indians coming into Oxhide valley after the scouting party had left for the Elkhorn.

There were about thirty men who were obliged to remain at home; too old to undertake the fatigue of the long night's ride contemplated. They were all excellent shots, many of them having been pioneers in the settlement of the states east of the Mississippi when they constituted the far West.

When all the men who could be mustered for the expedition had arrived at Errolstrath, there were about fifty. Old man Tucker was unanimously chosen for their leader, with the title, by courtesy, of captain. He was a man nearly sixty-five years old, but had been early recognized by the settlers of the valley as one to whom they could look whenever the affairs of the neighborhood demanded the exercise of good judgment or sound advice. He was well educated, having graduated at Yale, but after graduation a quarrel with his father resulted in his drifting out on the frontier, where his life had been that of a trapper and hunter. He was as active as any of the young men, so his age in this case did not militate against him. He was the best rifle-shot in the valley, and if, like Davy Crockett, he failed to hit a squirrel in the eye, "it didn't count!"

The stranger from Spillman Creek was named Alderdyce, as he had informed Mr. Thompson while on the trip with him, and, as many of those who now met him for the first time desired to hear his story, he related the details of the horrid massacre again. At its sickening recital a majority became impatient of delay, and wanted to start on the trail of the savages at once, although the whole valley was flooded with the golden glow of sunset.

Joe stood modestly in the crowd, eagerly drinking in the awful story told by Mr. Alderdyce, and he noticed how anxious the scouting party was to get away. He knew that this would be the height of absurdity until night had closed in, and in all probability would defeat the very object of the expedition, so he ventured to suggest that it would be better to wait until after dark.

Old Mr. Tucker knew as well as the boy's father that Joe's judgment in matters relating to savage methods when on the war-path was far in advance of his sixteen years. His ideas and opinions commanded a consideration his age did not otherwise warrant, so the keen observation he had developed since his intimacy with the Pawnees, and the astuteness he had imbibed from them, caused Mr. Tucker to ask the boy's reasons for his suggestion.

Joe replied hesitatingly: "I believe it's better to wait until dark. The runners, as their spies are called, of the hostile band, are, I honestly think, at this moment stationed on some of the highest points of the valley. They are watching to learn if there will be any demonstration made against the raiding band from this settlement. If this is true, and I believe it is, they should not be permitted to see our party start out. If they do discover that a number of mounted men are riding on the prairie, they will hang on their trail, keep the main band warned of every movement, and you could not effect anything. In that case you might as well stay at home."

Upon these hints so forcibly thrown out by Joe, nearly every one at once coincided with his opinion, and the captain decided to act upon the boy's judgment.

Joe, who was always an attentive listener, rarely obtruded his ideas into the conversation of his elders; in reality he was of rather a reticent disposition, a trait generally indicative of bravery, but he was ever ready to venture an opinion when asked for it, fearlessly and in great earnestness. So during the discussion of the supposed details of the morning's massacre, Captain Tucker asked him what he thought of the probability of the savages coming down to the Elkhorn from the scene of their raid on the Spillman.

"Well, Mr. Tucker," replied Joe, "distance is never considered by an Indian. If a band start on a raid and are successful at the beginning, they will keep on a dozen miles or five hundred; it makes no difference to them; they'll wear out any animal but a wolf. If the massacre was complete, as Mr. Alderdyce thinks, they will probably keep right on murdering, scalping, and firing the cabins, until they get a setback. My own opinion is that they will go down to the Elkhorn or some other place where there is a settlement, and if successful again, will continue on and come to the Oxhide, perhaps, now they have tasted blood. But if they have met with a repulse anywhere, or learn that the United States troops are after them, they may abandon their raid and be now a hundred miles on the trail to their village."

Joe was evidently fidgety; he wanted to go along, and as the captain and his father had questioned him so earnestly on such important matters, he thought he had a right to be one of the party; still, he said nothing until Captain Tucker, noticing the boy's anxious countenance, asked him if he would like to go with them.

