Chapter 5
 

Neale had not been wrong when he told the engineers that once they had a line surveyed across the gorge and faced the steep slopes of the other side their troubles would be magnified.

They found themselves deeper in the Wyoming hills, a range of mountains that had given General Lodge great difficulty upon former exploring trips, and over which a pass had not yet been discovered.

The old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail wound along the base of these slopes and through the valleys. But that trail was not possible for a railroad. A pass must be found--a pass that would give a grade of ninety feet to the mile. These mountains had short slopes, and they were high.

It turned out that the line as already surveyed through ravines and across the gorge had to be abandoned. The line would have to go over the hills. To that end the camp was moved east again to the first slopes of the Wyoming hills; from there the engineers began to climb. They reached the base of the mountains, where they appeared to be halted for good and all.

The second line, so far as it went, overlooked the Laramie Trail, which fact was proof that the old trail-finders had as keen eyes as engineers.

With a large band of hostile Sioux watching their movements the engineer corps found it necessary to have the troops close at hand all the time. The surveyors climbed the ridges while the soldiers kept them in sight from below. Day after day this futile search for a pass went on. Many of the ridges promised well, only to end in impassable cliffs or breaks or ascents too steep. There were many slopes and they all looked alike. It took hard riding and hard climbing. The chief and his staff were in despair. Must their great project fail because of a few miles of steep ascent? They would not give up.

The vicinity of Cheyenne Pass seemed to offer encouragement. Camp was made in the valley on a creek. From here observations were taken. One morning the chief, with his subordinates and a scout, ascended the creek and then through the pass to the summit. Again the old St. Vrain and Laramie Trail lay in sight. And again the troops rode along it, with the engineers above.

The chief with his men rode on and up farther than usual; farther than they ought to have gone unattended. Once the scout halted and gazed intently across the valley.

"Smoke signals over thar," he said.

The engineers looked long, but none of them saw any smoke. They moved on. But the scout called them back.

"Thet bunch of redskins has split on us. Fust thing we'll run into some of them."

It was Neale's hawk eye that first sighted Indians. "Look! Look!" he cried, in great excitement, as he pointed with shaking finger.

Down a grassy slope of a ridge Indians were riding, evidently to head off the engineers, to get between them and the troops.

"Wal, we're in fer it now," declared the scout. "We can't get back the way we come up."

The chief gazed coolly at the Indians and then at the long ridge sloping away from the summit. He had been in tight places before.

"Ride!" was his order.

"Let's fight!" cried Neale.

The band of eight men were well armed and well mounted, and if imperative, could have held off the Sioux for a time. But General Lodge and the scout headed across a little valley and up a higher ridge, from which they expected to sight the troops. They rode hard and climbed fast, but it took a quarter of an hour to gain the ridge-top. Sure enough the troops were in sight, but far away, and the Sioux were cutting across to get in front.

It was a time for quick judgment. The scout said they could not ride down over the ridge, and the chief decided they must follow along it. The going got to be hard and rough. One by one the men dismounted to lead their horses. Neale, who rode a mettlesome bay, could scarcely keep up.

"Take mine," called Larry King, as he turned to Neale.

"Red, I'll handle this stupid beast or--"

"Wal, you ain't handlin' him," interrupted King. "Hosses is my job, you know."

Red took the bridle from Neale and in one moment the balky horse recognized a master arm.

"By Heaven! we've got to hurry!" called Neale.

It did seem that the Indians would head them off. Neale and King labored over the rocky ground as best they could, and by dint of hard effort came up with their party. The Indians were quartering the other ridge, riding as if on level ground. The going grew rougher. Baxter's horse slipped and lamed his right fore leg. Henney's saddle turned, and more valuable time was lost. All the men drew their rifles. At every dip of ground they expected to come to a break that would make a stand inevitable.

From one point on the ridge they had a good view of the troops.

"Signal!" ordered the chief.

They yelled and shot and waved hats and scarfs. No use--the soldiers kept moving on at a snail pace far below.

"On--down the ridge!" was the order.

"Wal, General, thet looks bad to me," objected the scout. Red King shoved his lean, brown hand between them. There was a flame in his flashing, blue glance as it swept the slowly descending ridge.

