The Two Cartridges by Stewart Edward White
This happened at the time Billy Knapp drove stage between Pierre and Deadwood. I think you can still see the stage in Buffalo Bill's show. Lest confusion arise and the reader be inclined to credit Billy with more years than are his due, it might be well also to mention that the period was some time after the summer he and Alfred and Jim Buckley had made their famous march with the only wagon-train that dared set out, and some time before Billy took to mining. Jim had already moved to Montana.
The journey from Pierre to Deadwood amounted to something. All day long the trail led up and down long grassy slopes, and across sweeping, intervening flats. While climbing the slopes, you could never get your experience to convince you that you were not, on topping the hill, about to overlook the entire country for miles around. This never happened; you saw no farther than the next roll of the prairie. While hurtling down the slopes, you saw the intervening flat as interminably broad and hot and breathless, or interminably broad and icy and full of arctic winds, according to the season of the year. Once in a dog's age you came to a straggling fringe of cottonwood-trees, indicating a creek bottom. The latter was either quite dry or in raging flood. Close under the hill huddled two buildings, half logs, half mud. There the horses were changed by strange men with steel glints in their eyes, like those you see under the brows of a north-country tug-boat captain. Passengers could there eat flap-jacks architecturally warranted to hold together against the most vigorous attack of the gastric juices, and drink green tea that tasted of tannin and really demanded for its proper accommodation porcelain-lined insides. It was not an inspiring trip.
Of course, Billy did not accompany the stage all of the way; only the last hundred miles; but the passengers did, and by the time they reached Billy they were usually heartily sick of their undertaking. Once a tenderfoot came through in the fall of the year, simply for the love of adventure. He got it.
"Driver," said he to Billy, as the brakes set for another plunge, "were you ever held up?"
Billy had been deluged with questions like this for the last two hours. Usually he looked straight in front of him, spat accurately between the tail of the wheel-horse and the whiffle-tree, and answered in monosyllables. The tenderfoot did not know that asking questions was not the way to induce Billy to talk.
"Held up?" replied Billy, with scorn. "Young feller, I is held up thirty-seven times in th' last year."
"Thunderation!" exclaimed the tenderfoot. "What do you do? Do you have much trouble getting away? Have you had much fighting?"
"Fight nothin'. I ain't hired to fight. I'm hired to drive stage."
"And you just let them go through you?" cried the tenderfoot.
Billy was stung by the contempt in the stranger's tone.
"Go through nothin'," he explained. "They isn't touchin' me none whatever. Put her down fer argument that I'm damn fool enough to sprinkle lead 'round some, and that I gets away. What happens? Nex' time I drives stage some of these yere agents massacrees me from behind a bush. Whar do I come in? Nary bit!"
The tenderfoot, struck by the logic of this reasoning, fell silent. After an interval the sun set in a film of yellow light; then the afterglow followed; and finally the stars pricked out the true immensity of the prairies.
"He's the feller hired to fight," observed the shadowy Billy, jerking his thumb backward.
The tenderfoot now understood the silent, grim man who, unapproachable and solitary, had alone occupied the seat on top of the stage. Looking with more curiosity, the tenderfoot observed a shot-gun with abnormally short barrels, slung in two brass clips along the back of the seat in front of the messenger. The usual revolvers, too, were secured, instead of by the regulation holsters, in brass clips riveted to the belt, so that in case of necessity they could be snatched free with one forward sweep of the arm. The man met his gaze keenly.
"Them Hills ain't fur now," vouchsafed Billy, as a cold breeze from the west lifted the limp brim of his hat, and a film of cloud drew with uncanny and silent rapidity across the stars.
The tenderfoot had turned again to look at the messenger, who interested him exceedingly, when the stage came to a stop so violent as almost to throw him from his seat. He recovered his balance with difficulty. Billy, his foot braced against the brake, was engaged in leisurely winding the reins around it.
"Hands up, I say!" cried a sharp voice from the darkness ahead.
"Meanin' you," observed Billy to the tenderfoot, at the same time thrusting his own over his head and settling down comfortably on the small of his back. "Time!" he called, facetiously, to the darkness.
As though at the signal the night split with the roar of buckshot, and splintered with the answering crackle of a six-shooter three times repeated. The screech of the brake had deceived the messenger as to the whereabouts of the voice. He had jumped to the ground on the wrong side of the stage, thus finding himself without protection against his opponent, who, firing at the flash of the shot-gun, had brought him to the ground.
