"Found Scott and his clerk, at least," he cried. "'Most dead and half frozen! The driver's gone, I fear. He was blown or pitched off. The mules ran away before the gale. Those inside the ambulance were helpless. Two dropped off behind and are lost. The thing finally capsized and went to pieces, and they managed to reach a little cattle shack, two miles south of town. They've found Lanier's striker, too—what's left of him."
By this time Kate had come down-stairs, and with pallid face was listening dumbly to her father's words. She seemed hardly to heed the presence of the strangers. Not until the captain had emerged from his furs and stood robust and ruddy, yet a little short of breath, did she lay her hand upon his arm and ask her question.
"Have they found Rawdon?"
"Rawdon? No, not a sign of him anywhere!"
"Is that the young fellow that those sergeants have been hunting for?" asked one of the detectives. "We managed to find out about him. He was in town early as three o'clock Friday, and he left on Number Six that night."
"Do you mean to tell me," said Sumter, gazing blankly at the speaker, "that he wasn't out here when—this—happened?"
"Not unless he had wings! That train leaves at 11.40." Whereupon Kate Sumter slowly withdrew her hand, then turned away.
Another day went by. Major Scott and his clerk, under Larrabee's skilful touch, were gradually regaining strength and beginning to answer questions. At first their senses seemed dulled, as though they could not shake off the frost that benumbed them. At first they could tell little of the cause of the mishap. The ambulance was curtained in, even at the rear, through which the two scared troopers had managed to slip to their doom. Not until the snows melted in the spring, and the contents of the ravines should be revealed, was it likely they would be heard of again. The railway was still blocked. The wires were still down. Fort Cushing stood isolated from the outer world, and no less than five of its garrison were absent and unaccounted for: the two men detailed to drive in with the paymaster, two bacchanalians who, being in town when the storm broke, had dared each other to face the gale and tramp out, and finally a young trooper named Cary, who had arrived with the same recruit squad that brought them Rawdon, and had been on terms of friendship, if not indeed of intimacy, with him. They had been together that very Friday afternoon. In addition, whereabouts unknown, was Sergeant Fitzroy, of Snaffle's Troop. "Absent with leave," said the morning report. "Acting under the verbal instructions of the commanding officer," said his captain.
Along toward dusk on Tuesday, others of the searching squadron, sent afar down the valley, had come back, reporting that the ambulance mules were found, huddled together, half starved and still half harnessed, in a log shack or shelter to which their instinct had guided them after their heels had made chopsticks of the running gear. The ambulance body was snowed under somewhere and nowhere in sight. The driver, a civilian employed in the Quartermaster's Department, had totally disappeared. Scott, the paymaster; Thomas, his clerk; and Rafferty, Lanier's soldier servant, or "striker" as then called, were still half dazed—Rafferty, indeed, so much dazed that no coherent words had yet escaped him.
One more unfortunate, the driver of Foster's sleigh, was in trouble. Not until two hours after the dance had he turned up with the missing equipage, a cock-and-bull story, and a case of what the corporal called "jag." He swore that, having got chilled through, waiting, he just thought to get one hot whiskey at the store. Sentry Number Six said he'd mind the team while the driver went in, and the next thing he knew "they'd run'd away, hell for leather," and he, their driver, had to follow two miles to Flint's Ranch, close to town, where he "might have taken a nip or two more." It was his first offense and Foster forgave. It should be remarked, however, that Number Six declared that it was not he with whom the driver left the sleigh, but two "fellers," i.e., troopers, who happened to be near the store. However, that did not seem much to matter at the time.
And Fort Cushing was in unhappy frame of mind. Colonel Button was in most inhospitable mood, and chafing because he could not communicate with the general commanding the department. Mrs. Button was confined to the house and denied to all but one or two intimates. Bob Lanier was still in close arrest. No man could say what might be the result, for Barker, the adjutant, declared he knew no more than they. "The Old Man had something up his sleeve"—several somethings—against him, but was confiding in no one, for he and Stannard were at odds over the matter; he and Sumter were practically estranged because of it, and for the first time in regimental history Button seemed to be giving all his attention to Snaffle and men of his stamp and set. They were not more than three or four in number. They had been rather tolerated than sought in the past, but now the colonel seemed to have use for them alone.
And there was sorrow and estrangement at Sumter's. Never before, as Mrs. Sumter declared, had Katherine ever had a secret from her mother. Now there was a matter upon which it seemed she could not talk. Moreover, Miriam Arnold was affected in precisely the same way. She shrank from all mention of that mysterious affair of Friday night. Not only were they unable to speak of it to Mrs. Sumter; they avoided it among themselves.
It was now Wednesday, and there had been a procession of callers to inquire for Miss Arnold. The girls felt that they must dress and come down and face them. "Are you sure you feel equal to it, Miriam?" was Mrs. Sumter's anxious question.
"I am sure I do not," was the weary answer, "but all the same I must."
And, being a girl of pluck, and much ashamed of the breakdown of Friday and Saturday, Miss Arnold made her effort, and did remarkably well so long as people refrained from prodding her about her "strange adventure," the alleged details of which, in exaggerated form, were garrison property by this time. There could be no doubt, said nine out of ten of the soldiery, it was the work of some sneak-thief in uniform, in all probability that young swell Rawdon, who was gone. But among a certain select few still another theory obtained, and Wednesday night when Sergeant Fitzroy returned to the post and asked to see the colonel, that officer, who was at dinner, sent answer that he would be at the office at eight o'clock, and further sent word to Captain Snaffle to be there at the same hour.
A spell of sharp cold had followed the blizzard. The skies were dazzling at night with the radiance and sparkle of the stars. The young people of the garrison were out in force, rejoicing in the snow sports, the moonlight, the exhilarating air. The men had made some famous slides over at the bluffs, and the children along the officers' lines were playing hide and seek, about the drifts and tunnels at the northward end of the parade. They gathered in force about the office to cheer the colonel as he came forth from a long conference, which left him so absorbed he hardly noticed their gleeful salute. They pelted two prime favorites who followed, with drooping head and woebegone visage, and never once responded to the fun, and the youngsters asked one another what on earth could have happened to Cassidy and Quinlan, who were always so ready to frolic with them.
Then Captain Sumter had been sent for, and was admitted to a five-minute talk with the colonel at his quarters, and came away with grave and troubled face, to a ten-minutes conference with his gentle wife that left her sorely worried and distressed.
"Ask Kate," he said, as once more he set forth into the night. "I've got to tramp and think this over before I do anything further." And at that moment Kate and Miriam had gone in to talk awhile with Mrs. Stannard. It was best they should not stay home, subject to incessant interview.
It was just about quarter of nine. The lights at the office were still burning, for the colonel had intimated that he might be back. Barker was bending over some of the post papers and reports at his desk, and wondering why on earth the colonel should be colloguing with Snaffle, Crane, Sergeant Fitzroy, and sending for Cassidy and Quinlan. That was a queer "outfit" of Snaffle's at best. It seemed odd that the most pronounced "Britisher" in barracks, outside of the band, should be a sergeant in the troop commanded by the nearest thing to an Irishman among the captains. True, Fitzroy as stable sergeant was quite independent, and, being very ambitious and zealous, had attracted the attention of other captains, to wit, Canker and Curbit, rival troop leaders, who each, at one time or other, had offered to make Fitzroy first sergeant if he would transfer; but Fitzroy preferred to stay where he was in "C," and it was easier to suggest than it was to assert the real reason.
Barker was busy with these reflections when the colonel once more entered and began pacing moodily up and down the room. The adjutant rose, but at a signal resumed his seat and waited. He was, as he whimsically described himself, "a relic of the previous administration." In those days officers might serve long years on the staff and never know an hour of company duty. Barker had been in the adjutant's office under three different regimental commanders, and, as etiquette required, had tendered his resignation to Button on that officer's promotion to the colonelcy. Button as promptly and courteously replied that he hoped Lieutenant Barker would consent to serve as right-hand man until he reached his captaincy, which could not be very far off. But already Button was repenting. "Barker is too much wedded to the old order of things," said he. "Barker has his likes and dislikes" (a weakness the colonel denied to himself), "and Barker's a little inclined to imagine that nobody can run a regiment as Atherton did"—for which, at last, there was this much foundation, that Barker thought, if he did not say, that Atherton ran it much better than Button ever could hope to, and Button instinctively knew and infinitely resented it. It must be owned of Button that he hated the mere mention of his predecessor's name, methods, and opinions. It was unlucky indeed, perhaps, that the views of one of the former colonels had been recorded in black and white as follows:
"In my opinion Lieutenant Lanier is one of the finest young officers in the Cavalry."
