"Can we wait and hear that hymn through?"
"Ay. Sing it."
She looked suddenly in his face. Something in the very tone in which he spoke startled her,—something deeper, more fervent, than she had ever heard before,—and the expression in the steady, deep-blue eyes was another revelation. Alice Renwick had a woman's intuition, and yet she had not known this man a day. The color again mounted to her temples, and her eyes fell after one quick glance.
"I heard you joining in the Te Deum," he urged. "Sing once more: I love it. There, they are just beginning again. Do you know the words?"
She nodded, then raised her head, and her glad young voice carolled through the listening woods:
"Holy, holy, holy! All Heaven's triumphant choir shall sing, When the ransomed nations fall At the footstool of their King: Then shall saints and seraphim, Hearts and voices, swell one hymn Round the throne with full accord, Holy, holy, holy Lord!"
There was silence when the music ceased. She had turned her face towards the church, and, as the melody died away in one prolonged, triumphant chord, she still stood in reverent attitude, as though listening for the words of benediction. He, too, was silent, but his eyes were fixed on her. He was thirty-five, she not twenty. He had lived his soldier life wifeless, but, like other soldiers, his heart had had its rubs and aches in the days gone by. Years before he had thought life a black void when the girl he fancied while yet he wore the Academic gray calmly told him she preferred another. Nor had the intervening years been devoid of their occasional yearnings for a mate of his own in the isolation of the frontier or the monotony of garrison life; but flitting fancies had left no trace upon his strong heart. The love of his life only dawned upon him at this late day when he looked into her glorious eyes and his whole soul went out in passionate worship of the fair girl whose presence made that sunlit lane a heaven. Were he to live a thousand years, no scene on earth could rival in his eyes the love-haunted woodland pathway wherein like forest queen she stood, the sunshine and leafy shadows dancing over her graceful form, the golden-rod enhancing her dark and glowing beauty, the sacred influences of the day throwing their mystic charm about her as though angels guarded and shielded her from harm. His life had reached its climax; his fate was sealed; his heart and soul were centred in one sweet girl,—and all in one brief hour in the woodland lane at Sablon.
She could not fail to see the deep emotion in his eyes as at last she turned to break the silence.
"Shall we go?" she said, simply.
"It is time; but I wish we could remain."
"You do not go to church very often at Sibley, do you?"
"I have not, heretofore; but you would teach me to worship." "You have taught me," he muttered below his breath, as he extended a hand to assist her down the sloping bank towards the avenue. She looked up quickly once more, pleased, yet shy, and shifted her great bunch of golden-rod so that she could lay her hand in his and lean upon its steady strength down the incline; and so, hand in hand, with old Dobbin ambling placidly behind, they passed out from the shaded pathway to the glow and radiance of the sunlit road.
"Colonel Maynard, I admit everything you say as to the weight of the evidence," said Frank Armitage, twenty minutes later, "but it is my faith—understand me: my faith, I say—that she is utterly innocent. As for that damnable letter, I do not believe it was ever written to her. It is some other woman."
"What other is there, or was there?" was the colonel's simple reply.
"That is what I mean to find out. Will you have my baggage sent after me to-night? I am going at once to the station, and thence to Sibley. I will write you from there. If the midnight visitor should prove to have been Jerrold, he can be made to explain. I have always held him to be a conceited fop, but never either crack-brained or devoid of principle. There is no time for explanation now. Good-by; and keep a good lookout. That fellow may be here again."
And in an hour more Armitage was skimming along the winding river-side en route to Sibley. He had searched the train from pilot to rear platform, and no man who in the faintest degree resembled Mr. Jerrold was on board. He had wired to Chester that he would reach the fort that evening, but would not resume duty for a few days. He made another search through the train as they neared the city, and still there was no one who in stature or appearance corresponded with the descriptions given him of the sinewy visitor.
Late in the afternoon Chester received him as he alighted from the train at the little station under the cliff. It was a beautiful day, and numbers of people were driving or riding out to the fort, and the high bridge over the gorge was constantly resounding to the thunder of hoofs. Many others, too, had come out on the train; for the evening dress-parade always attracted a swarm of visitors. A corporal of the guard, with a couple of men, was on hand to keep vigilant eye on the arrivals and to persuade certain proscribed parties to re-enter the cars and go on, should they attempt to revisit the post, and the faces of these were lighted up as they saw their old adjutant; but none others of the garrison appeared.
"Let us wait a moment and get these people out of the way," said Armitage. "I want to talk with you. Is Jerrold back?"
"Yes. He came in just ten minutes after I telegraphed to you, was present at inspection, and if it had not been for your despatch this morning I should not have known he had remained out of quarters. He appeared to resent my having been to his quarters,—calls it spying, I presume."
"What permission had he to be away?"
"I gave him leave to visit town on personal business yesterday afternoon. He merely asked to be away a few hours to meet friends in town, and Mr. Hall took tattoo roll-call for him. As I do not require any other officer to report the time of his return, I did not exact it of him; but of course no man can be away after midnight without special permission, and he was gone all night. What is it, Armitage? Has he followed her down there?"
"Somebody was there last night and capsized the colonel pretty much as he did you the night of the ladder episode," said Armitage, coolly.
"By heaven! and I let him go!"
"How do you know 'twas he?"
"Who else could it be, Armitage?"
"That's what the colonel asks; but it isn't clear to me yet awhile."
"I wish it were less clear to me," said Chester, gloomily. "The worst is that the story is spreading like a pestilence all over the post. The women have got hold of it, and there is all manner of talk. I shouldn't be surprised if Mrs. Hoyt had to be taken violently ill. She has written to invite Miss Renwick to visit her, as it is certain that Colonel and Mrs. Maynard cannot come, and Hoyt came to me in a horror of amaze yesterday to know if there were any truth in the rumor that I had caught a man coming out of Mrs. Maynard's window the other night. I would tell him nothing, and he says the ladies declare they won't go to the german if she does. Heavens! I'm thankful you are come. The thing has been driving me wild these last twelve hours. I wanted to go away myself. Is she coming up?"
"No, she isn't; but let me say this, Chester: that whenever she is ready to return I shall be ready to escort her."
Chester looked at his friend in amazement, and without speaking.
"Yes, I see you are astonished, but you may as well understand the situation. I have heard all the colonel could tell, and have even seen the letter, and since she left here a mysterious stranger has appeared by night at Sablon, at the cottage window, though it happened to be her mother's this time, and I don't believe Alice Renwick knows the first thing about it."
"Armitage, are you in love?"
"Chester, I am in my sound senses. Now come and show me the ladder, and where you found it, and tell me the whole story over again. I think it grows interesting. One moment: has he that picture yet?"
"I suppose so. I don't know. In these last few days everybody is fighting shy of him. He thinks it is my doing, and looks black and sulky at me, but is too proud or too much afraid of consequences to ask the reason of the cold shoulders and averted looks. Gray has taken seven days' leave and gone off with that little girl of his to place her with relatives in the East. He has heard the stories, and it is presumed that some of the women have told her. She was down sick here a day or two."
"Well, now for the window and the ladder. I want to see the outside through your eyes, and then I will view the interior with my own. The colonel bids me do so."
Together they slowly climbed the long stairway leading up the face of the cliff. Chester stopped for a breathing-spell more than once.
"You're all out of condition, man," said the younger captain, pausing impatiently. "What has undone you?"
"This trouble, and nothing else. By gad! it has unstrung the whole garrison, I believe. You never saw our people fall off so in their shooting. Of course we expected Jerrold to go to pieces, but nobody else."
"There were others that seemed to fall away, too. Where was that cavalry-team that was expected to take the skirmish medal away from us?"
"Sound as a dollar, every man, with the single exception of their big sergeant. I don't like to make ugly comparisons to a man whom I believe to be more than half interested in a woman, but it makes me think of the old story about Medusa. One look at her face is too much for a man. That Sergeant McLeod went to grass the instant he caught sight of her, and never has picked up since."
"Consider me considerably more than half interested in the woman in this case, Chester: make all the comparisons that you like, provided they illumine matters as you are doing now, and tell me more of this Sergeant McLeod. What do you mean by his catching sight of her and going to grass?"
"I mean he fell flat on his face the moment he saw her, and hasn't been in good form from that moment to this. The doctor says it's heart-disease."
"That's what the colonel says troubles Mrs. Maynard. She was senseless and almost pulseless some minutes last night. What manner of man is McLeod?"
"A tall, slim, dark-eyed, swarthy fellow,—a man with a history and a mystery, I judge."
"A man with a history,—a mystery,—who is tall, slim, has dark eyes and swarthy complexion, and faints away at sight of Miss Renwick, might be said to possess peculiar characteristics,—family traits, some of them. Of course you've kept an eye on McLeod. Where is he?"
Chester stood leaning on the rail, breathing slowly and heavily. His eyes dilated as he gazed at Armitage, who was surveying him coolly, though the tone in which he spoke betrayed a new interest and a vivid one.
"I confess I never thought of him in connection with this affair," said Chester.
"There's the one essential point of difference between us," was the reply. "You go in on the supposition that there is only one solution to this thing, and that a woman must be dishonored to begin with. I believe there can be several solutions, and that there is only one thing in the lot that is at all impossible."
"Miss Renwick's knowledge of that night's visitor, or of any other secret or sin. I mean to work other theories first; and the McLeod trail is a good one to start on. Where can I get a look at him?"
"Somewhere out in the Rockies by this time. He was ordered back to his troop five days ago, and they are out scouting at this moment, unless I'm vastly mistaken. You have seen the morning despatches?"
