Billy Dixon had thrown away his wide-rimmed sombrero and his long hair rippled in the wind. He had been through the battle at Adobe Walls and men knew him for one of the best shots in the country south of the Arkansas River. He was taking it slowly, lining his sights with the coolness of an old hand on a target range. Now he raised his head.
“Here they come,” he shouted.
The circle was drawing inward where the land sloped up at the easiest angle. A hundred half-naked riders swung toward the summit, and the thud-thud of the ponies’ little hoofs was audible through the rattle of the rifles. The buffalo-guns boomed in slow succession like the strokes of a tolling bell. Empty saddles began to show in the forefront. The charge swerved off, and as it passed at point-blank range a curtain of powder smoke unrolled along the whole flank.
Private George Smith pitched forward on his face. His rifle flew far from him. He lay there motionless. A trooper binding his wounded thigh glanced around when the assault had become a swift retreat.
”Look!” he cried. “They’ve got Smith.”
”Set us afoot,” another growled and pointed after the stampeded horses.
Smith lay quite still as he had fallen. They thought him dead. Within the hour, a dozen whooping Comanche ran their ponies up the hill toward his limp form. To gain that scalp-lock under fire would be an exploit worth telling to their grandchildren in after years. And there was the long-barreled rifle as a bit of plunder. But the five white men, who had changed their position under a second charge, emptied four saddles before the warriors were within a hundred yards of the spot, and the eight survivors whipped their ponies down the slope again.
The sun was climbing high when Amos Chapman rolled over on his side and called to Billy Dixon that his leg was broken. Dixon lifted his head and surveyed the situation. The Indians were gathering for another rush. Thus far they had taken things as though they were so sure of the ultimate result that they did not see fit to run great chances. But this could not last. The next charge might be the final one. Down on a little mesquite flat about two hundred yards distant, he saw a buffalo wallow. He pointed to it.
“We got to make it,” he told the others, and they followed him as he ran for the shelter. But Amos Chapman crawled only a dozen paces or so before he had to give it up. The four fell to work with their butcher knives heaping up the sand at the summit of the low bank which surrounded the shallow circular depression. They dropped their knives and picked up their rifles, for the savages were sweeping down upon them.
So they dug and fought and fought and dug for another hour and then Billy Dixon was unable to stand the sight of his partner lying helpless on the summit of the knoll.
“I’m going to get Amos,” he announced, and set forth amid a rain of bullets. Those who saw him after the fight was over—and General Miles was among them —said that his shirt was ripped in twenty places by flying lead. He halted on the hilltop and took up Chapman pick-a-back, then bore him slowly down the slope to the little shelter.
Noon came on. The sun shone hot. Dixon had got a bullet in the calf of his leg when he was bearing his companion on his back. Private Rath was the only man who was not wounded. They all thirsted as only men can thirst who have been keyed up to the high pitch of endeavor for hours. The savages charged thrice more; and when they came, numbers of them always deployed toward the top of the knoll where Private Smith lay dying: dead his companions thought, but they were grim in their determination that the red men should never get the scalp which they coveted so sorely. The big Sharps boomed; the saddles emptied to their booming. Private Smith wakened from one swoon only to fall into another. Sometimes he wakened to the thuding of hoofs and saw the savages sweeping toward him on their ponies.
Near mid-afternoon the warriors formed for a charge and it was evident from the manner of their massing that they were going to ride down on the buffalo wallow in one solid body. But while their ranks were gathering there came up one of those sudden thunderstorms for which the Staked Plains were famous. The rain fell in sheets; the lightning blazed with scarcely an intermission between flashes. And the charge was given up for the time being. The braves drew off beyond rifle shot and huddled up within their blankets. Morris Rath seized the respite to go for ammunition. For Smith’s cartridge-belts were full. He came back from the knoll breathless.
“Smith’s living,” he cried.
“Come on,” Billy Dixon bade him and the two went back to the summit.
“I can walk if you two hold me up,” Private George Smith whispered. A bullet had passed through his lungs and when he breathed the air whistled from a hole beneath his shoulder-blade. They supported him on either side and half-carried him to the buffalo wallow.
The thunder-shower had passed. Another was coming fast. The Indians were gathering to take advantage of the brief interval. The agony which had come from rough motion was keeping Smith from swooning now. He saw his companions preparing to stand off the assault. Amos Chapman was holding himself upright by bracing his body against the side of the wallow. Private Smith whispered to the others,
“Set me up like Chapman. They ‘ll think there ‘s more of us fit to shoot that way.” And they did as he had asked them.
So he held his body erect while the life was ebbing from it; and the rain came down again in sheets. The Indians fell back before the charge was well begun. It was their last attempt.
The wind rose, biting raw. The Indians melted away as dusk drew down over the brown land. Some one looked at Smith. His head was sunk and he was moaning with pain. They found a willow switch and tamped a handkerchief into the wound. And then they laid him down in the rain-water which had gathered in the wallow. His blood and the blood of the others turned that water a dull red.
Some time near midnight he died. And several days later, when General Miles’s troops came to rescue them, the five others buried his body. It was night-time. The fires of the troopers glowed down at the foot of the slope. They made the grave with their butcher-knives by pulling down the sand from the wallow’s side upon the body. And then they went to the camp-fires of the soldiers.
They are passing from bleak graveyards on the alkali flats and in the northern mountains where the sage-brush meets the pines: gaunt men in laced boots and faded blue overalls who traveled once too often through the desert’s mirage searching for the golden ledges; big-boned hard rock men who died in underground passages where the steel was battering the living granite; men with soft hands and cold eyes who fattened on the fruits of robbery and murder.
This swarthy black-haired one in the soft silk shirt and spotless raiment of the gambler is Cherokee Bob, who killed and plundered unchallenged throughout eastern Washington and Idaho during the early 1860s; until the camp of Florence, Idaho celebrated its third New Year’s Eve with a ball in which respectability held sway, and he took his consort there to mingle with the wives of others. Then he kindled a flame of resentment which his blackest murders had failed to rouse. The next morning the entire camp turned out to drive him away together with Bill Willoughby, his partner. The two retreated slowly, from building to building, facing the mob. Shotguns bellowed; rifle-bullets sang about their ears, and they answered with their revolvers, until death left their trigger fingers limp.