Full fifteen minutes the colonel went striding up and down the long apartment used for office, assembly, and school-room. Once in a while he would turn across the hall and into Barker's smaller room, pause as though half minded to speak, then turn out again. Twice he went to the door, looking over across the glistening heaps and drifts, and letting in a lot of cold air. Twice he muttered something about its taking Snaffle and his sergeant an unusually long time to do a simple thing, and at last, as the trumpeters were heard, with much stamping of feet and blowing of hands, gathering for the old-time nightly "walk around" that preceded tattoo roll-call, Button abruptly turned on his adjutant and said:
"Barker, how long have you known Mr. Lanier?"
"Ever since he joined, sir."
"And you knew him in his cadet days?"
"As an instructor knows a cadet, yes, sir."
"And you told me you never heard of his writing to newspapers?"
"Never, sir," answered Barker, rising from his chair and facing his commander. "And I repeat that I believe it impossible for him to have had anything to do with those—inflammatory articles about the campaign."
"You consider him absolutely square—above a lie—or a trick of any kind?"
Barker faltered just one minute. What did the colonel mean by a trick? Mischief there had been, once or twice. Tricks had been played, and one only this last summer during the campaign—a trick, too, that if truth were told, Lanier should have known about. At least, it had been played for his benefit, and had "pulled the wool" over the colonel's eyes.
"I consider him as square a man as I know, and utterly above a lie—of any kind," was the final answer.
"And yet you hesitate. You know, or have heard—rumors," said Button suspiciously.
"I have heard rumors and slanders, Colonel Button," was Barker's probably injudicious reply, for he closed with "and so many of them that I disbelieve nine out of ten."
"Well, here!" said Button impulsively, "here are you and Stannard and Sumter—three of the 'old liners,' as you are called in your respective grades—and I see plainly enough you three, and God knows how many more, are tacitly condemning my attitude toward Lanier. You think, if you don't say, that I have treated him with harshness and injustice—have listened solely to his accusers and enemies. Now, I've had enough of this! There is nothing that requires a commander to show his hand to his subordinates, but as matters stand in this regiment—Oh, come in, Major Stannard. I sent for you purposely, and Sumter as well, to meet me here at tattoo." (And at the moment, as the united force of field musicians began the stirring strains of the old cavalry "curfew call," "The March of the Bear," the two seniors solemnly entered the presence, removing their fur caps as they bowed to the commander.) "As I was saying to Barker, as matters stand in this regiment, some half a dozen at least of the men referred to as its 'representative officers' are apparently resentful of my arrest of Lieutenant Lanier, and attribute my course to pique, because he saw fit to show himself at the hop I declined to permit him as officer-of-the-guard to attend. You think, possibly, that because men like Captain Snaffle, Lieutenant Crane, and one or two of that set have been in consultation with me, the matters at issue are beneath your notice." (Here the three assailed officers exchanged glances, but said not a word in protest, for the colonel went impulsively on.) "They at least are loyal to their commander, and to the best interests of the regiment. Now I mean to show you. Mr. Barker," said he impressively, "go to Lieutenant Lanier and say that I desire his presence here at once."
And Barker took his cap and cape and departure without a word.
Down the line in the moonlight the snow heaps were sparkling as though crusted with brilliants. The black square of the field music was trudging out across an acre of the parade swept clean by the recent gale. The children, in laughing little groups, were returning from their hour at the slide, and here and there from the deep cut or tunnel in front of each officer's doorway dark muffled figures were emerging, and striding away toward the barracks—subalterns en route to the companies to supervise roll-call.
Just as Barker neared Stannard's, at the head of the row, two cloaked and hooded forms hurried forth, and Barker almost collided with them.
"Oh, good evening, Miss Kate! Good evening, Miss Arnold!" was his embarrassed greeting. Then, with attempt at jocularity for which he later could have kicked himself: "I'm just in time to see you home, and head off hobgoblins and hoboes." No wonder the two walked the faster and gave but perfunctory replies.
"Indeed, I beg pardon," he blundered on. "I'm just bound for Lanier's. Any message?"
"You might say we wish him speedy deliverance," answered Kate Sumter, with unlooked-for spirit and effect, for the adjutant, in dismay at his own awkwardness, darted swiftly ahead, shouting, "Hold on, Steve!" to an officer with whom he would rather not have wasted a moment's time.
Indeed, poor Barker was sore distressed. He could not help hearing scraps of the talk that had passed at the office between the colonel, Snaffle, Crane, and certain summoned enlisted men, Fitzroy, Cassidy, and Quinlan among them. Even that poor devil who had been on duty Friday night as sentry on Number Five had been marched into the awful presence of the commanding officer, and ordered to tell who gave him the whiskey that had been his undoing—even promising immunity from punishment; but he was Irish and true to his faith and his friends, even they who had betrayed him, and he'd die first, he said. Never would he "sphlit on the best feller in the foort."
And Barker had heard many things that pointed to Lanier—so many that his heart seemed to stop as he entered the door, and sank at sight of the trouble in the face of the young soldier sitting there in conference with Ennis and Doctor Schuchardt.
Silently Lanier heard the summons. There was no reason why he should not go, said the doctor. "The air will do you good," he added, "and we'll be here when you come back."
Five minutes sufficed to reset the bandages and get him into his furs. Ten minutes more and, for the first time since Friday evening, the accused officer stood in the presence of his colonel, with three tried and trusted comrades near to see him through.
"Mr. Lanier," said Button presently, "I have sent for you in deference to the sentiment in your behalf, entertained by officers of such standing in the army as these gentlemen who are here present. I am free to say that I have had grave reasons for forming a most unfavorable opinion of your conduct, even of your character. It has been my intention to forward charges of a serious nature against you, and to urge your trial by general court-martial. But such is my regard for these gentlemen, and the element they represent, that I stand ready to abandon my views and adopt theirs on your simple word. Can I say more?"
There was a moment of silence. Then Lanier spoke: "It depends, sir, I think, upon what you wish me to answer."
Button colored. Turning to his desk, he took from an envelope several newspaper clippings. "You know what these are, doubtless, Mr. Lanier. Do you care to say what part you took in their preparation?"
"I am glad to say I took no part," was the answer.
"No part at all? And you do not even know the author?"
Lanier's dark eyes never swerved from their gaze. "I took no part, sir. I did not say—I do not wish to say—that I do not know the author," was the calm reply.
"Then you admit, or permit me to infer, that you know him—a member of this command, for no one else knew the facts—and, moreover, that you shield him?"
"I am shielding no man, Colonel Button. I would not shield a member of this command who wrote such wrong of it."
"Yet you know the author and you will not tell?"
"What little I know came in such a way that I cannot tell," was the resolute answer. Button's forehead furrowed deep and his voice trembled with anger.
"Enough said—or refused to be said—on that head. We will go to the next. Who personated you the night you left your troop at Laramie and went, contrary to orders, to that frolic at the post?"
A look of amaze came into the young officer's face. The answer came slowly, painfully:
"I took part in no frolic, sir. I went contrary to an order that had held good while we were out on the campaign, but that we did not suppose was binding there. I went to the post that night to help a fr—a man who—who needed money for an immediate journey. No one personated me to my knowledge."
"I have the written report of the officer-of-the-day, whom I ordered to inspect your tent, that you were there asleep at eleven P.M. Subsequently I learned that you were away from taps until nearly reveille."
"You could have heard that from me, sir, and why I was gone, if need be." And now it was plain that Mr. Lanier was growing angry. This was a point gained by the colonel. He tried for another.
"Officers who make comrades and intimates of enlisted men take chances that——"
"Colonel Button!" interposed Lanier, hotly, "I protest——"
"Protest you may, but listen you shall," was the instant rejoinder. "It is well known you interfered with a non-commissioned officer in the proper discharge of his duty. That was last June, and it was in behalf of that young man Rawdon. It is well known that you were hobnobbing with other enlisted men here, and gave them drink and food in your quarters on more than one occasion. It is well known you lent civilian clothing to your protege for his latest escapade——"
"Colonel Button—gentlemen!" cried Lanier, "this is beyond all right!" Indeed, Stannard and Sumter were on their feet, in expostulation, but the colonel's blood was up. Bang went his bell, and the orderly fairly jumped into the room.
"Call Sergeant Fitzroy," said he, and in another moment Fitzroy stood before them, a civilian coat and waistcoat hanging on his arm.
"Briefly now, sergeant, where did you get those?" demanded Button.
"From the room that Trooper Rawdon occupied in town, sir. It's the suit he wore about town last Friday;" and so saying, he held them forth. Lanier slowly took the coat, astonishment in his eyes; glanced at the tag inside the collar, bearing the name of his own New York tailor; for a moment he searched it within and without, then handed it quietly back.
"It is enough like mine to deceive anybody but—the owner," said he.
