Nothing is as approved as mediocrity, the majority has established it and it fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way. — Pascal

With Lieutenant Pike - Edwin Sabin




Blocked by the Great White Mountains

John sparks and Tom Dougherty were to be left behind. That was the word.

"What?"

"Yes. The doctor says not a step shall they march, if they would save their feet; an' poor Tom, he's like to lose his, anyhow. An' since they can't march, no more can we carry 'em across the mountains without hosses. So here they stay till we can send an' get 'em."

All the buffalo meat had been brought in. The lieutenant was preparing to march on, for the Red River. From the camp he had explored farther westward, to the very foot of the mountains, seeking a trail over; but the snow was four and five feet deep even there, the whole country above was white, and he gave the trail up.

"We'll have to march on south along this side, until we find a better place."

Now they made ready. John Sparks and Tom were fixed as comfortably as possible, with guns and ammunition, a lean-to for shelter, and the best buffalo-robes, and wood and meat. Their packs, and the packs of Hugh Menaugh and Jake Carter (who barely could hobble, using their muskets as crutches) were hidden under trees.

Sturdy red-haired John and young Tom felt badly. So did everybody. The lieutenant's voice broke, as he said:

"We aren't deserting you, my lads. Never think of that. As surely as we live we will send for you, the very first thing, as soon as we locate a desirable camping spot, to which to bring down the horses. That will not be long; we have only to cross these mountains. Rather than desert you, if I should be the last man alive in the party I would return, myself, and die with you. Whatever happens, meet it like soldiers, bearing in mind that you are suffering for your Country. It is far preferable to perish thus, in the wilderness, in discharge of duty, rather than to forfeit honor by evading hardships and toil like the disloyal Kennerman."

"Oh, sir! We'll act the man, sir," they replied. "We'll keep a stiff upper lip, an' be waitin' for the hosses to come get us."

The lieutenant shook hands with them; the doctor shook hands with them.

"Now take care of those feet," he urged.

Everybody shook hands with them.

"Good-by, lads."

"Good-by to yez. God send yez safe to the Red River, an' we'll join yez there, all bound home together."

"For'd, march!" barked the lieutenant. His voice was husky. There were tears freezing on his cheeks.

"For'd, men," rasped old Sergeant Meek, and blew his nose violently.

A number of the other men were sniffling and blowing, and Stub choked as he blindly trudged. Bluff Hugh Menaugh growled gently to himself, while he and Jake hobbled.

As long as they could see the little camp and the two figures sitting they occasionally turned and waved; and John and Torn waved answer.

"Well, we did our best for 'em," sighed Corporal Jerry. "We took only one meal o' meat. They have the rest. 'Twill get 'em through, like as not."

"Yes. Once across these mountains, to the Red River, and we'll send for them and the hosses."

This evening the one meal of meat was eaten. A little snow fell. In the morning the lieutenant ordered Sergeant Meek to take the party on, while he and the doctor hunted. The day was dark and lowering. Then the storm set in again, snowing furiously. By noon the snow was knee high; they could not see ten feet around; Hugh and Jake were unable to move farther; the lieutenant and the doctor were still out perhaps lost, like themselves.

"'Tis no use, men. We'll make for the nearest timber and camp there," ordered Sergeant Meek.

That was another miserably cold, hungry day, and a worse night.

"How flesh and blood may be expected to stand more of this, I don't know," uttered John Brown.

"And it's not for you to ask," the sergeant sternly rebuked. "If you're so weak-hearted as to think them thoughts, keep 'em to yourself. Even the lad Stub—a mere boy that he is—speaks no such words. Shame on you—you a soldier!"

John Brown muttered, but said no more.

"Heaven help the cap'n an' the doctor, again," spoke Corporal Jerry, as they all huddled about their fire, and the wind howled and the snow hissed, and the drifts piled higher against their little bulwark of packs. "An' if they don't find us an' we don't find them, 'twill go hard with Sparks and Dougherty, too."

"If the storm clears, we'll march on in the morning," said Sergeant Meek. "We've had orders to meet 'em, on a piece yet, and that's our duty."

The morning dawned gray and white, but the storm had ceased. They shook off the snow, re-shouldered their packs, and guns in hand stiffly started. The snow was thigh high; the Great White Mountains looming in a long front without end on their right were whiter than ever; the bottoms and the more distant mountains on their left were white. It was snow, snow, snow, everywhere; the very dead of winter.