"About the Indians? Yes. Looks squally at the Spirit Rock reservation. Do you mean that McLeod is there?"
"That's where his troop ought to be by this time. There is too small a force on the trail now, and more will have to go if a big outbreak is to be prevented."
"Then he has gone, and I cannot see him. Let me look at the window, then."
A few steps brought them to the terrace, and there, standing by the west wall and looking up at the closed slats of the dormer-window, Captain Chester retold the story of his night-adventure. Armitage listened attentively, asking few questions. When it was finished, the latter turned and walked to the rear door, which opened on the terrace. It was locked.
"The servants are having a holiday, I presume," he said. "So much the better. Ask the quartermaster for the key of the front door, and I'll go in while everybody is out looking at dress-parade. There goes first call now. Let your orderly bring it to me here, will you?"
Ten minutes later, with beating heart, he stood and uncovered his handsome head and gazed silently, reverently around him. He was in her room.
It was dainty as her own dainty self. The dressing-table, the windows, the pretty little white bed, the broad, inviting lounge, the work-table and basket, the very wash-stand, were all trimmed and decked alike,—white and yellow prevailing. White lace curtains draped the window on the west—that fateful window—and the two that opened out on the roof of the piazza. White lace curtains draped the bed, the dressing-table, and the wash-stand; white lace, or some equally flimsy and feminine material, hung about her book-shelves and work-table and over the lounge; and bows of bright yellow ribbon were everywhere, yellow pin-cushions and wall-pockets hung about the toilet-table, soft yellow rugs lay at the bed-and lounge-side, and a sunshiny tone was given to the whole apartment by the shades of yellow silk that hung close to the windows.
On the wall were some choice etchings and a few foreign photographs. On the book-shelves were a few volumes of poetry, and the prose of George Eliot and our own Hawthorne. Hanging on pegs in the corner of the simple army room, covered by a curtain, were some heavy outer-garments,—an ulster, a travelling coat and cape of English make, and one or two dresses that were apparently too thick to be used at this season of the year. He drew aside the curtain one moment, took a brief glance at the garments, raised the hem of a skirt to his lips, and turned quickly away. A door led from the room to the one behind it,—a spare bedroom, evidently, that was lighted only from the back of the house and had no side-window at all. Another door led to the hall, a broad, old-fashioned affair, and crossing this he stood in the big front room occupied by the colonel and his wife. This was furnished almost as luxuriously (from an army point of view) as that of Miss Renwick, but not in white and yellow. Armitage smiled to see the evidences of Mrs. Maynard's taste and handiwork on every side. In the years he had been the old soldier's adjutant nothing could have exceeded the simplicity with which the colonel surrounded himself. Now it was something akin to Sybaritish elegance, thought the captain; but all the same he made his deliberate survey. There was the big dressing-table and bureau on which had stood that ravished picture,—that photograph of the girl he loved which others were able to speak of, and one man to appropriate feloniously, while yet he had never seen it. His impulse was to go to Jerrold's quarters and take him by the throat and demand it of him; but what right had he? How knew he, even, that it was now there? In view of the words that Chester had used towards him, Jerrold must know of the grievous danger in which he stood. That photograph would prove most damaging evidence if discovered. Very probably, after yielding to his vanity and showing it to Sloat he meant to get it back. Very certainly, after hearing Chester's words he must have determined to lose no time in getting rid of it. He was no fool, if he was a coxcomb.
Looking around the half-darkened room, Armitage lingered long over the photographs which hung about the dressing-table and over the mantel,—several prettily-framed duplicates of those already described as appearing in the album. One after another he took them in his hands, bore them to the window, and studied them attentively: some were not replaced without a long, lingering kiss. He had not ventured to disturb an item in her room. He would not touch the knob of a drawer or attempt to open anything she had closed, but here in quarters where his colonel could claim joint partnership he felt less sentiment or delicacy. He closed the hall door and tried the lock, turning the knob to and fro. Then he reopened the door and swung it upon its hinges. For a wonder, neither lock nor hinges creaked. The door worked smoothly and with little noise. Then he similarly tried the door of her room. It was in equally good working order,—quite free from the squeak and complaint with which quartermasters' locks and hinges are apt to do their reluctant duty. The discovery pleased him. It was possible for one to open and close these portals noiselessly, if need be, and without disturbing sleepers in either room. Returning to the east chamber, he opened the shades, so as to get more light, and his eye fell upon an old album lying on a little table that stood by the bedside. There was a night-lamp upon the table, too,—a little affair that could hold only a thimbleful of oil and was intended, evidently, to keep merely a faint glow during the night hours. Other volumes—a Bible, some devotional books, like "The Changed Cross," and a Hymnal or two—were also there; but the album stood most prominent, and Armitage curiously took it up and opened it.
There were only half a dozen photographs in the affair. It was rather a case than an album, and was intended apparently for only a few family pictures. There was but one that interested him, and this he examined intently, almost excitedly. It represented a little girl of nine or ten years,—Alice, undoubtedly,—with her arms clasped about the neck of a magnificent St. Bernard dog and looking up into the handsome features of a tall, slender, dark-eyed, black-haired boy of sixteen or thereabouts; and the two were enough alike to be brother and sister. Who, then, was this boy?
Armitage took the photograph to the window and studied it carefully. Parade was over, and the troops were marching back to their quarters. The band was playing gloriously as it came tramping into the quadrangle, and the captain could not but glance out at his own old company as in compact column of fours it entered the grassy diamond and swung off towards the barracks. He saw a knot of officers, too, turning the corner by the adjutant's office, and for a moment he lowered the album to look. Mr. Jerrold was not of the number that came sauntering up the walk, dropping away by ones or twos as they reached their doors and unbuckled their belts or removed their helmets in eager haste to get out of the constraint of full dress. But in another moment Jerrold, too, appeared, all alone, walking rapidly and nervously. Armitage watched him, and could not but see how other men turned away or gave him the coolest possible nod as he passed. The tall, slender lieutenant was handsomer even than when he last saw him; and yet there was gloom and worry on the dark beauty of his face. Nearer and nearer he came, and had passed the quarters of the other officers and was almost at the door of his own, when Armitage saw a little, wiry soldier in full dress uniform running across the parade as though in pursuit. He recognized Merrick, one of the scapegraces of his company, and wondered why he should be chasing after his temporary commander. Just as Jerrold was turning under the piazza the soldier seemed to make himself heard, and the lieutenant, with an angry frown on his face, stopped and confronted him.
"I told you not to come to me again," he said, so loud that every word was audible to the captain standing by the open window above. "What do you mean, sir, by following me in this way?"
The reply was inaudible. Armitage could see the little soldier standing in the respectful position of "attention," looking up and evidently pleading.
"I won't do it until I'm ready," was again heard in Jerrold's angry tones, though this time the lieutenant glanced about, as though to see if others were within earshot. There was no one, apparently, and he grew more confident. "You've been drinking again to-day, Merrick; you're not sober now; and I won't give you money to get maudlin and go to blabbing secrets on. No, sir! Go back to your quarters, and stay there."
The little soldier must indeed have been drinking, as the lieutenant declared. Armitage saw that he hesitated, instead of obeying at once, and that his flushed face was angrily working, then that he was arguing with his superior and talking louder. This was contrary to all the captain's ideas of proper discipline, even though he was indignant at the officer for permitting himself to be placed in so false and undignified a position. Jerrold's words, too, had acquired a wide significance; but they were feeble as compared with the sudden outburst that came from the soldier's lips:
"By God, lieutenant, you bribed me to silence to cover your tracks, and then you refuse to pay. If you don't want me to tell what I know, the sooner you pay that money the better."
This was more than Armitage could stand. He went down-stairs three at a jump and out through the colonel's garden with quick, impetuous steps. Jerrold's furious face turned ashen at the sight, and Merrick, with one amazed and frightened look at his captain, faced about and slunk silently away. To him Armitage paid no further attention. It was to the officer he addressed himself:
"Mr. Jerrold, I have heard pretty much all this conversation. It simply adds to the evil report with which you have managed to surround yourself. Step into your quarters. I must see you alone."
Jerrold hesitated. He was thunderstruck by the sudden appearance of the captain whom he had believed to be hundreds of miles away. He connected his return unerringly with the web of trouble which had been weaving about him of late. He conceived himself to have been most unjustly spied upon and suspected, and was full of resentment at the conduct of Captain Chester. But Chester was an old granny, who sometimes made blunders and had to back down. It was a different thing when Armitage took hold. Jerrold looked sulkily into the clear, stern, blue eyes a moment, and the first impulse of rebellion wilted. He gave one irresolute glance around the quadrangle, then motioned with his hand to the open door. Something of the old, jaunty, Creole lightness of manner reasserted itself.
"After you, captain," he said.
Once within-doors, it was too dark for Armitage to see the features of his lieutenant; and he had his own reasons for desiring to read them. Mr. Jerrold, on the other hand, seemed disposed to keep in the shadows as much as possible. He made no movement to open the shutters of the one window which admitted light from the front, and walked back to his bedroom door, glanced in there as though to see that there were no occupants, then carefully closed it as he returned to face his captain. He took off his helmet and placed it on the centre-table, then, thrusting his thumbs inside the handsome, gold-broidered sword-belt, stood in a jaunty attitude but with a very uneasy look in his eyes to hear what his senior might have to say. Between the two men an invitation to sit would have been a superfluity. Neither had ever remained long enough in the other's quarters, since the exchange of the first calls when Jerrold came to the garrison, to render a chair at all necessary.
"Be good enough to strike a light, Mr. Jerrold," said Armitage, presently, seeing that his unwilling host made no effort on his own account.
