Other officers within earshot heard, as Gleason intended they should hear, and turned instantly toward the group, all eyes on the two—the flushed, swaying subaltern in fatigue uniform; the calm, deliberate man in riding dress. A faint color, as of annoyance, quickly spread over Loring's face, but for a moment he spoke not a word. Angrily the post, commander came hurrying forth, bent on the prompt annihilation of his luckless subaltern, and was about to speak, but Loring interposed.
"One moment, sir, I beg." Then turning again on Gleason the engineer looked him calmly over from head to foot a second or two and then as calmly said:
"Too late, sir, they've gone."
Three days after the adjournment of Nevins' court Camp Cooke had dropped back to the weary monotone of its everyday life. Everybody was gone except the now sullen and complaining prisoner and the little garrison of two companies of infantry. Vanished even were all but two or three of the colony of gamblers and alleged prospectors, who occupied, to the annoyance of the commanding officer and the scandal of the sutler, a little ranch just outside the reservation lines whither venturesome spirits from the command were oft enticed and fleeced of the money that the authorized purveyor of high-priced luxuries considered his legitimate plunder. By this time Camp Cooke waked up to the fact that it had been dozing. While its own little force of cavalry was scouting the valleys of the Verde and the Salado to the east and Blake's troop had been rushed up the Hessayampa to the north, and there was no one apparently to do escort duty through the deserts along the Gila, Camp Cooke and the outlying prowlers believed that those costly trinkets which Nevins had begged Mr. Loring to take to his wife would not be withdrawn from the quartermaster's safe, much less sent forth upon their perilous way. Not until after Colonel Turnbull and the engineer had ridden off southward, escorted by a sergeant with six tough-looking troopers; not until after Loring's announcement that the jewels themselves had been sent ahead; not until after Mr. Gleason had been remanded to his quarters to "sober up," and the adjutant dispatched to Captain Nevins with the intimation that if his too audible imprecations were not stopped he and his tent would be transferred to a corner of the corral, did Camp Cooke learn that Major Starke had sent a fly-by-night courier after Blake, recalling the troop, that it had halted on that stream ten miles above the post, resting all afternoon and evening, had ridden silently in toward camp an hour after midnight and, after receiving certain instructions from Starke and a visit from Loring, had gone on southward, silently as it came, accompanied by the presiding officer of the court, who hated day marches and the sun-scorched desert, and leaving escort for those who were still to follow. There was mild surprise in camp, but untold wrath and vituperation along the line to Sancho's, for from far and near the choicest renegades of Arizona had been flocking to the neighborhood only to find themselves outwitted by the engineer. Not half an hour after the burst of blasphemy from Nevins' tent informed the camp that something more had happened to agitate anew his sorely ruffled temper, and the story flew from lip to lip that it was because the precious jewels were already on their way to 'Frisco, guarded presumably by Blake and forty carbines, a swarthy half-breed courier spurred madly southward from the outlying roost on the borders of the reservation, with the warning that it would be useless risk to meddle with the Teniente Loring's party when it came along—there were no valuables with them; they had been sent with the cavalry hours before the dawn.
Yes, even the sealed record of the court must have been sent at that time, too, for at ten o'clock in the morning, when Colonel Turnbull and Mr. Loring mounted and gravely saluted the cap-raising group of officers as they rode away from the major's quarters, it was observed that Loring had not even saddle-bags, and the major's striker admitted that he had hoisted the lieutenant's valise to the pommel of a trooper's saddle at two o'clock in the morning. Various were the theories and conjectures at the sutler's all the rest of the day as to the information possessed by Lieutenant Loring which led to such extreme precaution. The major was close-mouthed, and, for him, rather stern. He held aloof from his juniors all day long and seemed to be keeping an eye and an ear attent on Nevins. That officer's conduct was a puzzle. Six months before he was the personification of all that was lavish, hospitable, good-natured, extravagant. Everybody was apparently welcome to the best he had. Then came the collapse, his arrest, his flight, his capture and confinement, his laughing defiance of his accusers until he found how much more they knew than he supposed, his metaphorical prostration at the feet of his judges, his humility, repentance, suffering and sacrifice, his pledge of future atonement, his protestations of love for his long-suffering wife, his surrender of his valuables for her benefit, his meekness of mien until the court had concluded his case and gone. Then, his sudden resumption of bold, truculent, defiant manner, his midnight breach of arrest, which had leaked out through the guard that was promptly sent forth to fetch him in; then his demand for the return of his property, and his furious outburst on learning that Loring had taken him at his word and sent it without delay by the safest possible hands.
That proved an exciting day. The adjutant's message had temporarily awed and quieted the man, but toward three P. M. the mail carrier arrived from the Gila with his sack of letters and papers. He reported having been stopped only five miles out from Sancho's by masked men who quickly examined his big leather bag, silently pointed to a curious mark, a dab of paint that must have gotten on it while he was there at the ranch, and sent him ahead without a word being spoken. He saw other men, but they passed him by in wide circuit. He met Lieutenant Blake and the troop, and the lieutenant bade him hurry, so the letters were delivered nearly two hours earlier than usual. In the mail were a dozen missives for Captain Nevins, two in dainty feminine superscription postmarked San Francisco, several that might be bills, others that were local, one postmarked Tucson, and one slipped in at Sancho's. The major himself looked these envelopes over as though he thought their contents ought to be examined, but even a convicted man had his rights, and the letters were sent to him. In less than three minutes thereafter the hot, breathless air of the long afternoon was suddenly burdened with another eruption of oaths and ravings. One or two women sitting in the shade of their canvas shelters across the parade clapped their hands to their ears and ran indoors, and the major's orderly dashed full tilt for the guard. Half an hour later Captain Nevins was escorted to a new abode, a tent pitched just outside, not within, the corral, and there he was left to swear at will, with the sentry on No. 4 warned to call the corporal of the guard if the gentleman for one moment quit the seclusion of his solitary quarters.
And this was the status of affairs when the sun went down at the close of the third day after adjournment. When it rose upon the fourth all was quiet about the impetuous captain's canvas home—too quiet, thought the officer of the day after his visit to the guard at reveille, and therefore did he untie the cords that fastened the flaps in front and peer within. Five minutes later two new prisoners were placed in charge of the guard, of which they had been members during the night—Privates Poague and Pritzlaff, of the first and second reliefs, respectively. But the aggregate gain in the column of "in arrest or confinement" was only one, for Captain Nevins had disappeared.
Of course there was a rush to the outlying ranch, whose few remaining occupants grinned exasperatingly and shrugged their shoulders, but gave no information. Of course a courier was sent scurrying away on the trail of the cavalry, but he came back sore-footed at night, relieved of his horse, arms and equipments, and thanking God for his life. Of course another courier was started by night to make the perilous ride to the Salado and order the instant return of at least a platoon, but nothing more was heard of him for a week, and it was nearly five days before these desert-bound exiles of Camp Cooke got another atom of reliable news from Sancho's, and meantime wondrous other things had happened.
It did not take long to determine the means by which Nevins had succeeded in getting away. There was little, indeed, to prevent his doing so if he saw fit to go, for, unless sentries were posted on all four sides of his tent, he might crawl off in the darkness unobserved. The sentry on No. 4 had received orders merely to summon the corporal and report to him if the officer ventured to leave his tent, and as No. 4 was a post over a hundred yards in length, and the sentry responsible for all of it, there was no right or reason in demanding of him that he should give his undivided attention to what might be going on close to the corral. In fact, by removing Nevins from the inner quadrangle of the camp and placing him outside the walls, Major Starke had made it all the easier for him to skip a second time if he saw fit to do so; but Starke reasoned that Nevins still had some hope that congressional influence would save him from dismissal, and therefore would not peril his chances by a second flight. Starke did not know that Nevins was honest at least in one statement, that he expected dismissal. His fate was sealed, his pay was confiscated to square shortages. There was actually nothing to be gained by staying at Cooke in virtual confinement, perhaps eight or ten weeks, until his case could be decided in Washington and the orders received back in Arizona. It actually simplified matters in many ways for Nevins to go. Somebody, for instance, would have to pay the cost of his subsistence all that time at Cooke. Thrice a day his meals were sent to him from the little bachelors' mess, already sorely taxed for the "entertainment" of the members of the court, and the four poor fellows who constituted that frontier club had been only too glad when its members from other stations insisted that they should pay their share of the long three weeks' burden on the culinary department. But Nevins now was penniless, so he said, and why should impecunious infantry subalterns support in idleness a disgraced and virtually dismissed officer? Yet that is precisely what the government compelled them to do—or starve him. Thinking it all over during the day, Major Starke concluded that at least Camp Cooke had something to be thankful for, and sending for Privates Poague and Pritzlaff, he sternly rebuked them for their probable negligence (for "discipline must be maintained"), and with dire threats of what they might expect in the way of punishment if they transgressed in the slightest way for six months to come, he bade them go back to duty, released, which they did, each with his tongue in his cheek and a wink of the inner eye, as they strode off together and went grinning to the guard-tents for their blankets.
