Once he had accidentally met Naida, but their brief conversation left him more deeply mystified then ever, and later she seemed to avoid him altogether. The barrier between them no longer appeared as a figment of her misguided imagination, but rather as a real thing neither patience nor courage might hope to surmount. If he could have flattered himself that Naida was depressed also in spirit, the fact might have proved both comfort and inspiration, but to his view her attitude was one of almost total indifference. One day he deemed her but an idle coquette; the next, a warm-hearted woman, doing her duty bravely. Yet through it all her power over him never slackened. Twice he walked with Miss Spencer as far as the Herndon house, hopeful that that vivacious young lady might chance to let fall some unguarded hint of guidance. But Miss Spencer was then too deeply immersed in her own affairs of the heart to waste either time or thought upon others.
The end to this nervous strain came in the form of an urgent despatch recalling N Troop to Fort Abraham Lincoln by forced marches. The commander felt no doubt as to the full meaning of this message, and the soldier in him made prompt and joyful response. Little Glencaid was almost out of the world so far as recent news was concerned. The military telegraph, however, formed a connecting link with the War Department, so that Brant knew something of the terrible condition of the Northwest. He had thus learned of the consolidation of the hostile savages, incited by Sitting Bull, into the fastness of the Big Horn Range; he was aware that General Crook was already advancing northward from the Nebraska line; and he knew it was part of the plan of operation for Custer and the Seventh Cavalry to strike directly westward across the Dakota hills. Now he realized that he was to be a part of this chosen fighting force, and his heart responded to the summons as to a bugle-call in battle.
Instantly the little camp was astir, the men feeling the enthusiasm of their officers. With preparations well in hand, Brant's thoughts veered once again toward Naida—he could not leave her, perhaps ride forth to death, without another effort to learn what was this impassable object between them. He rode down to the Herndon house with grave face and sober thought. If he could only understand this girl; if he could only once look into her heart, and know the meaning of her ever-changing actions, her puzzling words! He felt convinced he had surprised the reflection of love within her eyes; but soon the reflection vanished. The end was ever the same—he only knew he loved her.
He recalled long the plainly furnished room into which Mrs. Herndon ushered him to await the girl's appearance—the formal look of the old-fashioned hair-cloth furniture, the prim striped paper on the walls, the green shades at the windows, the clean rag carpet on the floor. The very stiffness chilled him, left him ill at ease. To calm his spirit he walked to a window, and stood staring out into the warm sunlight. Then he heard the rustle of Naida's skirt and turned to meet her. She was pale from her weeks of nursing, and agitated for fear of what this unexpected call might portend. Yet to his thought she appeared calm, her manner restrained. Nor could anything be kinder than her first greeting, the frankly extended hand, the words expressive of welcome.
"Mr. Wynkoop informed me a few minutes ago that you had at last received your orders for the north," she said, her lips slightly trembling. "I wondered if you would leave without a word of farewell."
He bowed low. "I do not understand how you could doubt, for I have shown my deep interest in you even from the first. If I have lately seemed to avoid you, it has only been because I believed you wished it so."
A slight flush tinged the pallor of her cheeks, while the long lashes drooped over the eyes, concealing their secrets.
"Life is not always as easy to live aright as it appears upon the surface," she confessed. "I am learning that I cannot always do just as I should like, but must content myself with the performance of duty. Shall we not be seated?"
There was an embarrassing pause, as though neither knew how to get through the interview.
"No doubt you are rejoiced to be sent on active service again," she said, at last.
"Yes, both as a soldier and as a man, Miss Naida. I am glad to get into the field again with my regiment, to do my duty under the flag, and I am equally rejoiced to have something occur which will tend to divert my thoughts. I had not intended to say anything of this kind, but now that I am with you I simply cannot restrain the words. This past month has been, I believe, the hardest I have ever been compelled to live through. You simply mystify me, so that I alternately hope and despair. Your methods are cruel."
"Mine?" and she gazed at him with parted lips. "Lieutenant Brant, what can you mean? What is it I have done?"
"It may have been only play to you, and so easily forgotten," he went on, bitterly. "But that is a dangerous game, very certain to hurt some one. Miss Naida, your face, your eyes, even your lips almost continually tell me one thing; your words another. I know not which to trust. I never meet you except to go away baffled and bewildered."
"You wish to know the truth?"
"Ay, and for ail time! Are you false, or true? Coquette, or woman? Do you simply play with hearts for idle amusement, or is there some true purpose ruling your actions?"
She looked directly at him, her hands clasped, her breath almost sobbing between the parted lips. At first she could not speak. "Oh, you hurt me so," she faltered at last. "I did not suppose you could ever think that. I—I did not mean it; oh, truly I did not mean it! You forget how young I am; how very little I know of the world and its ways. Perhaps I have not even realized how deeply in earnest you were, have deceived myself into believing you were merely amusing yourself with me. Why, indeed, should I think otherwise? How could I venture to believe you would ever really care in that way for such a waif as I? You have seen other women in that great Eastern world of which I have only read—refined, cultured, princesses, belonging to your own social circle,—how should I suppose you could forget them, and give your heart to a little outcast, a girl without a name or a home? Rather should it be I who might remain perplexed and bewildered."
"I love you," he said, with simple honesty. "I seek you for my wife."
She started at these frankly spoken words, her hands partially concealing her face, her form trembling. "Oh, I wish you hadn't said that! It is not because I doubt you any longer; not that I fail to appreciate all you offer me. But it is so hard to appear ungrateful, to give nothing in return for so vast a gift."
"Then it is true that you do not love me?"
The blood flamed suddenly up into her face, but there was no lowering of the eyes, no shrinking back. She was too honest to play the coward before him.
"I shall not attempt to deceive you," she said, with a slow impressiveness instantly carrying conviction. "This has already progressed so far that I now owe you complete frankness. Donald Brant, now and always, living or dead, married or single, wherever life may take us, I shall love you."
Their eyes were meeting, but she held up her hand to restrain him from the one step forward.
"No, no; I have confessed the truth; I have opened freely to you the great secret of my heart. With it you must be content to leave me. There is nothing more that I can give you, absolutely nothing. I can never be your wife; I hope, for your sake and mine, that we never meet again."
She did not break down, or hesitate in the utterance of these words, although there was a piteous tremble on her lips, a pathetic appeal in her eyes. Brant stood like a statue, his face grown white. He did not in the least doubt her full meaning of renunciation.
"You will, at least, tell me why?" It was all that would come to his dry lips.
She sank back upon the sofa, as though the strength had suddenly deserted her body, her eyes shaded by an uplifted hand.
"I cannot tell you. I have no words, no courage. You will learn some day from others, and be thankful that I loved you well enough to resist temptation. But the reason cannot come to you from my lips."
He leaned forward, half kneeling at her feet, and she permitted him to clasp her hand within both his own. "Tell me, at least, this—is it some one else? Is it Hampton?"
She smiled at him through a mist of tears, a smile the sad sweetness of which he would never forget. "In the sense you mean, no. No living man stands between us, not even Bob Hampton."
"Does he know why this cannot be?"
"He does know, but I doubt if he will ever reveal his knowledge; certainly not to you. He has not told me all, even in the hour when he thought himself dying. I am convinced of that. It is not because he dislikes you, Lieutenant Brant, but because he knew his partial revealment of the truth was a duty he owed us both."
There was a long, painful pause between them, during which neither ventured to look directly at the other.
"You leave me so completely in the dark," he said, finally; "is there no possibility that this mysterious obstacle can ever be removed?"
"None. It is beyond earthly power—there lies between us the shadow of a dead man."
He stared at her as if doubting her sanity.
"A dead man! Not Gillis?"
"No, it is not Gillis. I have told you this much so that you might comprehend how impossible it is for us to change our fate. It is irrevocably fixed. Please do not question me any more; cannot you see how I am suffering? I beseech your pity; I beg you not to prolong this useless interview. I cannot bear it!"
Brant rose to his feet, and stood looking down upon her bowed head, her slender figure shaken by sobs. Whatever it might prove to be, this mysterious shadow of a dead man, there could be no doubting what it now meant to her. His eyes were filled with a love unutterable.
"Naida, as you have asked it, I will go; but I go better, stronger, because I have heard your lips say you love me. I am going now, my sweetheart, but if I live, I shall come again. I know nothing of what you mean about a dead man being between us, but I shall know when I come back, for, dead or alive, no man shall remain between me and the girl I love."
"This—this is different," she sobbed, "different; it is beyond your power."
"I shall never believe so until I have faced it for myself, nor will I even say good-bye, for, under God, I am coming back to you."
He turned slowly, and walked away. As his hand touched the latch of the door he paused and looked longingly back.
She glanced up at him.
"You kissed me once; will you again?"
She rose silently and crossed over to him, her hands held out, her eyes uplifted to his own. Neither spoke as he drew her gently to him, and their lips met.
"Say it once more, sweetheart?"
"Donald, I love you."
A moment they stood thus face to face, reading the great lesson of eternity within the depths of each other's eyes. Then slowly, gently, she released herself from the clasp of his strong arms.