Joe answered very quickly in the affirmative, but it was with much hesitancy that his parents gave their consent. The neighbors gathered at the ranche, however, importuned very earnestly in his favor, declaring that the success of the expedition might depend materially upon their decision whether the boy should go or not. Of course, to resist such an appeal was out of the question, coming as it did almost unanimously from their friends, so Joe was permitted to accompany the party.

Hurriedly did the delighted boy go out to the corral and saddle his favorite pony, a coal-black little animal, very swift, full of endurance, sure-footed as a mule, and as obedient to the touch of its young master's hand and legs as a well-trained circus horse. Soon returning, he tied him with the other animals to a tree and then went into the house to prepare himself for the venturesome trip.

Coming back on the veranda in a few moments dressed in the buckskin suit given him by the old chief Yellow Calf, he looked the very impersonation of a veteran frontiersman, and but for his childish face might have passed for a veritable army scout. He slung his rifle across the horn of his saddle; its complement of bullets in his pouch he fastened to the cantle, while the powder-flask was suspended by a cord thrown over his shoulder. He also carried his flint and steel, thinking he might have occasion to use it, and with a small lantern was ready for whatever he might be called upon to do.

As the welcome darkness would not come for an hour yet, the party kept their animals concealed in the thick timber near the cabin. They sat quietly in the shadow of the veranda, so that if there were any of the hostile spies in the vicinity, as Joe had suggested there might be, they would not be able to observe any unusual demonstration on the place, as the house was completely masked by the giant trees surrounding it.

"He looked the very impersonation of a veteran frontiersman."

By eight o'clock it was dark enough to venture out, and the party quietly mounted their horses, and strung out in single file down the narrow trail leading from the ranche to the ford of the Smoky Hill. Tucker, Joe, and Alderdyce were at the head of the line. Every one was familiar with the trail as far as the river, for it was the main travelled track to the village of Ellsworth. It was six miles from Errolstrath, and contained a general store, a blacksmith shop, and the post office for all the surrounding country.

The ford crossed the Smoky Hill about two miles east of the little hamlet, but the party did not follow the trail up the river. They took a shorter cut over the hills bordering the stream where there was a series of buffalo paths running northward in the direction they wanted to go. They thus saved a détour of three or four miles, an important consideration where time was of the greatest consequence. The buffalo paths all came out on the other side of the high divide separating the Saline from the Smoky Hill. A short distance beyond the summit of the ridge, and down a gradual slope, was one of the valleys of the several tributaries which gave the many-branched stream called the Elkhorn, its suggestive name.

After the party had forded the Smoky Hill, the country was unknown to all excepting Alderdyce and Joe. The latter had often accompanied the Pawnees on their hunts as far as the Saline and Paradise creeks, twenty-five miles from the Oxhide.

All had been travelling up to that point in groups of twos and threes on the flat river bottom, but now again they strung out in Indian file, following Joe and Alderdyce slowly up the divide and down on the other side. They then all moved out more rapidly into a short, quick lope as the ground was more level for several miles. At the end of the level stretch they halted, as they were approaching the beginning of the limestone region.

Following Joe's advice they dismounted and muffled the hoofs of their horses with gunny sacks which they had brought for that purpose, in order to prevent the sound of the animals' feet from being heard by any of the savage runners.

This wise precaution was frequently employed by the scouts of the army with General Sheridan during his celebrated winter campaign against the allied tribes of the plains, when the troops were obliged to travel at night through the enemy's country.

It was soon after they had passed the limestone region that a heavy rolling prairie, over which the trail ran up one slope and down another of the rocky divides, separated the narrow intervales between. Most of the time it was a hard, killing pace for the poor horses, as they had travelled for hours continuously without a halt, excepting to muffle their feet. The settlement must be reached before daylight, or perhaps it would be too late to thwart the murderous schemes of the Indians, who always chose the early hours of the dawn in which to commit their atrocities. At that time when sleep oppresses most heavily, life and death were the issue, and the tired animals could not be mercifully spared. Would they be able to hold out with ten miles of the same cruel lope ahead of them, before the breaks of the main Elkhorn would be reached?