All the same Starke wished to know whither Nevins had gone, and whether anything new had started him. This time no horse or mule had disappeared, but the tracks of two quadrupeds were found on the Mesa coming from "Rat Hell," as Captain Post, who had done time in Libby, named the gambling ranch outside the reservation—to a point within one hundred yards of the corral, and thence bore away southward straight as the flight of the crow. Two reprobates in the captain's company declared that the black-bearded clerk arrested with Nevins, but released because he was a civilian over whom the military had no jurisdiction, had been over at the ranch all the previous day. Sentry Poague frankly admitted that he had heard horses' hoofs out on the Mesa and voices in the captain's tent, but saw nobody crossing his post and couldn't be expected to in the pitchy darkness. Whither Nevins went was therefore a matter that could only be conjectured in the light of later events. How he went was a matter of little moment. It was good riddance to bad rubbish, said Starke, until at last the next mail came from Sancho's. For nearly five days the major declared himself content if he never saw Nevins again. Then he turned to and prayed with all his soul that he might catch him—if only for five minutes.
It was two long days' cavalry march from Sancho's to Camp Cooke, and many a time it had taken three. Midway, very nearly, the Hassayampa emptied its feeble tribute into the murky Gila. There was water enough, such as it was, for man and beast along the way, but, except in the winter months, both man and beast preferred the night hours for the journey. In order to provide mounts for the three officers Blake had left as many of his men at Cooke, and pushed ahead with the veteran president two hours before the dawn. That his march was watched from afar by mounted men he knew as soon as the sun rose upon his pathway, but Blake's only concern was that they kept at respectful distance. Not more than half a dozen did he see, and these were as single scouts or in pairs. He felt little anxiety for Turnbull and Loring; they, too, were well guarded. The only thing he hated about the whole affair was having to dismount any of his men, but there were only two ambulances at Cooke, one was undergoing repairs and, the inspector being present, the post surgeon wisely protested against the other being sent to the distant south. It was the plan of the party to ride leisurely to Sancho's, there to await the coming of the stage, which should pass through on its way to Yuma Saturday noon.
And early Friday evening the troop went into bivouac at the same old willow clump, and Sancho, profusely and elaborately courteous, had come forth, sombrero in hand, to implore the caballeros to partake of his hospitality. His brother was returned from a visit to Guaymas and Mazatlan, and he had brought wine of the finest and cigars such as Arizona never had known, and Sancho was manifestly disconcerted at the regrets or refusals, coldly courteous on the part of Loring, blunt and brusque on the part of Blake. The veterans, however, saw no harm in going and were sumptuously entertained by mine host in the best room of the ranch. Blake caused a strong guard to be posted at camp, a most unusual thing, and one instantly noted among Sancho's people, and after making the rounds and giving strict instructions to the three sentries, and further ordering side lines as well as lariats for the horses—all this as a result of a low-toned conference with Loring—he came back to find that officer with his valise rolled in a blanket and used as a bolster, while the owner lay on his back gazing dreamily up at the stars. A trooper was silently making down the bedding of the other officers. The sand was soft and dry, no campfire was needed, no tent, no mattress. All four were hardened campaigners and the night was warm and dewless.
For a moment or two Blake fidgeted about. Good wine and cigars were as acceptable him as to anybody. It was Sancho and Sancho's brother he could not stomach, and he would not be beholden to either.
"You can think of nothing else in the way of precaution, Loring?" he presently asked, as he threw himself down beside him, puffing at his little brier-root.
"It would take a nervier gang than Arizona owns to try and rob this outfit," and Blake looked complacently around among the shadowy forms of the troopers flitting about the bivouac.
"We are all right so long as we've got you and your men," said Loring quietly.
"Well, there's no order that can come in time to take us away from you, old man. I'll send one platoon ahead at daybreak to camp halfway, and they'll be fresh to ride into Yuma with you Sunday morning."
Loring nodded appreciatively.
From the open doorway of the ranch came the faint clink of glasses and the murmurous flow of voices. Presently the boom of the veterans' jovial laugh swelled the "concourse of sweet sounds," and Blake stirred uneasily.
"Wonder what that old thief is giving them," muttered he. "Uncle Billy's telling his bear story."
Quarter of an hour passed. The infant moon had sunk below the westward horizon. The sounds of joviality increased, and Blake's mouth watered. "Damn those heartless profligates!" he muttered. "Reckon I'll have to go and reconnoiter. You don't mind being left to your own reflections, Loring?"
"Go ahead," said Loring, and so presently the tall, shadowy form of "the longest-legged officer in Arizona" was dimly seen stalking forth from the gloom of the willows and threading its way through the open starlight toward the bright and welcoming doorways of the ranch. Only one or two of the usual loungers had been seen about the premises since the cavalry came in. Sancho and his brother were practically destitute of other guests than the officers whom they were entertaining. Slowly and more slowly did the lieutenant saunter, open-eared, toward the scene of revelry. More than half the distance had he gone when, suddenly from another and smaller clump of willows below the ranch there came floating on the still night, faint and cautious, the musical tinkle of a guitar, and then soft, luring, yet hardly sweet or silvery, the voice of a girl was timidly uplifted in song. Blake knew it at once. "The daughter of my brother" was out there in the willows, a most unusual thing. Blake remembered how her eyes had spoken to him twice before, how she had thrown herself upon him the night of Higgins' arrest. Could it be, was it possible, that she was signaling to him now? Much as his curiosity and interest had previously been aroused by the occasional peeps he had had at this attractive little Mexican girl, the events of that night had intensified them. True, it was a moment of thrilling excitement. Higgins, cornered like a rat, had drawn and fired, not with either aim or idea of shooting his accuser, but in the hope of so startling both officers that in the confusion he could leap to the back doorway and escape. Loring's imperturbable nerve and practiced fist had defeated that scheme and laid the deserter low, and Higgins was now languishing at Yuma, awaiting trial on triple charges. But Blake for a second or two had felt the clasp of soft arms about him, the wild flutter of a maiden heart much below his own, and Blake was human. Somewhere he had met that slender girl before. Twice he had danced at the bailes in Tucson, and once attended a masquerade, where for nearly an hour he had enjoyed the partnership of and been tantalized by a maid of just about the stature of this dark-eyed "daughter of my brother." Blake knew as well as does the reader that this was no time for philandering, and had been told, but not yet taught, the wisdom of keeping well away from the damsels who, like the sirens of old, twanged the vibrating strings and sang their luring songs. Why should she have flung herself between him and the desperadoes at that perilous moment and thrown her arms around him unless—unless she was the girl he had been making love to, in broken Spanish, during the fiesta at Tucson? He would not have let Loring know where he was going, or why, for a good deal. But once away from him, Blake was alone with no one to interpose objection, and—he went. In three minutes he had made his cautious way to the westward willows, and his heart began beating in spite of his determination to be guarded and even suspicious, for there sat the little senorita alone. That fact in itself should have opened his eyes, and would have done so a year or two later, but Blake was still a good deal of a boy, and in another moment he stepped quickly to her side and almost swept the ground with his broad-brimmed scouting hat, as he bowed low before her. Instantly the song ceased, the guitar dropped with an aeolian whine upon the sand, and as Blake stooped to raise it she sprang to her feet—a half-stifled cry upon her lips. With smiling self-assurance he bowed low again as he would have restored the instrument to the little hands that were half-upraised as though to warn him back; but she began coyly retreating from the bench on which she had been seated, and he quickly followed, murmuring protest and reassurance in such Spanish as he could command, declaring he had never yet had opportunity to thank her for a deed of daring that perhaps had saved his life (he knew it hadn't—the long-legged, nimble-tongued reprobate), and trembling, timorous, sweetly hesitant she lingered; she even let him seize her hand and only faintly strove to draw it away. She began even to listen to his pleading. She shyly hung her pretty head and coyly turned away and furtively peeped across the starlit level toward the ranch, where two dark forms serape-shrouded, were lurking at the corner of the corral. They had come crouching forward a dozen yards when something, some sudden sound, drove them back to shelter, and in the next moment Blake heard it, and the girl, too, for like a frightened fawn she darted away and went scurrying to the rear entrance of the ranch, leaving him to confront and hail two horsemen, "Gringos," evidently, who came loping in on the Yuma trail, and at his voice the foremost leaped from saddle and called:
"Is it Lieutenant Blake? We've come with dispatches, sir, from Yuma," and, unfastening his saddle-bag, the trooper placed a packet in the officer's hand.
"Come this way," said Blake briefly, leading toward the light, and inwardly bemoaning an ill-wind that had blown him far more good than he dreamed. A few strides took him to the door of the ranch. The dispatches were for the president of the late court at Camp Cooke, for Turnbull, for Loring and for himself. Sending the courier to camp, he tore open his order—a brief letter of instructions to furnish such escort as might be deemed sufficient for the safe conduct of Lieutenant-Colonels Vance and Turnbull to Tucson. Then he waited to hear from them. With Sancho eagerly scanning their faces the two veterans had opened and read their orders, then looked up at each other in evident surprise. Presently they arose, and, begging their host to excuse them a moment and beckoning Blake to follow, stepped into the lighted bar beyond. Another court had been convened, another officer was to be tried, and the two who had officiated as seniors at Camp Cooke were directed to proceed at once to the old Mexican capital for similar duty there.
Before sunrise, escorted by a dozen troopers, Vance and Turnbull were on their way, their farewell words to Blake being an injunction to see Loring and his precious charges safe to Yuma City.