"Judgin' the lay of land is my job," he said, in his cool way. "We'll git down heah or not at all."

Neale was sore, lame, and angry as well. He kept gazing across at the Sioux. "Let's stop--and fight," he panted. "We can--whip--that bunch."

"We may have to fight, but not yet," replied the chief. "Come on."

They scrambled on over rocky places, up and down steep banks. Here and there were stretches where it was possible to ride, and over these they made better time. The Indians fell out of sight under the side of the ridge, and this fact was disquieting, for no one could tell how soon they would show up again or in what quarter. This spurred the men to sterner efforts.

Meanwhile the sun was setting and the predicament of the engineers grew more serious. A shout from Neale, who held up the rear, warned all that the Indians had scaled the ridge behind them and now were in straightaway pursuit. Thereupon General Lodge ordered his men to face about with rifles ready. This move checked the Sioux. They halted out of range.

"They're waitin' fer dark to set in," said the scout.

"Come on! We'll get away yet," said the chief, grimly. They went on, and darkness began to fall about them. This increased both the difficulty and the danger. On the other hand, it enabled them to try and signal the troops with fire. One of them would hurry ahead and build a fire while the others held back to check the Indians if they appeared. And at length their signals were answered by the troops. Thus encouraged, the little band of desperate men plunged on down the slope. And just when night set in black--the fateful hour that would have precipitated the Indian attack--the troops met the engineers on the slope. The Indians faded away into the gloom without firing a shot. There was a general rejoicing. Neale, however, complained that he would rather have fought them.

"Wal, I shore was achin' fer trouble," drawled his faithful ally, King.

The flagman, Casey, removed his black pipe to remark, "All thet cloimb without a foight'"

General Lodge's first word to Colonel Dillon was evidently inspired by Casey's remark.

"Colonel, did you have steep work getting up to us?"

"Yes, indeed, straight up out of the valley," was the rejoinder.

But General Lodge did not go back to camp by this short cut down the valley. He kept along the ridge, and it led for miles slowly down to the plain. There in the starlight he faced his assistants with singular fire and earnestness.

"Men, we've had a bad scare and a hard jaunt, but we've found our pass over the Wyoming hills. To-morrow we'll run a line up that long ridge. We'll name it Sherman Pass.... Thanks to those red devils!"

On the following morning Neale was awakened from a heavy, dreamless sleep by a hard dig in the ribs.

"Neale--air you daid?" Larry was saying. "Wake up! An' listen to thet."

Neale heard the clear, ringing notes of a bugle-call. He rolled out of his blankets. "What's up, Red?" he cried, reaching for his boots.

"Wal, I reckon them Injuns," drawled Red.

It was just daylight. They found the camp astir--troopers running for horses, saddles, guns.

"Red, you get our horses and I'll see what's up," cried Neale.

The cowboy strode off, hitching at his belt. Neale ran forward into camp. He encountered Lieutenant Leslie, whom he knew well, and who told him'a scout had come in with news of a threatened raid; Colonel Dillon had ordered out a detachment of troopers.

"I'm going," shouted Neale. "Where's that scout?"

Neale soon descried a buckskin-clad figure, and he made toward it. The man, evidently a trapper or hunter, carried a long, brown rifle, and he had a powder-horn and bullet-pouch slung over his shoulder. There was a knife in his belt. Neale went directly up to the man.

"My name's Neale," he said. "Can I be of any help?"

He encountered a pair of penetrating gray eyes.

"My name's Slingerland," replied the other, as he offered his hand. "Are you an officer?"

"No. I'm a surveyor. But I can ride and shoot. I've a cowboy with me--a Texan. He'll go. What's happened?"

"Wal, I ain't sure yet. But I fear the wust. I got wind of some Sioux thet was trailin' some prairie-schooners up in the hills. I warned the boss--told him to break camp an' run. Then I come fer the troops. But the troops had changed camp an' I jest found them. Reckon we'll be too late."

"Was it a caravan?" inquired Neale, intensely interested.

"Six wagons. Only a few men. Two wimmen. An' one girl."