The road-agent stepped confidently forward. "Billy," said he, pleasantly, "jest pitch me that box."
Billy climbed over the seat and dropped a heavy, iron-bound case to the ground. "Danged if I thinks anybody kin git Buck, thar," he remarked, in thoughtful reference to the messenger.
"Now, drive on," commanded the road-agent.
Three hours later Billy and the sobered tenderfoot pulled into Deadwood. Ten minutes taught the camp what had occurred.
Now, it must be premised that Deadwood had recently chosen a sheriff. He did not look much like a sheriff, for he was small and weak and bald, and most childlike as to expression of countenance. But when I tell you that his name was Alfred, you will know that it was all right. To him the community looked for initiative. It expected him to organise a posse, which would, of course, consist of every man in the place not otherwise urgently employed, and to enter upon instant pursuit. He did not.
"How many is they?" he asked of Billy.
"One lonesome one," replied the stage-driver.
"I plays her a lone hand," announced Alfred.
You see, Alfred knew well enough his own defects. He never could make plans when anybody else was near, but always instinctively took the second place. Then, when the other's scheme had fallen into ruins, he would construct a most excellent expedient from the wreck of it. In the case under consideration he preferred to arrange his own campaign, and therefore to work alone.
By that time men knew Alfred. They made no objection.
"Snowin'," observed one of the chronic visitors of the saloon door. There are always two or three of such in every Western gathering.
"One of you boys saddle my bronc," suddenly requested Alfred, and began to examine his firearms by the light of the saloon lamp.
"Yo' ain't aimin' to set out to-night?" they asked, incredulously.
"I am. Th' snow will make a good trail, but she'll be covered come mornin'."
So Alfred set out alone, at night, in a snowstorm, without the guidance of a solitary star, to find a single point in the vastness of the prairie.
He made the three hours of Billy and the tenderfoot in a little over an hour, because it was mostly down hill. So the agent had apparently four hours the start of him, which discrepancy was cut down, however, by the time consumed in breaking open the strong-box after Billy and the stage had surely departed beyond gunshot. The exact spot was easily marked by the body of Buck, the express messenger. Alfred convinced himself that the man was dead, but did not waste further time on him: the boys would take care of the remains next day. He remounted and struck out sharp for the east, though, according to Billy's statement, the agent had turned north.
"He is alone," said Alfred to himself, "so he ain't in that Black Hank outfit. Ain't nothin' to take him north, an' if he goes south he has to hit way down through the South Fork trail, which same takes him two weeks. Th' greenbacks in that plunder is numbered, and old Wells-Fargo has th' numbers. He sure has to pike in an' change them bills afore he is spotted. So he goes to Pierre."
Alfred staked his all on this reasoning and rode blindly eastward. Fortunately the roll of the country was sufficiently definite to enable him to keep his general direction well enough until about three o'clock, when the snow ceased and the stars came out, together with the waning moon. Twenty minutes later he came to the bed of a stream.
"Up or down?" queried Alfred, thoughtfully. The state of the weather decided him. It had been blowing all night strongly from the northwest. Left without guidance a pony tends to edge more or less away from the wind, in order to turn tail to the weather. Alfred had diligently counteracted this tendency all night, but he doubted whether, in the hurry of flight, the fugitive had thought of it. Instead of keeping directly east toward Pierre, he had probably fallen away more or less toward the south. "Down," Alfred decided.
He dismounted from his horse and began to lead the animal parallel to the stream, but about two hundred yards from it, first taking care to ascertain that a little water flowed in the channel. On discovering that there did, he nodded his head in a satisfied manner.
"He doesn't leave no trail till she begins to snow," he argued, "an' he nat'rally doesn't expect no mud-turkles like me a followin' of him eastward. Consequently he feeds when he strikes water. This yere is water."
All of which seemed satisfactory to Alfred. He walked on foot in order to discover the trail in the snow. He withdrew two hundred yards from the bank of the stream that his pony might not scent the other man's horse, and so give notice of approach by whinnying. After a time he came across the trail. So he left the pony and followed it to the creek-bottom on foot. At the top of the bluff he peered over cautiously.