"I proposed going out at once, captain, and presume you cannot have any very extended remarks to make."
"You cannot see the writing I have to call your attention to without a light. I shall detain you no longer than is necessary. Had you an engagement?"
"Nothing of great consequence. I presume it will keep."
"It will have to. The matter I have come upon will admit no further delay. Light your lamp, if you please."
And Jerrold did so, slowly and with much reluctance. He wiped his forehead vigorously the instant the flame began to splutter, but as the clear, steady light of the argand gradually spread over the little room Armitage could see the sweat again beading his forehead, and the dark eyes were glancing nervously about, and the hands that were so firm and steady and fine the year before and held the Springfield in so light yet immovable an aim were twitching now. It was no wonder Jerrold's score had dropped some thirty per cent. His nerve had gone to pieces.
Armitage stood and watched him a moment. Then he slowly spoke:
"I have no desire to allude to the subject of your conversation with Merrick. It was to put an end to such a thing—not to avail myself of any information it might give—that I hurried in. We will put that aside and go at once to the matter that brings me back. You are aware, of course, that your conduct has compromised a woman's name, and that the garrison is talking of nothing else."
Jerrold grasped the back of a chair with one slender brown hand, and looked furtively about as though for some hope of escape. Something like a startled gulp seemed to work his throat-muscles an instant; then he stammered his reply:
"I don't know what you mean."
"You do know what I mean. Captain Chester has already told you."
"Captain Chester came in here and made an unauthorized inspection of my quarters because he heard a shot fired by a sentry. I was out: I don't deny that. But he proceeded to say all manner of insulting and unwarrantable things, and tried to force me to hand in a resignation, simply because I was out of quarters after taps. I could account for his doing something so idiotic, but I'm at a loss to comprehend your taking it up."
"The most serious allegation ever made against an officer of the regiment is made against you, the senior lieutenant of my company, and the evidence furnished me by the colonel and by Captain Chester is of such a character that, unless you can refute it and clear her name, you will have a settlement with me to start with, and your dismissal from the regiment—"
"Settlement with you? What concern have you in the matter?" interrupted Jerrold.
"Waste no words on that, Mr. Jerrold. Understand that where her name is concerned no man on earth is more interested than I. Now answer me. You were absent from your quarters for some hours after the doctor's party. Somebody believed to have been you was seen and fired at for refusing to halt at the order of Captain Chester at 3.30 in the morning. The ladder that usually hung at your fence was found at the colonel's while you were out, and that night a woman's name was compromised beyond repair unless you can repair it. Unless you prove beyond peradventure where you were both that night and last night,—prove beyond question that you were not where you are believed to have been,—her name is stained and yours blackened forever. There are other things you must fully explain; but these first."
Jerrold's face was growing gray and sickly. He stared at the stern eyes before him, and could make no answer. His lips moved dryly, but made no sound.
"Come, I want to hear from you. Where were you, if not with, or seeking, her? Name your place and witnesses."
"By God, Captain Armitage, the army is no longer a place for a gentleman, if his every movement is to be spied upon like this!"
"The world is no place for a man of your stamp, is perhaps a better way of putting it," said Armitage, whose fingers were twitching convulsively, and whose whole frame quivered with the effort he was making to restrain the rage and indignation that consumed him. He could not—he would not—believe in her guilt. He must have this man's proof, no matter how it might damn him for good and all, no matter whom else it might involve, so long as it cleared her precious name. He must be patient, he must be calm and resolute; but the man's cold-blooded, selfish, criminal concealment nearly maddened him. With infinite effort he controlled himself, and went on:
"But it is of her I'm thinking, not of you. It is the name you have compromised and can clear, and should clear, even at the expense of your own,—in fact, Mr. Jerrold, must clear. Now will you tell me where you were and how you can prove it?"
"I decline to say. I won't be cross-questioned by men who have no authority. Captain Chester said he would refer it to the colonel; and when he asks I will answer,—not until then."
"I ask in his name. I am authorized by him, for he is not well enough to meet the ordeal."
"You say so, and I don't mean to dispute your word, Captain Armitage, but I have a right to demand some proof. How am I to know he authorized you?"
"He himself gave me this letter, in your handwriting," said Armitage; and, opening the long envelope, he held forth the missive over which the poor old colonel had gone nearly wild. "He found it the morning they left,—in her garden."
If Jerrold's face had been gray before, it was simply ghastly now. He recoiled from the sight after one fruitless effort to grasp the letter, then rallied with unlooked-for spirit:
"By heaven, Armitage, suppose I did write that letter? What does it prove but what I say,—that somebody has been prying and spying into my affairs? How came the colonel by it, if not by fraud or treachery?"
"He picked it up in the garden, I tell you,—among the rose-bushes, where she—where Miss Renwick had been but a few moments before, and where it might appear that she had dropped it."
"She! That letter! What had she to do with it? What right had she to read it?"
Armitage stepped impulsively forward. A glad, glorious light was bursting upon his soul. He could almost have seized Jerrold's hand and thanked him; but proofs—proofs were what he needed. It was not his mind that was to be convinced, it was "society" that must be satisfied of her utter innocence, that it might be enabled to say, "Well, I never for a moment believed a word of it." Link by link the chain of circumstantial evidence must be destroyed, and this was only one.
"You mean that that letter was not intended for Miss Renwick?" he asked, with eagerness he strove hard to repress.
"It was never meant for anybody," said Jerrold, the color coming back to his face and courage to his eyes. "That letter was never sent by me to any woman. It's my writing, of course, I can't deny that; but I never even meant it to go. If it left that desk it must have been stolen. I've been hunting high and low for it. I knew that such a thing lying around loose would be the cause of mischief. God! is that what all this fuss is about?" And he looked warily, yet with infinite anxiety, into his captain's eyes.
"There is far more to it, as you well know, sir," was the stern answer. "For whom was this written, if not for her? It won't do to half clear her name."
"Answer me this, Captain Armitage. Do you mean that that letter has compromised Miss Renwick?—that it is she whose name has been involved, and that it was of her that Chester meant to speak?"
"Certainly it was,—and I too."
There was an instant's silence; then Jerrold began to laugh nervously:
"Oh, well, I fancy it isn't the first time the revered and respected captain has got away off the track. All the same I do not mean to overlook his language to me; and I may say right now, Captain Armitage, that yours, too, calls for explanation."
"You shall have it in short order, Mr. Jerrold, and the sooner you understand the situation the better. So far as I am concerned, Miss Renwick needed no defender; but, thanks to your mysterious and unwarranted absence from quarters two very unlucky nights, and to other circumstances I have no need to name, and to your penchant for letter-writing of a most suggestive character, it is Miss Renwick whose name has been brought into question here at this post, and most prominently so. In plain words, Mr. Jerrold, you who brought this trouble upon her by your own misconduct must clear her, no matter at whose expense, or—"
"I make no threats. I prefer that you should make the proper explanations from a proper sense of what is due."
"And suppose I say that no man is called upon to explain a situation which has been distorted and misrepresented by the evil imagination of his fellows?"
"Then I may have to wring the truth out of you,—and will; but, for her sake, I want as little publicity as possible. After this display on your part, I am not bound to show you any consideration whatever. Understand this, however: the array of evidence that you were feloniously inside Colonel Maynard's quarters that night and at his cottage window last night is of such a character that a court would convict you unless your alibi was conclusive. Leave the service you certainly shall, unless this whole thing is cleared up."
"I never was anywhere near Colonel Maynard's either last night or the other night I was absent."
"You will have to prove it. Mere denials won't help you in the face of such evidence as we have that you were there the first time."
"The photograph that was stolen from Mrs. Maynard between two and four o'clock that morning was seen in your drawer by Major Sloat at reveille. You were fool enough to show it to him."
"Captain Armitage, I shall be quite able to show, when the proper time comes, that the photograph I showed Major Sloat was not stolen: it was given me."
"That is beyond belief, Mr. Jerrold. Once and for all, understand this case. You have compromised her good name by the very mystery of your actions. You have it in your power to clear her by proving where you were, since you were not near her,—by showing how you got that photograph,—by explaining how you came to write so strange a letter. Now I say to you, will you do it, instantly, or must we wring it from you?"
A sneering smile was the only answer for a moment; then,—
"I shall take great pleasure in confounding my enemies should the matter be brought before a court,—I'm sure if the colonel can stand that sort of thing I can,—but as for defending myself or anybody else from utterly unjust and proofless suspicions, it's quite another thing."
"Good God, Jerrold! do you realize what a position you are taking? Do you—"
"Oh, not at all, captain," was the airy reply, "not at all. It is not a position I have taken: it is one into which you misguided conspirators have forced me. I certainly am not required to compromise anybody else in order to relieve a suspicion which you, not I, have created. How do you know that there may not be some other woman whose name I propose to guard? You have been really very flattering in your theories so far."
Armitage could bear no more. The airy conceit and insolence of the man overcame all self-restraint and resolution. With one bound he was at his throat, his strong white hands grasping him in a sudden, vice-like grip, then hurling him with stunning, thundering force to the floor. Down, headlong, went the tall lieutenant, his sword clattering by his side, his slim brown hands clutching wildly at anything that might bear him up, and dragging with him in his catastrophe a rack of hunting-pouches, antlers, and one heavy double-barrelled shot-gun. All came tumbling down about the struggling form, and Armitage, glaring down at him with clinching fists and rasping teeth, had only time to utter one deep-drawn malediction when he noted that the struggles ceased and Jerrold lay quite still. Then the blood began to ooze from a jagged cut near the temple, and it was evident that the hammer of the gun had struck him.
