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It was after dark when Joe returned from his mission to Fort Harker. He had been very kindly received by the officers, who had heard all about him from Colonel Keogh. The commanding officer told him that he wanted him to warn the settlers on the Oxhide that the war had really commenced; that General Sully had had a great fight on the Arkansas, and that it could not be considered as a victory. He told him also to tell the people on the creek that at any moment they might be visited by a hostile band, notwithstanding that they were in such close proximity to the post.

"You know yourself, my man, that the Indians have a faculty of going anywhere they want to go, and all the troops in the army might be fooled in regard to their movements. They are here to-day, murdering, and taking young girls captive, and a hundred miles away to-morrow.

"Tell the settlers," continued he, "that they must be on the lookout. I have not enough troops to put on guard on every creek. I wish I had; then there would be no danger of any sudden and unexpected raids. Why, do you know, Joe, that only yesterday, a band of Dog-soldiers made an attack on Wilson Creek, sixteen miles from here, and killed two men who were at work in their hayfield?

"It was reported to me about three hours after the affair had occurred, and I sent a company up there, but as they were only infantry,--I have no cavalry now at the post,--the Indians were soon out of reach.

"I want you to tell the settlers on the Oxhide to particularly watch their girls. The Indians will get some of them if they possibly can. They don't always murder them, but hold them in a terrible slavery in hopes of getting a heavy money ransom from the Government for their release."

Joe related to his parents all the conversation he had with the officers at Fort Harker, and early the next morning he and his father rode through the settlement, warning the people to be on their guard.

Only ten days afterward, when the family at Errolstrath were just going to sit down to supper, it was discovered that Kate was missing. Gertrude went up to her room, supposing she might be reading there, for she was a great devourer of books, but she did not find her.

The boys hunted for her in all imaginable places on the ranche where they thought she might possibly be, but could not find her. When Joe and Rob returned from their fruitless quest, the family were too thoroughly frightened to think of eating. Mr. Thompson mounted his horse and started to make the rounds of the nearest neighbors to learn whether she was visiting any of them.

He returned to the ranche long after dark, but brought no news of her whereabouts, and found every member of the family in tears, and his wife nearly crazy. He was told that Kate's pony had come home, riderless, to the corral while he was absent, and a small sumac bush to which his reins were tied, had been torn up by the roots and was dragging at his feet. None of them could conjecture where she could be.

"My God!" exclaimed her mother, "if the Indians have captured her and carried her off, what shall we do?"

"Something must be done at once," said Mr. Thompson. "Joe, get your pony quickly, and we will hurry to the fort to learn whether any Indians have been seen or heard of in this vicinity to-day. If so, we will get the commanding officer to send out a squad of soldiers immediately. You must go with them, Joe, and trail the savages if you can find any signs of them."

Joe and his father rode as rapidly to Fort Harker as their animals could carry them; went to the commanding officer's private quarters, as the business offices were closed after night, and reported to him the terrible anguish which the family were suffering.

They immediately adjourned to the Adjutant's office, and the commander sent his orderly for the officer of the day. When he made his appearance, he asked him whether any reports had been received concerning Indians being in the vicinity. He replied that no such report had been received by him, and it was his belief that none of the hostile savages were in the immediate country.

At that moment, Buffalo Bill entered the room. He was chief of scouts at Fort Harker, and had just returned from some perilous mission to one of the military posts on the Arkansas, and was coming from the stable, to report to the Adjutant. He was told of the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Thompson's daughter Kate, and the opinion of the famous Indian fighter and courier was asked as to what he thought of the matter, as no Indians had been reported in the vicinity.

"Well," said Bill, "because you gentlemen have received no report of the savages, it does not follow that none have been here. _I know that they have been here, and to-day._ As I crossed Bluff Creek on my way here this afternoon, about six o'clock, I saw in the distance a band of Indians, numbering about ten or twelve, riding rapidly south. I hid myself in a ravine so that they should not discover me, but I got a good look at 'em with my field-glass. I think they were Comanches, though I can't be certain of that; they might have been Cheyennes or Kiowas; they were too far off to be made out exactly. Now, you ask for my opinion as to what has become of the gentleman's daughter. I believe those Indians have her; because they were riding so fast toward their villages, and they are, you know, all south of the Canadian.