"Girl!" exclaimed Neale.

"Yes. I reckon she was about sixteen. A pretty girl with big, soft eyes. I offered to take her up behind me on my hoss. An' they all wanted her to come. But she wouldn't.... I hate to think--"

Slingerland did not finish his thought aloud. Just then Larry rode up, leading Neale's horse. Slingerland eyed the lithe cowboy.

"Howdy!" drawled Larry. He did not seem curious or eager, and his cool, easy, reckless air was in sharp contrast to Neale's fiery daring.

"Red, you got the rifles, I see," said Neale.

"Sure, an' I rustled some biscuits."

In a few moments the troops were mounted and ready. Slingerland led them up the valley at a rapid trot and soon started to climb. When he reached the top he worked up for a mile, and then, crossing over, went down into another valley. Up and down he led, over ridge after ridge, until a point was reached where the St. Vrain and Laramie Trail could be seen in the valley below. From there he led them along the top of the ridge, and just as the sun rose over the hills he pointed down to a spot where the caravan had been encamped. They descended into this valley. There in the trail were fresh tracks of unshod horses.

"We ain't fur behind, but I reckon fur enough to be too late," said Slingerland. And he clenched a big fist.

On this level trail he led at a gallop, with the troops behind in the clattering roar. They made short work of that valley. Then rougher ground hindered speedy advance.

Presently Slingerland sighted something that made him start. It proved to be the charred skeleton of a prairie-schooner. The oxen were nowhere to be seen.

Then they saw that a little beyond blankets and camp utensils littered the trail. Still farther on the broad wheel-tracks sheered off the road, where the hurried drivers had missed the way in the dark. This was open, undulating ground, rock-strewn and overgrown with brush. A ledge of rock, a few scraggy trees, and more black, charred remains of wagons marked the final scene of the massacre.

Neale was the first man who dismounted, and Larry King was the second. They had outstripped the more cautious troopers.

"My Gawd!" breathed Larry.

Neale gripped his rifle with fierce hands and strode forward between two of the burned wagons. Naked, mutilated bodies, bloody and ghastly, lay in horrible positions. All had been scalped.

Slingerland rode up with the troops, and all dismounted, cursing and muttering.

Colonel Dillon ordered a search for anything to identify the dead. There was nothing. All had been burned or taken away. Of the camp implements, mostly destroyed, there were two shovels left, one with a burnt handle. These were used by the troopers to dig graves.

Neale had at first been sickened by the ghastly spectacle. He walked aside a little way and sat down upon a rock. His face was wet with clammy sweat. A gnawing rage seemed to affect him in the pit of the stomach. This was his first experience with the fiendish work of the savages. A whirl of thoughts filled his mind.

Suddenly he fancied he heard a low moan. He started violently. "Well, I'm hearing things," he muttered, soberly.

It made him so nervous that he got up and walked back to where the troopers were digging. He saw the body of a woman being lowered into a grave and the sight reminded him of what Slingerland had said. He saw the scout searching around and he went over to him.

"Have you found the girl?" he asked.

"Not yet. I reckon the devils made off with her. They'd take her, if she happened to be alive."

"God! I hope she's dead."

"Wal, son, so does Al Slingerland."

More searching failed to find the body of the girl. She was given up as lost.

"I'll find out if she was took captive," said Slingerland. "This Sioux band has been friendly with me."

"Man, they're on the war-path," rejoined Dillon.

"Wal, I've traded with them same Sioux when they was on the war- path.... This massacre sure is awful, an' the Sioux will hev to be extarminated. But they hev their wrongs. An' Injuns is Injuns."

Slabs of rock were laid upon the graves. Then the troopers rode away.

Neale and Slingerland and Larry King were the last to mount. And it was at this moment that Neale either remembered the strange, low moan or heard it again. He reined in his horse.

"I'm going back," he called.

"What fer?" Slingerland rejoined.

Larry King wheeled his mount and trotted back to Neale.

"Red, I'm not satisfied," said Neale, and told his friend what he thought he had heard.

"Boy, you're oot of yur haid!" expostulated Red.

"Maybe I am. But I'm going back. Are you coming?"