"Do you mean to tell me——" began Button indignantly.
"That this is not mine?" interposed Lanier. "Yes, sir, and that one very like it will be found in my closet at home."
"Mr. Barker will go with you, and you will resume your confinement—in arrest;" and Button, in his anger, was lashing himself to language his hearers never forgot, and that some could hardly, even long months after, forgive. "In my time, as a young officer, nothing tempted one of our members to violate an arrest, but you——"
Pale as death Lanier faced him.
"Surely, sir, a cry for help—that I thought might mean fire——"
"There was no cry for help," interrupted the colonel. "There was no sign of fire. Even if there had been, it should mean nothing to a man of honor when ordered in arrest. That is the only creed of a gentleman."
And then, with the lone trumpet of the musician of the guard wailing its good-night to the garrison—the sweet, solemn strain of "Taps"—the adjutant led his stunned and silent comrade home.
Ennis and Schuchardt were still there, and started at sight of Lanier's white face. Without a word he led on to an inner room, where Ennis sprang to his side. "Help me off with these," he said, "and bring a lamp. Come up-stairs, Barker;" and, wondering, both the others followed. There were but two sleeping rooms aloft in the little bachelor set. Ennis had the one facing the parade. Lanier's looked out upon the hospital and surgeon's quarters at the back. Into this room marched Bob Lanier and threw open the door of the single closet wherein was hanging uniform and civilian garb in some profusion. Ennis held the lamp on high, and with his free hand Lanier began throwing out the contents—a new uniform dress coat, an older one that had done duty for the three previous years, two sack coats or "blouses," the police officers' overcoat of the day, several pairs of blue trousers, with the broad stripe of the cavalry, and these as they came were flung on the bed by Barker and "Shoe." Then appeared a suit of evening clothes, carefully handled. Then a brown business suit of tweeds, then a light drab overcoat, and then the closet was well nigh empty, and Lanier faced them with the simple words: "It's gone!"
"What's gone?" demanded Ennis.
"Why, that dark gray mixture sack suit I brought from leave last year. It always hung 'way back in here."
"Who wants it now, I'd like to know?" demanded Ennis.
"Our colonel, who accuses me of costuming Rawdon for his getaway." And the three friends looked at each in something like consternation.
Then Barker spoke: "It's only fair to the colonel to tell the rest, Bob. Rawdon's box, that he left for safe keeping with a friend in town, had not only the suit you saw at the office, but a new fur cap with your name in it. There were other things that looked queer. The day of the storm Quinlan came over to the guard-house after his visit here, wearing a new cap instead of his old one, and Cassidy swooped on it, thinking it yours, for it was here he got it, and the name in that cap was Rawdon. It leaked out somehow. Fitzroy hunted the story down."
"The name was burnt out when Cassidy brought it back to me," said Lanier slowly. "He claimed that in lighting his pipe——"
"Poor Cassidy lied every way he could think of to save you," said Barker ruefully. "It's the young cad you befriended and helped along that's tricked you in the end, and you're not the only man, I'm afraid."
"Roped Rafferty in, I suppose," said Schuchardt, while a light of superior wisdom stole slowly over the face of Lieutenant Ennis.
"Rafferty, doubtless, to the extent of bribing or wheedling him out of Bob's new cits——"
"But those were not mine that Fitzroy had!" burst in Lanier.
"Of course not. He's left you a worn suit in place of the new. Where'd he steal that one, I wonder? There isn't another officer of your size and build at the post. But, here, I've got to go back and report, and my report will be in these words: 'Mr. Lanier has been robbed, too,'" and Barker made for the stairs.
"One moment," called Ennis. "You said Bob wasn't the only man this fellow had tricked. Do you mean——" he paused suggestively.
"I mean, yes—that there's more than one man, and there's at least one poor girl in the garrison to mourn that fellow's loss, and be d—— to him!" and with that Barker was gone.
Button listened to his adjutant's report with something almost like a sneer. Stannard and Sumter heard it with grave faces, but without a word. Snaffle, who had drifted in, sniggered with obvious triumph.
"Gentlemen," said the colonel, "you have not heard the half of what I know, and every day brings something new. This comes in from Laramie to-day, brought with the mail that lay over at the Chugwater during the storm. Read that, Stannard." And Stannard took the paper and glanced over it, blinked his eyes, sniffed, and said: "I've heard about that case, and I'll take Lanier's story any day against—that fellow's affidavit."
"Major Stannard," said Button severely, "you are speaking contemptuously of your superior officer."
"Colonel Button," answered Stannard, with high held head, but with firm hand on his temper, "I am speaking contemptuously of my superior officer's informant, not of the commanding officer of Fort Laramie. If you care to look you will see that he quotes, not asserts, that 'this money was advanced to Mr. Lowndes on Mr. Lanier's statement that the young man was summoned home by the serious illness of his mother, and that he, Mr. Lanier, would be responsible for the transaction. Mr. Lowndes has never repaid it, and Mr. Lanier when appealed to four weeks since not only refused to make it good, but abused and cursed me for simply asking for what was my own.' Now, sir," concluded Stannard, "I haven't sought to learn the facts in the case, but I'll bet ten dollars to ten cents you have yet to hear them."
"Very good, gentlemen," answered Button, rising in obvious chagrin. "It is quite evident in your opinion Mr. Lanier is a persecuted saint and I am an abandoned sinner, but just as soon as I can reach Omaha this case shall be laid before a general court-martial, and meanwhile I waste no more words defending my actions."
Whereupon, with formal "Good-night, sir," from Stannard and Sumter, and a grumpy dismissal from the indignant commander, the ill-starred conference broke up. Snaffle, pouring balm into Button's ready ear, as he saw him home, went in and drank his health at the well-stocked sideboard, and then started straightway across the parade to his troop quarters, and, late as it was, called for his first sergeant.
The men were mostly in bed, as they should be at such an hour, but there had been an informal dance, and many of the sergeants were still at the hop room. Beyond this brightly lighted building, and about in the rear of the infantry barracks at the westward end, was the slide into the creek valley, whereat so many of the officers' children had been coasting early in the evening, and where now—nearly eleven o'clock—half a hundred young people of both sexes, wives and daughters of quartermaster's employees and of the elder sergeants, attended by their gallants from the garrison, were having a merry time of it. The moon shone in brilliance. The night air, frosty and still, was full of exhilaration. The officer-of-the-guard, merely cautioning the revellers to control their impulse to shout, had gone on his way with implied permission to keep up the fun, and presently other officers appeared upon the brow of the bluff, interested observers. One of them, the junior medical officer of the post, was known to all, for his duty it was to attend the families of the soldiery resident in the little village of their own, just west of the quartermaster's corral, and sheltered by the long line of bluffs from the northerly gale. Deep in snowdrifts lay the snug little cabins, cottages and shacks, wherein dwelt these blithe-hearted folk—many of the girls as pretty, and to the full as coquettish, as their sisters of the official circle in the big "fort" enclosure above. Still farther to the west lay three little houses on the level "bench," by the swift-running stream—the homes of the corral-master, the wagon-master and the veterinarian—civilians all, as then ordained, yet men who had lived their lives with the army on the frontier.
And it was one of these, the veterinary surgeon, a gray-haired man of nearly sixty, who presently came toiling up the hillside, touched his fur cap front in salutation to tall Lieutenant Ennis, and begged leave to speak a moment with Doctor Schuchardt, whom he led slowly away.
Looking gravely after them and pondering many things in mind, Ennis, none the less, had attentive ear for the chatter and gossip of a neighboring group that had suspended their sledding for the moment and were curiously watching the pair.
"There's no more the matter wid Dora Mayhew than there is wid me, 'cept one," said a red-cheeked maid of "laundress row," to the eager group about her. "She's been daft about that young dude Rawdon ever since he came last spring to Frayne."
"Yes, an' deef to Cockney Fitz," laughed another.
And Ennis, turning quickly, noted the group, four young non-commissioned officers and three of the garrison girls, all of them toying with the name of good old Mayhew's bonny daughter, she whom that veteran English horseman had taught and guarded with such jealous care, to the end that jealousy burned in the hearts of a dozen other girls less favored in face or fortune. Well had Ennis known of Sergeant Fitzroy's aspirations. Few in the regiment had not, and few there were who did not know that, in spite of Mayhew's avowed dislike for him, the girl had for a time encouraged. It may have been only to pique the others, for Fitzroy was clever, well-to-do, a rising man in the service; indeed, one who had "money in the bank and men in his toils," said elder women in the quarters.