Another moment, and the door opened, and with anxious face Chester strode into the room. "You haven't killed him, Armitage? Is it as bad as that?"
"Pick him up, and we'll get him on the bed. He's only stunned. I didn't even hit him. Those things tumbled afterwards," said Armitage, as between them they raised the dead weight of the slender Adonis in their arms and bore him to the bedroom. Here they bathed the wound with cold water and removed the uniform coat, and presently the lieutenant began to revive and look about him.
"Who struck me?" he faintly asked.
"Your shot-gun fell on your head, but I threw you down, Jerrold. I'm sorry I touched you, but you're lucky it was no worse. This thing is going to raise a big bump here. Shall I send the doctor?"
"No. I'll come round presently. We'll see about this thing afterwards."
"Is there any friend you want to see? Shall I send word to anybody?" asked Chester.
"No. Don't let anybody come. Tell my striker to bring my breakfast; but I want nothing to-night but to be let alone."
"At least you will let me help you undress and get to bed?" said Chester.
"No. I wish you'd go,—both of you. I want quiet,—peace,—and there's none of it with either of you."
And so they left him. Later Captain Chester had gone to the quarters, and, after much parleying from without, had gained admission. Jerrold's head was bound in a bandage wet with arnica and water. He had been solacing himself with a pipe and a whiskey toddy, and was in a not unnaturally ugly mood.
"You may consider yourself excused from duty until your face is well again, by which time this matter will be decided. I admonish you to remain here and not leave the post until it is."
"You can prefer charges and see what you'll make of it," was the vehement reply. "Devil a bit will I help you out of the thing, after this night's work."
Tuesday, and the day of the long-projected german had come; and if ever a lot of garrison-people were wishing themselves well out of a flurry it was the social circle at Sibley. Invitations had been sent to all the prominent people in town who had shown any interest in the garrison since the regiment's arrival; beautiful favors had been procured; an elaborate supper had been prepared,—the ladies contributing their efforts to the salads and other solids, the officers wisely confining their donations to the wines. It was rumored that new and original figures were to be danced, and much had been said about this feature in town, and much speculation had been indulged in; but the Beaubien residence had been closed until the previous day, Nina was away with her mother and beyond reach of question, and Mr. Jerrold had not shown his face in town since her departure. Nor was he accessible when visitors inquired at the fort. They had never known such mysterious army people in their lives. What on earth could induce them to be so close-mouthed about a mere german? one might suppose they had something worth concealing; and presently it became noised abroad that there was genuine cause for perplexity, and possibly worse.
To begin with, every one at Sibley now knew something of the night adventure at the colonel's, and, as no one could give the true statement of the case, the stories in circulation were gorgeous embellishments of the actual facts. It would be useless, even if advisable, to attempt to reproduce these wild theories, but never was army garrison so tumultuously stirred by the whirlwind of rumor. It was no longer denied for an instant that the absence of the colonel and his household was the direct result of that night's discoveries; and when, to Mrs. Hoyt's inexpressible relief, there came a prettily-worded note from Alice on Monday evening informing her that neither the colonel nor her mother felt well enough to return to Sibley for the german, and that she herself preferred not to leave her mother at a time when she needed her care, Mrs. Hoyt and her intimates, with whom she instantly conferred, decided that there could be no doubt whatever that the colonel knew of the affair, had forbidden their return, and was only waiting for further evidence to decide what was to be done with his erring step-daughter. Women talked with bated breath of the latest stories in circulation, of Chester's moody silence and preoccupation, of Jerrold's ostracism, and of Frank Armitage's sudden return.
On Monday morning the captain had quietly appeared in uniform at the office, and it was known that he had relinquished the remainder of his leave of absence and resumed command of his company. There were men in the garrison who well knew that it was because of the mystery overhanging the colonel's household that Armitage had so suddenly returned. They asked no questions and sought no explanation. All men marked, however, that Jerrold was not at the office on Monday, and many curiously looked at the morning report in the adjutant's office. No, he was not in arrest; neither was he on sick-report. He was marked present for duty, and yet he was not at the customary assembly of all the commissioned officers at head-quarters. More mystery, and most exasperating, too, it was known that Armitage and Jerrold had held a brief talk in the latter's quarters soon after Sunday's evening parade, and that the former had been reinforced for a time by Captain Chester, with whom he was afterwards closeted. Officers who heard that he had suddenly returned and was at Chester's went speedily to the latter's quarters,—at least two or three did,—and were met by a servant at the door, who said that the gentlemen had just gone out the back way. And, sure enough, neither Chester nor Armitage came home until long after taps; and then the colonel's cook told several people that the two gentlemen had spent over an hour up-stairs in the colonel's and Miss Alice's room and "was foolin' around the house till near ten o'clock."
Another thing that added to the flame of speculation and curiosity was this. Two of the ladies, returning from a moonlit stroll on the terrace just after tattoo, came through the narrow passage-way on the west side of the colonel's quarters, and there, at the foot of the little flight of steps leading up to the parade, they came suddenly upon Captain Chester, who was evidently only moderately pleased to see them and nervously anxious to expedite their onward movement. With the perversity of both sexes, however, they stopped to chat and inquire what he was doing there, and in the midst of it all a faint light gleamed on the opposite wall and the reflection of the curtains in Alice Renwick's window was distinctly visible. Then a sturdy masculine shadow appeared, and there was a rustling above, and then, with exasperating, mysterious, and epigrammatic terseness, a deep voice propounded the utterly senseless question,—
To which, in great embarrassment, Chester replied,—
"Hold on a minute. I'm talking with some interested spectators."
Whereat the shadow of the big man shot out of sight, and the ladies found that it was useless to remain,—there would be no further developments so long as they did; and so they came away, with many a lingering backward look. "But the idea of asking such a fool question as 'How's that?' Why couldn't the man say what he meant?" It was gathered, however, that Armitage and Chester had been making some experiments that bore in some measure on the mystery. And all this time Mr. Jerrold was in his quarters, only a stone's-throw away. How interested he must have been!
But, while the garrison was relieved at knowing that Alice Renwick would not be on hand for the german and it was being fondly hoped she might never return to the post, there was still another grievous embarrassment. How about Mr. Jerrold?
He had been asked to lead when the german was first projected, and had accepted. That was fully two weeks before; and now—no one knew just what ought to be done. It was known that Nina Beaubien had returned on the previous day from a brief visit to the upper lakes, and that she had a costume of ravishing beauty in which to carry desolation to the hearts of the garrison belles in leading that german with Mr. Jerrold. Old Madame Beaubien had been reluctant, said her city friends, to return at all. She heartily disapproved of Mr. Jerrold, and was bitterly set against Nina's growing infatuation for him. But Nina was headstrong and determined: moreover, she was far more than a match for her mother's vigilance, and it was known at Sibley that two or three times the girl had been out at the fort with the Suttons and other friends when the old lady believed her in quarters totally different. Cub Sutton had confided to Captain Wilton that Madame Beaubien was in total ignorance of the fact that there was to be a party at the doctor's the night he had driven out with Nina and his sister, and that Nina had "pulled the wool over her mother's eyes" and made her believe she was going to spend the evening with friends in town, naming a family with whom the Beaubiens were intimate. A long drive always made the old lady sleepy, and, as she had accompanied Nina to the fort that afternoon, she went early to bed, having secured her wild birdling, as she supposed, from possibility of further meetings with Jerrold. For nearly a week, said Cub, Madame Beaubien had dogged Nina so that she could not get a moment with the man with whom she was evidently so smitten, and the girl was almost at her wits' end with seeing the depth of his flirtation with Alice Renwick and the knowledge that on the morrow her mother would spirit her off to the cool breezes and blue waves of the great lake. Cub said she so worked on Fanny's feelings that they put up the scheme together and made him bring them out. Gad! if old Maman only found it out there'd be no more germans for Nina. She'd ship her off to the good Sisters at Creve-Coeur and slap her into a convent and leave all her money to the Church.
And yet, said city society, old Maman idolized her beautiful daughter and could deny her no luxury or indulgence. She dressed her superbly, though with a somewhat barbaric taste where Nina's own good sense and Eastern teaching did not interfere. What she feared was that the girl would fall in love with some adventurer, or—what was quite as bad—some army man who would carry her darling away to Arizona or other inaccessible spot. Her plan was that Nina should marry here—at home—some one of the staid young merchant princes rising into prominence in the Western metropolis, and from the very outset Nina had shown a singular infatuation for the buttons and straps and music and heaven-knows-what-all out at the fort. She gloried in seeing her daughter prominent in all scenes of social life. She rejoiced in her triumphs, and took infinite pains with all preparations. She would have set her foot against Nina's simply dancing the german at the fort with Jerrold as a partner, but she could not resist it that the papers should announce on Sunday morning that "the event of the season at Fort Sibley was the german given last Tuesday night by the ladies of the garrison and led by the lovely Miss Beaubien" with Lieutenant or Captain Anybody. There were a dozen bright, graceful, winning women among the dames and damsels at the fort, and Alice Renwick was a famous beauty by this time. It was more than Maman Beaubien could withstand, that her Nina should "lead" all these, and so her consent was won. Back they came from Chequamegon, and the stately home on Summit Avenue reopened to receive them. It was Monday noon when they returned, and by three o'clock Fanny Sutton had told Nina Beaubien what she knew of the wonderful rumors that were floating in from Sibley. She was more than half disposed to be in love with Jerrold herself. She expected a proper amount of womanly horror, incredulity, and indignation; but she was totally unprepared for the outburst that followed. Nina was transformed into a tragedy queen on the instant, and poor, simple-hearted, foolish Fanny Sutton was almost scared out of her small wits by the fire of denunciation and fury with which her story was greeted. She came home with white, frightened face and hunted up Cub and told him that she had been telling Nina some of the queer things the ladies had been saying about Mr. Jerrold, and Nina almost tore her to pieces, and could he go right out to the fort to see Mr. Jerrold? Nina wanted to send a note at once; and if he couldn't go she had made her promise that she would get somebody to go instantly and to come back and let her know before four o'clock. Cub was always glad of an excuse to go out to the fort, but a coldness had sprung up between him and Jerrold. He had heard the ugly rumors in that mysterious way in which all such things are heard, and, while his shallow pate could not quite conceive of such a monstrous scandal and he did not believe half he heard, he sagely felt that in the presence of so much smoke there was surely some fire, and avoided the man from whom he had been inseparable. Of course he had not spoken to him on the subject, and, singularly enough, this was the case with all the officers at the post except Armitage and the commander. It was understood that the matter was in Chester's hands, to do with as was deemed best. It was believed that his resignation had been tendered; and all these forty-eight hours since the story might be said to be fairly before the public, Jerrold had been left much to himself, and was presumably in the depths of dismay.