There was an hour more of severe riding, during which the heels of the riders and the sharp sting of the quirt were often called into requisition to urge the jaded animals on to their hard duty. They were flecked with foam, their nostrils distended, and they were almost worn out when the terribly earnest men rode down the last divide into the grassy bottom of the first branch of the main Elkhorn.

The faintest streaks of the coming dawn were beginning to show themselves; the summits of the Twin Mounds, capped with white limestone, already reflected the rosy tinge of the rising sun, which was still far below the horizon of the valley. The beautiful intervales, through which the party urged their horses, were covered with buffalo grass, and at the farther end, not quite half a mile distant, the fringe of timber bordering the creek could be distinguished as its dark contour cast a still blacker shadow over the sombre valley.

There the party halted for a few moments to reconnoitre. Captain Tucker again had occasion to interrogate Joe. He inquired of the young trailer what would be the first acts of the savages when they arrived in the valley of the Elkhorn, if indeed they came at all.

"Well, Mr. Tucker," replied the boy, "the first thing the Indians would do--they'd hide themselves in the timber; lie down in the grass, probably, and then send out one or more of their runners, the very best they had with them, to sneak around and watch for a chance to make a break together on the cabins. Then, if the outlook was favorable, and none of the settlers were stirring, they'd go from cabin to cabin, murdering, scalping, and firing the buildings as fast as they could."

"Well, then," said the captain, as he took both of the boy's hands in his own, and gazed into his bright face, "you know that all the settlers on the Oxhide, and your own folks, too, say that you are as much of an Indian as if you had been born in a tepee, so far as savage education is concerned. Now, I've been talking to your father, and he agrees with me; I want you to do some dangerous work, or at least it is somewhat risky. You are the only one among us all who can do it as it should be done. It is this. While we remain here in the shadow of the timber to blow our animals and graze them a little, I want you to cross the creek on foot, and go up to Spillman Ford with Alderdyce, who will show you where it intersects this branch of the Elkhorn, and try to discover, if you can, by the dim light, any signs of Indians. I'm inclined to think they have not come down into this valley at all. But I want you to find out where they are, if possible. If you do not find any track of them, after we have rested our horses and warned the settlers of the danger, we will all go on to the scene of the massacre, and there you will be sure to learn where they have gone."

Joe and Alderdyce turned over their horses to one of the men who were on guard watching the animals while they fed on the rich buffalo grass, and then started on foot for the ford of the Elkhorn leading to Spillman Creek. It was about a mile, and during the walk, Joe and Alderdyce talked over the affair of the morning. Joe asked his companion to tell him exactly what the commanding officer had said to him when he reported the massacre to him at Fort Harker.

"Well, Joe, I will tell you just what he told me. He said that General Sheridan had ordered a company of Custer's regiment of mounted troopers to be sent to the Elkhorn valley and to remain there until the settlers were advised to come in, or the proposed Indian war was ended."

"Now I have an idea," said Joe to him. "We shall not find any Indians on this trip; the cavalry have already started for the valley, and the savages have got wind of it and have gone back to their village, probably, a hundred miles south of the Arkansas. But, anyhow, we'll go on up to the ford and learn what we can."

When they reached the crossing, not a sign of a pony's hoof could be discovered, and both gave a sigh of relief as they now knew that none of the savages had come down towards the Elkhorn. They hurried back to their party, and Joe reported that he had not seen a sign.

"Good enough," said Captain Tucker, as he listened to the good news. "Now, men," continued he, turning and addressing himself to the party who had gathered near him to learn what report Joe and Alderdyce might bring, "we will remain here for another hour, and after warning some of the prominent settlers in the valley, we will go up to the head of Spillman Creek and see what is to be discovered there. Who knows but some one may be found hidden in the brush, not daring to come out. We may be able to save a life or two yet."