Then, in April, to Fort Frayne, had come this handsome young fellow Rawdon, with better looks, better manners, and even, as it seemed, better money, for Rawdon was lavish where Fitzroy was "near," and the favor of the young girl, who had toyed with the Englishman, turned from him to this unknown. Then the whole command went forth to war and to a summer of sharp work. Then with the late October, headquarters, band, and six troops had been transferred from Frayne to Cushing, close in to civilization. Then had come Fitzroy's new opportunity, with Rawdon left at Frayne. Then had come Rawdon himself; then the night of mystery; then the day of the storm, and when the skies above were clear again Rawdon was gone, no man knew whither, leaving a trail of suspicion, accusation, and a weeping, well-nigh desperate girl behind.
And in this web of intrigue and mystery Bob Lanier had become deeply, even dangerously, involved. Ennis was sorely worried. It was to see Mayhew the two friends had come, and, lo, Mayhew had met them on the way, himself in trouble and perplexity.
"Where did you say she was now?" Ennis heard the doctor ask, as they rejoined him.
"She went to speak with Mrs. Stannard, but said ladies were there, so she came back a while ago. I could hear her crying in her room before she went the second time;" and poor Mayhew's head was drooping.
"And you wish me to see her to-night?"
"If you'd be so good, doctor. She'll soon be home. I was going over in search of her now."
"Wait," said Ennis. "Listen!"
There was a flurry among the revellers a few rods away. Two men had run toward the corner of the nearest barrack, looming black against the northward sky. Others could be seen hurrying after them. Then, could it be? Yes, sharp and clear came the sound of a shot from away over toward the hospital. Another nearer; another still nearer, and distant shouts, and then the blare of the trumpet.
"Come on! It's fire!" said Ennis, and sprang in pursuit of the leaders, "Shoe," and Mayhew following. "It's fire!" went up the cry along the hillside. "Fire!" echoed the nearest sentry, letting fly the load in his rifle. "Fire!" shouted the few wakeful fellows in barracks, tumbling instantly every man from his bunk to his boots and into his ready clothes. "Fire!" yelled the sergeant-of-the-guard, as he tore in among his sleeping comrades. "Fire!" echoed the cry from barrack to barrack, as the men poured forth into the night, and then, as Ennis rounded the corner and came in full view of the wide open parade with the long line of quarters beyond, his heart leaped for his throat in wild dismay. "My God, lieutenant, it's your house!" panted a racing trooper. "My God, and Bob's all alone!" sobbed Ennis, as he sped through the snow, for already from the front dormer and from the lower windows the flames were mounting high in the trail of a black volume of smoke, and over the crackle and roar of the fire, the rush and clamor of men, the thrilling alarum of echoing bugle and trumpet, there rose on the night air the scream of a girl, imploring instant aid, and this time at least there could be no doubt, for the cry was, "Save him! Save him!"
Of the minutes that followed no man could give collected account. All Ennis saw as he came staggering round to the rear of the flaming furnace that once was a house, was a wild-eyed girl being led away by a group of sympathetic women, and a little group of men bundling a slender yet vigorously protesting form in a snow drift, where one or two others were being rolled and buffeted; while others still, with a keening Irishman in their grasp, were lugging him back to hospital; while Corporal Cassidy, with his hair singed close to his head, his face and hands seared and his clothing soaked, smoking, and a general wreck, was striving to evade his handlers and stand attention to the colonel, who for his part was bending over Bob Lanier just emerging from his third involuntary plunge in the drifts, and sputtering objurgations on his would-be benefactors.
"In God's name, Lanier," almost wailed the colonel, as at last that young gentleman, likewise singed and scorched and soaked and dripping, yet preternaturally cool for one just out of a blazing hell, found his feet and faced his commander—"in God's name, why didn't you jump when they told you? There was nothing but snowdrifts below——"
"There was a colonel coming," said Bob, with a grin of mingled anguish and satisfaction, "who held that sort of thing to be breach of arrest."
Few men slept the rest of the night for talking over the stirring scenes of that spectacular fire. Indeed, there had been a strenuous fight to keep it from spreading, and the Graysons' quarters next door were badly scorched, and the Graysons woefully scared, before the little bachelor hall had burned itself out. Big Jim Ennis had lost pretty much everything he owned except what he had on. Lanier was not much better off. As to the origin of the fire, Bob merely said that he had turned the lights low in the sitting-room, and, obedient to "Shoe's" orders, had gone up to his roost, too wrathful and amazed over what had occurred even to think of sleep—to think, in fact, of anything but the colonel's words. So absorbed was he, as he slowly undressed, he never noted the sounds from below until his room of a sudden seemed filled with smoke, and, throwing open the door, he was amazed to find the hallway ablaze, the stairs impassable. Running to his dormer window, he yelled fire at the top of his voice. Sentry Number Five heard and came running down along the back fence; saw the peril, let drive a shot and gave the yell that roused every one at the hospital—poor Rafferty, half crazed, half dazed, and by no means half dressed, coming leaping along among the first.
And there at his back window, choking with smoke and tossing out clothing and other belongings, stood Mr. Lanier. Some men went searching for ladders up the line of back yards, the post hook and ladder truck being, of course, on the far side of the garrison. There being no extension and sheds to this little box, as to the larger quarters up the line, other men began shouting, and Lieutenant Grayson imploring Mr. Lanier to jump, for already the flames had burst through the windows below. Then came the episode the regiment laughed over, swore over, talked over, many a long year thereafter. To Grayson's appeal Bob's only answer was a calm and deliberate:
"Give my compliments to the colonel, will you, and tell him that, my quarters being all ablaze, I'd like an extension of arrest?"
Then Sumter and Stannard came in, tumultuous, and ordered him down, and Blake and Curbit, and the rest of the card party, came tearing after them, and berated him for an absurdity, and implored him not to be an ass. And then a bright tongue of flame licked in through the transom behind him, and the door panels burst from the heat, and all the room at his back suddenly blazed with fire, and then went up the cry from that agonized girl, at sound of which Lanier started and strove to climb to the little window-sill, with a lurid sheet lapping down about his head, and then a brace of young Irishmen, Cassidy foremost, came scrambling up a human pyramid, smoking and singeing below them. They reached the blazing eaves and burst through the fringe of flame, dragging Bob forth and on to the edge, and then tottered all together into that blessed mound of snow beneath, fast melting in the glare of that fiery furnace.
Then came the commander, and the swift running soldiers, and all the antiquated fire apparatus, and most of the families. Soon the hooks were locked in the blazing framework, and speedily the little bachelor den was torn into hissing and smoking fragments. Meantime Lanier and Cassidy, Blake, Horton, and nearly a dozen daring fellows who had risked their skins to save their lieutenant, had been led over to hospital to be cooled off and lotioned and bandaged and variously put to bed, and when at last not a spark could be found in the black, unsightly ruins, and even they had been buried under bushels of snow, the colonel and his men-at-arms went back to quarters, and many of the officers to the store, to talk it all over, especially what Bobby had said to Button.
And thus were we brought to the morning of Thursday, the sixth since the eventful night when Miriam Arnold's shriek had alarmed the garrison—Miriam, whose voice had now been heard a second time, upraised in frantic dread and appeal, but this time for the young soldier who, on the previous Friday night, forgetful of his arrest, had rushed forth at her cry, but this night had to be dragged—Miriam who now lay sick from maidenly shame that in one wild appeal to save her lover she had so betrayed herself.
With Thursday noon came resumption of telegraphic communication, and the long-stalled railway trains from east and west. With Thursday afternoon came "wires" from Arnold, the father, begging to know had his daughter started, and back went the electric message that she neither had nor could, nor would for a week—"full details by post." With Thursday evening came stacks of belated letters, "with whole bales of newspapers," said the stage driver, to follow, and with Thursday midnight, long after every one had gone to bed, there came a tapping at Major Stannard's storm door, and presently a fumbling at the bell knob, a clanging of the bell.
"What now?" thought the sleepy major, as he scuttled down-stairs in slippers and dressing-gown. "Who's there?" he growled, as he unbolted the door. That fire down the line had made people nervous. There was no saying how it started.
"It is Mayhew, sir," said a solemn voice. "I've come not hoping, only praying, I may find my daughter here."
