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Chapter XXVII My Desertion and Capture

THE horses of the troop were hobbled near the camp and we foresaw no trouble in getting ours.

With our arms and some food from the chuck tent we were ready to start just after tattoo.

We found the herd too well guarded, so we decided to go afoot.

It was a foolhardy undertaking, to say the least, as it was some three hundred miles to the nearest settlement, to which my companions expected to make their way.

For myself, that which overshadowed all else, was the scout's news concerning Nacoomee. To get to Fort Reno and settle matters with that officer and protect her, was to me the most important business in this world. My plan was to take her and our child and try to find Zakatoh. Then we would be free again!

There was no moon that night and the clouds in the west betokened rain. We hoped for it, as it would blot out our trail. But the rain didn’t come and this doubtless contributed to our undoing.

Guided by the North Star we travelled northward, making as rapid progress as possible until sunup. Then, to the southward, we distinguished a bunch of horsemen coming swiftly.

We crouched down in a shallow buffalo wallow, hoping they had not discovered us.

On they came.

I counted them when they were near enough. There were eight of them—Indians. We believed them to be scouts attached to the command we had left.

We flattened out against the ground, making ourselves as nearly invisible as we could.

On came the Indians, directly toward us.

About a hundred yards away, they swerved aside and might have passed on without seeing us but for the fellow Jack. In his excitement he raised his gun and fired. An Indian threw up his arms and toppled to the ground. His fellows scattered to the right and left.

I deeply regretted Jack's action, and Gee Whiz cursed him roughly for the fool he was. But we were in for it and knew we might as well get all of them we could.

Gee Whiz and I fired two shots apiece at the fleeing Indians. A horse fell and its rider went running across the prairie. One of his party took him up on his horse, and away they all went westward, disappearing in the distance.

When I examined the Indian Jack had shot, I was astonished to find him a Cheyenne. There were no Cheyenne scouts attached to our outfit.

Expecting at any minute to sight pursuers, we hurried on. About a mile from the Cimarron River we hid in a brush-lined ravine. Here we remained until the sun was low in the west

Then Jack, who seemed to have no more sense than a rabbit, slipped away from us and shot at a deer. Running toward it he stopped suddenly and pointing toward the south, yelled:

“There they come!”

And sure enough they were coming—a squad of cavalry and Indian scouts, besides McKusker, the white scout.

The three of us made for the river, agreeing to get behind some cottonwood trees on the bank and fight it out since the death of the Indian, to surrender meant death to us anyhow. If we could stand them off until dark we then had a chance, slim though it might be, to get away.

I got behind one of the scattered trees. Gee Whiz and Jack did the same.

Our pursuers numbered twelve, including the lieutenant in charge. They halted about a quarter of a mile away, and the officer sent McKusker to take us in.

When within shouting distance, he drawled out, “Come on in, boys, we got yeh!”

“To hell with yeh!” bawled Gee Whiz. “Yeh haven't got us, not yit! Ef yeh want us bad enough, come on en' take us!”

The scout returned to the command, and they did come on, with drawn sixshooters, the officer in advance.

“We might as well die right now as any time, boys,” muttered our bald-headed comrade, cocking his gun.

Like a frightened coyote Jack slumped down at the root of his tree.

For a moment I was an aspen leaf in a storm. Never before had I experienced such a feeling.

Came words which had been often repeated to me —words of the old Medicine Man:

“When the time comes for you to die, die like a man. To die is nothing. I know what it is to die. It is to go to the Other Side of Darkness ”

At once I was myself again. And I remembered the old man’s advice:

“Fight to the last gasp and die without a whimper.”

I would die like a man. But to leave my dear ones.

I cast out the thought in a moment and became exhilarated. Stepping out from behind the tree, I shook my fist at the swift-coming enemies and gave my war-whoop in sheer joy.

“Now, boys, hold your fire till they git to the little bunch of mesquites,” counselled Gee Whiz.

He pointed to a clump of bushes about two hundred yards distant.

“Kid,” he commanded, “when they git thar, take the lieutenant I’ll plug old McKusker. Jack, take an Injun!”

He dropped to his knee behind his cottonwood.

A little storm cloud decked in gorgeous hues swept across the face of the sun. To me the cloud was the robes of the Sun Boy trailing behind him on his way to our rescue. A butterfly came floating past on gauzy wing. It was a piece of the Sun Boy’s rainbow robe he had tom off and thrown down to encourage me. I heard the chirrup of a cricket behind me, and the ripple of the stream as it ran laughingly on.

It came to me that I must get all the enjoyment I could out of life while it lasted.

I sent out a long defiant whoop.

The lieutenant deployed his men in a skirmish line, came on at a gallop and soon neared the bunch of mesquite.

I glanced at Gee Whiz. He was caressing the breech of his gun with his cheek and softly swearing. His lips were drawn back from his set teeth and his face was not good to look upon.

I drew a bead on the lieutenant and was looking through the sights of my rifle at the officer’s breast My finger was vibrating against the trigger.

Suddenly Gee Whiz grabbed hold of my gun.

“Boys,” he choked out, “they’re too many for us. We’ll give in en’ then we’ll have a chance to git away.”

He had weakened under the strain.

I was mad enough to kill the bald-head.

The words of the officer came sharp, short and derisive :

“Throw down those arms! Sergeant, take charge of them!”

Disgusted, I threw my gun into the river.

Not a dozen paces away the men were sitting on their panting horses.

The lieutenant's gun covered us.

By the time we got our belts unbuckled, McKusker had dismounted and was approaching. He was always drunk while in the post, and his big nose reminded me then, as it always did, of a camp fire on the side of a hill. His bristly hair stuck up like a bunch of black jacks on a knoll. When he opened his mouth to speak, it was a dark chasm edged with blackened snags over which fire had swept.

He approached Gee Whiz, stuck his red nose up into his face and wheezed out:

“Well, we got yer, didn't we!''

Out shot bald-head’s fist to the red nose and down went its owner.

Then Gee Whiz charged upon an Indian scout lolling on the neck of his pony. He grabbed him by the hair and thumped him on the ground. For a while there was an emphatic vocal and physical mixture of Gee Whiz and redskin.

The soldiers tore them apart as they were about to roll over the edge of the bank into the river.

Our captors camped there on the river that night, and our legs were tied together with a rope when we went to bed.

During the night we got our legs free, and in the darkness would have escaped but for the vigilant Indian scouts, one of whom was aching for an excuse to puncture us with bullets for what Gee Whiz had done to him.

The next day we were taken to the camp from which we had deserted, brought before the officers and questioned as to our reason for leaving.

When the sentry took me back to the guard-tent, he said to me kindly,

“I’m blamed sorry for yeh, kid.”

“Yeh needn’t worry about me. But why are yeh sorry?” I asked.

“Why, don’t yeh know? They’ve drumheaded yeh —given yeh a drumhead court-martial. They’re goin’ to shoot yeh!”

“Well, I’m not dead yet,” I replied, more bravely than I felt.

The fellow Jack began to whimper, whereupon our bald-headed companion gave him a round cursing.

“As for myself,” he growled, “all I ask is one more good crack at old McKusker.” *

*Phil McKusker had been a deserter himself, and had lived for years with the Kiowas. He was pardoned and became a valuable man to the Government, notwithstanding his liking for strong drink. Eventually it was the means of his death. While on courier duty, and drunk, as usual, he fell from his horse and was devoured by wolves.

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