As long as he lived Gerald Blake was destined to remember the Saturday that dawned upon them as the little party rode away south-eastward. Even the men seemed oddly depressed. Neither to Turnbull, to Loring nor to Blake had this detachment suggested itself as possible. What with having to send a large portion of his command forward on the Yuma road so as to provide comparatively fresh horsemen to accompany the stage with its relays of mules, Blake found himself at reveille with just eighteen men all told, awaiting the coming of that anxiously-expected vehicle. He prayed that it might bring at least one or two officers from Grant or Bowie. He vainly sought another peep at or word with Pancha; but, though Sancho was everywhere in evidence, grave, courteous, hospitable, imperturbable; though one or two ranchmen rode in and out during the morning, and there was a little gathering, perhaps half a dozen of men and mozos, apparently awaiting the coming of the stage at noon, the women kept out of sight. At twelve the old lorgnette was brought to bear on the eastward trail, but, to the apparent surprise of the loungers, one o'clock came and no stage, and so did four and five and then Blake and Loring took counsel together in the seclusion of the willow copse, while their men, silent and observant, gathered about the horses thirty yards away, grooming and feeding and looking carefully to their shoeing, for there was portent on the desert air and symptoms of lively work ahead.
At six came Sancho, oppressed with grievous anxiety as to the safety of the stage. There has been rumors of Apache raids to the east of Maricopa. Only three days before he had warned the caballeros—the gentlemen of the court who were going back to Grant and Bowie, to be on their guard every inch of the way beyond the Wells, and now his heart was heavy. He feared that, disdainful of his caution, they had driven straight into ambush. Ought not the Teniente Blake to push forward at once with his whole force and ascertain their fate? Blake bade him hold his peace. If harm had come to that stage, said he, it was not on the eastward, but the westward run, not at the hands of Apaches, but of outlaws, and Sancho went back looking blacker than night and saying in the seclusion of the corral, to beetle-browed hermano mio and his dusky wife, things that even in Spanish sounded ill and would not be publishable in English. Both officers by this time felt that there was mischief abroad. It was decided between them that if by midnight the stage did not arrive, Loring, with the precious packet in one saddle-bag and the court proceedings in the other, should take eight men as escort and gallop for the west until he reached the platoon sent forward at dawn. From that point the danger would be less, and with either the same or a smaller number of fresh riders he could push on for Yuma, sending all the others back to join Blake, who meantime, with what little force he had, would scout eastward for news of the stage.
But that plan was destined never to be carried out. The long day came to an end. The darkness settled down over sandy plain and distant mountain. The silence of midnight reigned over the lonely bivouac and the somber ranch, yet had not Blake given orders that every man must remain close to the horses throughout the evening, adventurous spirits from the troop could surely have heard the ominous whisperings within the corral and marked the stealthy glidings to and fro. At nine o'clock the famous roan was cautiously led forth from the gateway and close under the black shadow of the wall, and not until well beyond earshot of the willows was he mounted and headed eastward. At ten Loring was sleeping soundly in preparation for the night ride before him, and Blake, nervously puffing at his pipe, was listening to the low, murmurous chat where the guard were gathered about their watchfires, when soft, timid, luring, sweet, again he heard the tinkle of that guitar. It ceased abruptly. There was a minute of silence, then, a trifle louder, it began again; again ceased as though waiting reply, and Blake sat up and listened. Once more, not at the westward willows, not at the ranch, not on the open plain, but somewhere close at hand, close to his side of the bivouac, away from the guard, away from the occasionally stamping, snorting horses, and equally far from the dark, shadowy buildings of the stage station, and Blake slowly, noiselessly got to his feet and, after listening one moment to Loring's deep, regular breathing, buckled on his revolver belt and stole forth into the starlight. Yes, there was the sound again—a few notes, a bar or two of the song Pancha was singing at the willows the night before, and close to the edge of the willows crouched the musician. With his hand on the butt of his revolver, Blake strode slowly toward the shrinking form, and, beckoning, it rose and moved swiftly away.
"Halt where you are," growled the lieutenant, "if you want me to stay here."
For answer there came the same softly played bars and another gesture as though imploring him to come farther away from hearing of the ranch or even of his bivouac, and, whipping out his revolver, the tall trooper sprang forward and a heavy hand came down on the shoulder of the shawl-hidden form, and there, trembling, imploring, ay weeping, was Pancha. Before he could speak one word she began, and, to his amaze, began in English—broken English to be sure, disjointed, incoherent, tremulous—and he listened, at first incredulous, then half-convinced, then utterly absorbed, too absorbed to note that a dark form went scurrying from the shelter of some stunted brush straight toward the ranch, whence presently a bright light shone forth and loud voices harshly shouted the name of Pancha! Pancha! whose wrist he still grasped—Pancha! who, weeping, had implored him to hasten with all his men, that the stage was not three miles away with officers from Grant aboard, that wicked men had planned to murder them to prevent their joining him, and now, in terror, she sought to break away. She begged him to release her. They would kill her if they knew——
And even as she pleaded, far out on the dark, eastward plain there suddenly uprose a chorus of yells, a rattling fusillade, and Blake darted back to the bivouac, shouting as he ran, "Up with you, 'C' troop! Mount, men, mount!" and then all was stir and bustle and excitement. Springing from their blanket beds the troopers threw their carbine slings over their shoulders and flew to their horses. "Never mind your saddles—no time for that!" yelled Blake, as he slipped the bit between the teeth of his startled charger, then threw himself astride the naked back. "Up with you and come on!" Then with a dozen ready fellows at his heels away he darted into the gloom, guided only by the yells and flashes far out over the sandy plain. In less than two minutes every trooper in the little command had gone spurring in pursuit, and Lieutenant Loring, suddenly aroused from slumber, revolver in hand, looking eagerly about for explanation of the row, found himself standing guard over his treasure-laden saddle-bags—utterly alone.
Then came the whish of a riata through the pulseless air, the quick whir-r-r of the horse-hair rope through the loop as it settled down over his head, a snap as it flew taut, a sudden and violent shock as his feet were jerked from under him, the crack of his revolver—aimless, a stunning blow on his prostrate head, then oblivion.
A week later the surgeon at Camp Cooke found himself minus one of his ambulances after all. In response to a penciled note from Blake it had been hurried from what there was of the shack aggregation at that point to what was left of Sancho's, Major Starke and the doctor with it. They found much of the corral in ruins and one end of the rancho badly scorched. "The wife of my brother," with Pancha, and that ceremonious copy of the Castilian himself had disappeared, but Sancho was still there, a much wronged man, and Pedro and Jose and Concho and a decrepit mule or two, all under the surly surveillance of Sergeant Feeny and half a dozen troopers whose comrades were afield chasing banditti through the deserts and mountains, while those who were detailed to remain spent long, anxious hours watching over and striving to soothe a young officer delirious from injuries to the head and resultant fever. Loring a sick man, indeed, when the surgeon reached him; but poor Blake, wearing himself down to skin and bone in fruitless chase, would gladly have been in his place.
The stage which he and his men had rushed to rescue was actually out there to the east, as Pancha had declared, "held up" among some little sand dunes, but it bore neither passengers nor treasure, and what on earth the robbers should have detained him for nearly twenty miles east of Gila Bend—held him in the hot sun from nine in the morning until late in the afternoon, then sent him on again, only to be once more "rounded to" with a furious chorus of yells and volleyings of pistols when within only two miles of Sancho's, that bewildered Jehu could not imagine. The marvel of it was that, though the old stage was "riddled like a sieve," as he said, "and bullets flew round me like a swarm of buzzin' bees, not one of 'em more'n just nipped me and raised a blister in the skin." Indeed, even those abrasions were indistinguishable, though Jake solemnly believed in their existence. Then another queer thing! Long before the lieutenant and "his fellers" reached the imperiled vehicle all but two or three of the dozen assailants went scurrying off in the darkness, and when the cavalry came charging furiously through the gloom there was no one to oppose them. Jehu Jake couldn't even tell which way the bandits had gone—every way, he reckoned; and after careering blindly about for half an hour or so, Blake's most energetic men came drifting back and said it was useless to attempt pursuit until dawn, even though that would give the renegades six hours' start. Slowly and disgustedly Blake ordered his men to form ranks and march back to camp, when suddenly an idea struck him—Loring! Loring, with his precious saddle-bags, had been left alone; and, calling for a set of fours to follow him, Blake clapped his spurless heels to his indignant horse's flanks and galloped for home, only to find Sancho and Pete lamenting over the prostrate, senseless and bleeding form of the engineer, whose arm was still thrown protectingly over the ravished saddle-bags.
The pocket containing that precious envelope was slashed open. The envelope and watch were gone. The record of the court in the other bag was undisturbed.
And then as he bathed his comrade's head and stanched the blood and strove to call him back to consciousness, Blake saw it all, or thought he did, and gnashed his teeth in impotent wrath. He was tricked, betrayed, yes, possibly ruined, all by a gang of miserable "greasers," through the medium of a pretty Mexican girl and his own wretched imbecility. There was no name Blake didn't call himself. There was nothing disreputable he did not not think of Sancho, but what could he prove? Sancho was a heavy loser. Sancho's best mules and all his fine horses, including the famous roan had been spirited away. The gang had made a wreck of the bar and a puddle of his famous liquor. Manuel, his brother, with his beloved wife and child, had fled in terror, said Sancho, else would they now be here nursing the heroic officer who had striven to defend them against such a rush of wretches. Blake drove him away with imprecations, vowing that he, Sancho, was in collusion with the gang, against which unmerited slur Sancho protested in sonorous Spanish, and to prove his innocence pointed to his bespattered bar-room, and as that failed to move the obdurate heart of the raging cavalryman, went sorrowfully back to the dark ranch whence there suddenly arose a sheet of flame and the cry that the villains had set fire to the corral before they left. For half an hour the straw and hay made a fierce blaze, and the troopers turned to and saved the ranch, as Sancho knew they would, and the actual damage was but slight. Some day Sancho would present a claim against the government for twenty times the amount and get such portion of it as was not required by the local agent and lobbying aids who rushed it through congress. Against Sancho there was no proof whatever, and when Blake rode away at dawn to take the trail of the robber band he had to invoke Sancho's assistance in looking after his stricken friend. There were hours that day when Blake could almost have blown his brains out. He, who prided himself on the field record he was making, had been outwitted, tricked, utterly and ridiculously fooled. By heaven! if horses could hold out those rascals should not go unwhipped of justice! Bitter as was his cup the previous year, this was bitterer still.
