you were looking after this sub of yours," and Brooks, despite his illness, was indeed working out of the back door of his yellow trundle bed at the moment, and looking anxiously about. But the engineer stood pale and quiet, coolly studying the flustered growler, and when Burleigh's shifting eyes sought that young scientist's face, what he read there—and Burleigh was no fool—told him he would be wise to change the tune. The aid had pushed out in front of the troop and was signaling to Dean, once more in saddle and scanning through his glass the big band afar down the valley.
"Take my horse, sir," said the sergeant, dismounting, and the officer thanked him and rode swiftly out to join the young commander at the front. Together they gazed and consulted and still no signal came to resume the advance. Then the troopers saw the staff officer make a broad sweep with his right arm to the south, and in a moment Dean's hat was uplifted and waved well out in that direction. "Drop carbine," growled the sergeant. "By twos again. Incline to the right. Damn the Sioux, I say! Have we got to circle five miles around their hunting ground for fear of hurting their feelings. Come on. Jimmy," he added to the driver of the leading wagon. Jimmy responded with vigorous language at the expense of his lead mules. The quartermaster and engineer silently scrambled in; the ambulance started with a jerk and away went the party off to the right of the trail, the wagons jolting a bit now over the uneven clumps of bunch grass.
But once well up at the summit of the low divide the command reined in for a look at the great Indian cavalcade swarming in the northeastward valley, and covering its grassy surface still a good mile away. Out from among the dingy mass came galloping half a dozen young braves, followed by as many squaws. The former soon spread out over the billowy surface, some following the direction of the chase, some bounding on south west ward as though confident of finding what they sought the moment they reached the nearest ridge; some riding straight to the point where lay the carcasses of the earliest victims of the hunt. Here in full view of the soldiery, but vouchsafing them no glance nor greeting whatever, two young warriors reined in their lively ponies and disdainfully turned their backs upon the spectators on the divide, while the squaws, with shrill laugh and chatter, rolled from their saddles and began the drudgery of their lot—skinning and cutting up the buffalos slaughtered by their lords.
"Don't you see," sneered Burleigh, "it's nothing but a village out for a hunt—nothing in God's world to get stampeded about. We've had all this show of warlike preparation for nothing." But he turned away again as he caught the steady look in the engineer's blue eyes, and shouted to his more appreciative friend, the aide-de-camp: "Well, pardner, haven't we fooled away enough time here, or have we got to wait the pleasure of people that never saw Indians before?"
Dean flushed crimson at the taunt. He well knew for whom it was meant. He was indignant enough by this time to speak for himself, but the aide-de-camp saved him the trouble.
"I requested Mr. Dean to halt a few moments, Burleigh. It is necessary I should know what band this is, and how many are out."
"Well, be quick about it," snapped the quartermaster, "I want to get to Reno before midnight, and at this rate we won't make it in a week."
A sergeant who could speak a little Sioux came riding back to the camp, a grin on his sun-blistered face. "Well, sergeant, what'd he say?" asked the staff officer.
"He said would I plaze to go to hell, sorr," was the prompt response.
"Won't he tell who they are?"
"He won't, sorr. He says we know widout askin', which is thrue, sorr. They're Ogallallas to a man, barrin' the squaws and pappooses, wid ould Red Cloud himself."
"How'd you find out if they wouldn't talk?" asked the staff officer impatiently.
"'Twas the bucks wouldn't talk—except in swear wurruds. I wasted no time on them, sorr. I gave the first squaw the last hardtack in me saddle-bags and tould her was it Machpealota, and she said it was, and he was wid Box Karesha—that's ould Folsom—not six hour ago, an' Folsom's gone back to the cantonment."
"Then the quicker we skip the better," were the aide-de-camp's words. "Get us to Reno fast as you can, Dean. Strike for the road again as soon as we're well beyond their buffalo. Now for it! There's something behind all this bogus hunt business, and Folsom knows what it is."
And every mile of the way, until thick darkness settled down over the prairie, there was something behind the trooper cavalcade—several somethings—wary red men, young and wiry, who never let themselves be seen, yet followed on over wave after wave of prairie to look to it that no man went back from that column to carry the news of their presence to the little battalion left in charge of the new post at Warrior Gap.
It was the dark of the moon, or, as the Indians say, "the nights the moon is sleeping in his lodge," and by ten P. M. the skies were overcast. Only here and there a twinkling star was visible, and only where some trooper struck a light for his pipe could a hand be seen in front of the face. The ambulance mules that had kept their steady jog during the late afternoon and the long gloaming that followed still seemed able to maintain the gait, and even the big, lumbering wagon at the rear came briskly on under the tug of its triple span, but in the intense darkness the guides at the head of the column kept losing the road, and the bumping of the wagons would reveal the fact, and a halt would be ordered, men would dismount and go bending and crouching and feeling their way over the almost barren surface, hunting among the sage brush for the double furrow of the trail. Matches innumerable were consumed, and minutes of valuable time, and the quartermaster waxed fretful and impatient, and swore that his mules could find their way where the troopers couldn't, and finally, after the trail had been lost and found half a dozen times, old Brooks was badgered into telling Dean to let the ambulance take the lead. The driver shirked at once.
"There's no tellin' where we'll fetch up," said he. "Those mules can't see the trail if a man can't. Take their harness off and turn 'em loose, an' I suppose they can find their way to the post, but sure as you turn them loose when they've got somethin' on 'em, or behind 'em, and the doggone cussedness of the creatures will prompt them to smash things."
But the quartermaster said he'd tried it with those very mules, between Emory and Medicine Bow a dozen times, and he'd risk it. The driver could get off his seat if he wanted to, and run alongside, but he'd stay where he was.
"Let me out, please," said the engineer, and jumped to the ground, and then the cavalcade pushed on again. The driver, as ordered by an employer whom he dare not disobey, let the reins drop on the mules' backs, the troopers falling behind, the yellow ambulance and the big baggage wagon bringing up the rear.
Then, with a horseman on each side, the mules were persuaded to push on again, and then when fairly started Burleigh called to the troopers to fall back, so that the mules should not, as he expressed it, "be influenced." "Leave them to themselves and they can get along all right," said he, "but mix them up with the horses, and they want them to take all the responsibility."
And now the command was barely crawling. Brooks, heavy, languid with splitting headache, lay in feverish torpor in his ambulance, asking only to be let alone. The engineer, a subaltern as yet, felt that he had no right attempting to advise men like Burleigh, who proclaimed himself an old campaigner. The aide-de-camp was getting both sleepy and impatient, but he, too, was much the quartermaster's junior in rank. As for Dean, he had no volition whatever. "Escort the party," were his orders, and that meant that he must govern the movements of