Now (Good!) here came the lieutenant and the doctor, ploughing down a slope, their packs on their backs, but nothing else. Snowy and breathing hard, they arrived. The men, plodding, had seen; and having given up hope plodded on, saying not a word. Only Sergeant Meek greeted, saluting as best he might:

"All well, cap'n. Good morning to you, sirs."

"No luck this time, sergeant," wheezed the lieutenant, cheerily, but with face pinched and set. "We missed you, and spent the night together in the snow."

"Yes, sir. We couldn't see, for the storm, sir, and had to camp in the nearest shelter."

"You did right, sergeant. The storm was so thick that I found even the compass of little help. The doctor and I became separated and were fearful that we had lost each other as well as the party. Halt the men."

"Squad, halt," rasped the sergeant.

The men waited, panting and coughing.

"It's evident there are no buffalo down in the open, lads," spoke the lieutenant. "The doctor and I have sighted never a one nor any sign of one. The storm has driven them back and higher, into the timber. We'll make in the same direction, and Le crossing the mountains while seeking meat."

He and the doctor led off, heading westward, to climb the Great White Mountains. The route commenced to get more rolling—up and down, up and down, over the rounded foothills concealed by the snow. 'Twas leg-wearying, breath-taking work. The snow grew deeper. In the hollows it had gathered shoulders high; upon the slopes it was waist high. The little column was straggling. Stub, the smallest member, trying to tread in the broken trail, was at times almost buried.

In an hour they all had covered a pitiful distance; to be sure, the prairie was somewhat below, but the real mountains seemed far above, and the silent timber still awaited, in a broad belt.

The lieutenant and the doctor had halted. They turned and began to plough back. The little column, steaming with the vapor from lungs and bodies, drew nearer to them.

"The snow is too deep, here, lads," the lieutenant called, as he and the doctor passed in front of the file. His voice was tired; anybody might have thought him discouraged—and little wonder. "We'll have to keep lower down, and try elsewhere."

"To the famine country of the open bottoms," he said. Were they never to get across these Great White Mountains, which faced them unending? Were they to die in the snow, just for the sake of hunting the Red River? John Brown, near the head of the column, broke restraint again and exclaimed roundly:

"I say, it's more than flesh an' blood can bear, to march three days with not a mouthful of food, through snow three feet deep, an' carry loads only fit for hosses!"

Everybody heard. Sergeant Meek turned on him angrily. Had the lieutenant heard also? No? Yes! He had paused for an instant, as if to reply; then without another sign he had proceeded.

"You'll be called to answer for this, Brown," warned the sergeant.

John muttered to himself, and a silence fell upon the file. Stooped and unsteady under their own loads, the lieutenant and the doctor doggedly continued, breaking the trail on course obliquing for the lower country. The others followed, breathing hard.

The lieutenant and the doctor had struck down a shallow draw. Issuing from the end of it, they were out of sight. When the head of the column arrived at the same spot, there were only the two packs, and a message scrawled with a ramrod on the snow. Sergeant Meek read.

"We see buffalo. Camp in nearest timber and wait. Z. M. P."

Every eye sprang to search the landscape. There! Far down, upon the prairie! Black dots—slowly moving across! Buffalo! And where were the hunters? Their tracks pointed onward from the two packs. See! They were running, crouched, down among the billowy swells, as if to head the animals off. It was a desperate chance.

"The breeze is with us," Sergeant Meek cried hopefully. "Quick! For that timber tip, yon, and keep out o' sight. Trust the cap'n and the doctor to do their best. Let's take no risk of spoiling their chance."

The column hustled, with strength renewed. The tip of timber was about a mile distant. The buffalo had disappeared behind a knoll of the prairie; the last seen of the lieutenant and the doctor, they were hastening—stumbling and falling and lunging again, to reach the same knoll. The doctor had forged ahead. He was stronger than the lieutenant.

Then the scene was swallowed up by a dip in the trail to the timber.

Next, a dully-sounding gunshot! But only one. The doctor probably had fired—perhaps at long distance. Had he landed—disabled, or only wounded, or missed? Nothing could yet be seen. The men, and Stub, their lungs almost bursting, shambled as fast as possible. Just as they emerged at the point of timber, other shots boomed: two, close together. Hooray! That meant business. They paused, puffing, to gaze.

Again hooray! Down near the knoll a black spot blotched the snow. At one side of it there were other black spots, some still, some moving in and out. It was the herd, and seemed confused. Look! From the black spot, off by itself—a dead buffalo, that!—smoke puffs darted and spread. The buffalo herd surged a little, but did not run. The lieutenant and the doctor were lying behind the carcass and shooting.