Not for ten days, after a long and fruitless chase through the Dragoon Mountains and almost into Mexico, did Blake return to the Bend, and by that time Loring was just gone, borne in the ambulance to Yuma. He had regained consciousness under the doctor's care, said old Feeny, but was sorely weak and shaken, and the doctor had gone on with him.
So ended for the time being, at least, the survey of the Gila Valley, for the surgeon at Fort Yuma coincided with the opinion of his brother from Cooke that Lieutenant Loring could perform no duty for weeks, that he should have care, rest and a sea voyage. The record of the court had been sent on by mail stage to San Francisco, and after a fortnight of total quiet at Yuma, Loring was conveyed down the Colorado to the Gulf and shipped aboard the coasting steamer for the two weeks run around Old California and up the Pacific to Yerba Buena. The very day they sailed old Turnbull came to join him on the voyage. Not a trace had been discovered of the fugitive, Captain Nevins, and such suspicious characters as Blake had overhauled were long since released for lack of evidence. Sancho held the fort as imperturbably as ever. The "family of my brother" were reported gone to Hermosillo.
Those were years in which the steamer, plying every month between the Colorado and the Bay of San Francisco, carried heavy burdens of freight, stores, and supplies into the far territory, but took little out. Gold being the monetary standard of California at the time, it cost a captain a month's pay to take that two weeks' voyage. The government paid the way into the territory in the case of officers going under orders, and once landed there a man speedily found himself too poor to think of returning. Therefore was the stout mariner who commanded the Idaho more than surprised to find two army officers on his scanty passenger list. Turnbull he had met before; Loring was a stranger.
"Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen," said he; "you practically own the ship till we get to Guaymas. There we pick up some Mexican families going to 'Frisco, and two mighty pretty girls."
"Who are they?" asked Turnbull languidly, as he sat on the upper deck, heels lifted on the taffrail, gazing out over an apparently limitless plain, half dim vista of far-spreading sand, half of star-dotted, flawless salt water, the smoke of his cigar curling lazily aloft as the black hull rode at anchor.
"Daughters of old Ramon de la Cruz, for two that I know of, and some cousin of theirs, I believe. They came aboard on our up trip. The old man likes our tap of champagne and don't care what it costs. He has more ready cash than any Mexican I know. You're a married man, colonel, but how about the lieutenant here?"
Loring, still pallid and listless, smiled feebly and shook his head.
"Well, here's your chance, young man," said the bluff salt, unconscious of giving offense. "No time like a voyage for love making, once the girl gets her sea legs on. You ought to capture one of 'em before we're halfway to the Golden Gate. They rate 'em at two hundred thousand apiece. Don't know how long it takes a soldier to win a prize like that, but give a sailor such a show and she'd strike her colors before we sight St. Lucas. If you don't care for ducats and only want beauty, there's that little cousin. She can sing and play your soul away; give her half a chance and a good guitar."
"Who's she?" queried Turnbull, balancing his half-smoked cigar between the fingers, as he blew a fragrant cloud to the cloudless vault above.
"Didn't get the family name—Pancha they called her, a slip of a sixteen-year-old, going to school, perhaps." And the captain turned away to answer a question from his steward, leaving the two soldiers looking intently at each other, with new interest in their eyes.
"Blake's destroyer was a sixteen-year-old Pancha, wasn't she?" asked the colonel in low tone. He had no mercy whatever on Blake, and was outspoken in condemnation of what he called his idiocy.
Loring was silent a moment, then he drew a letter from an inner pocket. It had come with Turnbull—the last news from Arizona. "Read that when you've time, colonel," said he. "Perhaps had you been in Blake's place at his age you'd have forgotten everything but the stage and the fight. I think I should."
And as this was the longest speech Turnbull had ever heard from Loring's lips, except his arraignment of Nevins before the court, the colonel pondered over it not a little. He took the letter and read it when, an hour later, the Idaho was plowing her lazy way southward through a dull and leaden sea.
"I'm not the first man to be fooled by a slip of a girl, Loring," wrote Blake. "It isn't the first time that a woman has got the better of me, and it may not be the last. But the chagrin and misery I feel is not because I have suffered so much, but because you have, and all through my fault. I suppose you know the general has ordered me relieved and sent back to my company as no longer worthy to be called a cavalryman. All the same, one of these days I mean to get a transfer. My legs are too long for the doughboys anyhow. Meantime, with all meekness I'll bear my burden—I deserve it; but you'll believe me when I say it isn't the punishment, the humiliation this has cost me that so weighs upon me now; it is the thought of your loss and your prostration. One of these days I may find means to show you how much I feel it. Just now I have only a hint. Last year at this time my most cherished possession was my new spring style, ten-dollar Amidon. A silk hat is as out of place in Arizona as a sunshade in Sitka, yet my striker has just unpacked it and asked, with a grin on his confounded mug, 'What'll I be doin' wid this, sor?'"
"I know! Sole leather hat box and all, it goes by buckboard to your address at division headquarters. Our heads are about of the same caliber; the main difference is that yours seems loaded. The Alta says silk hats are now worn on sunny mornings. Sport mine for me, though it be of the vintage of a by-gone year. I shall not show my face in civilization till I have lived down my shame. So now for two years at least of Yuma and the consolation to be derived from the solitary study of philosophy and Shakespeare.
"Yours in meekness of spirit, "GERALD BLAKE.
"P. S.—They say that Sancho's brother's real name is Escalante. If ever you come across one of that race keep your eyes peeled."
Another day and the billows of the gulf were breaking under the Idaho's counter and hissing sternward in snowy foam, answering the rush of a strong southwest wind. It was late at evening when the black hull went reeling in toward the lights of Guaymas, and the massive anchor, with prodigious splash dove for the sandy bottom, but late as it was the shore boats and lighters came pulling to the gangway stairs, and merchants, clerks and customs officers nimbly scrambled up the side, and then followed a number of passengers, cigarette smoking and cackling about the swarming deck, and Turnbull and the Engineer hung over the rail and watched for the promised boatload of beauty and presently it came. Two or three small boats were rowed alongside, and there were glimpses of shrouded forms and there were sounds of joyous laughter and murmured gallantries of dark-eyed, dark-skinned caballeros, and the growling injunctions of, presumably, paterfamilias. And presently the ladder-like stairs were cleared, and, one after another, woman after woman was assisted up the narrow way, and came sailing into the zone of light from the polished reflectors, elder women first, then slender, sparkling-eyed damsels whose white teeth gleamed as they chatted with their escorts. Two undeniably attractive, Spanish-looking girls were objects of most assiduous care. Then came a third, younger, a mere slip of a maid, with but a single cavalier, a grim, grizzled, stern-looking Mexican, who glanced sharply about as he set foot on the solid deck, and then, without a word, Loring's hand was placed on the colonel's arm, and the lieutenant's eyes said "Look!" for as the girl's face was turned for an instant toward them, there stood revealed the dusky little maid of the Gila, Blake's siren—Pancha.
Not for many moons did that voyage of the Idaho lose first place in the memory of the bevy of passengers who watched the lights of Guaymas fading away astern that April night. All had been bustle and gayety aboard during an hour of sheltered anchorage. Senor de la Cruz had verified the captain's verdict and opened a case of Sillery and besought all hands to drink to a joyous and prosperous voyage for his beloved daughters, their duenna and his little niece—their cousin from Hermosillo. "All hands" would have included the ship's company had the captain permitted, so hospitable was the Mexican, and indeed was intended to include every soul on the passenger list, most of them boarding the boat at Guaymas. The Senor Coronel Turnbull was formally presented to the Senor de la Cruz and by him to his charming family and their many friends, but the junior officer, on the score of recent and severe illness, had begged to be excused. Loring stood alone at the taffrail, listening in thoughtful silence to the sound of revelry within the brightly-lighted cabin, while the hoarse screeching of the 'scape-pipe drowned all other voices and proclaimed the impatient haste of the skipper to be off. Straight, but often storm-swept, was the southerly run to La Paz—over on the desolate shore of the long, arid peninsula, and the green surges were rolling higher every moment and bursting in thunder into clouds of wind-driven, hissing spray on the rocks beyond the point. Wind and wave were both against their good ship, and every officer and man was at his station awaiting the order to weigh anchor. The mail sacks were aboard. The consul had gone down over the side and still Don Ramon seemed unable to part from his loved ones and the Idaho's champagne. It was the captain who had finally to put abrupt stop to the lingering leave-takings.