"You believe in me now? You do not go away blaming me?" she questioned, with quivering lips.
"There is no blame, for you are doing what you think right. But I am coming back, Naida, little woman; coming back to love and you."
An hour later N Troop trotted across the rude bridge, and circled the bluff, on its way toward the wide plains. Brant, riding ahead of his men, caught a glimpse of something white fluttering from an open window of the yellow house fronting the road. Instantly he whipped off his campaign hat, and bowing to the saddle pommel, rode bareheaded out of sight. And from behind the curtain Naida watched the last horseman round the bluff angle, riding cheerfully away to hardship, danger, and death, her eyes dry and despairing, her heart scarcely beating. Then she crept across the narrow room, and buried her face in the coverlet of the bed.
ON THE LITTLE BIG HORN
MR. HAMPTON RESOLVES
Mr. Bob Hampton stood in the bright sunshine on the steps of the hotel, his appreciative gaze wandering up the long, dusty, unoccupied street, and finally rising to the sweet face of the young girl who occupied the step above. As their eyes met both smiled as if they understood each other. Except for being somewhat pale, the result of long, inactive weeks passed indoors, Mr. Hampton's appearance was that of perfect health, while the expression of his face evidenced the joy of living.
"There is nothing quite equal to feeling well, little girl," he said, genially, patting her hand where it rested on the railing, "and I really believe I am in as fine fettle now as I ever have been. Do you know, I believe I 'm perfectly fit to undertake that little detective operation casually mentioned to you a few days ago. It 's got to be done, and the sooner I get at it the easier I'll feel. Fact is, I put in a large portion of the night thinking out my plans."
"I wish you would give it up all together, Bob," she said, anxiously. "I shall be so dull and lonely here while you are gone."
"I reckon you will, for a fact, as it's my private impression that lovely Miss Spencer does n't exert herself over much to be entertaining unless there happens to be a man in sight. Great guns! how she did fling language the last time she blew in to see me! But, Naida, it isn't likely this little affair will require very long, and things are lots happier between us since my late shooting scrape. For one thing, you and I understand each other better; then Mrs. Herndon has been quite decently civil. When Fall comes I mean to take you East and put you in some good finishing school. Don't care quite as much about it as you did, do you?"
"Yes, I think I do, Bob." She strove bravely to express enthusiasm. "The trouble is, I am so worried over your going off alone hunting after that man."
He laughed, his eyes searching her face for the truth. "Well, little girl, he won't exactly be the first I 've had call to go after. Besides, this is a particular case, and appeals to me in a sort of personal way. It you only knew it, you're about as deeply concerned in the result as I am, and as for me, I can never rest easy again until the matter is over with."
"It's that awful Murphy, is n't it?"
"He's the one I'm starting after first, and one sight at his right hand will decide whether he is to be the last as well."
"I never supposed you would seek revenge, like a savage," she remarked, quietly. "You never used to be that way."
"Good Lord, Naida, do you think I 'm low down enough to go out hunting that poor cuss merely to get even with him for trying to stick me with a knife? Why, there are twenty others who have done as much, and we have been the best of friends afterwards. Oh, no, lassie, it means more than that, and harks back many a long year. I told you I saw a mark on his hand I would never forget—but I saw that mark first fifteen years ago. I 'm not taking my life in my hand to revenge the killing of Slavin, or in any memory of that little misunderstanding between the citizens of Glencaid and myself. I should say not. I have been slashed at and shot at somewhat promiscuously during the last five years, but I never permitted such little affairs to interfere with either business, pleasure, or friendship. If this fellow Murphy, or whoever the man I am after may prove to be, had contented himself with endeavoring playfully to carve me, the account would be considered closed. But this is a duty I owe a friend, a dead friend, to run to earth this murderer. Do you understand now? The fellow who did that shooting up at Bethune fifteen years ago had the same sort of a mark on his right hand as this one who killed Slavin. That's why I'm after him, and when I catch up he'll either squeal or die. He won't be very likely to look on the matter as a joke."
"But how do you know?"
"I never told you the whole story, and I don't mean to now until I come back, and can make everything perfectly clear. It would n't do you any good the way things stand now, and would only make you uneasy. But if you do any praying over it, my girl, pray good and hard that I may discover some means for making that fellow squeal."
She made no response. He had told her so little, that it left her blindly groping, yet fearful to ask for more. She stood gazing thoughtfully past him.
"Have you heard anything lately, Bob, about the Seventh?" she asked, finally. "Since—since N Troop left here?"
He answered with well-simulated carelessness. "No; but it is most likely they are well into the game by this time. It's bound to prove a hard campaign, to judge from all visible indications, and the trouble has been hatching long enough to get all the hostiles into a bunch. I know most of them, and they are a bad lot of savages. Crook's column, I have just heard, was overwhelmingly attacked on the Rosebud, and forced to fall back. That leaves the Seventh to take the brunt of it, and there is going to be hell up north presently, or I 've forgotten all I ever knew about Indians. Sitting Bull is the arch-devil for a plot, and he has found able assistants to lead the fighting. I only wish it were my luck to be in it. But come, little girl, as I said, I 'm quite likely to be off before night, provided I am fortunate enough to strike a fresh trail. Under such conditions you won't mind my kissing you out here, will you?"
She held up her lips and he touched them softly with his own. Her eyes were tear-dimmed. "Oh, Bob, I hate so to let you go," she sobbed, clinging to him. "No one could have been more to me than you have been, and you are all I have left in the world. Everything I care for goes away from me. Life is so hard, so hard!"
"Yes, little girl, I know," and the man stroked her hair tenderly, his own voice faltering. "It's all hard; I learned that sad lesson long ago, but I 've tried to make it a little bit easier for you since we first came together. Still, I don't see how I can possibly help this. I 've been hunting after that fellow a long while now, a matter of fifteen years over a mighty dim trail, and it would be a mortal sin to permit him to get away scot-free. Besides, if this affair only manages to turn out right, I can promise to make you the happiest girl in America. But, Naida, dear, don't cling to me so; it is not at all like you to break down in this fashion," and he gently unclasped her hands, holding her away from him, while he continued to gaze hungrily into her troubled face. "It only weakens me at a time when I require all my strength of will."
"Sometimes I feel just like a coward, Bob. It's the woman of it; yet truly I wish to do whatever you believe to be best. But, Bob, I need you so much, and you will come back, won't you? I shall be so lonely here, for—for you are truly all I have in the world."
With one quick, impulsive motion he pressed her to him, passionately kissing the tears from her lowered lashes, unable longer to conceal the tremor that shook his own voice. "Never, never doubt it, lassie. It will not take me long, and if I live I come straight back."
He watched her slender, white-robed figure as it passed slowly down the deserted street. Once only she paused, and waved back to him, and he returned instant response, although scarcely realizing the act.
"Poor little lonely girl! perhaps I ought to have told her the whole infernal story, but I simply haven't got the nerve, the way it reads now. If I can only get it straightened out, it'll be different."
Mechanically he thrust an unlighted cigar between his teeth, and descended the steps, to all outward appearance the same reckless, audacious Hampton as of old. Mrs. Guffy smiled happily from an open window as she observed the square set of his shoulders, the easy, devil-may-care smile upon his lips.
The military telegraph occupied one-half of the small tent next the Miners' Retreat, and the youthful operator instantly recognized his debonair visitor.
"Well, Billy," was Hampton's friendly greeting, "are they keeping you fairly busy with 'wars and rumors of wars' these days?"
"Nuthin' doin', just now," was the cheerful reply. "Everything goin' ter Cheyenne. The Injuns are gittin' themselves bottled up in the Big Horn country."
"Oh, that's it? Then maybe you might manage to rush a message through for me to Fort A. Lincoln, without discommoding Uncle Sam?" and Hampton placed a coin upon the rough table.
"Sure; write it out."
"Here it is; now get it off early, my lad, and bring the answer to me over at the hotel. There 'll be another yellow boy waiting when you come."
The reply arrived some two hours later.
"FORT A. LINCOLN, June 17, 1876.
"Seventh gone west, probably Yellowstone. Brant with them. Murphy, government scout, at Cheyenne waiting orders.
He crushed the paper in his hand, thinking—thinking of the past, the present, the future. He had borne much in these last years, much misrepresentation, much loneliness of soul. He had borne these patiently, smiling into the mocking eyes of Fate. Through it all—the loss of friends, of profession, of ambition, of love, of home—he had never wholly lost hold of a sustaining hope, and now it would seem that this long-abiding faith was at last to be rewarded. Yet he realized, as he fronted the facts, how very little he really had to build upon,—the fragmentary declaration of Slavin, wrung from him in a moment of terror; an idle boast made to Brant by the surprised scout; a second's glimpse at a scarred hand,—little enough, indeed, yet by far the most clearly marked trail he had ever struck in all his vain endeavor to pierce the mystery which had so utterly ruined his life. To run this Murphy to cover remained his final hope for retrieving those dead, dark years. Ay, and there was Naida! Her future, scarcely less than his own, hung trembling in the balance.
