“They’ll fight,” said Auberry. “Look at ’em!”
“Here they come,” said Belknap, coolly. “Get down, men.”
[Illustration: AT EVERY TURN FORCED TO HIDE THEIR TRACKS]
The record of this part of my life comes to me sometimes as a series of vivid pictures. I can see this picture now—the wide gray of the flat valley, edged with green at the coulee mouths; the sandy spots where the wind had worked at the foot of the banks; the dotted islands out in the shimmering, shallow river. I can see again, under the clear, sweet, quiet sky, the picture of those painted men—their waving lances, their swaying bodies as they reached for the quivers across their shoulders. I can see the loose ropes trailing at the horses’ noses, and see the light leaning forward of the red and yellow and ghastly white-striped and black-stained bodies, and the barred black of the war paint on their faces. I feel again, so much almost that my body swings in unison, the gathering stride of the ponies cutting the dust into clouds. I see the color and the swiftness of it all, and feel its thrill, the strength and tenseness of it all. And again I feel, as though it were to-day, the high, keen, pleasant resolution which came to me. We had women with us. Whether this young woman was now to die or not, none of us men would see it happen.
They came on, massed as I have said, to within about two hundred and fifty yards, then swung out around us, their horse line rippling up over the broken ground apparently as easily as it had gone on the level floor of the valley. Still we made no volley fire. I rejoiced to see the cool pallor of Belknap’s face, and saw him brave and angry to the core. Our plainsmen, too, were grim, though eager; and our little band of cavalry, hired fighters, rose above that station and became not mongrel private soldiers, but Anglo-Saxons each. They lay or knelt or stood back of the wagon line, imperturbable as wooden men, and waited for the order to fire, though meantime two of them dropped, hit by chance bullets from the wavering line of horsemen that now encircled us.
“Tell us when to fire, Auberry,” I heard Belknap say, for he had practically given over the situation to the old plainsman. At last I heard the voice of Auberry, changed from that of an old man into the quick, clear accents of youth, sounding hard and clear. “Ready now! Each fellow pick his own man, and kill him, d’ye hear, kill him!”
We had no further tactics. Our fire began to patter and crackle. Our troopers were armed with the worthless old Spencer carbines, and I doubt if these did much execution; but there were some good old Hawkin rifles and old big-bored Yagers and more modern Sharps’ rifles and other buffalo guns of one sort or another with us, among the plainsmen and teamsters; and when these spoke there came breaks in the flaunting line that sought to hedge us. The Sioux dropped behind their horses’ bodies, firing as they rode, some with rifles, more with bows and arrows. Most of our work was done as they topped the rough ground close on our left, and we saw here a half-dozen bodies lying limp, flat and ragged, though presently other riders came and dragged them away.