"I must be off at once," he said. "Come, Don Ramon, we'll take the best of care of these ladies and land them all at 'Frisco within the fortnight. Kiss 'em all around now and jump for your boat. Come, Senor—I didn't catch the name. Ah, yes, Escalante—the father of the Senorita Pancha, I suppose. No—only her uncle? Well, I'll be her uncle now," and so saying he led the way to the deck. Loring saw the lively party come surging forth from the companionway—senoras, senoritas, gray-haired men and gay young gallants. There was a moment of clasping, clinging embraces, of straining arms and lingering kisses, of crowdings and murmurings here and there, some little sobbing and many tear-wet eyes as the father was finally hurried down the ladder, and then there was further delay and shouts for Escalante, and not until then did Loring, silently watching the animated throng on the port side, become aware of two dark forms in the shadow of the deckhouse on the opposite quarter. One was that of a slender girl, and she was sobbing, she was praying in eager words not to be sent away; she was imploring pitifully to be taken back to the shore. Loring had studied Spanish long enough to understand almost every word, and even before he realized that he was an unwonted listener he had heard both her sobbing plea and the abrupt, almost cruel answer.
"You have no home, nor has your father. You may thank heaven for the chance to get away."
The second officer came bustling round in search of them, and, leaving the girl shrinking and sobbing on the narrow bench in the shadow, the Mexican was hurried off. Before the little boats had fairly cast adrift and the swinging steps were raised the throb of the screw was felt churning the waters of the bay, and as the steamer slowly gathered way and her bow swung gradually seaward, women and girls, kerchief waving, came drifting back along the rail, leaning far over and throwing kisses to the tossing shallops on the dark waves beneath, then gathering about the stunted flagstaff at the stern, calling loudly their parting words, all unconscious of Loring, who had stepped aside to give them room and so found himself close to little Pancha, lost to everybody in the desolation of a loneliness and grief that Loring could not see unmoved, yet could not reconcile with what he had believed of her.
Up to this moment he had heard of her only as an artful girl, the confederate of thieves and ruffians. Up to this moment he had seen her only once, the afternoon she threw herself on Blake, as Blake and he had both come to believe, to prevent his drawing revolver on the two rascals at the ranch. Yet, never had Loring heard such pathetic pleading, never had he seen child or woman in such utter abandonment of woe. Never had he thought it possible that Pancha, the siren of Sancho's ranch—cold, crafty, luring, designing, treacherous as any Carmen ever since portrayed upon the stage—could be capable of such intensity of feeling. Drawing his uniform "cape" snugly about him, for now the sharp sea wind was whistling through the cordage and chilling his fever-weakened frame, Loring leaned against the rail, gazing back at the receding shores, trying not to hear the girl's sobbing. The chatter of the flock of women was incessant. Turnbull and two Guaymas merchants had joined the group, but all were intent on those harbor lights now fast glimmering to mere sparks upon the sea, and the lonely girl sat there forgotten. Not once was voice uplifted in question as to what had become of her. Every moment now the stern was lifted higher in air and then dropped deeper into the roaring, hissing waters, and women tightened their hold upon the taffrail and gave shrill little shrieks, and huddled closer together, and presently one of the elders fell back and begged to be led below, and then another, and by the time the last glimmer of the town had been hid from view and only the steady gleam of the lighthouse shone forth upon their foaming wake, the hardiest of the gay little party of the earlier evening had been carefully assisted down the brass-bound stairway, and when five bells tinkled windily somewhere forward, there, with little hands clasped about the stanchion, a shawl thrown over her head, that head pillowed in her arms, there alone in the darkness and the rush of the wind and sea, there, the very picture of heartbroken girlhood, still sat Pancha, and Loring could bear it no longer.
He was thinking over his Spanish to be sure of his words when the starboard doors of the companion way were suddenly thrown open, and in the bright light from within two burly forms stepped unsteadily forth, then lurched for the nearest support, and Loring heard the jovial tones of Turnbull:
"He must be up here—or overboard; he's nowhere below!" Then glancing sternward, "O! Loring!" he shouted, and at the name Pancha's little dark head was suddenly uplifted, and a pair of black eyes, red-rimmed and swollen with weeping, gazed, startled, toward the dark figures. For the life of him Loring could not answer the hail. Turnbull's voice and words alone had been sufficient to rouse her from a depth of woe, and to give rise to new and violent distress. She was trembling, and he could plainly see it. To answer would only announce to the frightened girl that the man whose name was sufficient to cause such evident dismay was standing there just beyond her seat, within a few paces of her, and had probably been there for some time. Quickly, watching his chance, as the Idaho careened to port, Loring shot round the deckhouse and made his way forward until he reached the companion stairs on that side, and in another moment was clinging to the outer knob of the doorway on the other, and answering the eager questions as to where he'd been and whether he better not turn in. "Have a brandy and water, sir," urged the colonel's new companion. "Nothing like it to head off mal de mer. We're in for a lively night. Half the women are sick already, and the colonel here was turning white about the gills."
"The air in the cabin was close after all that champagne. It's fresh in the staterooms, though," answered Turnbull. "Come on, Loring. It's time for you to be abed." Then in low tone he queried: "What's become of the child? Did she see you? Has she got back to shore?"
For answer Loring pointed to the dark figure shrinking from view half a dozen yards away toward the heaving stern. Their jovial fellow-passenger again interposed.
"Come, gentlemen, brandy and water's what we need, ain't it?" The Idaho's champagne had evidently taken effect.
"Right!" said Turnbull "Run down and order for us, quick, or it'll be too late. We'll join you in a minute." The burly merchant dove for the doorway on the next stomach-wrecking lurch, and collided with the white-capped stewardess, hastening up, with anxiety in her eyes. The two officers clung to the mizzen shrouds opposite the companionway as she emerged from the broad light into the darkness of the wind-swept deck. It was a moment before she could distinguish objects at all. Then with practiced step she went swiftly to the crouching figure at the distant end of the long seat.
"I have learned something of her," murmured Turnbull. "That was her father's brother, Escalante, who came aboard with her. That woman at Sancho's was not her mother. She has been dead for many a year. She was own sister to De la Cruz. There is something back of their sending this girl to San Francisco. Hush! Here she comes!"
With her arm thrown about the drooping girl, the stewardess came slowly leading her to the doorway. The swinging portals had slammed shut in the last plunge of the Idaho, and as the buoyant craft rose high on the next billow, Turnbull and Loring both turned to open them. The light shone full on their calm, soldierly faces as the stewardess thanked them, and the shrinking child lifted up her frightened eyes for one brief moment, glanced quickly from one to the other, then, with a low cry, slipped, limp and senseless, through the woman's arms and fell in a dark heap upon the deck.
Another day and the Idaho was battling for her life and that of every soul aboard. Forging her way southward, she took the furious buffets of the gale on the starboard quarter—"the right front," as Turnbull would have put it had he not been too ill to care a fig where she was hit, and only wished she might go down if that would keep her still. Sea after sea burst over the dripping decks and tossed her like a cockle shell upon the waters. Time and again the bows would plunge deep in some rushing surge and then, uplifting, send torrents washing aft and pour cataracts from her sides. Long before the dawn of day the red-eyed commander had ordered the southward course abandoned and headed his laboring craft for the opposite shores. Harbor there was none north of the deep sheltered bay of La Paz, but there would be relief from the tremendous poundings of the billows when once under the lee of Old California. Obedient to her helm, the Idaho now met "dead ahead" both wind and sea. The rolling measurably ceased. The pitching fore and aft continued, but the passenger list by this time cared no longer to discriminate. It was all one to all but one of their number. Loring, of the engineers, thanks to long weeks of illness of another sort, was mercifully exempted from the pangs of seasickness, but the sights and sounds between decks were more than could long be borne, and, making his way forward shortly after dawn, he had succeeded in borrowing a spare sou-wester and pair of sea boots from the second officer, and, equipped in these and a rubber coat, leaving nothing but his nose and mouth in evidence, he was boosted up the narrow stairway to the shelter of the pilot-house on the uppermost deck—the Idaho had no bridge—and there he saw the sun come up to the meridian and the sea go gradually down as the steamer found smoother waters under the lee of San Ildefonso. Only lightly laden, the stanch little craft had well-nigh "jumped out of her boots," as the jovial skipper expressed it, and now, all brine and beaming satisfaction after his long hours of stormy vigil, he clapped Loring on the shoulder, complimented him on his possession of a "sea stomach" and ordered coffee served forthwith. They were steaming slowly along at half-speed now, taking a breathing spell before attempting the next round, and the captain waxed confidential.
"What's wrong with that pretty little niece?" he asked. "She was bright enough the day they came aboard on our up trip. Now, the stewardess tells me she fainted dead away and has been begging to be put ashore all night."
Loring couldn't say.
"But you helped carry her down, you and Turnbull. The stewardess says you were both very kind to her, where her own people neglected her. I didn't fancy that scrub Escalante. Do you know anything about him or her own people?"
"Nothing—to speak of," said Loring.
"Fernandez, one of those young Guaymas swells, says the mother was own sister to De la Cruz—married against his wishes when she was a mere girl—died a few years later, and that Don Ramon offered to adopt and educate her little girl, but only lately would the Escalantes give her up. All I know is that she's too damned miserable about something else to be even seasick like the rest of 'em. You'd a-been down there with Turnbull if you hadn't just had more'n your share of illness," added he, with the mariner's slight disapprobation of the landsman who defies initiations of Neptune.
"Very possibly," said Loring.
"The purser tells me Escalante gave him a little packet belonging to her—very valuable, which he ordered kept in the safe until their agent should call for it at 'Frisco."
"Indeed!" said Loring, looking up in quick interest.
"Fact," said the skipper. "Now, have some more coffee? I'm going to turn in for forty winks. Let the steward know when you want anything. Nobody else will. We've got to face some more rollers after awhile. I dassen't go inside Carmen Island."