The sudden flashing of that name into his brain was like an electric shock. He cursed his inactivity. Great God! had he become a child again, to tremble before imagined evil, a mere hobgoblin of the mind? He had already wasted time enough; now he must wring from the lips of that misshapen savage the last vestige of his secret.
The animal within him sprang to fierce life. God! he would prove as wary, as cunning, as relentless as ever was Indian on the trail. Murphy would never suspect at this late day that he was being tracked. That was well. Tireless, fearless, half savage as the scout undoubtedly was, one fully his equal was now at his heels, actuated by grim, relentless purpose. Hampton moved rapidly in preparation. He dressed for the road, for hard, exacting service, buckling his loaded cartridge-belt outside his rough coat, and testing his revolvers with unusual care. He spoke a few parting words of instruction to Mrs. Guffy, and went quietly out. Ten minutes later he was in the saddle, galloping down the dusty stage road toward Cheyenne.
THE TRAIL OF SILENT MURPHY
The young infantryman who had been detailed for the important service of telegraph operator, sat in the Cheyenne office, his feet on the rude table his face buried behind a newspaper. He had passed through two eventful weeks of unremitting service, being on duty both night and day, and now, the final despatches forwarded, he felt entitled to enjoy a period of well-earned repose.
"Could you inform me where I might find Silent Murphy, a government scout?"
The voice had the unmistakable ring of military authority, and the soldier operator instinctively dropped his feet to the floor.
"Well, my lad, you are not dumb, are you?"
The telegrapher's momentary hesitation vanished; his ambition to become a martyr to the strict laws of service secrecy was not sufficiently strong to cause him to take the doubtful chances of a lie. "He was here, but has gone."
"The devil knows. He rode north, carrying despatches for Custer."
"Oh, three or four hours ago."
Hampton swore softly but fervently, behind his clinched teeth.
"Where is Custer?"
"Don't know exactly. Supposed to be with Terry and Gibbons, somewhere near the mouth of the Powder, although he may have left there by this time, moving down the Yellowstone. That was the plan mapped out. Murphy's orders were to intercept his column somewhere between the Rosebud and the Big Horn, and I figure there is about one chance out of a hundred that the Indians let him get that far alive. No other scout along this border would take such a detail. I know, for there were two here who failed to make good when the job was thrown at them—just naturally faded away," and the soldier's eyes sparkled. "But that old devil of a Murphy just enjoys such a trip. He started off as happy as ever I see him."
"How far will he have to ride?"
"Oh, 'bout three hundred miles as the crow flies, a little west of north, and the better part of the distance, they tell me, it's almighty rough country for night work. But then Murphy, he knows the way all right."
Hampton turned toward the door, feeling fairly sick from disappointment. The operator stood regarding him curiously, a question on his lips.
"Sorry you didn't come along a little earlier," he said, genially. "Do you know Murphy?"
"I 'm not quite certain. Did you happen to notice a peculiar black scar on the back of his right hand?"
"Sure; looks like the half of a pear. He said it was powder under the skin."
A new look of reviving determination swept into Hampton's gloomy eyes—beyond doubt this must be his man.
"How many horses did he have?"
"Did you overhear him say anything definite about his plans for the trip?"
"What, him? He never talks, that fellow. He can't do nothing but sputter if he tries. But I wrote out his orders, and they give him to the twenty-fifth to make the Big Horn. That's maybe something like fifty miles a day, and he's most likely to keep his horses fresh just as long as possible, so as to be good for the last spurt through the hostile country. That's how I figure it, and I know something about scouting. You was n't planning to strike out after him, was you?"
"I might risk it if I only thought I could overtake him within two days; my business is of some importance."
"Well, stranger, I should reckon you might do that with a dog-gone good outfit. Murphy 's sure to take things pretty easy to-day, and he's almost certain to follow the old mining trail as far as the ford over the Belle Fourche, and that's plain enough to travel. Beyond that point the devil only knows where he will go, for then is when his hard ridin' begins."
The moment the operator mentioned that odd scar on Murphy's hand, every vestige of hesitation vanished. Beyond any possibility of doubt he was on the right scent this time. Murphy was riding north upon a mission as desperate as ever man was called upon to perform. The chance of his coming forth alive from that Indian-haunted land was, as the operator truthfully said, barely one out of a hundred. Hampton thought of this. He durst not venture all he was so earnestly striving after—love, reputation, honor—to the chance of a stray Sioux bullet. No! and he remembered Naida again, her dark, pleading eyes searching his face. To the end, to the death if need were, he would follow!
The memory of his old plains craft would not permit any neglect of the few necessaries for the trip. He bought without haggling over prices, but insisted on the best. So it was four in the afternoon when he finally struck into the trail leading northward. This proved at first a broad, plainly marked path, across the alkali plain. He rode a mettlesome, half-broken bronco, a wicked-eyed brute, which required to be conquered twice within the first hour of travel; a second and more quiet animal trailed behind at the end of a lariat, bearing the necessary equipment. Hampton forced the two into a rapid lope, striving to make the most possible out of the narrow margin of daylight remaining.
He had, by persistent questioning, acquired considerable information, during that busy hour spent in Cheyenne, regarding the untracked regions lying before him, as well as the character and disposition of the man he pursued. Both by instinct and training he was able to comprehend those brief hints that must prove of vast benefit in the pathless wilderness. But the time had not yet arrived for him to dwell on such matters. His thoughts were concentrated on Murphy. He knew that the fellow was a stubborn, silent, sullen savage, devoid of physical fear, yet cunning, wary, malignant, and treacherous. That was what they said of him back in Cheyenne. What, then, would ever induce such a man to open his mouth in confession of a long-hidden crime? To be sure, he might easily kill the fellow, but he would probably die, like a wild beast, without uttering a word.
There was one chance, a faint hope, that behind his gruff, uncouth exterior this Murphy possessed a conscience not altogether dead. Over some natures, and not infrequently to those which seem outwardly the coarsest, superstition wields a power the normal mind can scarcely comprehend. Murphy might be spiritually as cringing a coward as he was physically a fearless desperado. Hampton had known such cases before; he had seen men laugh scornfully before the muzzle of a levelled gun, and yet tremble when pointed at by the finger of accusation. He had lived sufficiently long on the frontier to know that men may become inured to that special form of danger to which they have grown accustomed through repetition, and yet fail to front the unknown and mysterious. Perhaps here might be discovered Murphy's weak point. Without doubt the man was guilty of crime; that its memory continued to haunt him was rendered evident by his hiding in Glencaid, and by his desperate attempt to kill Hampton. That knife-thrust must have been given with the hope of thus stopping further investigation; it alone was sufficient proof that Murphy's soul was haunted by fear.
"Conscience doth make cowards of us all." These familiar words floated in Hampton's memory, seeming to attune themselves to the steady gallop of his horse. They appealed to him as a direct message of guidance. The night was already dark, but stars were gleaming brilliantly overhead, and the trail remained easily traceable. It became terribly lonely on that wilderness stretching away for unknown leagues in every direction, yet Hampton scarcely noted this, so watchful was he lest he miss the trail. To his judgment, Murphy would not be likely to ride during the night until after he had crossed the Fourche. There was no reason to suspect that there were any hostile Indians south of that stream, and probably therefore the old scout would endeavor to conserve his own strength and that of his horses, for the more perilous travel beyond. Hampton hastened on, his eyes peering anxiously ahead into the steadily increasing gloom.
About midnight, the trail becoming obscure, the rider made camp, confident he must have already gained heavily on the man he pursued. He lariated his horses, and flinging himself down on some soft turf, almost immediately dropped asleep. He was up again before daylight, and, after a hasty meal, pressed on. The nature of the country had changed considerably, becoming more broken, the view circumscribed by towering cliffs and deep ravines. Hampton swung forward his field-glasses, and, from the summit of every eminence, studied the topography of the country lying beyond. He must see before being seen, and he believed he could not now be many miles in the rear of Murphy.
Late in the afternoon he reined up his horse and gazed forward into a broad valley, bounded with precipitous bluffs. The trail, now scarcely perceptible, led directly down, winding about like some huge snake, across the lower level, toward where a considerable stream of water shone silvery in the sun, half concealed behind a fringe of willows. Beyond doubt this was the Belle Fourche. And yonder, close in against those distant willows, some black dots were moving. Hampton glued his anxious eyes to the glass. The levelled tubes clearly revealed a man on horseback, leading another horse. The animals were walking. There could be little doubt that this was Silent Murphy.
Hampton lariated his tired horses behind the bluff, and returned to the summit, lying flat upon the ground, with the field-glass at his eyes. The distant figures passed slowly forward into the midst of the willows, and for half an hour the patient watcher scanned the surface of the stream beyond, but there was no sign of attempted passage. The sun sank lower, and finally disappeared behind those desolate ridges to the westward. Hampton's knowledge of plains craft rendered Murphy's actions sufficiently clear. This was the Fourche; beyond those waters lay the terrible peril of Indian raiders. Further advance must be made by swift, secret night riding, and never-ceasing vigilance. This was what Murphy had been saving himself and his horses for. Beyond conjecture, he was resting now within the shadows of those willows, studying the opposite shore and making ready for the dash northward. Hampton believed he would linger thus for some time after dark, to see if Indian fires would afford any guidance. Confident of this, he passed back to his horses, rubbed them down with grass, and then ate his lonely supper, not venturing to light a fire, certain that Murphy's eyes were scanning every inch of sky-line.
