Private Johnstone itched, sweating heavily under his wool uniform. But he didn't dare complain to his friends, as Sergeant Striker was keeping a close watch on them. He didn't fancy getting on the wrong side of the ill-tempered Striker. He might be put on guard or latrine duty...or something worse. Besides, they were all hot. What good would complaining do?

Looking around at the desolate, sun-scorched landscape, the private wondered why anyone would want to come to this godforsaken place. Maybe the Indians lived here because they thought the white man would leave them alone. He guessed they didn't understand that some men desired gold over all else. Even prizing it over the value of their own lives. Then he noticed the sergeant frowning at him. Johnstone immediately straightened in the saddle and re-focused his eyes between his horses ears. He silently reminded himself that he was a soldier, now. He wasn't being paid to contemplate anything but the task at hand.

The sun beat mercilessly down on the badlands. Cavalrymen and horses alike longed for a long drink of cool water. The dozen troopers went along at a ground covering jog. Out ahead, Moses Trey kept up a steady pace, as they made their way to the place of the Indian attack. The colonel had told his scout to avoid any areas where Indians might hide and get around them. Trey dourly informed him that a Sioux warrior could hide behind a tumbleweed, and the soldiers would never see him until they were already dying.

Colonel Drayden frowned, but didn't admit that he knew his scout was probably quite right. Instead, he ordered him to do as he was told. Moses hadn't liked it, that much the colonel could tell from the look on his face. But, the scout didn't waste time in argument.

"Very well, Colonel." He shrugged, reining his horse around and taking the lead. "You're the boss at this here shindig." He replied, barely bothering to hide the sarcasim in his voice. "Reckon you all will know if there's any Sioux about, when I come back full'a arrows, lookin' like your granny's pincushion."

Trying to stay out in the open to avoid an ambush, the troop made slow time, despite the pace Trey set for them. It was still a few hours from sundown, when they paused near a small spring at the head of a dry wash. Colonel Drayden turned wearily in his saddle and ordered the sergeant to call a halt and dismount. They were to take a fifteen minute rest to cool out and water the horses, then lead their horses on foot for the next half hour. This was more for the benefit of their mounts, than to ease the discomfort of the troops.

Leaving his horse with Private Featherly, the old scout walked away from the soldiers. Tired to the bone as he was, Moses was also restless. Impatient to get back to the beleaguered troops he'd been forced to leave behind. They weren't far off from the battle site now, and he chafed at even this short delay. Still, it couldn't be helped. They wouldn't do anyone any good, if the they were stuck with lame or worn out horses. Moses heard someone walking up behind him. He didn't bother to turn and look.

"Smoke over there." Came Colonel Drayden's voice.

A thin, sometimes sporadic, column of white smoke trailed up towards the cloudless blue sky from a distant hill top. The colonel reckoned that it was some ten miles to the east of their present position.

"I see it, colonel." Moses acknowledged. The hard-bitten scout leaned over and spat in the dust. Only then did he turn his his pale, sun-creased eyes on Drayden. "They been signalin' back and forth to each other for nigh on half and hour now. Reckon our comin' ain't gonna' be all that big a surprise to the Sioux." He spat again, and gave the colonel an inscrutable stare. "Leastways, not if we keep goin' on the way we are. Out in the open like this."

Colonel Drayden frowned deeply. He knew too well what Moses meant. They could take the shorter, more direct route to their destination. One which might help to keep them hidden from Sioux eyes.

Unfortunately, it would also leave them very vulnerable to a sudden ambush, which meant they might end up worse off than the troops they were on their way to rescue. They were probably already grossly outnumbered at it was.

Thankfully, they had a new weapon stored in one of the wagons. It had come in on the last supply wagon. Along with it, was an instructor from the factory which made the weapon, to show them how to use it. Despite their lack of troop strength, this Gatling gun they'd been given might make all the difference in an all-out pitched battle.

Yet, it wouldn't do them a bit of good if a sudden attack came from out of nowhere. For the weapon did require several minutes to set up and load. And, they'd been given only a small supply of bullets to use for practice. The shipment of additional ordinance was due to come in on the supply train which had been attacked. As it was, they only had two belts of ammunition left for the gun.

"There's no other way, Colonel." Moses said softly. "I wish there was, but if they attack us out in the open before we get to the supply wagons..." His voice trailed off. Moses knew full well that the colonel understood the consequences.

Heaving a sigh, the colonel nodded his assent. He glanced up at the dissipating column of smoke on the horizon. They were going to have to chance it. They needed to reach the supply train before the Indians could complete their slaughter and set fire to the wagons. If not, the fort would not only be low on food and ammunition. They'd also end up short of troops, putting the whole fort in danger.

"Very well, Moses." The colonel said, looking down at his dusty boots."We'll do it your way. Go on, then. I'll get the troops started. The horses should all be watered by now."

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