But Loring had something more engrossing to think of than breakfast or luncheon. So there was a little packet in the purser's safe, was there? Valuable and not to be delivered except to their agent in 'Frisco. It was in Pancha's name, yet not subject to Pancha's order. Why that discrimination? And it was given the purser by Escalante—brother of the Escalante—another brother of the accomplished sharper of Sancho's ranch. A precious trinity of blood relations were these! Small wonder Don Ramon, had opposed his girl sister's union with one of their number. Now, what on earth could that small packet contain, and was it likely that the valuables were any more valuable than those snatched from his saddle-bags the night of the assault at Gila Bend?—the watch and diamonds of the late Captain Nevins now vanished into thin air, apparently, for not a trace of him had appeared since the night he rode away from Camp Cooke.
In genuine distress of mind, Loring had written from Yuma, as soon as the doctor would permit, to the address penned by Nevins in presence of the court, informing that vagabond officer's wife that the valuables he had been charged to place in her hands had been forcibly taken from him, after he himself had been assaulted and stricken senseless; that every effort had been made to recover them, but without success; that he deplored their loss and her many misfortunes, and begged to be informed if he could serve her in any other way. The doctors had promised him that he would be restored by a sea voyage. It would be three weeks, probably, before he could reach San Francisco, and meantime he knew from the captain's admission that she was probably in need.
"No one," wrote Loring, "is dependent upon me, and I beg your acceptance as a loan, as a temporary accommodation, or as anything you please, of the inclosed draft." (It covered nearly every dollar he happened to have to his credit in the bank at San Francisco, though he had pay accounts still collectible.) It took nearly ten days for answer to reach him, and Loring hid himself away to read it when the letter came, addressed in a hand he knew too well:
"Naomi, my beloved sister, is prostrated by her sorrows and anxieties," it began, "and I must be her amanuensis—I who would die for her, yet who shrink from this task, well knowing, though she does not, how hard it is to write to one to whom I have given perhaps such infinite pain. Indeed, I should not have had courage to write had she not required it of me, had not your most generous offer and action demanded response. But for your aid my heartbroken sister and I would by this time have had no roof to cover our heads. These people had refused to house us longer. As soon as she is well enough to move and I can obtain the means from Eastern friends we shall sail for New Orleans, where she expects to find friends and employment, and she bids me say that within the year you shall be repaid. Meantime the thought that you, too, have been made a sufferer, all on account of that unprincipled scoundrel who has deceived and deserted her, weighs upon her spirits as it does on mine. It is not the loss of the jewels (though we would have been beyond the possibility of want had they reached her) that we mourn; it is that one whom I fear I have sorely angered, perhaps past all forgiveness, should have to suffer so much more on our account, and yet if you only knew—if I could only explain! But this is futile. Despise me if you will, yet believe that my gratitude is beyond words.
"P. S.—Should you care to see—sister on your arrival we shall probably still be here."
Then there had come, not to him but to the post surgeon at Yuma, another letter just before Loring started down the Colorado. The doctor was with his patient at the moment, and the superscription caught the latter's eye. The doctor changed color and looked embarrassed as he read. Evidently he did not desire to be questioned, nor was he, at the time, for Loring had a way of thinking before he spoke, but as the doctor completed certain injunctions at parting, the engineer turned full upon him:
"Any news of Nevins in the letter you got this morning?"
The doctor flushed, looked bothered and confused, then finally fished the letter from an inner pocket.
"Read it yourself," said he, and turned away. It was from Miss Allyn. It apologized for intruding on a stranger, on his time and patience, but she knew he had been Mr. Loring's medical adviser, and she felt compelled to make certain inquiries, her sister being still unable to write for herself. The doctor was probably aware that Mr. Loring had written apprising them of the loss of certain articles of great value that had been intrusted to his care and intended for them. He had expressed the utmost sorrow and had tendered certain reimbursement (that check was for two hundred dollars, not a cent less), not a fortieth part of the value of the lost articles, probably, but now they were in receipt of a letter from Captain Nevins that must have come by private hand to San Francisco, telling them that he must go forth to seek his fortunes anew; that his wife would never hear from him until he could come with full hands; that he had sent her every penny and possession he had—enough to keep her in comfort—and if Lieutenant Loring did not promptly deliver the same to take legal steps to compel him to do so, as he, Nevins, was now convinced the officer might appropriate them to his own use, if he could find any way to cover his breach of trust, such as swearing they were stolen from him. Captain Nevins had written other things in condemnation of Mr. Loring which neither Mrs. Nevins nor herself could believe; but—it did seem strange that an officer could find no safe method of sending valuable jewels when so much depended on his fidelity.
Loring read no further. His blue eyes were blazing already and his face was white with wrath when he returned the missive to his friend, who, knowing nothing of Loring's past infatuation for the writer, wondered at sight of his emotion.
"Why, Loring," said he, "you take this shallow girl too seriously. It's the way with women all over the world. They can never wholly acquit a man of complicity when they have suffered a loss. If that package were with you on the Idaho and she was to go down in midocean and the jewelry with her, some women would say you scuttled the ship in order to rob them."
The doctor's name, it must be observed, is unrecorded, because of the extremity of his cynicism. He went back to Yuma and his duties and stowed that letter away, to be answered later on. What the writer said her sister desired most to know was whether Mr. Loring had sustained any injury that might affect his mind or memory, and the doctor sniffed indignantly at the notion while we read, yet marveled much at the effect that half-uttered accusation had on his usually calm, self-poised patient. He spoke of it to Turnbull when that veteran came hurrying in by stage and followed Loring down the murky stream, only just in time to catch the steamer, but Turnbull paid faint heed. Loring was still weak, he said, and a man of sensitive honor might well be wrathful at such insinuations.
And now as Loring clung to the rail upon the lofty deck and gazed out over the waste of tumbling waters toward the barren shores, he was thinking deeply of that letter, of the strange bent of mind that could dictate such unjustifiable suggestion—if not accusation. He was thinking, too, of Pancha and that little packet in the purser's safe, when suddenly that officer himself came popping up the narrow stairway and poked his unprotected head into the whistling wind.
"Lieutenant, come below and have a bite while we're here off Ildefonso. We'll be turning handsprings in half an hour," and Loring followed to the steward's cuddy where a smoking luncheon awaited them, and the silent soldier fell to with the appetite that follows fever. Purser and steward looked on with admiration.
"I'll prescribe a course of typhoid to the next friend of mine that contemplates a voyage like this," said the former presently. "It made you invulnerable, but was it typhoid?"
"No—some head trouble."
"Sunstruck?" queried the purser. "Hot as it is, that don't often happen in Arizona—too dry."
"Struck, but not by sun—pistol-butt, perhaps," said Loring. "Night attack of Gila Bend—robbers."
"Oh, Lord, yes! I remember. I heard about that," said the genial purser. "Got away with some money, didn't they?"
"No money, but with a valuable package," and the blue eyes were fixed intently on the purser as he spoke, while the steward uncorked another pint of Margaux. "A tin box about eight by three, containing a watch and jewels. You sometimes get such for safekeeping, do you not?"
"Got one now," was the prompt reply, as the officer smacked his lips and held out his glass for another sip of the red wine of France. "Old Escalante gave it to me at Guaymas. It's the little senorita's."
The afternoon and night that followed brought little comfort to the cabin passengers. Not till nearly dark did the steamer find the shelter of another island, and all the intervening hours she wallowed in the trough of the sea, with the wind abeam, and by the time the heights of Carmen Island loomed between them and the red glow of the sunset skies, Turnbull had thrice wished himself in hotter climes than even Arizona, and could only feebly damn his junior for coming down to ask if there were not something he could do for him.
"Yes, take this pistol and shoot me," moaned the sufferer. "No, of course I don't want brandy and water, nor you nor anybody. It's simply scandalous for you to be up and well. Go 'way!" And though Loring sorely needed counsel, he felt that Turnbull was in no mood for talk, and so climbed back on deck again. He had made up his mind to tell the purser the whole story and to ask him to examine the contents of the package. All the livelong night the Idaho plowed and careened through the rolling seas, gaining scant relief off Santa Catalina and San Jose, but when in the undimmed splendor of the morning sun she swept proudly into the placid, land-locked harbor of old La Paz, Loring was the only man among her passengers to appear on deck. Even after she dropped anchor and one or two bedraggled victims were hoisted from below and dropped over the side to be rowed ashore, none of the women of the gay Guaymas party was able to climb the stairs. The wind was gone by sundown, and the Idaho once more steering coastwise for Cape San Lucas. The night wore on and Loring was still alone when, just as the tinkle of the ship's bell told that nine o'clock had come, with a soft, warm air drifting off the land, a fragile little form issued slowly from the companionway, and the stewardess smiled invitingly on the blue-eyed officer, as though begging him to aid her feeble charge to a seat.
"I have brought the senorita up for half an hour. I made her come," said she, as she dumped the pile of shawls into a spreading chair and began preparing a nest, while Pancha, turning away at sight of Loring, sank to the end of the bench, the very seat she occupied as they put to sea from Guaymas. But now it was Loring who tendered his arm, and, calmly ignoring her evident if unspoken protest, aided in lifting her from the bench and seating her in the depths of the easy reclining chair. The stewardess, with practiced hand, carefully tucked the rugs about her, and bidding the little damsel make the most of the soft, salt air, while she herself ran below to prepare her chocolate, would have gone at once but for Pancha's trembling, yet restraining hand. The child seemed to cling to her in desperation. Rapidly and in low tone she poured forth a torrent of pleading, and the kind-hearted woman looked about her in perplexity and distress.