Darkness came rapidly, while Hampton sat planning again the details of his night's work. The man's spirits became depressed by the gloom and the silence. Evil fancies haunted his brain. His mind dwelt upon the past, upon that wrong which had wrecked his life, upon the young girl he had left praying for his safe return, upon that miserable creature skulking yonder in the black night. Hampton could not remember when he had ever performed such an act before, nor could he have explained why he did so then, yet he prayed—prayed for the far-off Naida, and for personal guidance in the stern work lying before him. And when he rose to his feet and groped his way to the horses, there remained no spirit of vengeance in his heart, no hatred, merely a cool resolve to succeed in his strange quest. So, the two animals trailing cautiously behind, he felt his slow way on foot down the steep bluff, into the denser blackness of the valley.
THE HAUNTING OF A CRIME
Murphy rested on his back in the midst of a thicket of willows, wide awake, yet not quite ready to ford the Fourche and plunge into the dense shadows shrouding the northern shore. Crouched behind a log, he had so far yielded unto temptation as to light his pipe.
Murphy had been amid just such unpleasant environments many times before, and the experience had grown somewhat prosaic. He realized fully the imminent peril haunting the next two hundred miles, but such danger was not wholly unwelcome to his peculiar temperament; rather it was an incentive to him, and, without a doubt, he would manage to pull through somehow, as he had done a hundred times before. Even Indian-scouting degenerates into a commonplace at last. So Murphy puffed contentedly at his old pipe. Whatever may have been his thoughts, they did not burst through his taciturnity, and he reclined there motionless, no sound breaking the silence, save the rippling waters of the Fourche, and the occasional stamping of his horses as they cropped the succulent valley grass.
But suddenly there was the faint crackle of a branch to his left, and one hand instantly closed over his pipe bowl, the other grasping the heavy revolver at his hip. Crouching like a startled tiger, with not a muscle moving, he peered anxiously into the darkness, his arm half extended, scarcely venturing to breathe. There came a plain, undisguised rustling in the grass,—some prowling coyote, probably; then his tense muscles immediately relaxed, and he cursed himself for being so startled, yet he continued to grasp the "45" in his right hand, his eyes alert.
That single word, hurled thus unexpectedly out of the black night, startled him more than would a volley of rifles. He sprang half erect, then as swiftly crouched behind a willow, utterly unable to articulate. In God's name, what human could be out there to call? He would have sworn that there was not another white man within a radius of a hundred miles. For the instant his very blood ran cold; he appeared to shrivel up.
"Oh, come, Murphy; speak up, man; I know you're in here."
That terror of the unknown instantly vanished. This was the familiar language of the world, and, however the fellow came to be there, it was assuredly a man who spoke. With a gurgling oath at his own folly, Murphy's anger flared violently forth into disjointed speech, the deadly gun yet clasped ready for instant action.
"Who—the hell—are ye?" he blurted out.
The visitor laughed, the bushes rustling as he pushed toward the sound of the voice. "It's all right, old boy. Gave ye quite a scare, I reckon."
Murphy could now dimly perceive the other advancing through the intervening willows, and his Colt shot up to the level. "Stop!—ye take another—step an' I 'll—let drive. Ye tell me—first—who ye be."
The invader paused, but he realized the nervous finger pressing the trigger and made haste to answer. "It's all right, I tell ye. I 'm one o' Terry's scouts."
"Ye are? Jist the same—I've heard—yer voice—afore."
"Likely 'nough. I saw service in the Seventh."
Murphy was still a trifle suspicious. "How'd ye git yere? How 'd ye come ter know—whar I wus?"
The man laughed again. "Sorter hurts yer perfessional feelins, don't it, old feller, to be dropped in on in this unceremonious way? But it was dead easy, old man. Ye see I happened thro' Cheyenne only a couple o' hours behind ye, with a bunch o' papers fer the Yellowstone. The trail's plain enough out this far, and I loped 'long at a pretty fair hickory, so thet I was up on the bluff yonder, and saw ye go into camp yere just afore dark. You wus a-keepin' yer eyes skinned across the Fourche, and naturally didn't expect no callers from them hills behind. The rest wus nuthin', an' here I am. It's a darn sight pleasanter ter hev company travellin', ter my notion. Now kin I cum on?"
Murphy reluctantly lowered his Colt, every movement betraying annoyance. "I reckon. But I 'd—a damn sight—rather risk it—alone."
The stranger came forward without further hesitation. The night was far too dark to reveal features, but to Murphy's strained vision the newcomer appeared somewhat slender in build, and of good height.
"Whar'd—ye say ye—wus bound?"
"Mouth o' the Powder. We kin ride tergether fer a night or two."
"Ye kin—do as ye—please, but—I ain't a huntin'—no company,—an' I'm a'—goin' 'cross now."
He advanced a few strides toward his horses. Then suddenly he gave vent to a smothered cry, so startling as to cause the stranger to spring hastily after him.
"Oh! My God! Oh! Look there!"
"What is it, man?"
"There! there! The picture! Don't you see?"
"Naw; I don't see nuthin'. Ye ain't gone cracked, hev ye? Whose picture?"
"It's there!—O Lord!—it's there! My God! can't ye see?—An' it's his face—all a-gleamin' with green flames—Holy Mary—an' I ain't seen it—afore in—fifteen year!"
He seemed suddenly to collapse, and the stranger permitted him to drop limp to the earth.
"Darn if I kin see anythin', old man, but I 'll scout 'round thar a bit, jest ter ease yer mind, an' see what I kin skeer up."
He had hardly taken a half-dozen steps before Murphy called after him: "Don't—don't go an' leave me—it's not there now—thet's queer!"
The other returned and stood gazing down upon his huddled figure. "You're a fine scout! afeard o' spooks. Do ye take these yere turns often? Fer if ye do, I reckon as how I 'd sooner be ridin' alone."
Murphy struggled to his feet and gripped the other's arm. "Never hed nuthin' like it—afore. But—but it was thar—all creepy—an' green—ain't seen thet face—in fifteen year."
"A—a fellow I knew—once. He—he's dead."
The other grunted, disdainfully. "Bad luck ter see them sort," he volunteered, solemnly. "Blame glad it warn't me es see it, an' I don't know as I keer much right now 'bout keepin' company with ye fer very long. However, I reckon if either of us calculates on doin' much ridin' ternight, we better stop foolin' with ghosts, an' go ter saddlin' up."
They made rapid work of it, the newcomer proving somewhat loquacious, yet holding his voice to a judicious whisper, while Murphy relapsed into his customary sullen silence, but continued peering about nervously. It was he who led the way down the bank, the four horses slowly splashing through the shallow water to the northern shore. Before them stretched a broad plain, the surface rocky and uneven, the northern stars obscured by ridges of higher land. Murphy promptly gave his horse the spur, never once glancing behind, while the other imitated his example, holding his animal well in check, being apparently the better mounted.
They rode silently. The unshod hoofs made little noise, but a loosened canteen tinkled on Murphy's led horse, and he halted to fix it, uttering a curse. The way became more broken and rough as they advanced, causing them to exercise greater caution. Murphy clung to the hollows, apparently guided by some primitive instinct to choose the right path, or else able, like a cat, to see the way through the gloom, his beacon a huge rock to the northward. Silently hour after hour, galloping, trotting, walking, according to the ground underfoot, the two pressed grimly forward, with the unerring skill of the border, into the untracked wilderness. Flying clouds obscured the stars, yet through the rifts they caught fleeting glimpses sufficient to hold them to their course. And the encroaching hills swept in closer upon either hand, leaving them groping their way between as in a pocket, yet ever advancing north.
Finally they attained to the steep bank of a considerable stream, found the water of sufficient depth to compel swimming, and crept up the opposite shore dripping and miserable, yet with ammunition dry. Murphy stood swearing disjointedly, wiping the blood from a wound in his forehead where the jagged edge of a rock had broken the skin, but suddenly stopped with a quick intake of breath that left him panting. The other man crept toward him, leading his horse.
"What is it now?" he asked, gruffly. "Hev' ye got 'em agin?"
The dazed old scout stared, pointing directly across the other's shoulder, his arm shaking desperately.
"It's thar!—an' it's his face! Oh, God!—I know it—fifteen year."
The man glanced backward into the pitch darkness, but without moving his body.
"There 's nuthin' out there, 'less it's a firefly," he insisted, in a tone of contempt. "You're plum crazy, Murphy; the night's got on yer nerves. What is it ye think ye see?"
"His face, I tell ye! Don't I know? It's all green and ghastly, with snaky flames playin' about it! But I know; fifteen years, an' I ain't fergot."
He sank down feebly—sank until he was on his knees, his head craned forward. The man watching touched the miserable, hunched-up figure compassionately, and it shook beneath his hand, endeavoring to shrink away.