"One, anyway, lads!" cheered Sergeant Meek. "Maybe more. Off with your packs, now. Roy, Mountjoy, Stout, Brown, you cut wood; the rest of us'll be clearing a space. There'll be meat in camp before long, and we'll have fires ready."

They all worked fast. No one now felt tired. The hunt down below sounded like a battle. The lieutenant and the doctor were firing again and again, as rapidly as they might load and aim. Toiling with ax and spade and hands, the column, making camp, scarcely paused to watch; but presently the firing ceased—the buffalo herd were lumbering away, at last, with one, two, three of them gradually dropping behind, to stagger, waver, and suddenly pitch, dead! Meat, and plenty of it!

The lieutenant and the doctor were busy, butchering the carcass that had shielded them. They wasted no time. Here they came, loaded well. The fires were crackling and blazing, in readiness; and when they panted in, spent, bloody and triumphant, the camp cheered hoarsely.

"Eat, boys," gasped the lieutenant. "Fortune has favored us. There's more meat below. But we'll eat first."

Everybody hacked and tore at the red humps, and in a jiffy the strips from them were being thrust into the fire by ramrods; without waiting for more than a scorching and a warming through, the men devoured like wolves. With the meat juice daubing his chin and staining the men's beards, Stub thought that never before had he tasted such sweetness. He forgot his other hungers.

Whew! One by one the men drew back, to chew the last mouthfuls, and light pipes, contented. The meat all had vanished.

"Send Brown to me, sergeant," the lieutenant ordered. There was something he had not forgotten.

John Brown arose and shambled to where the lieutenant and the doctor were sitting. He looked sheepish and frightened. The lieutenant stood, to front him; did not acknowledge his salute, but scanned him sternly, his haggard eyes commencing to blaze bluely.

"Brown, you this day presumed to make use of language that was seditious and mutinous; I then passed it over, pitying your situation and laying your conduct to your distress from hunger, rather than to desire to sow discontent amongst the party. Had I saved provisions for ourselves, whilst you were starving," reproached the lieutenant; "had we been marching along light and at our ease, whilst you were weighed down with your burden, then you would have had some excuse for your remarks: but when we all were equally hungry, weary, worn, and charged with burdens which I believe my natural strength is less able to bear than any man's in the party—when we are always foremost in breaking the road, reconnoitering and enduring the fatigues of the chase, it was the height of ingratitude in you to let an expression escape that showed discontent. Your ready compliance and firm perseverance I had reason to expect, as the leader of men who are my companions in misery and danger. But your duty as a soldier (the young lieutenant's voice rang, and his eyes flashed) called on your obedience to your officer, and a suppression of such language. However, for this time I will pardon; but I assure you, should that ever be repeated, I will answer your ingratitude and punish your disobedience by instant death."

John Brown had shrunk and whitened.

"Yes, sir," he faltered. "Thank you, sir. I'll remember. It shan't happen again."

"You may go." The lieutenant's eyes left Brown's face and traveled over the other men. "I take this opportunity," he said, "likewise to express to you, soldiers, generally, my thanks for your obedience, perseverance, and ready contempt of every danger, which you have in common shown. And I assure you that nothing shall be lacking on my part to procure you the rewards of our Government and the gratitude of your countrymen."

"Three cheers for the cap'n, lads," shouted Sergeant Meek. "Hooray, now! Hooray! Hooray!"

"We're with you to the end, sir!"

"We're not complainin', sir. No more is Brown."

"You're the leader, sir, and we're proud to follow."

"Sure, you an' the doctor do the hard work."

Thus they cried, bravely and huskily; for who could help loving this stanch little officer, who asked no favors of rank, except to lead, and who now stood before them, in his stained red fur-lined cap, his wet, torn blanket-coat, his bedraggled thin blue trousers and soaked, scuffed moccasins. He was all man.

He raised his hand. His face had flushed, his eyes had softened moistly, and his lips quivered.

"That will do, lads. We understand each other, and I'm sure Brown will not repeat his offense. For my part, I am determined that we shall not move again without a supply of food. That imperils our success, and is more than our duty would require of us."

"Still, we might have made good, hadn't we let the bulk of our meat with Sparks and Dougherty, back yonder," Freegift Stout remarked, to the others in his mess. "That's what pinched us."