"Shore," replied Red, with his easy good nature.

Slingerland sat his horse and watched while he waited. The dust- cloud that marked the troops drew farther away.

Neale dismounted, threw his bridle, and looked searchingly around. But Larry, always more comfortable on horseback than on land, kept his saddle. Suddenly Neale felt inexplicably drawn in a certain direction--toward a rocky ledge. Still he heard nothing except the wind in the few scraggy trees. All the ground in and around the scene of the massacre had been gone over; there was no need to examine it again. Neale had nothing tangible upon which to base his strange feeling. Yet absurd or not, he refused to admit it was fancy or emotion. Some voice had called him. He swore it. If he did not make sure he would always be haunted. So with clear, deliberate eyes he surveyed the scene. Then he strode for the ledge of rock.

Tufts of sage grew close at its base. He advanced among them. The surface of the rock was uneven--and low down a crack showed. At that instant a slow, sobbing, gasping intake of breath electrified Neale.

"Red--come here!" he yelled, in a voice that made the cowboy jump.

Neale dropped to his knees and parted the tufts of sage. Lower down the crack opened up. On the ground, just inside that crack he saw the gleam of a mass of chestnut hair. His first flashing thought was that here was a scalp the red devils did not get.

Then Red King was kneeling beside him--bending forward. "It's a girl!" he ejaculated.

"Yes--the one Slingerland told me about--the girl with big eyes," replied Neale. He put a hand softly on her head. It was warm. Her hair felt silky, and the touch sent a quiver over him. Probably she was dying.

Slingerland came riding up. "Wal, boys, what hev you found?" he asked, curiously.

"That girl," replied Neale.

The reply brought Slingerland sliding out of his saddle.

Neale hesitated a moment, then reaching into the aperture, he got his hands under the girl's arms and carefully drew her out upon the grass. She lay face down, her hair a tumbled mass, her body inert. Neale's quick eye searched for bloodstains, but found none.

"I remember thet hair," said Slingerland. "Turn her over."

"I reckon we'll see then where she's hurt," muttered Red King.

Evidently Neale thought the same, for he was plainly afraid to place her on her back.

"Slingerland, she's not such a little girl," he said, irrelevantly. Then he slipped his hands under her arms again. Suddenly he felt something wet and warm and sticky. He pulled a hand out. It was blood-stained.

"Aw!" exclaimed Red.

"Son, what'd you expect?" demanded Slingerland. "She got shot or cut, an' in her fright she crawled in thar. Come, over with her. Let's see. She might live."

This practical suggestion acted quickly upon Neale. He turned the girl over so that her head lay upon his knees. The face thus exposed was deathly pale, set like stone in horror. The front of her dress was a bloody mass, and her hands were red.

"Stabbed in the breast!" exclaimed King.

"No," replied Slingerland. "If she'd been stabbed she'd been scalped, too. Mebbe thet blood comes from an arrow an' she might hev pulled it out."

Neale bent over her with swift scrutiny. "No cut or hole in her dress!"

"Boys, thar ain't no marks on her--only thet blood," added Slingerland, hopefully.

Neale tore open the front of her blouse and slipped his hand in upon her breast. It felt round, soft, warm under his touch, but quiet. He shook his head.

"Those moans I heard must have been her last dying breaths," he said.

"Mebbe. But she shore doesn't look daid to me," replied King. "I've seen daid people. Put your hand on her heart."

Neale had been feeling for heart pulsations on her right side. He shifted his hand. Instantly through the soft swell of her breast throbbed a beat-beat-beat. The beatings were regular and not at all faint.

"Good Lord, what a fool I am!" he cried. "She's alive! Her heart's going! There's not a wound on her!"

"Wal, we can't see any, thet's sure," replied Slingerland.

"She might hev a fatal hurt, all the same," suggested King.

"No!" exclaimed Neale. "That blood's from some one else--most likely her murdered mother.... Red, run for some water. Fetch it in your hat. Slingerland, ride after the troops."

Slingerland rose and mounted his horse. "Wal, I've an idee. Let's take the girl to my cabin. Thet's not fur from hyar. It's a long ride to the camp. An' if she needs the troop doctor we can fetch him to my place."