"My God! was thet you? I thought it was him a-reachin' fer me. Here, let me take yer hand. Oh, Lord! An' can't ye see? It's just there beyond them horses—all green, crawlin', devilish—but it's him."
"Brant! Brant—fifteen year!"
"Brant? Fifteen years? Do you mean Major Brant, the one Nolan killed over at Bethune?"
The old man heaved forward, his head rocking from side to side; then suddenly he toppled over on his face, gasping for breath. His companion caught him, and ripped open the heavy flannel shirt. Then he strode savagely across in front of his shrinking horse, tore down the flaring picture, and hastily thrust it into his pocket, the light of the phosphorus with which it had been drawn being reflected for a moment on his features.
"A dirty, miserable, low-down trick," he muttered. "Poor old devil! Yet I've got to do it, for the little girl."
He stumbled back through the darkness, his hat filled with water, and dashed it into Murphy's face. "Come on, Murphy! There's one good thing 'bout spooks; they don't hang 'round fer long at a time. Likely es not this 'un is gone by now. Brace up, man, for you an' I have got ter get out o' here afore mornin'."
Then Murphy grasped his arm, and drew himself slowly to his feet.
"Don't see nuthin' now, do ye?"
"No. Where's my—horse?"
The other silently reached him the loose rein, marking as he did so the quick, nervous peering this way and that, the starting at the slightest sound.
"Did ye say, Murphy, as how it wasn't Nolan after all who plugged the Major?"
"I 'm damned—if I did. Who—else was it?"
"Why, I dunno. Sorter blamed odd though, thet ghost should be a-hauntin' ye. Darn if it ain't creepy 'nough ter make a feller believe most anythin'."
Murphy drew himself up heavily into his saddle. Then all at once he shoved the muzzle of a "45" into the other's face. "Ye say nuther word—'bout thet, an' I 'll make—a ghost outer ye—blame lively. Now, ye shet up—if ye ride with me."
They moved forward at a walk and reached a higher level, across which the night wind swept, bearing a touch of cold in its breath as though coming from the snow-capped mountains to the west. There was renewed life in this invigorating air, and Murphy spurred forward, his companion pressing steadily after. They were but two flitting shadows amid that vast desolation of plain and mountain, their horses' hoofs barely audible. What imaginings of evil, what visions of the past, may have filled the half-crazed brain of the leading horseman is unknowable. He rode steadily against the black night wall, as though unconscious of his actions, yet forgetting no trick, no skill of the plains. But the equally silent man behind clung to him like a shadow of doom, watching his slightest motion—a Nemesis that would never let go.
When the first signs of returning day appeared in the east, the two left their horses in a narrow canyon, and crept to the summit of a ridge. Below lay the broad valley of the Powder. Slowly the misty light strengthened into gray, and became faintly tinged with crimson, while the green and brown tints deepened beneath the advancing light, which ever revealed new clefts in the distant hills. Amid those more northern bluffs a thin spiral of blue smoke was ascending. Undoubtedly it was some distant Indian signal, and the wary old plainsman watched it as if fascinated. But the younger man lay quietly regarding him, a drawn revolver in his hand. Then Murphy turned his head, and looked back into the other's face.
THE VERGE OF CONFESSION
Murphy uttered one sputtering cry of surprise, flinging his hand instinctively to his hip, but attempted no more. Hampton's ready weapon was thrusting its muzzle into the astounded face, and the gray eyes gleaming along the polished barrel held the fellow motionless.
"Hands up! Not a move, Murphy! I have the drop!" The voice was low, but stern, and the old frontiersman obeyed mechanically, although his seamed face was fairly distorted with rage.
"You! Damn you!—I thought I knew—the voice."
"Yes, I am here all right. Rather odd place for us to meet, isn't it? But, you see, you've had the advantage all these years; you knew whom you were running away from, while I was compelled to plod along in the dark. But I 've caught up just the same, if it has been a long race."
"What do ye—want me fer?" The look in the face was cunning.
"Hold your hands quiet—higher, you fool! That's it. Now, don't play with me. I honestly didn 't know for certain I did want you, Murphy, when I first started out on this trip. I merely suspected that I might, from some things I had been told. When somebody took the liberty of slashing at my back in a poker-room at Glencaid, and drove the knife into Slavin by mistake, I chanced to catch a glimpse of the hand on the hilt, and there was a scar on it. About fifteen years before, I was acting as officer of the guard one night at Bethune. It was a bright starlit night, you remember, and just as I turned the corner of the old powder-house there came a sudden flash, a report, a sharp cry. I sprang forward only to fall headlong over a dead body; but in that flash I had seen the hand grasping the revolver, and there was a scar on the back of it, a very peculiar scar. It chanced I had the evening previous slightly quarrelled with the officer who was killed; I was the only person known to be near at the time he was shot; certain other circumstantial evidence was dug up, while Slavin and one other—no, it was not you—gave some damaging, manufactured testimony against me. As a result I was held guilty of murder in the second degree, dismissed the army in disgrace, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. So, you see, it was not exactly you I have been hunting, Murphy,—it was a scar."
Murphy's face was distorted into a hideous grin. "I notice you bear exactly that kind of a scar, my man, and you spoke last night as if you had some recollection of the case."
The mocking grin expanded; into the husky voice crept a snarl of defiance, for now Murphy's courage had come back—he was fronting flesh and blood. "Oh, stop preachin'—an' shoot—an' be damned ter ye!"
"You do me a grave injustice, Murphy. In the first place, I do not possess the nature of an Indian, and am not out for revenge. Your slashing at me down in Glencaid has n't left so much as a sting behind. It's completely blotted out, forgotten. I haven't the slightest desire to kill you, man; but I do want to clear my name of the stain of that crime. I want you to tell the whole truth about that night's work at Bethune; and when you have done so, you can go. I 'll never lay a finger on you; you can go where you please."
"Bah!—ye ain't got no proof—agin me—'sides, the case is closed—it can't be opened agin—by law."
"You devil! I 'd be perfectly justified in killing you," exclaimed Hampton, savagely.
Murphy stared at him stupidly, the cunning of incipient insanity in his eyes. "En' whar—do ye expect—me ter say—all this, pervidin', of course—I wus fule 'nough—ter do it?"
"Up yonder before Custer and the officers of the Seventh, when we get in."
"They'd nab me—likely."
"Now, see here, you say it is impossible for them to touch you, because the case is closed legally. Now, you do not care very much for the opinion of others, while from every other standpoint you feel perfectly safe. But I 've had to suffer for your crime, Murphy, suffer for fifteen years, ten of them behind stone walls; and there are others who have suffered with me. It has cost me love, home, all that a man holds dear. I 've borne this punishment for you, paid the penalty of your act to the full satisfaction of the law. The very least you can do in ordinary decency is to speak the truth now. It will not hurt you, but it will lift me out of hell."
Murphy's eyes were cunning, treacherously shifting under the thatch of his heavy brows; he was like an old rat seeking for any hole of refuge. "Well—maybe I might. Anyhow, I'll go on—with ye. Kin I sit up? I 'm dog tired—lyin' yere."
"Unbuckle your belt, and throw that over first."
"I'm damned—if I will. Not—in no Injun—country."
"I know it's tough," retorted Hampton, with exasperating coolness, his revolver's muzzle held steady; "but, just the same, it's got to be done. I know you far too well to take chances on your gun. So unlimber."
"Oh, I—guess not," and Murphy spat contemptuously. "Do ye think—I 'm afeard o' yer—shootin'? Ye don't dare—fer I 'm no good ter ye—dead."
"You are perfectly right. You are quite a philosopher in your way. You would be no good to me dead, Murphy, but you might prove fully as valuable maimed. Now I 'm playing this game to the limit, and that limit is just about reached. You unlimber before I count ten, you murderer, or I 'll spoil both your hands!"
The mocking, sardonic grin deserted Murphy's features. It was sullen obstinacy, not doubt of the other's purpose, that paralyzed him.
"Unlimber! It's the last call."
With a snarl the scout unclasped his army belt, dropped it to the ground, and sullenly kicked it over toward Hampton. "Now—now—you, you gray-eyed—devil, kin I—sit up?"
The other nodded. He had drawn the fangs of the wolf, and now that he no longer feared, a sudden, unexplainable feeling of sympathy took possession of him. Yet he drew farther away before slipping his own gun into its sheath. For a time neither spoke, their eyes peering across the ridge. Murphy sputtered and swore, but his victorious companion neither spoke nor moved. There were several distant smokes out to the northward now, evidently the answering signals of different bands of savages, while far away, beneath the shadow of the low bluffs bordering the stream, numerous black, moving dots began to show against the light brown background. Hampton, noticing that Murphy had stopped swearing to gaze, swung forward his field-glasses for a better view.
"They are Indians, right enough," he said, at last. "Here, take a look, Murphy. I could count about twenty in that bunch, and they are travelling north."
The older man adjusted the tubes to his eyes, and looked long and steadily at the party. Then he slowly swung the glasses toward the northwest, apparently studying the country inch by inch, his jaws working spasmodically, his unoccupied hand clutching nervously at the grass.