"Well, you got nerve!" he remarked to himself. "If I was runnin' this yere game, I'd sure scout with my blinders off."
The fugitive evidently believed himself safe from pursuit, for he had made camp. His two ponies cropped browse and pawed for grass in the bottom land. He himself had prepared a warm niche and was sleeping in it with only one blanket over him, though by now the thermometer was well down toward zero. The affair had been simple. He had built a long, hot fire in the L of an upright ledge and the ground. When ready to sleep he had raked the fire three feet out from the angle, and had lain down on the heated ground between the fire and the ledge. His rifle and revolver lay where he could seize them at a moment's notice.
Alfred could stalk a deer, but he knew better than to attempt to stalk a man trained in the West. Instead, he worked himself into a protected position and carefully planted a Winchester bullet some six inches from the man's ear. The man woke up suddenly and made an instinctive grab toward his weapons.
"Drop it!" yelled Alfred.
So he dropped it, and lay like a rabbit in its form.
"Jest select that thar six-shooter by the end of the bar'l and hurl her from you some," advised the sheriff. "Now the Winchester. Now stand up an' let's look at you." The man obeyed. "Yo' don't really need that other gun, under th' circumstances," pursued the little man. "No, don't fetch her loose from the holster none; jest unbuckle th' whole outfit, belt and all. Good! Now, you freeze, and stay froze right whar you are."
So Alfred arose and scrambled down to the bottom.
"Good-mornin'," he observed, pleasantly.
He cast about him and discovered the man's lariat, which he picked up and overran with one hand until he had loosened the noose.
"You-all are some sizable," he remarked, in conversational tones, "an' like enough you eats me up, if I gets clost enough to tie you. Hands up!"
With a deft twist and flip he tossed the open noose over his prisoner's upheld wrists and jerked it tight.
"Thar you be," he observed, laying aside his rifle.
He loosened one of his revolvers suggestively and approached to tie the knot.
"Swing her down," he commanded. He contemplated the result. "Don't like that nohow--tied in front. Step through your hands a whole lot." The man hesitated. "Step, I say!" said Alfred, sharply, at the same time pricking the prisoner with his long knife.
The other contorted and twisted awkwardly, but finally managed to thrust first one foot, then the other, between his shackled wrists. Alfred bound together his elbows at the back.
"You'll do," he approved, cheerfully. "Now, we sees about grub."
Two flat stones placed a few inches apart improvised a stove when fire thrust its tongue from the crevice, and a frying-pan and tin-cup laid across the opening cooked the outlaw's provisions. Alfred hospitably ladled some bacon and coffee into their former owner.
"Not that I needs to," he observed, "but I'm jest that tender-hearted."
At the close of the meal, Alfred instituted a short and successful search for the plunder, which he found in the stranger's saddle-bag, open and unashamed.
"Yo're sure a tenderfoot at this game, stranger," commented the sheriff. "Thar is plenty abundance of spots to cache such plunder--like the linin' of yore saddle, or a holler horn. Has you any choice of cayuses for ridin'?" indicating the grazing ponies.
The man shook his head. He had maintained a lowering silence throughout all these cheerful proceedings.
Alfred and his prisoner finally mounted and rode northwest. As soon as they had scrambled up the precipitous side of the gully, the affair became a procession, with the stranger in front, and the stranger's second pony bringing up an obedient rear. Thus the robber was first to see a band of Sioux that topped a distant rise for a single instant. Of course, the Sioux saw him, too. He communicated this discovery to Alfred.
"Well," said Alfred, "they ain't hostile."
"These yere savages is plenty hostile," contradicted the stranger, "and don't you make no mistake thar. I jest nat'rally lifts that pinto offen them yisterday," and he jerked his thumb toward the black-and-white pony in the rear.
"And you camps!" cried Alfred, in pure astonishment. "You must be plumb locoed!"
"I ain't had no sleep in three nights," explained the other, in apology.
Alfred's opinion of the man rose at once.
"Yo' has plumb nerve to tackle a hold-up under them circumstances," he observed.
"I sets out to git that thar stage; and I gits her," replied the agent, doggedly.
The savages appeared on the next rise, barely a half-mile away, and headed straight for the two men.