"Good God!" said Stannard. "Come in," and led forthwith his aged and trembling comrade within doors, seated him by the still glowing stove in the front room, and struck a light. In less than a minute Mrs. Stannard, too, had joined them, her kind blue eyes filled with tender pity and sorrow. She, at least, was not entirely unprepared. Poor motherless Dora had no lack of friendly counsel and fond, womanly sympathy when once she could be brought to lay her burden there. If only she had earlier sought that wise and winsome monitor! But Mrs. Stannard had not been at Frayne in the early summer, not until the major was assigned to station at Cushing had the good wife joined him, and meanwhile there had been no hand to guide, only a fond and passionate young heart. And now, with his gray hairs bowed in sorrow to the dust, poor Mayhew had come to tell his piteous tale. Ever since young Rawdon had gone with the paymaster she had been fitful and nervous. Ever since their coming to Cushing, four weeks agone, she had been watching, waiting, listening, often weeping, and when letters came for her, with the postmark of Fetterman or Laramie, Red Cloud or the cantonment in the Hills, he could not but note her feverish eagerness and her instant escape to her own room to read her treasure alone. Oh, yes, he knew they must be from Rawdon. He had liked the lad, knew there was good stuff in him, and he could not bear that fellow Fitzroy, who was a military loan shark, a man who fattened on the needs or weaknesses of his comrades. He hated to think of his bonny girl's losing her heart to Fitzroy. He owned he rather welcomed Rawdon's advances and rejoiced that she, too, seemed to prefer him.
But—God! He had never looked for—this! Oh, where had she gone?—and why? He had found her at home and in tears after the fire. All morning long she had been in an agony of nervousness. Then that afternoon, some time, somehow, she got a message or letter, and then, kissing him and saying she would be better in bed, had gone to her room, but not to sleep. At eleven o'clock old Chloe's sobbing aroused him. He found it all deserted. Dora had disappeared, leaving not one word to comfort him.
They lost no time, those men of the field and the frontier. Stannard was dressed and out in twenty minutes; had summoned Ennis, Field, and others among the young officers; had routed out half a troop and could have had the entire garrison, for few were the soldiers who would not search all night or work all day for good old Mayhew and his pretty daughter. Perhaps that was one reason why, until this night, so many maids and mothers among the sergeants' families envied and slandered her. Mayhew had been far from wise, and Dora, indeed, had none to guide. Kindly and cordially treated as he and she had been by the officers and their wives—being, in fact, superior socially to the Snaffle household, if not to certain others—there was yet this bar to hold them back: they dined and danced not with the "commissioned" element of the post whereat Mayhew was stationed. They were of finer clay than the people of the rank and file, and so, with the families of the forage and wagon-master, the chief packer and old Ordnance Sergeant Shell, they made up a little middle class of their own, when Dora's heart had gone out, ungrudgingly, to handsome, clever, educated George Rawdon, whom all men could see had been reared among gentlefolk, and who, as further fascination, was supplied from some unknown source with money which he spent with lavish hand.
The moon was in the fourth quarter now, yet still bright enough to aid them, and up and down the creek bank went the searchers, probing every pool, searching every shallow. It was odd—or was it odd?—that for half an hour no man, no matter what he thought, went down and banged at the door of "C" Troop's stable—where in cozy quarters and solemn state, guarded by the sentries on either flank, slept that surly magnate among the non-commissioned officers—Fitzroy, the stable sergeant of Snaffle's troop. Whatever had befallen poor Dora Mayhew, it was not to join Cockney Fitzroy she had fled.
Had she fled to join anybody? was the question that racked so many a heart, for, with the possible exception of gentle Mrs. Stannard, the girl had made no confidant. It was stanch old Chloe who would have it that her pet and pride from childhood, her solemn charge since the poor mother's death eight years before, had never left her father's roof to do harm to herself and break their hearts. If morning came without her, she surely had been lured away, and, if "Marss Rawdon" had really gone, who was there who, through love or fear or threat or artifice of any kind, could lure her?
It was this, full fifteen minutes after Lieutenant Field and two of his men had trotted off to town, that started old Stannard and big Jim Ennis down the valley from the veterinarian's, through "Suds-town," where girls and women were huddling and whispering at the news; through the hay and wood-yards, where the sentry challenged sharply, so often had he halted searching parties in the last ten minutes; past the little shack where dwelt the farriers and blacksmiths, many of them alight, for the story had gone sweeping; and so at last they came to the long cavalry stables, standing gable ends to the north, like so many companies in close column, and at the sixth of these, farthest from the bluff whereon stood the barracks and quarters, they stopped and banged at the door. No answer—even when the sentry came to their aid and hammered with the butt of his carbine. They went round and rattled at the window of the sergeant's room. Still no response, and at their beck the sentry yelled for the corporal-of-the-guard, who had followed down, expectant.
"I'll have him out," said he, and ran round to the south end, and presently came back, panting but triumphant. He had roused the two stable orderlies. They would open up in a minute. They did, with much blinking of eyes and some demur, but stood abashed when the burly major strode in, big Jim Ennis at his heels. The latter hesitated not one second. His weight went in with the battering ram of that muscular leg and massive foot, and the sergeant's door flew open before them. The room was empty. Fitzroy and Fitzroy's furs were gone. Nor was that all. Snatching a stable lantern from the hand of one of the shaking grooms, Ennis swung it high aloft. Two empty stalls stood close at hand.
"I thought so," said he, then grabbed the nearest orderly by the coat collar. "Who took Lieutenant Foster's sleigh and team," demanded he, "and how long ago?"
"Sergeant Fitzroy, sir," came the answer, with a doleful whine, "just before the third relief, at half-past eleven."
"No time to see the colonel now!" said Ennis. "Major Stannard, I've got to gallop into town, but a dozen men, if need be, should trail that sleigh."
"Go it, boy," was the instant answer, "and I'm behind you."
On the principle that disaster ever demands its victim, the sentry of the second relief—the immediate predecessor of the soldier now on post at the north line of the stables—was stirred up at once and ordered to explain. Even as Stannard was hastening the movements of the men detailed to mount and trail the Foster team, even as Ennis was galloping town-ward on a mission of his own, Captain Langley, of the Infantry, officer-of-the-day, began his stern examination of the luckless guardian.
Orders are orders. Even a stable sergeant could not take or send an animal out at night (except the building stood in danger of destruction by flood, fire, or tornado) save on written order of a commissioned officer and in presence of the corporal-of-the-guard, and Stoner, the sentry of the second relief, admitted he knew these were the orders, but "the fellers" had never supposed they applied to Sergeant Fitzroy, who did pretty much as he pleased. In fact, Fitzroy hitched up and drove away without so much as a word to him. He, the sentry, was too little surprised to think of ordering "Halt." Even as Langley drew from him the admission, the word came up that the squad had started hot foot on the trail. It led straight away to town.
And the stable orderlies had sworn that Fitzroy started alone. Therefore, unless Dora Mayhew had circled the fort and joined him on the bleak eastward prairie, it was most unlikely she had gone with him, and, up to one o'clock, there was none to hint with whom, or how, except afoot, she could have gone. Then, however, came revelation. The sentry stationed at the northwest face of the post admitted having seen "a rig from town" making wide circuit clear around behind the fort on the westward "bench," which was swept almost clean of snow. It had kept well out beyond hailing distance, stood a moment or two up at the edge of the bluff, then whirled about and went the way it came. What hour was this? Just before they called off eleven o'clock. Why had he not mentioned or reported it? Well, he thought it might have been some of the officers. "They sometimes came out late and went in home the back way," whereat, in some confusion, Captain Langley dropped that phase of the investigation.
By two o'clock that rig also had been trailed back to town, where it was lost in the tangle of wheel tracks. There Ennis and Field and several troopers, with one or two interested citizens, were in quest of tidings. There they were joined by Mayhew himself, who had one more hope. Dora had a friend, a few years older than herself, with whom she had been intimate at Fort Riley. They went daily to school together when children, and wept when parted. Now her friend was married to a conductor of the Union Pacific Railway, and living in town. It might be that Dora had gone to her.
They found the house, and hammered at the door and lower windows, and succeeded only in waking a Chinese servant who said, "All gone; b'long Omaha," and refused further information. They went to the three stables in town, and all had "rigs" out, some of them two or three. None, to the proprietor's knowledge, had been to the fort. Most of them had gone to a dance at Arena, a cattle town six miles east, and it was high time they were returning, for now it was after three. "What's all the row about anyhow?" demanded the night watchman of one of these establishments. "There was that cockney sergeant fellow here along about midnight, asking questions and raising hell. The town marshal had a rumpus with him and went to bed mad." The half-dozen hangers-on about the railway station, and the roisterers at the one, open-all-night saloon were growing inquisitive, if not impudent. The station-master had gone home, but the lone operator to whom, one after another, Field, Ennis, and Mayhew had appealed, declared that no young lady had gone on Number Six, for the reason that Number Six hadn't gone and wouldn't go till 'long toward daylight. She broke down somewhere about seven o'clock at Medicine Bow.
But Ennis and Mayhew came at him a second time, with a second question: Could he tell them anything of Mr. and Mrs. Osborn, Osborn being a conductor and Mrs. Osborn Dora's friend of whom previous mention is made? Had they gone to Omaha? No, for Mr. Osborn was round here early in the evening, and had to be here at six o'clock A.M. to meet and take Number Five over the Mountain Division. Then John Chinaman had lied, said poor Mayhew, grieving sore and quite ready to break down, but Ennis was spurred to new energy.