"They seem—to be a-closin' in," he declared, finally, staring around into the other's face, all bravado gone. "There's anuther lot—bucks, all o' 'em—out west yonder—an' over east a smudge is—just startin'. Looks like—we wus in a pocket—an' thar' might be some—har-raisin' fore long."
"Well, Murphy, you are the older hand at this business. What do you advise doing?"
"Me? Why, push right 'long—while we kin keep under cover. Then—after dark—trust ter bull luck an' make—'nuther dash. It's mostly luck, anyhow. Thet canyon just ahead—looks like it leads a long way—toward the Powder. Its middling deep down, an' if there ain't Injuns in it—them fellers out yonder—never cud git no sight at us. Thet's my notion—thet ivery mile helps in this—business."
"You mean we should start now?"
"Better—let the cattle rest—first. An'—if ye ever feed prisoners—I 'd like ter eat a bite—mesilf."
They rested there for over two hours, the tired horses contentedly munching the succulent grass of the coulee, their two masters scarcely exchanging a word. Murphy, after satisfying his appetite, rested flat upon his back, one arm flung over his eyes to protect them from the sun. For a considerable time Hampton supposed him asleep, until he accidentally caught the stealthy glance which followed his slightest movement, and instantly realized that the old weasel was alert. Murphy had been beaten, yet evidently remained unconquered, biding his chance with savage stoicism, and the other watched him warily even while seeming to occupy himself with the field-glass.
At last they saddled up, and, at first leading their horses, passed down the coulee into the more precipitous depths of the narrow canyon. This proved hardly more than a gash cut through the rolling prairie, rock strewn, holding an insignificant stream of brackish water, yet was an ideal hiding-place, having ample room for easy passage between the rock walls. The men mounted, and Hampton, with a wave of his hand, bade the old scout assume the lead.
Their early advance was slow and cautious, as they never felt certain what hidden enemies might lurk behind the sharp corners of the winding defile, and they kept vigilant eyes upon the serrated sky-line. The savages were moving north, and so were they. It would be remarkably good fortune if they escaped running into some wandering band, or if some stray scout did not stumble upon their trail. So they continued to plod on.
It was fully three o'clock when they attained to the bank of the Powder, and crouched among the rocks to wait for the shades of night to shroud their further advance. Murphy climbed the bluff for a wider view, bearing Hampton's field-glasses slung across his shoulder, for the latter would not leave him alone with the horses. He returned finally to grunt out that there was nothing special in sight, except a shifting of those smoke signals to points farther north. Then they lay down again, Hampton smoking, Murphy either sleeping or pretending to sleep. And slowly the shadows of another black night swept down and shut them in.
It must have been two hours later when they ventured forth. Silence and loneliness brooded everywhere, not so much as a breath of air stirring the leaves. The unspeakable, unsolvable mystery of it all rested like a weight on the spirits of both men. It, was a disquieting thought that bands of savages, eager to discover and slay, were stealing among the shadows of those trackless plains, and that they must literally feel their uncertain way through the cordon, every sound an alarm, every advancing step a fresh peril. They crossed the swift, deep stream, and emerged dripping, chilled to the marrow by the icy water. Then they swung stiffly into the wet saddles, and plunged, with almost reckless abandon, through the darkness. Murphy continued to lead, the light tread of his horse barely audible, Hampton pressing closely behind, revolver in hand, the two pack-horses trailing in the rear. Hampton had no confidence in his sullen, treacherous companion; he looked for early trouble, yet he had little fear regarding any attempt at escape now. Murphy was a plainsman, and would realize the horror of being alone, unarmed, and without food on those demon-haunted prairies. Besides, the silent man behind was astride the better animal.
Midnight, and they pulled up amid the deeper gloom of a great, overhanging bluff, having numerous trees near its summit. There was the glow of a distant fire upon their left, which reddened the sky, and reflected oddly on the edges of a vast cloud-mass rolling up threateningly from the west. Neither knew definitely where they were, although Murphy guessed the narrow stream they had just forded might be the upper waters of the Tongue. Their horses stood with heads hanging wearily down, their sides rising and falling; and Hampton, rolling stiffly from the saddle, hastily loosened his girth.
"They 'll drop under us if we don't give them an hour or two," he said, quietly. "They 're both dead beat."
Murphy muttered something, incoherent and garnished with oaths, and the moment he succeeded in releasing the buckle, sank down limp at the very feet of his horse, rolling up into a queer ball. The other stared, and took a step nearer.
"What's the matter? Are you sick, Murphy?"
"No—tired—don't want ter see—thet thing agin."
"Thet green, devilish,—crawlin' face—if ye must know!" And he twisted his long, ape-like arms across his eyes, lying curled up as a dog might.
For a moment Hampton stood gazing down upon him, listening to his incoherent mutterings, his own face grave and sympathetic. Then he moved back and sat down. Suddenly the full conception of what this meant came to his mind—the man had gone mad. The strained cords of that diseased brain had snapped in the presence of imagined terrors, and now all was chaos. The horror of it overwhelmed Hampton; not only did this unexpected denouement leave him utterly hopeless, but what was he to do with the fellow? How could he bring him forth from there alive? If this stream was indeed the Tongue, then many a mile of rough country, ragged with low mountains and criss-crossed by deep ravines, yet stretched between where they now were and the Little Big Horn, where they expected to find Custer's men. They were in the very heart of the Indian country,—the country of the savage Sioux. He stared at the curled-up man, now silent and breathing heavily as if asleep. The silence was profound, the night so black and lonely that Hampton involuntarily closed his heavy eyes to shut it out. If he only might light a pipe, or boil himself a cup of black coffee! Murphy never stirred; the horses were seemingly too weary to browse. Then Hampton nodded, and sank into an uneasy doze.
ALONE WITH THE INSANE
Beneath the shade of uplifted arms Murphy's eyes remained unclosed. Whatever terrors may have dominated that diseased brain, the one purpose of revenge and escape never deserted it. With patient cunning he could plan and wait, scheme and execute. He was all animal now, dreaming only of how to tear and kill.
And he waited long in order to be perfectly sure, unrolling inch by inch, and like a venomous snake, never venturing to withdraw his baleful eyes from his unconscious victim. He was many minutes thoroughly satisfying himself that Hampton actually slept. His every movement was slow, crafty, cowardly, the savage in his perverted nature becoming more and more manifest. It was more beast than man that finally crept forward on all-fours, the eyes gleaming cruel as a cat's in the night. It was not far he was compelled to go, his movements squirming and noiseless. Within a yard of the peacefully slumbering man he rose up, crouching on his toes and bending stealthily forward to gloat over his victim. Hampton stirred uneasily, possibly feeling the close proximity of that horrible presence. Then the maniac took one more stealthy, slouching step nearer, and flung himself at the exposed throat, uttering a fierce snarl as his fingers clutched the soft flesh. Hampton awoke, gasping and choking, to find those mad eyes glaring into his own, those murderous hands throttling him with the strength of madness.
At first the stupefied, half-awakened man struggled as if in delirium, scarcely realizing the danger. He was aware of suffering, of horror, of suffocation. Then the brain flashed into life, and he grappled fiercely with his dread antagonist. Murphy snapped like a mad dog, his lips snarling curses; but Hampton fought silently, desperately, his brain clearing as he succeeded in wrenching those claws from his lacerated throat, and forced his way up on to one knee. He felt no hatred toward this crazed man striving to kill him; he understood what had loosed such a raging devil. But this was no time to exhibit mercy; Murphy bit and clawed, and Hampton could only dash in upon him in the effort to force him back. He worked his way, inch by inch, to his feet, his slender figure rigid as steel, and closed in upon the other; but Murphy writhed out of his grasp, as a snake might. The younger man realized now to the full his peril, and his hand slipped down to the gun upon his hip. There was a sudden glint in the faint starlight as he struck, and the stunned maniac went down quivering, and lay motionless on the hard ground. For a moment the other remained standing over him, the heavy revolver poised, but the prostrate figure lay still, and the conqueror slipped his weapon back into its leather sheath with a sigh of relief.
The noise of their struggle must have carried far through that solemn stillness, and no one could guess how near at hand might be bands of prowling savages. Yet no sound came to his strained ears except the soft soughing of the night wind through the trees, and the rustling of grass beneath the tread of the horses. With the quick decision of one long accustomed to meet emergencies, Hampton unbuckled the lariat from one of the led animals, and bound Murphy's hands and limbs securely.