"But the Sioux?"

"Wal, she'd be safer with me. The Injuns an' me are friends."

"All right. Good. But you ride after the troops, anyhow, and tell Dillon about the girl--that we're going to your cabin." Slingerland galloped away after the dust cloud down the trail.

Neale gazed strangely down at the face of the girl he had rescued. Her lips barely parted to make again the low moan. So that was what had called to him. No--not all! There was something more than this feeble cry that had brought him back to search; there had been some strong and nameless and inexplicable impulse. Neale believed in his impulses--in those strange ones which came to him at intervals. So far in his life girls had been rather negative influences. But this girl, or the fact that he had saved her, or both impressions together, struck deep into him; life would never again be quite the same to Warren Neale.

Red King came striding back with a sombrero full of water.

"Take your scarf and wash that blood off her hands before she comes to and sees it," said Neale.

The cowboy was awkward at the task, but infinitely gentle. "Poor kid! I'll bet she's alone in the world now."

Neale wet his scarf and bathed the girl's face. "If she's only fainted she ought to be reviving now. But I'm afraid--"

Then suddenly her eyes opened. They were large, violet-hued, covered with a kind of veil or film, as though sleep had not wholly gone; and they were unseeingly, staringly set with horror. Her breast heaved with a sharply drawn breath; her hands groped and felt for something to hold; her body trembled. Suddenly she sat up. She was not weak. Her motions were violent. The dazed, horror-stricken eyes roved around, but did not fasten upon anything.

"Aw! Gone crazy!" muttered King, pityingly.

It did seem so. She put her hands to her ears as if to shut out a horrible sound. And she screamed. Neale grasped her shoulders, turned her round, and forced her into such a position that her gaze must meet his.

"You're safe!" he cried sharply. "The Indians have gone! I'm a white man!"

It seemed as though his piercing voice stirred her reason. She stared at him. Her face changed. Her lips parted and her hand, shaking like a leaf, covered them, clutched at them. The other hand waved before her as if to brush aside some haunting terror.

Neale held that gaze with all his power--dominant, masterful, masculine. He repeated what he had said.

Then it became a wonderful and terrible sight to watch her, to divine in some little way the dark and awful state of her mind. The lines, the tenseness, the shade, the age faded out of her face; the deep-set frown smoothed itself out of her brow and it became young. Neale saw those staring eyes fix upon his; he realized a dull, opaque blackness of horror, hideous veils let down over the windows of a soul, images of hell limned forever on a mind. Then that film, that unseeing cold thing, like the shade of sleep or of death, passed from her eyes. Now they suddenly were alive, great dark- violet gulfs, full of shadows, dilating, changing into exquisite and beautiful lights.

"I'm a white man!" he said, tensely. "You're saved! The Indians are gone!"

She understood him. She realized the meaning of his words. Then, with a low, agonized, and broken cry she shut her eyes tight and reached blindly out with both hands; she screamed aloud. Shock claimed her again. Horror and fear convulsed her, and it must have been fear that was uppermost. She clutched Neale with fingers of steel, in a grip he could not have loosened without breaking her bones.

"Red, you saw--she was right in her mind for a moment--you saw?" burst out Neale.

"Shore I saw. She's only scared now," replied King. "It must hev been hell fer her."

At this juncture Slingerland came riding up to them. "Did she come around?" he inquired, curiously gazing at the girl as she clung to Neale.

"Yes, for a moment," replied Neale.

"Wal, thet's good.... I caught up with Dillon. Told him. He was mighty glad we found her. Cussed his troopers some. Said he'd explain your absence, an' we could send over fer anythin'."

"Let's go, then," said Neale. He tried to loosen the girl's hold on him, but had to give it up. Taking her in his arms, he rose and went toward his horse. King had to help him mount with his burden. Neale did not imagine he would ever forget that spot, but he took another long look to fix the scene indelibly on his memory. The charred wagons, the graves, the rocks over which the naked, gashed bodies had been flung, the three scraggy trees close together, and the ledge with the dark aperture at the base--he gazed at them all, and then turned his horse to follow Slingerland.