"Keep your heart, old man," said he. "The more I think of this, the more I'm sure there's light ahead, and I'm going after it. Go to the hotel, lie down, and leave the rest to me."
And still Jim Ennis felt by no means confident he could be in time. He knew the Mayhews only slightly. He had never before been stationed at regimental headquarters, had seen and known Dora only since their coming to Fort Cushing, and therefore had not learned to share Bob's honest admiration for her. She might be all Bob thought her, a loving child and a true-hearted girl in spite of her infatuation for this presentable young trooper whose antecedents nobody knew. Ennis had often marked him during the campaign and noted his regard for Bob, and felt kindly disposed toward him until mid September, when two troops were sent in to Frayne, with the pack train and orders to load up with rations and escort it back. Rawdon was missing from the column when it camped the first night out, on the return, and only caught them by a daring night ride through the Sioux country when they were two days' march beyond. His captain, Raymond, had sternly rebuked him and promised him further punishment when they reached the regiment, but Lanier had heard of it and interceded, thereby making Rawdon still more his friend. But now the heart of "Dad" Ennis was hot against him, for fear that what Barker said might all be true: that Rawdon had wrecked an old man's heart and home, and ruined an old man's beloved daughter.
With just two troopers at his back, toward four in the morning, big Jim went spurring on through the dim moonlight, town and station far behind, following a meandering sleigh and wagon track across the wide, dreary upland, riding, as a rule, parallel with the railway, while such sleighs as tried the journey had evidently been making many a detour. Snow there was in abundance in the coulees and ravines, snow in sheets in the lee of every little ridge or hummock, but elsewhere the icy sod was swept hard and clean, and the sharp hoofs rang as though they struck macadam. Three miles out two "rigs" were passed, westward bound, filled with town folk who had been to Arena for the dance. Had they seen or heard aught of Mr. and Mrs. Osborn? he asked. No, they knew them well by sight, and would be sure to note them had they come to the dance. Five miles out a stage was encountered, loaded with exuberant revellers who had remained after the dance for a spree, and were now consumed with wrath because certain officers of the law from their own town, too, had hustled them out.
"A hull sleighful of 'em—three or four anyhow—came over there with that cockney sergeant you fellers keep at the fort, lookin' for deserters. You after deserters? Well, here's—hic—hopin' you don't get 'em."
It was all Jim Ennis wanted to know. "Come on, men," he cried, and spurred ahead, his wondering troopers following.
"Now, what the mischief is that man Fitzroy's game?" thought Ennis, as he pushed on through the bitter cold of the December morning. It had not been difficult to learn that the sergeant, after much search and inquiry in town, had started for Arena, taking with him, as it happened, two of the Rocky Mountain police, who had business there and were tired of waiting for the train. Ennis reasoned it was after Dora that Fitzroy had gone; that in his jealous misery he had kept watch upon her, had followed to town on hearing of her flight, had followed further, and this it was that gave Ennis the hope that she was accompanied by such worthy people as the Osborns. If that were so, it could mean but one thing. It was to join Rawdon, perhaps to be joined to Rawdon. Osborn had sent two messages by wire and received two early in the evening; Ennis had learned this through the operator, though the contents were withheld. Rawdon, probably, dared not come to Cushing City. There he might still be arrested on sight. Yes. Ennis had it now. Dora Mayhew had fled to Arena to meet and marry George Rawdon; Fitzroy had followed fast in hopes of blocking it.
And just as the twinkling switch-lights of the little prairie station hove in sight ahead, there came a sound that startled him—the whistle of a railway engine not a mile behind—Number Six at last, and coming full tilt—the very train, perhaps, that they, the young couple, hoped and meant to take, and might have taken on their eastward way had not Fitzroy, keen-eyed, quick-witted, and vengeful, been there in time to bar the move.
And then in the soldier soul of big Jim Ennis was born a strange, sudden, and somewhat unprofessional spirit of opposition. Starting out in the hope of finding and restoring to her father's roof the sorrowing fugitive, Jim Ennis veered right round to the purpose of succoring a maiden in distress. If marriage was Rawdon's motive in bidding her join him, then Rawdon was honest after all, and who was he or who was Fitzroy to stand in the way and stop it? No, by all the Arts of Peace and the Articles of War, Rawdon was right and d—— be the man that sought to check him.
Five minutes later, with the big engine and train coming hissing and grinding to a stop at the platform, Ennis sprang from his panting horse, tossed the reins to one trooper, and, followed by the other, shouldered his way through a little knot of staring townsfolk and up to a group at the edge of the platform. A trim-built young fellow in civilian dress was struggling in the grasp of two detectives; a terrified girl was clinging to his arm, tears streaming down her face; a clerical-looking, elderly stranger was expostulating; a man in the cap and dress of a railway conductor was vehemently arguing with a stocky sergeant of cavalry, who seemed master of the situation, and greatly enjoying his own importance. A pale-faced young woman, whom the conductor of Number Six addressed as Mrs. Osborn, was imploring his aid, when, to the amaze of the sergeant, this big subaltern in boots and spurs bulged in between him and Conductor Osborn and demanded to know the nature of the trouble.
"I've run down this man, at last, sir," gulped Fitzroy, flustered, but making valiant effort at control, "as you see, sir, only in the nick of time."
"Oh, Mr. Ennis," cried Dora, throwing herself upon him and clasping his arm, "Rawdon has done no wrong. We are married. Here are our friends to prove it. Why should they arrest him?"
"Colonel's orders, lieutenant. Arrest him wherever found," said Fitz stoutly, "and I've a sl—stage here to take him back."
"On charges of your own invention, Sergeant Fitzroy," said Ennis icily, "no one of which you'll ever prove. Have you any warrant for this man?"—this to the detectives.
"None, sir. The sergeant said he was a deserter, running off with the doctor's daughter."
"He's no deserter. He's on furlough by order of General Crook, travelling, I take it, with his own wife, and unless you want to burn your fingers to the bone, let go."
"Then lieutenant," burst in Fitzroy, "he's a prisoner by order of Colonel Button——"
"Then as senior officer on the spot I'll take charge of him; also, Sergeant Fitzroy, of you, and the sleigh you feloniously made way with. Stand aside, sir. Now, gentlemen, how about this train?"
"Ordered right on, lieutenant, to meet Number Five at Beaver Switch."
"Then it's a case of all aboard for those bound eastward. We'll hear the rest when you return from furlough, Rawdon"—for now the young man was trying to speak instead of seeking to speed away. "I did my best to be in time for the ceremony, Mrs. Rawdon," continued Ennis, gallant and impressive, as he swung her suddenly aboard, "but with my usual luck I lost the chance to kiss the bride."
For answer she quickly turned, flung her arms about his neck, and her warm lips swept his cheek. "One for you, Mr. Ennis," she cried, and then again, "and this—for Mr. Lanier!"
Friday again, and late in the day, and Bob Lanier's arrest lacked but a few hours of its first full week, and Bob was in bandages and bed in a sunny room of the hospital. Ennis, after a long night in saddle and a short "spat" with the colonel, was taking a much needed nap. Stannard and his wife had gone down to Doctor Mayhew's to meet Mrs. Osborn, who had come to spend the afternoon. Paymaster Scott was up and about, and, in his independent way, had been saying unrelishable things to Button, who was in most peppery frame of mind. A wire had come from department headquarters to say an inspector would follow. "Instead of ordering a general court to try Lieutenant Lanier, they have ordered a colonel out to try me, by gad!" said Button. "For that's just what it all amounts to."
And of all colonels to investigate matters at Cushing, there wasn't one in the army Button would not rather have had than the very one who was coming—bluff, blunt, rasping old Riggs, best known to fame and Fort Cushing, as "Black Bill."
"Why," said Button, to Scott, "this sending one field officer of cavalry to sit in judgment on the official deeds of another is nothing short of—of infamous, and I'm amazed at Crook's doing it."
"It ain't Crook," said Scott, not without a little malicious delight in Button's disgust. "He's away up at Washakie, and of course his adjutant general don't want to act or even advise until he knows all about it. You've seen fit to charge Lanier with all manner of things, and I don't wonder headquarters are staggered."
"But—Bill Riggs—to come and overhaul my regiment, when it's notorious he never could command even a two-company camp without having everybody by the ears! Such men aren't fit to be inspectors!"