"What can I do, sir?" said she to Loring, in English. "This poor little thing has eaten nothing since she came aboard. She has cried herself sick. She is as weak as a baby and must have food, yet she will not let me go."
"Stay with her until she is calmer," said Loring. "I'll get what is needed."
"But I cannot. The other ladies call for me incessantly."
A little disk of gold was slipped quickly into the disengaged hand. "Let them call awhile but don't you go," was the double answer.
It is odd to note how soon the troubled waves subside along those summer shores. The Idaho was only lazily bowing and courtesying to Old Neptune now. A long, languorous heave of the billows, as though worn out with the furious lashing of the last few days, was the only greeting of the broadening sea as the steamer rounded the southeast headland and slowly bore away for Cape San Lucas. Little Pancha's dusky head was resting wearily, yet resignedly, on the pillow, her hand still clasping that of the stewardess, as an attendant from below appeared with a little tray and some scalding hot chocolate, some tender slices of the breast of chicken, some tempting little dainties were quickly set before her. "Make her take them," whispered Loring from the shadows, and, once the effort was made and the "ice broken," the dark-eyed invalid ate almost eagerly. At three bells the stewardess was allowed to slip away for just a little more chocolate, and, glancing furtively, fearfully about her, Pancha was aware of a dim masculine form seated not ten feet away. She knew it was Loring, and yet could not move. She felt that he must presently rise and accost her, and she shrank from the meeting in dismay, yet soon began to look again, and to note that he had not changed his attitude. Apparently indifferent to her presence, he was gazing dreamily out across the slowly-heaving billows, wherein the stars were dancing. The stewardess was gone full quarter of an hour, and in all that time he never even once glanced her way, and poor Pancha found her eyes flitting toward him every little while in something almost akin to fascination. Could it be that he had—forgotten?—or that he did not recognize her? Yet she had heard how both Loring and the other, that older officer, the Colonel Turnbull, had carried her below as she slowly rallied from her fainting spell two nights before. Surely she thought she remembered seeing recollection or recognition in the eyes of both, yet now when he had opportunity to accuse her, not one word did he attempt. She was warmed and comforted by the chocolate and the food. She enjoyed the second cup just brought her. She begged the stewardess to stay, yet only faintly protested when told she had to go. Once again Pancha was alone when the chiming tinkle, four bells, told that ten o'clock had come, and then for a moment she turned cold again and shrank within her rugs and wraps, for Loring slowly and deliberately rose and looked toward her. Now he was coming. Now he would speak. Now he would demand of her to explain her part in the wicked thing that had happened. She dreaded, yet she longed to say, for she had a story that she could eagerly tell—to him. For a moment her heart lay still, and then leaped and fluttered uncontrollably. Slowly the shadowy fellow-passenger had found his feet. Steadily he looked, as though straight at her, for nearly a minute, then as slowly and deliberately turned his back and walked away forward. When, nearly an hour later, the stewardess came to lead her below, and the purser and one of the ship's officers had both been to inquire if she felt better, and to tell her to be of good cheer, she'd be all right on the morrow and trolling for dolphin on the blue Pacific, though she saw Loring slowly pacing up and down, though twice he passed so close to her that by stretching forth her tiny foot she could have checked or tripped him, not once again did she detect so much as a glance at her.
And yet, when a little later the stewardess tucked her in her white berth, and invented messages and inquiries from her prostrated aunt and cousins in neighboring staterooms, that designing woman wove a tale about the blue-eyed, silent officer pacing the lonely deck—how anxious he was to do something for the little invalid—how eagerly he had gone and ordered for her, and superintended the preparation of that dainty little supper—how he had bidden the stewardess to stay by her and soothe her, and was so deeply interested. High and low, rich and poor, they love romance, these tender hearts, and for that reason, doubtless, no reference did Madame Flores make of the five-dollar gold-piece that had found its way to her ready palm. "And he spoke Spanish beautifully, did the Senor Teniente," said Madame Flores, whereat did Pancha's heart begin to flutter anew, for that meant that he must have heard and understood her pleadings.
And so it happened that till long after midnight the child lay wide-eyed and awake, listening to that steady, measured tread upon the upper deck. Strange and sad and eventful had been that young life thus far. What strange new thing had Fate in store for her now?
The Idaho dropped anchor at San Lucas and put off a passenger and took on the mails—two bags with flanks as flat as the sandy strand on which the long white line of breakers beat in ceaseless, soothing melody. The broad blue ocean glistened under the sunshine of another day, and late in the afternoon one or two pallid and attenuated shapes were aided to the deck, where Pancha had been reclining ever since noon, and the captain had come and rallied her upon her big, pathetic eyes and hollow cheeks, and coaxed her to promise to play her guitar that evening, and the purser had been polite and the stewardess had brought up an appetizing lunch, and Colonel Turnbull put in an appearance toward sundown (a grewsome face was his) and all this time Mr. Loring was either briskly pacing the deck or reading in a sheltered nook back of the purser's cabin, but never once did he address her or intrude upon her meditations, and Pancha's spirits and courage—or was it innate coquetry?—began to ferment. That evening no less than five passengers appeared at table, though all five did not remain through the several courses. That evening Pancha was again tucked in her chair, and Cousin Inez was aided from her room and placed beside her, and very attentive was Mr. Traynor, the purser, though fair Inez was but languid and unresponsive still, and kept her veil about her face, and Colonel Turnbull came and poured champagne for both with lavish hand, and vowed it was specific against further assaults of the salty seas, and still Mr. Loring never spoke a word. With the sparkling sunshine of yet another day, the little maid was early on the shining deck, fresh from its matutinal ablutions, and there was Loring taking his early exercise, striding up and down, up and down, and drinking in the glorious, invigorating sea air; but even now he came no nearer, and she who feared at first to venture to her accustomed seat, lest he might take advantage of her solitude and come and ask things or say things she could not bear to hear, finally sidled along one side while he was patrolling the other, made her timid way to the stern and stood there clinging to the flagstaff, and became absorbed in the rush of the foaming, boiling waters unrolling a gradually narrowing streak of dazzling white through the blue-green waste of billows, all sparkling in the slanting sunshine. Wheeling in flapping circles overhead, skimming the crested waves, settling down and lazily floating on the heaving flood, so many dots of snow upon the sapphire, the flock of gulls sailed onward with the ship, white scavengers of the sea, and sometimes dropped so close to the rail on wide extended wing that Pancha could plainly see the eager little red beads of eyes, could almost bury her soft cheek in the thick plumage of their fleecy breasts. Away out toward the invisible coast a three-master was bowling along under full spread of canvas, and, midway between, some huge black fish were plunging through the swelling brine. Early as it was the deck hands had cast astern the stout trolling line, and far in their wake the spinning, silvery bait came leaping and flashing from the northward slope of each succeeding wave, and Pancha, who had seen the previous day a dolphin hauled in to die in swiftly changing, brilliant hues upon the deck, tested the taut lanyard with her slender fingers, wondering whether she alone could triumph over the frantic struggles of the splendid fish, or what she would do if she found she could not. It was an hour to breakfast time. Only Loring and herself had yet appeared on deck, and she stole a peep at him. There he was tramping up and down as though he had to finish a thousand laps within a given time, and stood at least a hundred laps behind. Four days earlier the child looked with terror to the possibility of his even drawing near her. Now she was beginning to wonder if he never would again. Five days before she could have sobbed her heart out, praying not to be subjected to the possibility of his asking her a question. Now she was wondering if he did not even care to ask—if indeed she would ever have a chance to tell.
She did not know, poor little maid, that late the previous evening, after consultation between Turnbull and Loring, the latter had asked Mr. Traynor to place a packet of his within the safe, and that then and there Traynor had permitted him a peep at the valuable parcel to be delivered to Escalante's representative in San Francisco. Loring had been allowed to "heft" it in his hand, to curiously study the seals and superscription, to satisfy himself it could not be the tin case stolen from him at Sancho's, for this one was smaller, yet not to satisfy himself it did not contain the missing watch and diamonds, for it was big enough to hold them. Pancha did not know that the two officers had agreed upon a plan of action to be put in operation the moment they were within the Golden Gate. She did not dream that the thoughts of the silent officer dwelt on her and her past intently as did hers on him. She was heartsick, lonely and oppressed with anxieties, such as seldom fall to the lot of maidens of sixteen, yet her heart was beating with the hope that lives in buoyant health and youth. She had left the father whom she devotedly loved and had believed all that a father could or should be, had received his parting blessing at Hermosillo and his faltering promise to soon be with her—at Guaymas. She had been radiant with the thought of soon again springing to his arms when the Idaho stopped there on the northward trip. She had been stunned and stricken when told it was his wish she should go with her cousins to San Francisco, dwell with them there, be educated there, and without hope of again seeing him until he could come to her perhaps late in the summer. She had then been told that his life was threatened and that hated Gringos and suspicious compatriots, both, were thirsting for his blood. She had been told that she herself was in danger of arrest for complicity in robberies at Gila Bend—she, who had overheard the plot to meet the stage, murder the passengers and rob the mails, at least that was what the woman whom she was bidden to respect as her stepmother had fearfully told her and asked if there were no way in which she could warn Blake. How was she to know, poor child, what would result? How could she help shrinking from sight of the officers she had watched with such eager interest at Sancho's, when she was later told they were seeking her father's life—told that, could they force a confession from her, nothing on earth could save him? Yet here was the gray-haired colonel devoting himself to Inez and being kind to her own trembling self. Here was the Teniente Loring who had been lovely to her, said the stewardess, until he saw her terror, her shrinking from him, and now when she longed to tell him her simple story, he would not come near her. Of the packet and its contents she knew next to nothing. Of their intention to secure it and, if need be, her arrest with it, the moment they reached the wharf at San Francisco, she could not dream. That that fated packet was destined never to reach the Golden Gate, that every plan and project, based on the safe return of the Idaho to port, was doomed to die, no one of her passengers or crew could possibly have predicted this beaming April morning as she cleft the billows on her northward way. Pancha was only wondering how and when Loring's silence would end, when within the minute the end came.