One or two men, urged by their wives, who thought it was really time something were done to let him understand he ought not to lead the german, had gone to see him and been refused admission. Asked from within what they wanted, the reply was somewhat difficult to frame, and in both cases resolved itself into "Oh, about the german;" to which Jerrold's voice was heard to say, "The german's all right. I'll lead if I'm well enough and am not bothered to death meantime; but I've got some private matters to attend to, and am not seeing anybody to-day." And with this answer they were fain to be content. It had been settled, however, that the officers were to tell Captain Chester at ten o'clock that in their opinion Mr. Jerrold ought not to be permitted to attend so long as this mysterious charge hung over him; and Mr. Rollins had been notified that he must be ready to lead.
Poor Rollins! He was in sore perplexity. He wanted nothing better than to dance with Nina Beaubien. He wondered if she would lead with him, or would even come at all when she learned that Jerrold would be unable to attend. "Sickness" was to be the ostensible cause, and in the youth and innocence of his heart Rollins never supposed that Nina would hear of all the other assignable reasons. He meant to ride in and call upon her Monday evening; but, as ill luck would have it, old Sloat, who was officer of the day, stepped on a round pebble as he was going down the long flight to the railway-station, and sprained his ankle. Just at five o'clock Rollins got orders to relieve him, and was returning from the guard-house, when who should come driving in but Cub Sutton, and Cub reined up and asked where he would be apt to find Mr. Jerrold.
"He isn't well, and has been denying himself to all callers to-day," said Rollins, shortly.
"Well, I've got to see him, or at least get a note to him," said Cub. "It's from Miss Beaubien, and requires an answer."
"You know the way to his quarters, I presume," said Rollins, coldly: "you have been there frequently. I will have a man hold your horse, or you can tie him there at the rail, just as you please."
"Thanks. I'll go over, I believe." And go he did, and poor Rollins was unable to resist the temptation of watching whether the magic name of Nina would open the door. It did not; but he saw Cub hand in the little note through the shutters, and ere long there came another from within. This Cub stowed in his waistcoat-pocket and drove off with, and Rollins walked jealously homeward. But that evening he went through a worse experience, and it was the last blow to his budding passion for sparkling-eyed Nina.
It was nearly tattoo, and a dark night, when Chester suddenly came in:
"Rollins, you remember my telling you I was sure some of the men had been getting liquor in from the shore down below the station and 'running it' that way? I believe we can nab the smuggler this evening. There's a boat down there now. The corporal has just told me."
Smuggling liquor was one of Chester's horrors. He surrounded the post with a cordon of sentries who had no higher duty, apparently, than that of preventing the entrance of alcohol in any form. He had run a "red-cross" crusade against the post-trader's store in the matter of light wines and small beer, claiming that only adulterated stuff was sold to the men, and forbidding the sale of anything stronger than "pop" over the trader's counter. Then, when it became apparent that liquor was being brought on the reservation, he made vigorous efforts to break up the practice. Colonel Maynard rather poohpoohed the whole business. It was his theory that a man who was determined to have a drink might better be allowed to take an honest one, coram publico, than a smuggled and deleterious article; but he succumbed to the rule that only "light wines and beer" should be sold at the store, and was lenient to the poor devils who overloaded and deranged their stomachs in consequence. But Chester no sooner found himself in command than he launched into the crusade with redoubled energy, and spent hours of the day and night trying to capture invaders of the reservation with a bottle in their pockets. The bridge was guarded, so was the crossing of the Cloudwater to the south, and so were the two roads entering from the north and west; and yet there was liquor coming in, and, as though "to give Chester a benefit," some of the men in barracks had a royal old spree on Saturday night, and the captain was sorer-headed than any of the participants in consequence. In some way he heard that a rowboat came up at night and landed supplies of contraband down by the river-side out of sight and hearing of the sentry at the railway-station, and it was thither he hurriedly led Rollins this Monday evening.
They turned across the railway on reaching the bottom of the long stairs, and scrambled down the rocky embankment on the other side, Rollins following in reluctant silence and holding his sword so that it would not rattle, but he had no faith in the theory of smugglers. He felt in some vague and unsatisfactory way a sense of discomfort and anxiety over his captain's late proceedings, and this stealthy descent seemed fraught with ill omen.
Once down in the flats, their footsteps made no noise in the yielding sand, and all was silence save for the plash of the waters along the shores. Far down the river were the reflections of one or two twinkling lights, and close under the bank in the slack-water a few stars were peeping at their own images, but no boat was there, and the captain led still farther to a little copse of willow, and there, in the shadows, sure enough, was a row-boat, with a little lantern dimly burning, half hidden in the stern.
Not only that, but as they halted at the edge of the willows the captain put forth a warning hand and cautioned silence. No need. Rollins's straining eyes were already fixed on two figures that were standing in the shadows not ten feet away,—one that of a tall, slender man, the other a young girl. It was a moment before Rollins could recognize either; but in that moment the girl had turned suddenly, had thrown her arms about the neck of the tall young man, and, with her head pillowed on his breast, was gazing up in his face.
"Kiss me once more, Howard. Then I must go," they heard her whisper.
Rollins seized his captain's sleeve, and strove, sick at heart, to pull him back; but Chester stoutly stood his ground. In the few seconds more that they remained they saw his arms more closely enfold her. They saw her turn at the brink, and, in an utter abandonment of rapturous, passionate love, throw her arms again about his neck and stand on tiptoe to reach his face with her warm lips. They could not fail to hear the caressing tone of her every word, or to mark his receptive but gloomy silence. They could not mistake the voice,—the form, shadowy though it was. The girl was Nina Beaubien, and the man, beyond question, Howard Jerrold. They saw him hand her into the light skiff and hurriedly kiss her good-night. Once again, as though she could not leave him, her arms were thrown about his neck and she clung to him with all her strength; then the little boat swung slowly out into the stream, the sculls were shipped, and with practised hand Nina Beaubien pulled forth into the swirling waters of the river, and the faint light, like slowly-setting star, floated downward with the sweeping tide and finally disappeared beyond the point.
Then Jerrold turned to leave, and Chester stepped forth and confronted him:
"Mr. Jerrold, did I not instruct you to confine yourself to your quarters until satisfactory explanation was made of the absences with which you are charged?"
Jerrold started at the abrupt and unlooked-for greeting, but his answer was prompt:
"Not at all, sir. You gave me to understand that I was to remain here—not to leave the post—until you had decided on certain points; and, though I do not admit the justice of your course, and though you have put me to grave inconvenience, I obeyed the order. I needed to go to town to-day on urgent business, but, between you and Captain Armitage, am in no condition to go. For all this, sir, there will come proper retribution when my colonel returns. And now, sir, you are spying upon me,—spying, I say,—and it only confirms what I said of you before."
"Silence, Mr. Jerrold! This is insubordination."
"I don't care a damn what it is, sir! There is nothing contemptuous enough for me to say of you or your conduct to me—"
"Not another word, Mr. Jerrold! Go to your quarters in arrest.—Mr. Rollins, you are witness to this language."
But Rollins was not. Turning from the spot in blankness of heart before a word was uttered between them, he followed the waning light with eyes full of yearning and trouble; he trudged his way down along the sandy shore until he came to the silent waters of the slough and could go no farther; and then he sat him down and covered his face with his hands. It was pretty hard to bear.
Tuesday still, and all manner of things had happened and were still to happen in the hurrying hours that followed Sunday night. The garrison woke at Tuesday's reveille in much perturbation of spirit, as has been said, but by eight o'clock and breakfast-time one cause of perplexity was at an end. Relief had come with Monday afternoon and Alice Renwick's letter saying she would not attend the german, and now still greater relief in the news that sped from mouth to mouth: Lieutenant Jerrold was in close arrest. Armitage and Chester had been again in consultation Monday night, said the gossips, and something new had been discovered,—no one knew just what,—and the toils had settled upon Jerrold's handsome head, and now he was to be tried. As usual in such cases, the news came in through the kitchen, and most officers heard it at the breakfast-table from the lips of their better halves, who could hardly find words to express their sentiments as to the inability of their lords to explain the new phase of the situation. When the first sergeant of Company B came around to Captain Armitage with the sick-book, soon after six in the morning, the captain briefly directed him to transfer Lieutenant Jerrold on the morning report from present for duty to "in arrest," and no sooner was it known at the quarters of Company B than it began to work back to Officers' Row through the medium of the servants and strikers.