"I reckon yere's where you takes a hand," remarked Alfred simply, and, riding alongside, he released the other's arms by a single slash of his knife. The man slipped from his horse and stretched his arms wide apart and up over his head in order to loosen his muscles. Alfred likewise dismounted. The two, without further parley, tied their horses' noses close to their front fetlocks, and sat down back to back on the surface of the prairie. Each was armed with one of the new 44-40 Winchesters, just out, and with a brace of Colt's revolvers, chambering the same-sized cartridge as the rifle.
"How you heeled?" inquired Alfred.
The stranger took stock.
"Fifty-two," he replied.
"Seventy for me," vouchsafed Alfred. "I goes plenty organised."
Each man spread a little semicircle of shells in front of him. At the command of the two, without reloading, were forty-eight shots.
When the Indians had approached to within about four hundred yards of the white men they paused. Alfred rose and held his hand toward them, palm outward, in the peace sign. His response was a shot and a chorus of yells.
"I tells you," commented the hold-up.
Alfred came back and sat down. The savages, one by one, broke away from the group and began to circle rapidly to the left in a constantly contracting spiral. They did a great deal of yelling. Occasionally they would shoot. To the latter feature the plainsmen lent an attentive ear, for to their trained senses each class of arm spoke with a different voice--the old muzzle-loader, the Remington, the long, heavy Sharp's 50, each proclaimed itself plainly. The mere bullets did not interest them in the least. Two men seated on the ground presented but a small mark to the Indians shooting uncleaned weapons from running horses at three or four hundred yards' range.
"That outfit is rank outsiders," concluded Alfred. "They ain't over a dozen britch-loaders in the lay-out."
"Betcher anything you say I drops one," offered the stranger, taking a knee-rest.
"Don't be so plumb fancy," advised Alfred, "but turn in and help."
He was satisfied with the present state of affairs, and was hacking at the frozen ground with his knife. The light snow on the ridge-tops had been almost entirely drifted away. The stranger obeyed.
On seeing the men thus employed, the Indians turned their horses directly toward the group and charged in. At the range of perhaps two hundred yards the Winchesters began to speak. Alfred fired twice and the stranger three times. Then the circle broke and divided and passed by, leaving an oval of untrodden ground.
"How many did you get?" inquired Alfred, with professional interest.
"Two," replied the man.
"Two here," supplemented Alfred.
A commotion, a squeal, a thrashing-about near at hand caused both to turn suddenly. The pinto pony was down and kicking. Alfred walked over and stuck him in the throat to save a cartridge.
"Move up, pardner," said he.
The other moved up. Thus the men became possessed of protection from one side. The Indians had vented a yell of rage when the pony had dropped. Now as each warrior approached a certain point in the circle, he threw his horse back on its haunches, so that in a short time the entire band was once more gathered in a group. Alfred and the outlaw knew that this manoeuvre portended a more serious charge than the impromptu affair they had broken with such comparative ease. An Indian is extremely gregarious when it comes to open fighting. He gets a lot of encouragement out of yells, the patter of many ponies' hoofs, and the flutter of an abundance of feathers. Running in from the circumference of a circle is a bit too individual to suit his taste.
Also, the savages had by now taken the measure of their white opponents. They knew they had to deal with experience. Suspicion of this must have been aroused by the practised manner in which the men had hobbled their horses and had assumed the easiest posture of defence. The idea would have gained strength from their superior marksmanship; but it would have become absolute certainty from the small detail that, in all this hurl and rush of excitement, they had fired but five shots, and those at close range. It is difficult to refrain from banging away for general results when so many marks so loudly present themselves. It is equally fatal to do so. A few misses are a great encouragement to a savage, and seem to breed their like in subsequent shooting. They destroy your own coolness and confidence, and they excite the enemy an inch nearer to that dead-line of the lust of fighting, beyond which prudence gives place to the fury of killing. An Indian is the most cautious and wily of fighters before he goes mad: and the most terribly reckless after. In a few moments four of their number had passed to the happy hunting-grounds, and they were left, no nearer their prey, to contemplate the fact.
The tornado moved. It swept at the top jump of ponies used to the chase of the buffalo, as sudden and terrible and imminent as the loom of a black cloud on the wings of storm, and, like it, seeming to gather speed and awfulness as it rushed nearer. Each rider bent low over his pony's neck and shot--a hail of bullets, which, while most passed too high, nevertheless shrieked and spun through the volume of coarser sound. The ponies stretched their necks and opened their red mouths and made their little feet go with a rapidity that twinkled as bewilderingly as a picket-fence passing a train. And the light snow swirled and eddied behind them.