The waiters were just beginning to set the tables for breakfast in the "saloon" beneath the broad skylight. The crew had ceased the morning "squilgeeing" and swabbing forward, and were busy stowing away mops, buckets and brooms. One or two passengers had crawled up the companion way and dropped into seats amidships, staring in envy, if not disapproval, at the swinging stride of the young officer whose cheeks were beginning to glow again with the flush of health, and Pancha, clinging to her perch at the stern, after following him with her eyes far up the deck until she knew he had almost reached the point where he suddenly faced about in his swift march, again resolutely turned her back upon the Idaho and all that appertained to her, and found herself for the fortieth time gazing out over the glistening wake, and for the first time with a thrill of excitement. The taut trolling line was snapping and swaying, and far astern something gleaming in the slant of the sunshine came springing into view from the crest of a wave, then diving into the depths of the next and darting to right and left beneath the heaving waters—a dolphin! a beauty! she knew in an instant, and grasping the cord she strove with all her strength to haul in. For a second or two it came readily enough, then with sudden jerk, whizzed taut again, as the game victim made a magnificent dash for liberty. Again she laid hold and, bracing her slender feet, threw her whole weight on the line and pulled away; again with only temporary success, for the dolphin only shook himself and struggled, but suddenly darting forward, he as suddenly slackened the line and Pancha, who had been pulling for dear life with set teeth and straining muscles, fell suddenly back and was spared a hard tumble only by a pair of strong, clasping arms that quickly righted, if they did not as quickly release, her, and Pancha, furiously blushing, excitedly panting, could only show her white teeth one instant as she fluttered out a faint "Gracias" and wriggled out of the gentleman's embrace, then with the instinct of her sport-loving race, grabbed again for the line and now there was seasoned muscle behind her, and the dolphin knew he had met his master. Hand over hand they pulled away, five, ten, fifteen fathoms, and the dripping cord curled upon the deck, and at last the gleaming beauty of the Pacific seas came leaping into view and swinging at the stern, and then Pancha, with sparkling eyes and eagerly flushing cheeks, ducked out of the way as Loring skillfully swung her prize aboard and sent the magnificent fellow gasping and flapping upon the deck.
And so at last the spell was broken. He had spoken slowly and with grave kindness in his modulated voice a few words of the stately and sonorous tongue she loved, and now in the fresh, sweet air of the morning, in the gladness of the ocean breeze and the heyday of life and youth, these two stood there at the taffrail of the Idaho, she so slender, dark and willowly, he almost Saxon in his blue-eyed, fair-haired, fair-skinned manliness, alone with each other and their prize. The child who had fainted at sight of him less than a week agone, was peeping shyly up at him now, and thinking how good a face was that, so fresh and fair and strong, with its smooth-shaven chin and cheeks, its round white throat, and the flawless teeth that glistened under the curling mustache whenever he opened his lips to speak, and that showed so seldom at any other time. Not until this moment had she ever seen him smile.
The fringe of her Mexican rebosa had caught the button of his snugly-fitting sack coat, and it needed her deft, slim fingers to release it. Then in its frantic struggles the dolphin threatened to spring back to its native element, and Loring had to head him off and thrust him to the middle of the deck again, close to the skylight of the "saloon," and there he bade her come and watch the vivid, swiftly changing, iridescent hues of the beautiful creature, and she obediently drew near and stood bending over in mingled triumph and compassion. "Ah, que es bonito!" she sighed, as the frantic leapings seemed to cease and the prize lay gasping at full length, exhausted by the violence of the long battle. Presently Loring called the steward to send up for the Senorita's captive, and to serve it at the Senorita's table for breakfast, and then perhaps he might have returned to his solitary walk, but the study of Spanish is never more fascinating than when rosy lips and pearly teeth are framing the courtly phrases. Whatever the cause of her agitation the night of the meeting, whatever his preconceived idea of her complicity in the scheme that robbed him of his guard at Gila Bend and laid him low in the dust of the desert, Loring found, as the result of five days observance and reflection, that his original views had given place to doubt, and doubt at last to confidence in her utter innocence. Knowing what ordeal was before him at the end of the voyage, he had studiously avoided her, but now avoidance was no longer possible. For a few moments they stood there, saying little, for he was not practiced in the speech of Spanish, and at any time his words were few, and then he asked her if she would not like to walk. When Turnbull clambered up the stairway just as the breakfast gong was banging, he was amazed to find the Engineer and Pancha, arm in arm, pacing swiftly up and down the deck in perfect step and apparently in as perfect accord, the girl's delicate face lighted up with a glow that was not all of exercise, her wonderful eyes looking frankly into Loring's fine, thoughtful face, her free hand gesticulating eagerly as she chattered blithely, almost ceaselessly, for Loring was a flattering listener to men or women, old or young. It was a transfigured maiden that met the sisters De la Cruz as they ventured from their staterooms to the table. Even Inez, their boasted beauty, looked sallow and wan beside her radiant cousin, and the fat duenna, their aunt, gazed in mingled astonishment and disapproval at the sight. But Pancha was the heroine of the day. Pancha's hand had caught the dolphin, and the captain showered his loud congratulations, the purser handed her to her seat, and would gladly have sidled into the chair of Senor Sepulvida, who had come aboard with them at Guaymas and kept his berth until the previous evening, yet now came forth to face the gathering company at breakfast. The skipper had placed the stout senora at his own right, with Turnbull just beyond her. To Senorita Inez he had given the left-hand seat, with Loring on her other side, and Senorita Carmen just beyond him. So there was the Engineer flanked by damsels said to enjoy no little wealth and social station, yet his blue eyes ever wandered over across and further down the table where sat Pancha with a stuffy old cigar merchant between her and their party, and that scape-grace, Sepulvida, ogling on the other hand. Two, at least, of that reassembling company deserved their appetites at breakfast. But Turnbull had no zest for anything, and the women generally only feebly toyed with their forks. The colonel had found time to seize Loring by the arm and whisper to him on the stairs:
"By Jove, young man, you're playing a deep game! D'you expect to find out anything?"
"I have—already," said Loring.
"The devil you have! What?"
And that bright morning was followed by a cloudless afternoon and a sweet, still, starlit evening, and by this time all men and all women were on deck, and the Idaho was foaming swiftly on through the summer seas, and people went below reluctantly at night, and woke to new and brighter life on the morrow; and Loring was up with the sun and drinking deep draughts of old ocean's ozone, as he paced the decks till Pancha came. And one day followed another, and Turnbull read and yawned and dozed and tried to talk to the charming senoritas, but couldn't muster enough Castilian, and Traynor chalked the decks for "horse billiards" and shuffleboard, and everybody took a hand at times, and one evening, despite the havoc moist salt air plays with catgut, Pancha's guitar and that of the purser were brought into requisition, and Pancha was made to sing, a thing she didn't do too well as yet, and Pancha knew it without asking when she looked in Loring's eyes, and no power or persuasion could make her try again—until long, long after.
They were having now an ideal voyage, so far as wind and weather were concerned, but the Senoritas de la Cruz declared it the stupidest they'd ever known, and the officers—los Americanos—the least attentive or attractive of those with whom they had ever sailed. And everybody seemed to long for the sight of the green headlands of the Golden Gate and the terraced slopes of San Francisco—all save two; Pancha, to whom the ending of that voyage meant the ending of the sweetest days her life had ever known, and the beginning of a school drudgery she dreaded, and Loring, to whom the return to San Francisco meant the taking up anew of a tangled case that had become hateful to him, to whom there was the prospect of a meeting that he would gladly avoid, to whom there was coming an inevitable parting, the thought of which oppressed him strangely, and he could not yet tell why.
The marvelous green of the California bluffs spanned the horizon for miles on their starboard hand one radiant afternoon as they went below to the captain's dinner, the last before reaching port. The sunshine had been brilliant all the day, yet there came a chilly, shivering air toward two o'clock, and the first officer shrugged his shoulders and looked dubiously ahead, but gave no other sign. Gaily they drank the skipper's health and pledged the Idaho in her best champagne. Long they lingered over the table and laughter, jest and song and story enlivened the hours that came to an end at last, and Pancha stole her little hand within Loring's arm for the last starlight walk along the now familiar decks, and lo, when they issued from the brightly-lighted saloon the stars were gone, the steamer was forging ahead through a chill mist that grew thicker with every moment, and as half-speed was ordered and the mournful notes of the whistle groaned out throbbingly over the leaden sea, she swayed uneasily over a heavy ground swell that careened her deeper and deeper as the mist thickened to fog, and oilskins and sou'westers came out and dark figures went dripping about the decks, and Loring fetched his uniform cape from below and muffled in it Pancha's slender form, and for awhile they tottered up and down, then abandoned the attempt to walk, and settled in their chairs at the end of the bench, just where she had sat and clung to the white stanchion and sobbed her heart out that night in Guaymas Bay. Ay de mi—Pancha could have sobbed almost as hard, though no longer in loneliness and desolation—this very night.