As he worked he thought rapidly. He comprehended the extreme desperation of their present situation. While the revolver blow might possibly restore Murphy to a degree of sanity, it was far more probable that he would awaken violent. Yet he could not deliberately leave this man to meet a fate of horror in the wilderness. Which way should they turn? Enough food, if used sparingly, might remain to permit of a hasty retreat to Cheyenne, and there would be comparatively little danger in that direction. All visible signs indicated that the scattered Indian bands were rapidly consolidating to the northward, closing in on those troops scouting the Yellowstone, with determination to give early battle. Granting that the stream they were now on should prove to be the Tongue, then the direct route toward where Custer was supposed to be would be northwest, leading ever deeper into the lonely wilderness, and toward more imminent peril. Then, at the end of that uncertain journey, they might easily miss Custer's column. That which would have been quickly decided had he been alone became a most serious problem when considered in connection with the insane, helpless scout. But then, there were the despatches! They must be of vital importance to have required the sending of Murphy forth on so dangerous a ride; other lives, ay, the result of the entire campaign, might depend upon their early delivery. Hampton had been a soldier, the spirit of the service was still with him, and that thought brought him to final decision. Unless they were halted by Sioux bullets, they would push on toward the Big Horn, and Custer should have the papers.
He knelt down beside Murphy, unbuckled the leather despatch-bag, and rebuckled it across his own shoulder. Then he set to work to revive the prostrate man. The eyes, when opened, stared up at him, wild and glaring; the ugly face bore the expression of abject fear. The man was no longer violent; he had become a child, frightened at the dark. His ceaseless babbling, his incessant cries of terror, only rendered more precarious any attempt at pressing forward through a region overrun with hostiles. But Hampton had resolved.
Securely strapping Murphy to his saddle, and packing all their remaining store of provisions upon one horse, leaving the other to follow or remain behind as it pleased, he advanced directly into the hills, steering by aid of the stars, his left hand ever on Murphy's bridle rein, his low voice of expostulation seeking to calm the other's wild fancies and to curb his violent speech. It was a weird, wild ride through the black night, unknown ground under foot, unseen dangers upon every hand. Murphy's aberrations changed from shrieking terror to a wild, uncontrollable hilarity, with occasional outbursts of violent anger, when it required all Hampton's iron will and muscle to conquer him.
At dawn they were in a narrow gorge among the hills, a dark and gloomy hole, yet a peculiarly safe spot in which to hide, having steep, rocky ledges on either side, with sufficient grass for the horses. Leaving Murphy bound, Hampton clambered up the front of the rock to where he was able to look out. All was silent, and his heart sank as he surveyed the brown sterile hills stretching to the horizon, having merely narrow gulches of rock and sand between, the sheer nakedness of the picture unrelieved by green shrub or any living thing. Then, almost despairing, he slid back, stretched himself out amid the soft grass, and sank into the slumber of exhaustion, his last conscious memory the incoherent babbling of his insane companion.
He awoke shortly after noon, feeling refreshed and renewed in both body and mind. Murphy was sleeping when he first turned to look at him, but he awoke in season to be fed, and accepted the proffered food with all the apparent delight of a child. While he rested, their remaining pack-animal had strayed, and Hampton was compelled to go on with only the two horses, strapping the depleted store of provisions behind his own saddle. Then he carefully hoisted Murphy into place and bound his feet beneath the animal's belly, the poor fellow gibbering at him, in appearance an utter imbecile, although exhibiting periodic flashes of malignant passion. Then he resumed the journey down one of those sand-strewn depressions pointing toward the Rosebud, pressing the refreshed ponies into a canter, confident now that their greatest measure of safety lay in audacity.
Apparently his faith in the total desertion of these "bad lands" by the Indians was fully justified, for they continued steadily mile after mile, meeting with no evidence of life anywhere. Still the travelling was good, with here and there little streams of icy water trickling over the rocks. They made most excellent progress, Hampton ever grasping the bit of Murphy's horse, his anxious thought more upon his helpless companion in misery than upon the possible perils of the route.
It was already becoming dusk when they swept down into a little nest of green trees and grass. It appeared so suddenly, and was such an unexpected oasis amid that surrounding wilderness, that Hampton gave vent to a sudden exclamation of delight. But that was all. Instantly he perceived numerous dark forms leaping from out the shrubbery, and he wheeled his horses to the left, lashing them into a rapid run. It was all over in a moment—a sputtering of rifles, a wild medley of cries, a glimpse of savage figures, and the two were tearing down the rocks, the din of pursuit dying away behind them. The band were evidently all on foot, yet Hampton continued to press his mount at a swift pace, taking turn after turn about the sharp hills, confident that the hard earth would leave no trace of their passage.
Then suddenly the horse he rode sank like a log, but his tight grip upon the rein of the other landed him on his feet. Murphy laughed, in fiendish merriment; but Hampton looked down on the dead horse, noting the stream of blood oozing out from behind the shoulder. A stray Sioux bullet had found its mark, but the gallant animal had struggled on until it dropped lifeless; and the brave man it had borne so long and so well bent down and stroked tenderly the unconscious head. Then he shifted the provisions to the back of the other horse, grasped the loose rein once more in his left hand, and started forward on foot.
ON THE LITTLE BIG HORN
N Troop, guarding, much to their emphatically expressed disgust, the more slowly moving pack-train, were following Custer's advancing column of horsemen down the right bank of the Little Big Horn. The troopers, carbines at knee, sitting erect in their saddles, their faces browned by the hot winds of the plains, were riding steadily northward. Beside them, mounted upon a rangy chestnut, Brant kept his watchful eyes on those scattered flankers dotting the summit of the near-by bluff. Suddenly one of these waved his hand eagerly, and the lieutenant went dashing up the sharp ascent.
"What is it, now, Lane?"
"Somethin' movin' jist out yonder, sir," and the trooper pointed into the southeast. "They're down in a coulee now, I reckon; but will be up on a ridge agin in a minute. I got sight of 'em twice afore I waved."
The officer gazed earnestly in the direction indicated, and was almost immediately rewarded by the glimpse of some indistinct, dark figures dimly showing against the lighter background of sky. He brought his field-glasses to a focus.
"White men," he announced, shortly. "Come with me."
At a brisk trot they rode out, the trooper lagging a pace to the rear, the watchful eyes of both men sweeping suspiciously across the prairie. The two parties met suddenly upon the summit of a sharp ridge, and Brant drew in his horse with an exclamation of astonishment. It was a pathetic spectacle he stared at,—a horse scarcely able to stagger forward, his flanks quivering from exhaustion, his head hanging limply down; on his back, with feet strapped securely beneath and hands bound to the high pommel, the lips grinning ferociously, perched a misshapen creature clothed as a man. Beside these, hatless, his shoes barely holding together, a man of slender figure and sunburnt face held the bridle-rein. An instant they gazed at each other, the young officer's eyes filled with sympathetic horror, the other staring apathetically at his rescuer.
"My God! Can this be you, Hampton?" and the startled lieutenant flung himself from his horse. "What does it mean? Why are you here?"
Hampton, leaning against the trembling horse to keep erect, slowly lifted his hand in a semblance of military salute. "Despatches from Cheyenne. This is Murphy—went crazy out yonder. For God's sake—water, food!"
"Your canteen, Lane!" exclaimed Brant. "Now hold this cup," and he dashed into it a liberal supply of brandy from a pocket-flask. "Drink that all down, Hampton."
The man did mechanically as he was ordered, his hand never relaxing its grasp of the rein. Then a gleam of reawakened intelligence appeared in his eyes; he glanced up into the leering countenance of Murphy, and then back at those others. "Give me another for him."
Brant handed to him the filled cup, noting as he did so the strange steadiness of the hand which accepted it. Hampton lifted the tin to the figure in the saddle, his own gaze directed straight into the eyes as he might seek to control a wild animal.
"Drink it," he commanded, curtly, "every drop!"
For an instant the maniac glared back at him sullenly; then he appeared to shrink in terror, and drank swiftly.
"We can make the rest of the way now," Hampton announced, quietly. "Lord, but this has been a trip!"
Lane dismounted at Brant's order, and assisted Hampton to climb into the vacated saddle. Then the trooper grasped the rein of Murphy's horse, and the little party started toward where the pack-train was hidden in the valley. The young officer rode silent and at a walk, his eyes occasionally studying the face of the other and noting its drawn, gray look. The very sight of Hampton had been a shock. Why was he here and with Murphy? Could this strange journey have anything to do with Naida? Could it concern his own future, as well as hers? He felt no lingering jealousy of this man, for her truthful words had forever settled that matter. Yet who was he? What peculiar power did he wield over her life?
"Is Custer here?" said Hampton.
"No; that is, not with my party. We are guarding the pack-train. The others are ahead, and Custer, with five troops, has moved to the right. He is somewhere among those ridges back of the bluff."
The man turned and looked where the officer pointed, shading his eyes with his hand. Before him lay only the brown, undulating waves of upland, a vast desert of burnt grass, shimmering under the hot sun.
"Can you give me a fresh horse, a bite to eat, and a cup of coffee, down there?" he asked, anxiously. "You see I 've got to go on."
"Go on? Good God! man, do you realize what you are saying? Why, you can hardly sit the saddle! You carry despatches, you say? Well, there are plenty of good men in my troop who will volunteer to take them on. You need rest."
"Not much," said Hampton. "I'm fit enough, or shall be as soon as I get food. Good Lord, boy, I am not done up yet, by a long way! It's the cursed loneliness out yonder," he swept his hand toward the horizon, "and the having to care for him, that has broken my heart. He went that way clear back on the Powder, and it's been a fight between us ever since. I 'll be all right now if you lads will only look after him. This is going to reach Custer, and I'll take it!" He flung back his ragged coat, his hand on the despatch-bag. "I 've earned the right."