It was the sole topic of talk for a full hour. Many ladies who had intended going to town by the early train almost perilled their chances of catching the same in their eagerness to hear further details.
But the shriek of the whistle far up the valley broke up the group that was so busily chatting and speculating over in the quadrangle, and, with shy yet curious eyes, the party of at least a dozen—matrons and maids, wives or sisters of the officers—scurried past the darkened windows of Mr. Jerrold's quarters, and through the mysterious passage west of the colonel's silent house, and down the long stairs, just in time to catch the train that whirled them away city-ward almost as soon as it had disgorged the morning's mail. Chatting and laughing, and full of blithe anticipation of the glories of the coming german, in preparation for which most of their number had found it necessary to run in for just an hour's shopping, they went jubilantly on their way. Shopping done, they would all meet, take luncheon together at the "Woman's Exchange," return to the post by the afternoon train, and have plenty of time for a little nap before dressing for the german. Perhaps the most interesting question now up for discussion was, who would lead with Mr. Rollins? The train went puffing into the crowded depot: the ladies hastened forth, and in a moment were on the street; cabs and carriages were passed in disdain; a brisk walk of a block carried them to the main thoroughfare and into the heart of the shopping district; a rush of hoofs and wheels and pedestrians there encountered them, and the roar assailed their sensitive and unaccustomed ears, yet high above it all pierced and pealed the shrill voices of the newsboys darting here and there with their eagerly-bought journals. But women bent on germans and shopping have time and ears for no such news as that which demands the publication of extras. Some of them never hear or heed the cry, "Indian Massacree!" "Here y'are! All about the killin' of Major Thornton an' his sojers!" "Extry!—extry!" It is not until they reach the broad portals of the great Stewart of the West that one of their number, half incredulously, buys a copy and reads aloud: "Major Thornton, ——th Infantry, Captain Langham and Lieutenant Bliss, ——th Cavalry, and thirty men, are killed. Captains Wright and Lane and Lieutenants Willard and Brooks, ——th Cavalry, and some forty more men, are seriously wounded. The rest of the command is corralled by an overwhelming force of Indians, and their only hope is to hold out until help can reach them. All troops along the line of the Union Pacific are already under orders."
"Oh, isn't it dreadful?"
"Yes; but aren't you glad it wasn't Ours? Oh, look! there's Nina Beaubien over there in her carriage. Do let's find out if she's going to lead with Rollins!"
Vae victis! Far out in the glorious Park country in the heart of the Centennial State a little band of blue-coats, sent to succor a perilled agent, is making desperate stand against fearful odds. Less than two hundred men has the wisdom of the Department sent forth through the wilderness to find and, if need be, fight its way through five times its weight in well-armed foes. The officers and men have no special quarrel with those Indians, nor the Indians with them. Only two winters before, when those same Indians were sick and starving, and their lying go-betweens, the Bureau-employees, would give them neither food nor justice, a small band made their way to the railway and were fed on soldier food and their wrongs righted by soldier justice. But another snarl has come now, and this time the Bureau-people are in a pickle, and the army—ever between two fires at least, and thankful when it isn't six—is ordered to send a little force and go out there and help the agent maintain his authority. The very night before the column reaches the borders of the reservation the leading chiefs come in camp to interview the officers, shake hands, beg tobacco, and try on their clothes, then go back to their braves and laugh as they tell there are only a handful, and plan the morrow's ambuscade and massacre. Vae victis! There are women and children among the garrisons along the Union Pacific whose hearts have little room for thoughts of germans in the horror of this morning's tidings. But Sibley is miles and miles away, and, as Mrs. Wheeler says, aren't you glad it wasn't Ours?
Out at the fort there is a different scene. The morning journals and the clicking telegraph send a thrill throughout the whole command. The train has barely whistled out of sight when the ringing notes of officers' call resound through the quadrangle and out over the broader drill-ground beyond. Wondering, but prompt, the staid captains and eager subalterns come hurrying to head-quarters, and the band, that had come forth and taken its station on the parade, all ready for guard-mount, goes quickly back, while the men gather in big squads along the shaded row of their quarters and watch the rapid assembly at the office. And there old Chester, with kindling eyes, reads to the silent company the brief official order. Ay, though it be miles and miles away, fast as steam and wheel can take it, the good old regiment in all its sturdy strength goes forth to join the rescue of the imprisoned comrades far in the Colorado Rockies. "Have your entire command in readiness for immediate field-service in the Department of the Platte. Special train will be there to take you by noon at latest." And though many a man has lost friend and comrade in the tragedy that calls them forth, and though many a brow clouds for the moment with the bitter news of such useless sacrifice, every eye brightens, every muscle seems to brace, every nerve and pulse to throb and thrill with the glorious excitement of quick assembly and coming action. Ay, we are miles and miles away; we leave the dear old post, with homes and firesides, wives, children, and sweethearts, all to the care of the few whom sickness or old wounds or advancing years render unfit for hard, sharp marching; and, thank God! we'll be there to take a hand and help those gallant fellows out of their "corral" or to have one good blow at the cowardly hounds who lured and lied to them.
How the "assembly" rings on the morning air! How quick they spring to ranks, those eager bearded faces and trim blue-clad forms! How buoyant and brisk even the elders seem as the captains speed over to their company quarters and the quick, stirring orders are given! "Field kits; all the cooked rations you have on hand; overcoat, blanket, extra socks and underclothes; every cartridge you've got; haversack and canteen, and nothing else. Now get ready,—lively!" How irrepressible is the cheer that goes up! How we pity the swells of the light battery who have to stay! How wistful those fellows look, and how eagerly they throng about the barracks, yearning to go, and, since that is denied, praying to be of use in some way! Small wonder is it that all the bustle and excitement penetrates the portals of Mr. Jerrold's darkened quarters, and the shutters are thrown open and his bandaged head comes forth.
"What is it, Harris?" he demands of a light-batteryman who is hurrying past.
"Orders for Colorado, sir. The regiment goes by special train. Major Thornton's command's been massacred, and there's a big fight ahead."
"My God! Here!—stop one moment. Run over to Company B and see if you can find my servant, or Merrick, or somebody. If not, you come back quick. I want to send a note to Captain Armitage."
"I can take it, sir. We're not going. The band and the battery have to stay."
And Jerrold, with trembling hand and feverish haste, seats himself at the same desk whence on that fatal morning he sent the note that wrought such disaster; and as he rises and hands his missive forth, throwing wide open the shutters as he does so, his bedroom doors fly open, and a whirling gust of the morning wind sweeps through from rear to front, and half a score of bills and billets, letters and scraps of paper, go ballooning out upon the parade.
"By heaven!" he mutters, "that's how it happened, is it? Look at them go!" for going they were, in spiral eddies or fluttering skips, up the grassy "quad," and over among the rose-bushes of Alice Renwick's garden. Over on the other side of the narrow, old-fashioned frontier fort the men were bustling about, and their exultant, eager voices rang out on the morning air. All was life and animation, and even in Jerrold's selfish soul there rose responsive echo to the soldierly spirit that seemed to pervade the whole command. It was their first summons to active field-duty with prospective battle since he had joined, and, with all his shortcomings as a "duty" officer in garrison and his many frailties of character, Jerrold was not the man to lurk in the rear when there was danger ahead. It dawned on him with sudden and crushing force that now it lay in the power of his enemies to do him vital injury,—that he could be held here at the post like a suspected felon, a mark for every finger, a target for every tongue, while every other officer of his regiment was hurrying with his men to take his knightly share in the coming onset. It was intolerable, shameful. He paced the floor of his little parlor in nervous misery, ever and anon gazing from the window for sight of his captain. It was to him he had written, urging that he be permitted a few moments' talk. "This is no time for a personal misunderstanding," he wrote. "I must see you at once. I can clear away the doubts, can explain my action; but, for heaven's sake, intercede for me with Captain Chester that I may go with the command."
As luck would have it, Armitage was with Chester at the office when the letter was handed in. He opened it, gave a whistle of surprise, and simply held it forth to the temporary commander.
"Read that," he said.
Chester frowned, but took the note and looked it curiously over.
"I have no patience with the man now," he said. "Of course after what I saw last night I begin to understand the nature of his defence; but we don't want any such man in the regiment, after this. What's the use of taking him with us?"
"That isn't the point," said Armitage. "Now or never, possibly, is the time to clear up this mystery. Of course Maynard will be up to join us by the first train; and what won't it be worth to him to have positive proof that all his fears were unfounded?"
"Even if it wasn't Jerrold, there is still the fact that I saw a man clambering out of her window. How is that to be cleared up?" said Chester, gloomily.
"That may come later, and won't be such a bugbear as you think. If you were not worried into a morbid condition over all this trouble, you would not look so seriously upon a thing which I regard as a piece of mere night prowling, with a possible spice of romance."
"What romance, I'd like to know?"
"Never mind that now: I'm playing detective for the time being. Let me see Jerrold for you and find out what he has to offer. Then you can decide. Are you willing? All right! But remember this while I think of it. You admit that the light you saw on the wall Sunday night was exactly like that which you saw the night of your adventure, and that the shadows were thrown in the same way. You thought that night that the light was turned up and afterwards turned out in her room, and that it was her figure you saw at the window. Didn't you?"
"Yes. What then?"
"Well, I believe her statement that she saw and heard nothing until reveille. I believe it was Mrs. Maynard who did the whole thing, without Miss Renwick's knowing anything about it."
