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The Young Ranchers; or, Fighting the Sioux, a novel by Edward Sylvester Ellis

Chapter 1. Danger Ahead

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There was snow in the air. Warren Starr had felt it ever since meridian, though not a flake had fallen, and the storm might be delayed for hours yet to come. There was no mistaking the dull leaden sky, the chill in the atmosphere, and that dark, increasing gloom which overspreads the heavens at such times.

Young Warren was a fine specimen of the young hunter, though he had not yet passed his nineteenth year. His home was in South Dakota, and he was now on his return from Fort Meade, at the eastern foot of the Black Hills, and had fully twenty miles to travel, though the sun was low in the horizon, as he well knew, even if it was veiled by the snow vapor.

His father's ranch lay to the north of the Big Cheyenne, and the son was familiar with every foot of the ground, having traversed it many a time, not only on his visits to the fort, but in the numerous hunting excursions of which he was so fond. He could have made the journey by night, when no moon was in the sky, had there been need of doing so, but he decided that it was better to give his pony the rest he required, and to push on at an early hour the next morning. He had eaten nothing since the noon halt, and his youth and vigor gave him a powerful appetite, but he had learned long before that one of the first requisites of the hunter is to learn to endure cold, heat, hunger, and hardship unmurmuringly.

But the youth was in so uneasy a mental state that he rode slowly for nearly an hour, debating with himself whether to draw rein or push on. The rumors of trouble among the Sioux were confirmed by his visit to Fort Meade. A spirit of unrest had prevailed for a long time, caused by the machinations of that marplot, Sitting Bull, the harangues of medicine men who proclaimed the coming Messiah, the ghost dances, the eagerness of the young bucks to take the warpath, and the universal belief that the last opportunity for the red men to turn back the advance of the Caucasian race was to be made soon or never.

The fact that our Government had its military posts scattered through the disaffected country, that the Indian reservations were comparatively well governed, that the officers were men whose valor and skill had been proven times without number, and that these authorities were keeping close watch on the growing disaffection produced a quieting effect in many quarters, though the best informed men foresaw the impending storm. That which troubled Warren Starr on his lonely ride northward was the fact that on that ranch, twenty miles away, dwelt his father, mother, and little sister, known by the pet name of Dot. His father had two assistants in the care of the ranch, Jared Plummer, a man in middle life, and Tim Brophy, a lusty young Irishman, about the same age as Warren. But the ranch was not fitted to withstand an attack from any of the bands through the country. Those turbulent bucks were the very ones to assail his home with the fury of a cyclone, and if they did, Heaven help the loved ones there, even though the three men were well provided with arms and ammunition.

The commandant of Fort Meade suggested to Warren that he urge his people to come into the fort without delay. Such a suggestion, coming from the officer, meant a good deal.

That which caused the youth to decide to wait until morning was the fatigue of his animal, and the more important fact that it was best not only to arrive at the ranch in the daytime, but to ride through several miles of the surrounding country when the chance to use his eyes was at the best. If hostiles were in the section, he might pass within a hundred yards of them in the darkness without discovering it, but it was impossible to do so when the sun was in the sky.

He was now riding across an open plain directly toward a small branch of the Big Cheyenne, beyond which lay his home. He could already detect the fringe of timber that lined both sides of the winding stream, while to the right rose a rocky ridge several hundred feet in height, and a mile or two distant appeared a similar range on the left.

The well-marked trail which the lad was following passed between these elevations; that on the right first presenting itself and diverging so far to the east, just before the other ridge was reached, that it may be said it disappeared, leaving the other to succeed it.

Despite the long ride and the fatigue of himself as well as his animal, young Starr was on the alert. He was in a dangerous country, and a little negligence on his part was liable to prove fatal.

"If there is a lot of Sioux watching this trail for parties going either way, this is the spot," he reflected, grasping his Winchester, lying across his saddle, a little more firmly. "I have met them here more than once, and, though they claimed to be friendly, I was always uneasy, for it is hard for an Indian to resist the temptation to hurt a white man when it looks safe to do so."

Nothing could have exceeded the caution of the youth. The trail showed so plainly that his pony kept to it without any guidance on his part, and the reins lay loose on his neck. Every minute or two the rider glanced furtively behind him to make sure no treacherous enemy was stealing upon him unawares; and then, after a hasty look to the right and left, he scanned the rocky ridge on his right, peering forward the next moment at the one farther off on his left.

He was searching for that which he did not want to find--signs of red men. He knew a good deal of their system of telegraphy, and half suspected that some keen-eyed Sioux was crouching behind the rocks of the ridge, awaiting the moment to signal his approach to his confederate farther away.

It might have seemed possible to some to flank the danger by turning far to the right or left, but that would have involved a long detour and delay in arriving home. At the same time, if any warriors were on the watch, they could easily checkmate him by accommodating their movements to his, and continually heading him off, whichever direction he took. He had considered all these contingencies, and felt no hesitation in pressing straight forward, despite the apparent peril involved in doing so.

Suddenly Jack pricked his ears and raised his head, emitting at the same time a slight whiff through his nostrils.

No words could have said more plainly: "Beware, master! I have discovered something."

The rider's natural supposition was that the danger, whatever it might be, was on the crest of the ridge he was approaching; but, when he shaded his eyes and peered forward, he was unable to detect anything at all. Enough light remained in the sky for him to use his excellent eyes to the best advantage, but nothing rewarded the scrutiny.

Jack continued advancing, though his gait was now a slow walk, as if he expected his master to halt altogether; but the latter acted like the skilful railway engineer, who, seeing the danger signal ahead, continues creeping slowly toward it, ready to check his train on the instant it becomes necessary to do so. He allowed the pony to step tardily forward, while he strove to locate the point whence peril threatened.

"What the mischief do you see, Jack?" he asked, in a half-impatient tone; "if I didn't know you never joked, I would believe you were trying some trick on me to get me to camp for the night."

Once the horseman fancied he caught the faint outlines of a thin column of smoke climbing into the sky from the crest of the ridge, but closer study convinced him that he was wrong. If such a signal were kindled, it must be clear enough to be recognized from the farther elevation, which was more distant than the horseman.

"I shall observe the vapor as soon as they," he thought, "for my eyes are as sharp--helloa! that beats the mischief!"

At last Warren Starr learned what it was that had alarmed his pony. _

Read next: Chapter 2. The Voiceless Friend

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