Brant reached forth his hand cordially. "That's true; you have. What's more, if you 're able to make the trip, there is no one here who will attempt to stop you. But now tell me how this thing happened. I want to know the story before we get in."
For a moment Hampton remained silent, his thoughtful gaze on the near-by videttes, his hands leaning heavily upon the saddle pommel. Perhaps he did not remember clearly; possibly he could not instantly decide just how much of that story to tell. Brant suspected this last to be his difficulty, and he spoke impulsively.
"Hampton, there has been trouble and misunderstanding between us, but that's all past and gone now. I sincerely believe in your purpose of right, and I ask you to trust me. Either of us would give his life if need were, to be of real service to a little girl back yonder in the hills. I don't know what you are to her; I don't ask. I know she has every confidence in you, and that is enough. Now, I want to do what is right with both of you, and if you have a word to say to me regarding this matter, I 'll treat it confidentially. This trip with Murphy has some bearing upon Naida Gillis, has it not?"
"Will you tell me the story?"
The thoughtful gray eyes looked at him long and searchingly. "Brant, do you love that girl?"
Just as unwaveringly the blue eyes returned the look. "I do. I have asked her to become my wife."
"And her answer?"
"She said no; that a dead man was between us."
"Is that all you know?"
The younger man bent his head, his face grave and perplexed. "Practically all."
Hampton wet his dry lips with his tongue, his breath quickening.
"And in that she was right," he said at last, his eyes lowered to the ground. "I will tell you why. It was the father of Naida Gillis who was convicted of the murder of Major Brant."
"Oh, my father? Is she Captain Nolan's daughter? But you say 'convicted.' Was there ever any doubt? Do you question his being guilty?"
Hampton pointed in silence to the hideous creature behind them. "That man could tell, but he has gone mad."
Brant endeavored to speak, but the words would not come; his brain seemed paralyzed. Hampton held himself under better control.
"I have confidence, Lieutenant Brant, in your honesty," he began, gravely, "and I believe you will strive to do whatever is best for her, if anything should happen to me out yonder. But for the possibility of my being knocked out, I would n't talk about this, not even to you. The affair is a long way from being straightened out so as to make a pleasant story, but I 'll give you all you actually require to know in order to make it clear to her, provided I shouldn't come back. You see, she doesn't know very much more than you do—only what I was obliged to tell to keep her from getting too deeply entangled with you. Maybe I ought to have given her the full story before I started on this trip. I 've since wished I had, but you see, I never dreamed it was going to end here, on the Big Horn; besides, I did n't have the nerve."
He swept his heavy eyes across the brown and desolate prairie, and back to the troubled face of the younger man. "You see, Brant, I feel that I simply have to carry these despatches through. I have a pride in giving them to Custer myself, because of the trouble I 've had in getting them here. But perhaps I may not come back, and in that case there would n't be any one living to tell her the truth. That thought has bothered me ever since I pulled out of Cheyenne. It seems to me that there is going to be a big fight somewhere in these hills before long. I 've seen a lot of Indians riding north within the last four days, and they were all bucks, rigged out in war toggery, Sioux and Cheyennes. Ever since we crossed the Fourche those fellows have been in evidence, and it's my notion that Custer has a heavier job on his hands, right at this minute, than he has any conception of. So I want to leave these private papers with you until I come back. It will relieve my mind to know they are safe; if I don't come, then I want you to open them and do whatever you decide is best for the little girl. You will do that, won't you?"
He handed over a long manila envelope securely sealed, and the younger man accepted it, noticing that it was unaddressed before depositing it safely in an inner pocket of his fatigue jacket.
"Certainly, Hampton," he said. "Is that all?"
"All except what I am going to tell you now regarding Murphy. There is no use my attempting to explain exactly how I chanced to find out all these things, for they came to me little by little during several years. I knew Nolan, and I knew your father, and I had reason to doubt the guilt of the Captain, in spite of the verdict of the jury that condemned him. In fact, I knew at the time, although it was not in my power to prove it, that the two principal witnesses against Nolan lied. I thought I could guess why, but we drifted apart, and finally I lost all track of every one connected with the affair. Then I happened to pick up that girl down in the canyon beyond the Bear Water, and pulled her out alive just because she chanced to be of that sex, and I could n't stand to see her fall into Indian clutches. I did n't feel any special interest in her at the time, supposing she belonged to Old Gillis, but she somehow grew on me—she's that kind, you know; and when I discovered, purely by accident, that she was Captain Nolan's girl, but that it all had been kept from her, I just naturally made up my mind I 'd dig out the truth if I possibly could, for her sake. The fact is, I began to think a lot about her—not the way you do, you understand; I'm getting too old for that, and have known too much about women,—but maybe somewhat as a father might feel. Anyhow, I wanted to give her a chance, a square deal, so that she would n't be ashamed of her own name if ever she found out what it was."
He paused, his eyes filled with memories, and passed his hand through his uncovered hair.
"About that time I fell foul of Murphy and Slavin there in Glencaid," he went on quickly, as if anxious to conclude. "I never got my eyes on Murphy, you know, and Slavin was so changed by that big red beard that I failed to recognize him. But their actions aroused my suspicions, and I went after them good and hard. I wanted to find out what they knew, and why those lies were told on Nolan at the trial. I had an idea they could tell me. So, for a starter, I tackled Slavin, supposing we were alone, and I was pumping the facts out of him successfully by holding a gun under his nose, and occasionally jogging his memory, when this fellow Murphy got excited, and chasseed into the game, but happened to nip his partner instead of me. In the course of our little scuffle I chanced to catch a glimpse of the fellow's right hand, and it had a scar on the back of it that looked mighty familiar. I had seen it before, and I wanted to see it again. So, when I got out of that scrape, and the doctor had dug a stray bullet out of my anatomy, there did n't seem to be any one left for me to chase excepting Murphy, for Slavin was dead. I was n't exactly sure he was the owner of that scar, but I had my suspicions and wanted to verify them. Having struck his trail, I reached Cheyenne just about four hours after he left there with these despatches for the Big Horn. I caught up with the fellow on the south bank of the Belle Fourche, and being well aware that no threats or gun play would ever force him to confess the truth, I undertook to frighten him by trickery. I brought along some drawing-paper and drew your father's picture in phosphorus, and gave him the benefit in the dark. That caught Murphy all right, and everything was coming my way. He threw up his hands, and even agreed to come in here with me, and tell the whole story, but the poor fellow's brain could n't stand the strain of the scare I had given him. He went raving mad on the Powder; he jumped on me while I was asleep, and since then every mile has been a little hell. That's the whole of it to date."
They were up with the pack-train by now, and the cavalrymen gazed with interest at the new arrivals. Several among them seemed to recognize Murphy, and crowded about his horse with rough expressions of sympathy. Brant scarcely glanced at them, his grave eyes on Hampton's stern face.
"And what is it you wish me to do?"
"Take care of Murphy. Don't let him remain alone for a minute. If he has any return of reason, compel him to talk. He knows you, and will be as greatly frightened at your presence and knowledge as at mine. Besides, you have fully as much at stake as any one, for in no other way can the existing barrier between Naida and yourself be broken down."
Insisting that now he felt perfectly fit for any service, the impatient Hampton was quickly supplied with the necessary food and clothing, while Murphy, grown violently abusive, was strapped on a litter between two mules, a guard on either side. Brant rode with the civilian on a sharp trot as far as the head of the pack-train, endeavoring to the very last to persuade the wearied man to relinquish this work to another.
"Foster," he said to the sergeant in command of the advance, "did you chance to notice just what coulee Custer turned into when his column swung to the right?"
"I think it must have been the second yonder, sir; where you see that bunch of trees. We was a long ways back, but I could see the boys plain enough as they come out on the bluff up there. Some of 'em waved their hats back at us. Is this man goin' after them, sir?"
"Yes, he has despatches from Cheyenne."
"Well, he ought ter have no trouble findin' the trail. It ought ter be 'bout as plain as a road back in God's country, sir, fer there were more than two hundred horses, and they'd leave a good mark even on hard ground."
Brant held out his hand. "I'll certainly do all in my power, Hampton, to bring this out right. You can rely on that, and I will be faithful to the little girl. Now, just a word to guide you regarding our situation here. We have every reason for believing that the Sioux are in considerable force in our front somewhere, and not far down this stream. Nobody knows just how strong they are, but it looks to me as if we were pretty badly split up for a very heavy engagement. Not that I question Custer's plan, you understand, only he may be mistaken about what the Indians will do. Benteen's battalion is out there to the west; Reno is just ahead of us up the valley; while Custer has taken five troops on a detour to the right across the bluffs, hoping to come down on the rear of the Sioux. The idea is to crush them between the three columns. No one of these detachments has more than two hundred men, yet it may come out all right if they only succeed in striking together. Still it 's risky in such rough country, not knowing exactly where the enemy is. Well, good luck to you, and take care of yourself."