The two men behind the dead horse were not deceived by this excitement into rising to their knees. They realised that this was the critical point in the fight, and they shot hard and fast, concentrating all the energy of their souls into the steady glare of their eyes over the sights of the smoking rifles. In a moment the foremost warrior was trying to leap his pony at the barrier before him, but the little animal refused the strange jump and shied to the left, cannoning and plunging into the stream of braves rushing in on that side. Into the confusion Alfred emptied the last two shots of his Winchester, and was fortunate enough merely to cripple a pony with one of them. The kicking, screaming, little beast interposed a momentary but effective barrier between the sheriff and his foes. A rattling fire from one of his six-shooters into the brown of the hesitating charge broke it. The self-induced excitement ebbed, and the Indians swerved and swept on by.
On the other side, the outlaw had also managed to kill a pony within a few feet of the impromptu breastwork, and, direct riding-down being thus prevented in front, he was lying stretched on his side, coolly letting off first one revolver then the other in the face of imminent ruin. Alfred's attentions, however, and the defection of the right wing, drove these savages, too, into flight. Miraculously, neither man was more than scratched, though their clothes and the ground about them showed the marks of bullets. Strangely enough, too, the outlaw's other pony stood unhurt at a little distance whither the rush of the charge had carried him. Alfred arose and drove him back. Then both men made a triangular breastwork of the two dead horses and their saddles.
"Cyan't do that more'n once," observed the outlaw, taking a long breath.
"They don't want her more'n once," replied Alfred, sagely.
The men tried to take score. This was not easy. Out of the hundred and twelve cartridges with which they had started the fight, there remained sixty-eight. That meant they had expended thirty-nine in the last charge alone. As near as they could make out, they had accounted for eight of the enemy, four in the melee just finished. Besides, there were a number of ponies down. At first glance this might seem like poor shooting. It was not. A rapidly moving figure is a difficult rifle-mark with the best of conditions. In this case the conditions would have rendered an Easterner incapable of hitting a feather pillow at three yards.
And now began the most terrible part of this terrible day. A dozen of the warriors dismounted, made a short circle to the left, and disappeared in a thin growth of dried grasses, old mulliens, and stunted, scattered brush barely six inches high. There seemed hardly cover enough to hide a man, and yet the dozen were as completely swallowed up as though they had plunged beneath the waters of the sea. Only occasionally the top of a grass tuft or a greasewood shivered. It became the duty of Alfred and his companion to shoot suddenly and accurately at these motions. This was necessary in order to discourage the steady concealed advance of the dozen, who, when they had approached to within as few yards as their god of war would permit, purposed to rush in and finish their opponents out of hand. And that rush could never be stopped. The white men knew it perfectly well, so they set conscientiously to work with their handful of cartridges to convince the reds that it is not healthy to crawl along ridge-tops on an autumn day. Sundry outlying Indians, with ammunition to waste, took belly and knee rests and strengthened the thesis to the contrary.
The brisk fighting had warmed the contestants' blood. Now a cold wind penetrated through their woollens to the goose-flesh. It was impossible to judge of the effect of the shots, but both knew that the accuracy of their shooting was falling off. Clench his teeth as he would, hold his breath as steadfastly as he might, Alfred could not accomplish that steady, purposeful, unblinking pressure on the trigger so necessary to accuracy. In spite of himself, the rifle jerked ever so little to the right during the fall of the hammer. Soon he adopted the expedient of pulling it suddenly which is brilliant but uncertain. The ground was very cold. Before long both men would have felt inclined to risk everything for the sake of a little blood-stimulating tramp back and forth. The danger did not deter them. Only the plainsman's ingrained horror of throwing away a chance held them, shivering pitiably, to their places.
Still they managed to keep the dozen at a wary distance, and even, they suspected, to hit some. This was the Indians' game--to watch; to wait; to lie with infinite patience; to hitch nearer a yard, a foot, an inch even; and then to seize with the swiftness of the eagle's swoop an opportunity which the smallest imprudence, fruit of weariness, might offer. One by one the precious cartridges spit, and fell from the breech-blocks empty and useless. And still the tufts of grass wavered a little nearer.