"Because I accomplished the feat with the aid of the little night-lamp that I found by the colonel's bedside. It is my theory that Mrs. Maynard was restless after the colonel finally fell asleep, that she heard your tumble, and took her little lamp, crossed over into Miss Renwick's room, opened the door without creaking, as I can do to your satisfaction, found her sleeping quietly, but the room a trifle close and warm, set her night-lamp down on the table, as I did, threw her shadow on the wall, as I did, and opened the shade, as you thought her daughter did. Then she withdrew, and left those doors open,—both hers and her daughter's,—and the light, instead of being turned down, as you thought, was simply carried back into her own room."
"That is all possible. But how about the man in her room? Nothing was stolen, though money and jewelry were lying around loose. If theft was not the object, what was?"
"Theft certainly was not, and I'm not prepared to say what was, but I have reason to believe it wasn't Miss Renwick."
"Anything to prove it?"
"Yes; and, though time is precious and I cannot show you, you may take my word for it. We must be off at noon, and both of us have much to do, but there may be no other chance to talk, and before you leave this post I want you to realize her utter innocence."
"I want to, Armitage."
"I know you do: so look here. We assume that the same man paid the night visit both here and at Sablon, and that he wanted to see the same person,—if he did not come to steal: do we not?"
"We know that at Sablon it was Mrs. Maynard he sought and called. The colonel says so."
"Presumably, then, it was she—not her daughter—he had some reasons for wanting to see here at Sibley. What is more, if he wanted to see Miss Renwick there was nothing to prevent his going right into her window?"
"Well, I believe I can prove he didn't; on the contrary, that he went around by the roof of the porch to the colonel's room and tried there, but found it risky on account of the blinds, and that finally he entered the hall window,—what might be called neutral ground. The painters had been at work there, as you said, two days before, and the paint on the slats was not quite dry. The blinds and sills were the only things they had touched up on that front, it seems, and nothing on the sides. Now, on the fresh paint of the colonel's slats are the new imprints of masculine thumb and fingers, and on the sill of the hall window is a footprint that I know to be other than Jerrold's."
"Because he doesn't own such a thing as this track was made with, and I don't know a man in this command who does. It was the handiwork of the Tonto Apaches, and came from the other side of the continent."
"You mean it was—?"
"Exactly. An Indian moccasin."
Meantime, Mr. Jerrold had been making hurried preparations, as he had fully determined that at any cost he would go with the regiment. He had been burning a number of letters, when Captain Armitage knocked and hurriedly entered. Jerrold pushed forward a chair and plunged at once into the matter at issue:
"There is no time to waste, captain. I have sent to you to ask what I can do to be released from arrest and permitted to go with the command."
"Answer the questions I put to you the other night, and certify to your answers; and of course you'll have to apologize to Captain Chester for your last night's language."
"That of course; though you will admit it looked like spying. Now let me ask you, did he tell you who the lady was?"
"No. I told him."
"How did you know?"
"By intuition, and my knowledge of previous circumstances."
"We have no time to discuss it. I make no attempt to conceal it now; but I ask that, on your honor, neither you nor he reveal it."
"And continue to let the garrison believe that you were in Miss Renwick's room that ghastly night?" asked Armitage, dryly.
Jerrold flushed: "I have denied that, and I would have proved my alibi could I have done so without betraying a woman's secret. Must I tell?"
"So far as I am concerned, Mr. Jerrold," said Armitage, with cold and relentless meaning, "you not only must tell—you must prove—both that night's doings and Saturday night's,—both that and how you obtained that photograph."
"My God! In one case it is a woman's name; in the other I have promised on honor not to reveal it."
"That ends it, then. You remain here in close arrest, and the charges against you will be pushed to the bitter end. I will write them this very hour."
At ten o'clock that morning, shortly after a smiling interview with the ladies of Fort Sibley, in which, with infinite spirit and the most perfect self-control, Miss Beaubien had informed them that she had promised to lead with Mr. Jerrold, and, since he was in duress, she would lead with no one, and sent them off wondering and greatly excited, there came running up to the carriage a telegraph messenger boy, who handed her a despatch.
"I was going up to the avenue, mum," he explained, "but I seen you here."
Nina's face paled as she tore it open and read the curt lines:
"Come to me, here. Your help needed instantly."
She sprang from the carriage. "Tell mother I have gone over to see some Fort friends,—not to wait," she called to the coachman, well knowing he would understand that she meant the ladies with whom she had been so recently talking. Like a frightened deer she sped around the corner, hailed the driver of a cab, lounging with his fellows along the walk, ordered him to drive with all speed to Summit Avenue, and with beating heart decided on her plan. Her glorious eyes were flashing: the native courage and fierce determination of her race were working in her woman's heart. She well knew that imminent danger threatened him. She had dared everything for love of his mere presence, his sweet caress. What would she not dare to save him, if save she could? He had not been true to her. She knew, and knew well, that, whether sought or not, Alice Renwick had been winning him from her, that he was wavering, that he had been cold and negligent; but with all her soul and strength she loved him, and believed him grand and brave and fine as he was beautiful. Now—now was her opportunity. He needed her. His commission, his honor, depended on her. He had intimated as much the night before,—had told her of the accusations and suspicions that attached to him,—but made no mention of the photograph. He had said that though nothing could drag from him a word that would compromise her, she might be called upon to stand 'twixt him and ruin; and now perhaps the hour had come. She could free, exonerate, glorify him, and in doing so claim him for her own. Who, after this, could stand 'twixt her and him? He loved her, though he had been cold; and she—? Had he bidden her bow her dusky head to earth and kiss the print of his heel, she would have obeyed could she but feel sure that her reward would be a simple touch of his hand, an assurance that no other woman could find a moment's place in his love. Verily, he had been doing desperate wooing in the long winter, for the very depths of her nature were all athrob with love for him. And now he could no longer plead that poverty withheld his offer of his hand. She would soon be mistress of her own little fortune, and, at her mother's death, of an independence. Go to him she would, and on wings of the wind, and go she did. The cab released her at the gate to her home, and went back with a double fare that set the driver to thinking. She sped through the house, and out the rear doors, much to the amaze of cook and others who were in consultation in the kitchen. She flew down a winding flight of stairs to the level below, and her fairy feet went tripping over the pavement of a plebeian street. A quick turn, and she was at a little second-rate stable, whose proprietor knew her and started from his chair.
"What's wrong to-day, Miss Nina?"
"I want the roan mare and light buggy again,—quick as you can. Your own price at the old terms, Mr. Graves,—silence."
He nodded, called to a subordinate, and in five minutes handed her into the frail vehicle. An impatient chirrup and flap of the reins, and the roan shot forth into the dusty road, leaving old Graves shaking his head at the door.
"I've known her ever since she was weaned," he muttered, "and she's a wild bird, if ever there was one, but she's never been the like o' this till last month."
And the roan mare was covered with foam and sweat when Nina Beaubien drove into the bustling fort, barely an hour after her receipt of Jerrold's telegram. A few officers were gathered in front of head-quarters, and there were curious looks from face to face as she was recognized. Mr. Rollins was on the walk, giving some instructions to a sergeant of his company, and never saw her until the buggy reined up close behind him and, turning suddenly, he met her face to face as she sprang lightly to the ground. The young fellow reddened to his eyes, and would have recoiled, but she was mistress of the situation. She well knew she had but to command and he would obey, or, at the most, if she could no longer command she had only to implore, and he would be powerless to withstand her entreaty.
"I am glad you are here, Mr. Rollins. You can help me.—Sergeant, will you kindly hitch my horse at that post?—Now," she added, in low, hurried tone, "come with me to Mr. Jerrold's."
Rollins was too stupefied to answer. Silently he placed himself by her side, and together they passed the group at the office. Miss Beaubien nodded with something of her old archness and coquetry to the cap-raising party, but never hesitated. Together they passed along the narrow board walk, followed by curious eyes, and as they reached the angle and stepped beneath the shelter of the piazza in front of the long, low, green-blinded Bachelors' Row, there was sudden sensation in the group. Mr. Jerrold appeared at the door of his quarters; Rollins halted some fifty feet away, raised his cap, and left her; and, all alone, with the eyes of Fort Sibley upon her, Nina Beaubien stepped bravely forward to meet her lover.
They saw him greet her at the door. Some of them turned away, unwilling to look, and yet unwilling to go and not understand this new phase of the mystery. Rollins, looking neither to right nor left, repassed them and walked off with a set, savage look on his young face, and then, as one or two still gazed, fascinated by this strange and daring proceeding, others, too, turned back and, half ashamed of themselves for such a yielding to curiosity, glanced furtively over at Jerrold's door.
There they stood,—he, restrained by his arrest, unable to come forth; she, restrained more by his barring form than by any consideration of maidenly reserve, for, had he bidden, she would have gone within. She had fully made up her mind that wherever he was, even were it behind the sentinels and bars of the guard-house, she would demand that she be taken to his side. He had handed out a chair, but she would not sit. They saw her looking up into his face as he talked, and noted the eager gesticulation, so characteristic of his Creole blood, that seemed to accompany his rapid words. They saw her bending towards him, looking eagerly up in his eyes, and occasionally casting indignant glances over towards the group at the office, as though she would annihilate with her wrath the persecutors of her hero. Then they saw her stretch forth both her hands with a quick impulsive movement, and grasp his one instant, looking so faithfully, steadfastly, loyally, into his clouded and anxious face. Then she turned, and with quick, eager steps came tripping towards them. They stood irresolute. Every man felt that it was somebody's duty to step forward, meet her, and be her escort though the party, but no one advanced. There was, if anything, a tendency to sidle towards the office door, as though to leave the sidewalk unimpeded. But she never sought to pass them by. With flashing eyes and crimson cheeks, she bore straight upon them, and, with indignant emphasis upon every word, accosted them:
"Captain Wilton, Major Sloat, I wish to see Captain Chester at once. Is he in the office?"