Indeed, there was much to warrant poor Button's disgust. He had preferred most serious charges against Lanier. He had accused him of quitting camp on campaign, quitting his guard in garrison, quitting his quarters when in arrest, failing to quit himself of a money obligation, drinking and consorting with enlisted men, and in his letter of transmittal he had intimated that there were other misdeeds he might yet have to uncover. All, said Button, on the information of veteran officers and sergeants of the regiment—notably Captains Curbit and Snaffle, Lieutenants Crane and Trotter, Sergeants Whaling and Fitzroy—and now here were both medical officers, both of his majors, two of his best captains, seven of his subalterns, and nine-tenths of the women folk at Fort Cushing taking sides with Lanier and issue with him—their colonel and commander. And here, too, were Lieutenant and Mrs. Foster, highly connected, influential, wealthy, insisting that his most active and important witness, the unimpeachable Sergeant Fitzroy, had corrupted their coachman, run off with their sleigh, and ruined (this was Mrs. Foster) their horses.
Foster, first lieutenant of Snaffle's troop, seldom on speaking terms with his captain, had discovered the deed at morning stables just five minutes before the aggrieved sergeant drove in with the missing property and Lieutenant Ennis as escort. Foster was in a fury over it, the more so because Fitzroy had maintained, respectfully enough but most stubbornly, that the circumstances were such that he felt justified in making immediate use of any property under his care or charge, that he would explain everything to his captain and the colonel, but begged to be excused in the lieutenant's present frame of mind from arguing the matter with him.
And the story Snaffle told Button before Foster could reach him went far to strengthen Fitzroy's position. Snaffle said that so far from Fitzroy's corrupting the coachman, the boot should be on the other foot, were Fitzroy corruptible—that Foster would find his coachman a double-dyed liar when he came to the truth of that runaway the night of the dance—that Foster's sleigh and carriage and driving horses had no right in a Government stable anyhow—were only there on sufferance (which was true, for Foster kept saddlers besides—all the law allowed him)—and that under the circumstances, when, as was well known, at least twenty officers and troopers on Government mounts had gone forth at night in violation of standing orders, without the commanding officer's knowledge or consent—all on the plea of rescuing Mayhew's daughter, Lieutenant Foster ought to be ashamed of himself for abusing Fitzroy for taking the sleigh in hopes of having a warm nest to fetch the poor girl home in as soon as he'd found her. "Sure, did Mr. Ennis expect her to ride back on his cantle on so bitter a night? Faith, Fitzroy was worth the whole pack of 'em put together, if they'd only let him alone."
And that, at nine o'clock, when Ennis was sent for, was the colonel's way of looking at it. Moreover, he had a rasp up his sleeve for our massive young friend on half a dozen other counts.
"In point of fact, Mr. Ennis, that girl has simply fooled the whole party and is probably laughing at all of you. A girl that will run away without a word or line to her father, and marry an out-and-out adventurer—a mere nobody—has neither heart nor head anyhow. And now you've interfered in a matter of discipline just as Mr. Lanier did, and I gave you credit for better sense. You know I had ordered that fellow's arrest."
Ennis took it all, all this and more, in grave silence and subordination. He would have gone without a word, but Button would not so have it. Button demanded his reasons, and began hitting back before Ennis had named even two. This brought on the "spat," as Barker irreverently described it, and left the colonel in no judicial mood in which to see Stannard, Sumter, and others, as see them he had to in course of the day.
But flatly he swore that Sergeant Fitzroy should not go in arrest. It was only too clear they sought to make a victim of him.
And so all Fort Cushing seemed in turmoil and trouble as the sun of the 23d went out and "Black Bill" came in, yet that sun must have been potent, for Mrs. Stannard's face, as homeward she sped, after a long talk with Mrs. Osborn, was radiant with sunshiny smiles. "You're not to know anything yet, Luce, at least until you get it from Doctor Mayhew, for you never could keep it, and for a week at least it's got to be kept."
"Well, one thing you can tell," said the major, "that is, if you know, and put a stop to an awful amount of censure that poor girl's getting. Why did she leave no word for her father?"
"Because she expected to be home in two hours;" and the reader can judge just how full and satisfactory must that answer have been.
But were matters mending for Mr. Lanier? was the question still troubling Mrs. Stannard. Neither Kate nor Miriam had she seen since the night of the fire. Miriam Arnold was confined to her room. Kate Sumter would not leave her, and yet over these two devoted friends there still hovered a spell. The mutual trust and faith seemed shaken. The old confidence or intimacy was gone.
Now, whatever Mrs. Osborn had told that so cheered Mrs. Stannard, it is certain the latter could not contain herself long, and that, even as the major was summoned, toward nine of the evening, to join the solemn conclave at the colonel's (where by this time Button had opened proceedings by giving "Black Bill" the best dinner a frontier larder and cellar afforded), she bustled over to the Sumters', was delightedly welcomed by her friend and neighbor, whose husband, too, had been called to council, and presently these two sages were in confidential chat.
To them presently entered the captain, electric, bristling. He wanted the bundle of latest newspapers. They had not half read them, and Colonel Button was all eagerness to see some articles concerning the campaign about which Riggs had been twitting him—asking him whom he had subsidized at this late hour to rescue his reputation, etc. Riggs had seen three long, well-written letters in the great New York Morning Mail, obviously the work of a correspondent on the spot, an eye-witness to the scenes he had described, and these letters refuted the calumnies recently heaped on Button and his comrades—gave him, in fact, high praise for soldiership, bravery, energy, even though the writer owned himself by no means one of the colonel's circle, if, indeed, one of his personal friends and admirers. Only the Sumters, at Cushing, subscribed for the Morning Mail. Riggs had seen the paper at Omaha. It took a search of some minutes before even the first was found. Then Sumter's eyes danced as he read, and Mrs. Sumter exclaimed over another, and for the first time in a week sounds of cheer arose in that little home. Presently Mrs. Stannard read aloud a spirited, stirring paragraph, describing a dash led by Lieutenant Lanier, and then Sumter made a swoop for all three pages and said, "The quicker Button can see these the sooner he'll come to his senses," and begging pardon for the rudeness, took the papers and his leave and almost collided with Kate, who at sound of the name and the glad ring of the voices had crept down-stairs for the news.
And so she had to come in and see Mrs. Stannard, and hear some few at least of the details of Dora Mayhew's romantic, runaway marriage, and while they were being told tattoo was sounded, and then Mrs. Stannard asked if she might not creep up-stairs and see Miriam; she thought she might cheer her a bit. This left mother and daughter alone together, and again, and even more painfully, Mrs. Sumter noted how sad and unresponsive was Kate at mention of Lanier.
It must have been nearly an hour later when Sumter came hurriedly in, threw his furs off in the hall, and with troubled face re-entered the parlor. His wife rose instantly, laid her head upon his arm, and asked, "What has happened?"
"A scene the like of which I never thought to hear of in this regiment. We had adjourned to the office. Snaffle had been drinking a bit and got angered and flustered when Riggs cross-examined him. One thing led to another, and finally in exasperation he blurted out, 'I'm sick of being called the accuser of Mr. Lanier. By God, I've defended him! I've hidden worse things than ever I told you yet, and now I'll stand it no longer! You twit me with spying and slandering. Then by all that's holy, you shall say here and now who's the better man. 'T was Lieutenant Lanier himself that leapt from the window this night a week ago—the back upper window of Sumter's quarters. That's how his hand was cut and torn, and I've got three men that'll swear to it!'"
He broke off suddenly, for Kate had turned, flung herself from the room and into the arms of Mrs. Stannard. One long look into the sorrowful eyes of his wife, and Sumter quickly followed, and drew the sobbing girl from those kind arms into his own.
"My child, my child," he said, "surely you did not see him?"
"No! No! No!" was the instant answer. "No!" again she sobbed.
"Then tell me what it means, Kate, daughter. It is—I demand it!"
"Oh, father, father—it was—it was what I heard—when she screamed—and fell?"
"What did you hear?"
"The other voice—his voice. It said plainly, 'Miriam, hush! Don't you know me?'"
"Bob," said Mr. Ennis, sauntering in to his comrade's bedside the following morning, "I'm instructed to pay you a kiss."
Lanier's bandaged head spun on the pillow. He had but one girl in his mind.
"Wh—who?" he demanded.
Ennis threw his head back and laughed. "Nine times out of ten when a fellow is asked, 'will you take it now or wait till you get it?' he's wise to take it now. If I'm any judge, I should say you'd better wait till you can get it, which may be in less than a week."
"Ennis, if you can quit being an ass long enough to tell me what you mean, and where you've been, I'll thank you. If you can't, I wish you'd get out. Ugashe!" concluded Bob, with a lapse into Apache and the pillow.
"Well, it probably isn't just the kiss you were thinking of—no more was when I got it—but, Robert, my son and fellow soldier, it's my recorded conviction that the most enviable member of the regiment this day of our Lord is your twin trooper friend Rawdon. I saw him off on his wedding tour, and he didn't have on your clothes."