"I wish t' hell, stranger, you-all hadn't edged off south," chattered Alfred. "We'd be nearer th' Pierre trail."
"I'm puttin' in my spare wishin' on them Injins," shivered the other; "I sure hopes they aims to make a break pretty quick; I'm near froze."
About two o'clock the sun came out and the wind died. Though its rays were feeble at that time of year, their contrast with the bleakness that had prevailed during the morning threw a perceptible warmth into the crouching men. Alfred succeeded, too, in wriggling a morsel of raw bacon from the pack, which the two men shared. But the cartridges were running very low.
"We establishes a dead-line," suggested Alfred. "S' long as they slinks beyond yonder greasewood, they lurks in safety. Plug 'em this side of her."
"C'rrect," agreed the stranger.
This brought them a season of comparative quiet. They even made out to smoke, and so were happy. Over near the hill the body of Indians had gone into camp and were taking it easy. The job of wiping out these troublesome whites had been sublet, and they wasted no further anxiety over the affair. This indifference irritated the outlaw exceedingly.
"Damn siwashes!" he grumbled.
"Look out!" warned Alfred.
The dead-line was overpassed. Swaying tufts of vegetation marked the rapid passage of eel-like bodies. The Indians had decided on an advance, being encouraged probably by the latter inaccuracy of the plainsmen's fire. Besides, the day was waning. It was no cat-and-mouse game now; but a rush, like the other except that all but the last twenty or thirty yards would be made under cover. The besieged turned their attention to it. Over on the hill the bucks had arisen from their little fires of buffalo chips, and were watching. On the summit of the farther ridge rode silhouetted sentinels.
Alfred selected a tuft and fired just ahead of it. A crack at his side indicated that the stranger, too, had gone to work. It was a discouraging and nervous business. The shooter could never tell whether or not he had hit. The only thing he was sure of was that the line was wriggling nearer and nearer. He felt something as though he were shooting at a man with blank cartridges. This test of nerve was probably the most severe of the fight.
But it was successfully withstood. Alfred felt a degree of steadiness return to him with the excitement and the change of weather. The Winchester spat as carefully as before. Suddenly it could no longer be doubted that the line was beginning to hesitate. The outlaw saw it, too.
"Give it to 'em good!" he cried.
Both men shot, and then again.
The line wavered.
"Two more shots will stop 'em!" cried the road-agent, and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked against an empty chamber.
"I'm done!" he cried, hopelessly. His cartridges were gone.
Alfred laid his own Winchester on the ground, turned over on his back, and puffed a cloud of smoke straight up toward the sky.
"Me, too," said he.
The cessation of the shooting had put an end to the Indians' uncertainty. Another moment would bring them knowledge of the state of affairs.
"Don't get much outen my scalp, anyway," said Alfred, uncovering his bald head.
The sentinel on the distant ridge was riding his pony in short-looped circles and waving a blanket in a peculiar way above his head. From the grass nine Indians arose, stooped, and scuttled off like a covey of running quail. Over by the fires warriors were leaping on their ponies, and some were leading other ponies in the direction of the nine. An air of furtive but urgent haste characterised all these movements. Alfred lent an attentive ear.
"Seems a whole lot like a rescue," he remarked, quietly. "I reckon th' boys been followin' of my trail."
The stranger paused in the act of unhobbling the one remaining pony. In the distance, faintly, could be heard cheers and shots intended as encouragement.
"They's comin' on th' jump," said Alfred.
By this time the stranger had unfastened the horse.
"I reckon we quits," said he, mounting; "I jest nat'rally takes this bronc, because I needs him more'n you do. So long. I may 's well confide that I'm feelin' some glad jest now that them Injins comes along."
And then his pony fell in a heap, and began to kick up dirt and to snort blood.
"I got another, so you just subside a lot," commanded Alfred, recocking his six-shooter.
The stranger lay staring at him in astonishment.
"Thought you was busted on catridges!" he cried.
"You-all may as well know," snapped Alfred, "that's long as I'm an officer of this yere district, I'm a sheriff first and an Injin-fighter afterward."
"What the hell!" wondered the road-agent, still in a daze.
"Them's th' two catridges that would have stopped 'em," said Alfred.