"Certainly, Miss Beaubien. Shall I call him? or will you walk in?" And both men were at her side in a moment.
"Thanks. I will go right in,—if you will kindly show me to him."
Another moment, and Armitage and Chester, deep in the midst of their duties and surrounded by clerks and orderlies and assailed by half a dozen questions in one and the same instant, looked up astonished as Wilton stepped in and announced Miss Beaubien desiring to see Captain Chester on immediate business. There was no time for conference. There she stood in the door-way, and all tongues were hushed on the instant. Chester rose and stepped forward with anxious courtesy. She did not choose to see the extended hand.
"It is you, alone, I wish to see, captain. Is it impossible here?"
"I fear it is, Miss Beaubien; but we can walk out in the open air. I feel that I know what it is you wish to say to me," he added, in a low tone, took his cap from the peg on which it hung, and led the way. Again she passed through the curious, but respectful group, and Jerrold, watching furtively from his window, saw them come forth.
The captain turned to her as soon as they were out of earshot:
"I have no daughter of my own, my dear young lady, but if I had I could not more thoroughly feel for you than I do. How can I help you?"
The reply was unexpectedly spirited. He had thought to encourage and sustain her, be sympathetic and paternal, but, as he afterwards ruefully admitted, he "never did seem to get the hang of a woman's temperament." Apparently sympathy was not the thing she needed.
"It is late in the day to ask such a question, Captain Chester. You have done great wrong and injustice. The question is now, will you undo it?"
He was too surprised to speak for a moment. When his tongue was unloosed he said,—
"I shall be glad to be convinced I was wrong."
"I know little of army justice or army laws, Captain Chester, but when a girl is compelled to take this step to rescue a friend there is something brutal about them,—or the men who enforce them. Mr. Jerrold tells me that he is arrested. I knew that last night, but not until this morning did he consent to let me know that he would be court-martialled unless he could prove where he was the night you were officer of the day two weeks ago, and last Saturday night. He is too noble and good to defend himself when by doing so he might harm me. But I am here to free him from the cruel suspicion you have formed." She had quickened her step, and in her impulsiveness and agitation they were almost at the end of the walk. He hesitated, as though reluctant to go along under the piazza, but she was imperious, and he yielded. "No, come!" she said. "I mean that you shall hear the whole truth, and that at once. I do not expect you to understand or condone my conduct, but you must acquit him. We are engaged; and—I love him. He has enemies here, as I see all too plainly, and they have prejudiced mother against him, and she has forbidden my seeing him. I came out to the fort without her knowledge one day, and it angered her. From that time she would not let me see him alone. She watched every movement, and came with me wherever I drove. She gave orders that I should never have any of our horses to drive or ride alone,—I, whom father had indulged to the utmost and who had ridden and driven at will from my babyhood. She came out to the fort with me that evening for parade, and never even agreed to let me go out to see some neighbors until she learned he was to escort Miss Renwick. She had ordered me to be ready to go with her to Chequamagon the next day, and I would not go until I had seen him. There had been a misunderstanding. I got the Suttons to drive me out while mother supposed me at the Laurents', and Mr. Jerrold promised to meet me east of the bridge and drive in town with us, and I was to send him back in Graves's buggy. He had been refused permission to leave the post, he said, and could not cross the bridge, where the sentries would be sure to recognize him, but, as it was our last chance of meeting, he risked the discovery of his absence, never dreaming of such a thing as his private rooms being inspected. He had a little skiff down in the willows that he had used before, and by leaving the party at midnight he could get home, change his dress, run down the bank and row down-stream to the Point, there leave his skiff and climb up to the road. He met us there at one o'clock, and the Suttons would never betray either of us, though they did not know we were engaged. We sat in their parlor a quarter of an hour after we got to town, and then 'twas time to go, and there was only a little ten minutes' walk down to the stable. I had seen him such a very short time, and I had so much to tell him." (Chester could have burst into rapturous applause had she been an actress. Her cheeks were aflame, her eyes full of fire and spirit, her bosom heaving, her little foot tapping the ground, as she stood there leaning on the colonel's fence and looking straight up in the perturbed veteran's face. She was magnificent, he said to himself; and, in her bravery, self-sacrifice, and indignation, she was.) "It was then after two, and I could just as well go with him,—somebody had to bring the buggy back,—and Graves himself hitched in his roan mare for me, and I drove out, picked up Mr. Jerrold at the corner, and we came out here again through the darkness together. Even when we got to the Point I did not let him go at once. It was over an hour's drive. It was fully half-past three before we parted. He sprang down the path to reach the river-side; and before he was fairly in his boat and pulling up against the stream, I heard, far over here somewhere, those two faint shots. That was the shooting he spoke of in his letter to me,—not to her; and what business Colonel Maynard had to read and exhibit to his officers a letter never intended for him I cannot understand. Mr. Jerrold says it was not what he wanted it to be at all, as he wrote hastily, so he wrote another, and sent that to me by Merrick that morning after his absence was discovered. It probably blew out of the window, as these other things did this morning. See for yourself, captain." And she pointed to the two or three bills and scraps that had evidently only recently fluttered in among the now neglected roses. "Then when he was aroused at reveille and you threatened him with punishment and held over his head the startling accusation that you knew of our meeting and our secret, he was naturally infinitely distressed, and could only write to warn me, and he managed to get in and say good-by to me at the station. As for me, I was back home by five o'clock, let myself noiselessly up to my room, and no one knew it but the Suttons and old Graves, neither of whom would betray me. I had no fear of the long dark road: I had ridden and driven as a child all over these bluffs and prairies before there was any town worth mentioning, and in days when my father and I found only friends—not enemies—here at Sibley."
"Miss Beaubien, let me protest against your accusation. It is not for me to reprove your grave imprudence or recklessness; nor have I the right to disapprove your choice of Mr. Jerrold. Let me say at once that you have none but friends here; and if it ever should be known to what lengths you went to save him, it will only make him more envied and you more genuinely admired. I question your wisdom, but, upon my soul, I admire your bravery and spirit. You have cleared him of a terrible charge."
A most disdainful and impatient shrug of her shapely shoulders was Miss Beaubien's only answer to that allusion. The possibility of Mr. Jerrold's being suspected of another entanglement was something she would not tolerate:
"I know nothing of other people's affairs. I simply speak of my own. Let us end this as quickly as possible, captain. Now about Saturday night. Mother had consented to our coming back for the german,—she enjoys seeing me lead, it seems,—and she decided to pay a short visit to relations at St. Croix, staying there Saturday night and over Sunday. This would give us a chance to meet again, as he could spend the evening in St. Croix and return by late train, and I wrote and asked him. He came; we had a long talk in the summer-house in the garden, for mother never dreamed of his being there, and unluckily he just missed the night train and did not get back until inspection. It was impossible for him to have been at Sablon; and he can furnish other proof, but would do nothing until he had seen me."
"Miss Beaubien, you have cleared him. I only wish that you could clear—every one."
"I am in no wise concerned in that other matter to which you have alluded; neither is Mr. Jerrold. May I say to him at once that this ends his persecution?"
The captain smiled: "You certainly deserve to be the bearer of good tidings. I wish he may appreciate it."
Another moment, and she had left him and sped back to Jerrold's door-way. He was there to meet her, and Chester looked with grim and uncertain emotion at the radiance in her face. He had to get back to the office and to pass them: so, as civilly as he could, considering the weight of wrath and contempt he felt for the man, he stopped and spoke:
"Your fair advocate has been all-powerful, Mr. Jerrold. I congratulate you; and your arrest is at an end. Captain Armitage will require no duty of you until we are aboard; but we've only half an hour. The train is coming sharp at noon."
"Train! What train! Where are you going?" she asked, a wild anxiety in her eyes, a sudden pallor on her face.
"We are ordered post-haste to Colorado, Nina, to rescue what is left of Thornton's men. But for you I should have been left behind."
"But for me!—left behind!" she cried. "Oh, Howard, Howard! have I only—only won you to send you into danger? Oh, my darling! Oh, God! Don't—don't go! They will kill you! It will kill me! Oh, what have I done? what have I done?"
"Nina, hush! My honor is with the regiment. I must go, child. We'll be back in a few weeks. Indeed, I fear 'twill all be over before we get there. Nina, don't look so! Don't act so! Think where you are!"
But she had borne too much, and the blow came all too soon,—too heavy. She was wellnigh senseless when the Beaubien carriage came whirling into the fort and old Maman rushed forth in voluble and rabid charge upon her daughter. All too late! it was useless now. Her darling's heart was weaned away, and her love lavished on that tall, objectionable young soldier so soon to go forth to battle. Reproaches, tears, wrath, were all in order, but were abandoned at sight of poor Nina's agony of grief. Noon came, and the train, and with buoyant tread the gallant command marched down the winding road and filed aboard the cars, and Howard Jerrold, shame-stricken, humbled at the contemplation of his own unworthiness, slowly unclasped her arms from about his neck, laid one long kiss upon her white and quivering lips, took one brief look in the great, dark, haunting, despairing eyes, and carried her wail of anguish ringing in his ears as he sprang aboard and was whirled away.
But there were women who deemed themselves worse off than Nina Beaubien,—the wives and daughters and sweethearts whom she met that morn in town; for when they got back to Sibley the regiment was miles away. For them there was not even a kiss from the lips of those they loved. Time and train waited for no woman. There were comrades battling for life in the Colorado Rockies, and aid could not come too soon.