Lanier's head popped up in an instant—the one visible eye all eager interest. "Where were they married? When did they get off? Was Lowndes there?" were the questions that flew from his lips.
"Arena. On Number Six. Don't know," was the categorical answer. "Rawdon brought the parson out from Omaha, and the Osborns gave her away. Of Lowndes I've seen nothing since the night you staked him at Laramie, and what I've heard of him you refused to listen to. Of that callow specimen of the effete and ultra-refined Back Bay District you've long since had my opinion. He's too good and gentle for this Western world of ours, Bob, and he and his shuddering kinsfolk suffer too much by contamination——"
"Oh, shut up, Dad! His people did wire him that his mother was desperately ill. They merely wanted to get him away from the campaign. He'd been gambling, the pesky little fool, with some of the Rawhide crowd, was all out of cash and dared not tell his guardian. That's all there was to it. Soon's he gets his money he'll square up—thought perhaps he had, since Rawdon had enough to marry on. Lowndes owed him ten times what he owed me, I reckon."
To them, thus engrossed in confidential chat, there suddenly entered the two doctors. "Black Bill," the inspector, it seems, had given notice that he must needs have speech with the culprit, if that bandaged, blistered, and unprincipled young man were in condition to see him. "Black Bill" and his host had been having a night of it. Button was in high fettle over the amazingly truthful and unlooked-for articles in the Mail, and as eager to know and reward their author as he had been to apprehend and punish the earlier detractor. Button had begun to "wobble," as Bill expressed it, in his spleen against Lanier until so suddenly "braced" by the truculent stand of Captain Snaffle, whose half-drunken words the previous night were by this time known all over the post.
The matter was now in the hands of Colonel Riggs, however, and it was his to determine what further action to take. Snaffle had named as his witness Sergeant Fitzroy, Private Kelley (who, though drunk on duty, had not been so drunk, said Snaffle and Fitzroy, that he could not recognize an officer when he saw him), and the third witness, to the amaze of Barker and the derision of Ennis, when told of it, was no less a person than poor Tom Rafferty, Lanier's own "striker" and hitherto devoted henchman. And to the consternation of Stannard, Sumter, and others, Captain Snaffle had been able to back his words. Riggs sent for the two availables, Fitzroy and Kelly, and the two had declared they could not be mistaken; that they had heard Miss Arnold's scream, followed instantly by the crash of glass. Fitzroy admitted that he was at the moment at Captain Snaffle's back door; said he ran round to the Sumters' gate; that he distinctly saw the figure of a man in a soldier's overcoat and fur cap leaping and sliding down the roof, and that a moment later he grappled with it in the dark woodshed, dropping his hold only when angrily ordered to do so, the voice adding instantly, "I'm Lieutenant Lanier." Kelly was ready to swear to practically the same facts, though he "thought there was two of them," which, under the circumstances, was not to be wondered at. Fitzroy declared that a moment later Rafferty rushed to the spot, recognized the lieutenant, and by him was sternly ordered to leave. As yet Rafferty was in no condition to affirm or deny. The excitement of the fire had brought on a relapse, and the wild Irishman was wilder than ever, "raving-like," as the steward said, in the big post hospital.
And these statements, presently, did Colonel Riggs lay before Lieutenant Lanier, in presence of Doctors Larrabee and Schuchardt, as well as Lieutenant Ennis. "I've known you three years, young sir," said he, "and I've believed in you from the first. I have reminded Sergeant Fitzroy of his previous allegations against Trooper Rawdon, as to the scuffle and assault, and, so far from showing confusion, Fitzroy promptly said, 'Certainly, that took place barely half a minute later and within ten yards of the spot.' He says his whole idea first was to drive Rawdon from the scene, and prevent his finding his officer in so humiliating a plight. He says he sought in every way at first to shield the lieutenant, but when all these other facts came out about the cap, the clothing, the lieutenant's absence from his quarters, his lacerated hand, etc., there was no help for it. He finally yielded to the pressure of Captain Snaffle's questions and told the truth. Kelly miserably admitted his knowledge of it and when Rafferty came to his senses, he, too, was to be catechised."
"Now, Mr. Lanier, there's the situation. Do you care to say anything to me, or would you prefer to take counsel?"
And Bob Lanier leaning on his elbow, looked quietly up in the colonel's bearded face and answered:
"Colonel Riggs, I reckon both those men think they're telling the truth, and I may have to prove they're not."
"Do you mean—you were there?" queried old Riggs, in genuine concern.
"There, sir? Of course I was there—quick as I could get there, but not quick enough by any manner of means."
Riggs looked grave indeed.
"You say you may have to prove it was not you. Don't you know you'll have to—if these witnesses are further sustained?"
"Fully, sir, and when my need is known there will be witnesses for the defense. The doctors tell me Rafferty may not come round in less than a week. When the time arrives I'll be ready."
And that was the way it had to be left. That was the condition of affairs when the eighth, and final, day of Lanier's close arrest arrived. Longer than eight, according to law, the colonel could not keep him in. Sooner than eight more, according to Larrabee, the doctors could not let him out. Yet there came a compromise and a change. "The idea of Bob Lanier spending Christmas in hospital!" said Mrs. Stannard. It was not to be thought of. A sunshiny room on the ground floor of the major's big house was duly prepared, and thither just before sunset on Christmas eve our young soldier was piloted by Schuchardt and Ennis, making the trip afoot across the rearward space, yet being remanded to a huge easy chair and partial bandages immediately on his arrival.
"Black Bill," with his incomplete report, had gone back to Omaha to further mystify the adjutant-general and to eat his Christmas dinner. The order for the court-martial hung fire until the preliminary investigation could be concluded. Fort Cushing set itself to enjoy the sweet festival as best it might, while such a problem remained unsolved. Veterinary Surgeon Mayhew had taken seven days' leave, an eastbound train, and at three P.M. the day before Christmas came a telegram from —— Arnold, Esq., of Standish Bay, Massachusetts, announcing that he would leave forthwith for the West, bringing his sister with him. The Sumters told Mrs. Stannard, and she told Bob Lanier.
It has been said that this young gentleman was an outspoken fellow, with a hit-or-miss way of saying things when once his mind was made up, and by this time it would seem he had made up his mind.
"Mrs. Stannard, if you think a girl could stand the sight of such a Guy Fawkes as this, I would give much to speak ten minutes to Miss Miriam Arnold."
"You're not a Guy Fawkes," said Mrs. Stannard, with fluttering heart. "You've lost something of your mustache and eyebrows, but very little of your good looks. Only——"
"Why, it's going to be so much harder to see her now than it was before—before she——" and Mrs. Stannard faltered.
"Before she saw me playing Saint Somebody or other at the back window, and screamed? Nobody knows I heard it except you, and you won't tell. Moreover, it isn't about that that I have to speak."
Mrs. Stannard's bonny face showed instant disappointment.
"There's—there's another matter," said Bob, with trouble in his tones.
"I so hoped——" faltered that arch match-maker.
"So did I, Mrs. Stannard," said downright Bob, "but not with charges hanging over my head. First I've got to meet the enemy."
And yet he wished to see and speak with Miriam, who not once had set foot out of doors since the night of the fire, whose sweet face flamed at every recurring thought of that incident, whose self-betrayal covered her with shame and confusion indescribable, who would give years of her young life if she could only escape from Fort Cushing and hide herself a thousand miles away. But not until that stern puritanical father should arrive was leaving to be thought of. A week agone and the tidings of his coming would have filled her with dread; now she heard them with relief. Father coming—and Aunt Agnes! Aunt Agnes, who never before had been west of the Hudson. Aunt Agnes, whose forebears had warred against witchcraft and woodcraft, against village crones and forest children, against helpless old women and stealthy young savages—all without mercy when delivered into their hands! Was it in partial reparation for the rapine, the swindling, and stealing dealt out by her Pilgrim forefathers to the Indian of the East that Aunt Agnes had become the vehement champion of the Indian of the West? President of a famous Peace Society was she, and secretary of the Standish Branch of the Friends of the Red Man, a race whom the original and redoubtable Miles had spitted and skewered and shot without stint or discrimination. And now was Aunt Agnes hastening westward with her brother, to reclaim their one ewe lamb from the wolf pack of the wilds, and incidentally to see for herself something of the haunts and habits of the red brother in whose behalf, these last six months, her voice had been uplifted time and again. It was the year of a great Indian war. The blood of hundreds of our soldiery had been shed, without protest from these of Puritan stock, but they shuddered at thought of reprisals. Aunt Agnes coming to Cushing! Aunt Agnes to meet the colonel and his "red-handed horde of ruthless slayers!"