"But don't let Mr. Thompson worry too much; the simple fact that she is a prisoner among them is bad enough. If among the Kiowas, and the chief, Kicking Bird, is in the village when the band arrives with the girl, he will not allow her to be harmed. He is a cunning old fellow, and knows the value of money. He will have good care taken of her, and get a heavy reward from the Government for ransom. If she should fall into the village of Sa-tan-ta, God help her! He is the worst demon on the trail; but anyhow, I don't think they will harm her, as they will want a ransom."

"Well," said the officer, "I am sorry that I have no cavalry at the post, but I will send a detachment of the infantry after them in six-mule wagons. I imagine it will be a useless task to try to catch up with them if, as Buffalo Bill says, they were going as fast as they could to their village on the Canadian. Lieutenant Hale," said he, turning to the Adjutant, "make a detail at once of thirty men, and send them out under a couple of non-commissioned officers on the trail of the savages, if it can be found. Anyhow, some sign may be discovered that will tell us whether the girl is with them."

Then turning to Joe, he said: "I wish that you would go with the detachment, for you are the best trailer in the whole country, not excepting our chief scout here, Buffalo Bill, and he's the prince of all frontiersmen."

"Well," said Buffalo Bill, "I've just come off a pretty hard trip, but I volunteer to go with the party; if I can do anything in a case of this kind, fatigue doesn't count."

"Thank you, Bill," said Mr. Thompson. "I will return to Errolstrath and tell my family what has been done, and your favorable opinion that the savages won't harm her: that will be a comfort at least. Good night, gentlemen," said he; and he went out and untied his horse from the hitching-post, and rode slowly home.

The night was quite dark, though there was a little moonlight, but the detachment did not get away from the post until long after midnight, as there was so much delay in hitching up the teams and turning out the soldiers who had gone to bed. By the time the little train of three wagons arrived at Bluff Creek, where Buffalo Bill had seen the Indians, the day was just breaking. They could not travel to that point from the fort very rapidly on account of the rough nature of the trail. It was nothing but a series of rocky hills after they had crossed the Smoky Hill, and was constantly becoming rougher as they approached Bluff Creek, which was well named on account of its high bluffs.

The party halted at the ford where they supposed the savages had crossed, and began to look for Indian signs. Pony tracks were plainly visible in the soft earth where the trail led down to the water, and Buffalo Bill dismounted and examined them carefully. He then asked Joe to get off his horse and count the hoof-marks. Joe did so, and both he and the famous scout agreed that there must have been about a dozen of the savages.

Crossing the creek, followed by the wagons, Joe and he ascended the hill on the other side. They had not proceeded a quarter of a mile when Buffalo Bill picked up from the trail a small par-flèche basket, which Joe immediately recognized as belonging to his sister.

"Look here, Mr. Cody, there is her name which I carved myself when I gave it to her. Now we know for a fact that the savages have captured her. I know why Ginger came home with that little sumac bush fastened to his bridle. Kate must have tied him to it, and when the Indians swooped down on her, the pony broke loose and tore up the little tree by the roots in his fright, for he was always scared out of his wits at the sight of an Indian."

The little detachment of soldiers rode on for a dozen more miles, when the mules showed unmistakable signs of fatigue. They could not be made to travel faster than a walk, notwithstanding the persuasive efforts of the blacksnake-whips in the hands of their drivers. So both Buffalo Bill and Joe reluctantly decided that it was no use to follow the Indians any farther. They knew the habits of the savages so well, that they were now probably a hundred miles ahead of them, for they always took loose stock along with them so as to change animals when their own horses became leg-weary.

Very reluctantly, then, the cavalcade was turned round and headed for the fort, where the party arrived at about one o'clock. Buffalo Bill, as chief of scouts, reported the result of the trip to the commanding officer.

All were depressed at the failure of the expedition, but it was impossible that it should have turned out differently, and when Joe arrived at Errolstrath and related the story of the finding of Kate's basket, the grief of the family knew no bounds. All felt keen anguish at the absence of their favorite, and at her sad fate.

There was nothing to be done except to wait patiently for some action on the part of the Government in ransoming her if she was alive. The family settled themselves into a calm resignation, but the sun did not seem to shine so brightly, nor the birds to sing so sweetly as when the pet of the household was there. Even her antelope appeared to partake of the general gloom; it evidently missed its loving young mistress, and would wander around the house, disconsolately seeking her.