No wonder the Christmas day that dawned for Miriam Arnold in that stirring Centennial year bade fair to be the gloomiest of her life. Yet who can tell what a day may bring forth?
Sumter came in, cheery and laughing, for the late family breakfast. Guard-mounting was long over, but he had been detained by the colonel.
"It is almost comical," said he, "to see Button's delight in those letters in the New York papers. He's as curious now to know the author of those as he was furious at the supposed author of the others."
"What others?" faltered Miriam Arnold, her eyes filling with strange apprehension, her face visibly paling.
"Some bitter attacks on him that appeared in the Boston and Philadelphia papers about that night surprise of Lone Wolf's village—the one he accused Mr. Lanier of having started."
"Accused—Mr. Lanier!" And Miriam Arnold, with consternation in her voice, was half rising from the table.
"I had thought it best to say nothing to you about it, Miriam dear," said Mrs. Sumter gently. "You had so many worries."
"But Mrs. Sumter! Captain!" interrupted Miriam, wild-eyed. "Do you mean Colonel Button accused Mr. Lanier of those letters?"
"That was the backbone of his grievance against Lanier," said Sumter gravely, and intently studying her face. "Why?"
"And he didn't—deny it? Didn't—tell what he knew?"
"Denied it, yes, but refused to tell what he knew—said it came in such a way he could not tell. Why, Miriam, what do you know?"
For a moment it looked as though she were on the verge of hysterical breakdown. Kate sprang to her side and threw an arm around her, but with gallant effort she regained self-control.
"I know just who wrote those wicked stories, and I told Mr. Lanier; and I know—and I'm ashamed I ever had to know—who first told them."
Stannard had been summoned to Omaha, much to Button's curiosity and disquiet. Mrs. Stannard, left temporarily widowed, was none the less radiant. A romance was unfolding right under her roof, and the heart of the woman was glad. Her patient was sitting up in spick and span uniform and a sunshiny parlor. Plainly furnished as were the frontier quarters of that day and generation, the room looked very bright and cosey this crisp December evening. Christmas had come and gone with but faint celebration, as compared with former years. There had been several callers, masculine and regimental, during the earlier afternoon, but now they were off for stables. There had been an influx of army wives and daughters, to wish Bob Lanier many happy returns, for this was his birthday. Shrewd woman, with all her gentle kindliness and tact, was Mrs. Stannard. She had sent word to all her cronies of the interesting event and suggested a call. More significance, therefore, would be attached to a neglect to an acceptance of the hint. Perhaps this is how it happened that just about four P.M., when most people were gone, Mrs. Sumter came quietly, cheerily, convoying her two girls, and presently Bob Lanier was smiling into the eyes of Miriam Arnold, whose hand he took last and clung to longest of the three.
Not since the night of the fire had he set eyes on her. Not since the night of the dance had he spoken with her, and he was startled to see the change. Bravely though she bore herself, the flush that mantled her cheek was but momentary, and left her pallid and wan. Miriam looked as though she had been seriously ill. Kate Sumter had given him only hurried and almost embarrassed words of greeting. Mrs. Sumter, however, had extended both her hands in an impulse of loyal liking and friendship, and it is doubtful if Bob even saw the daughter's face. Certainly he never noted the lack of heart in her manner. His eyes had flitted almost instantly to Miriam Arnold's, and there they hung. A few minutes of swift, purposeless chat ensued, Mrs. Stannard and Mrs. Sumter doing most of it. Then, somehow, three women seemed to drift away and become engrossed in matters of their own over by the Navajo-covered lounge, and then Miriam lifted up her eyes and looked one moment into the young soldier's face.
The bandages had been removed, though his left hand was still encased in a huge white kid glove, a discard from the hand of Ennis. Eyebrows and mustache had suffered much, and a red streak ran from the left temple down toward the neck, yet Bob looked fit and debonair and happy in spite of his weight of martial woes.
"It's the first chance I've had to thank you for the dance we—didn't finish," said he, noting with a thrill the tremor of the little hand that fluttered for that moment in his grasp.
"Do you think it a thing to be thankful for? I don't."
"I wouldn't have lost it for a month's pay, to put it mildly, and it will take more than a month's pay to repair later damages," said he, trying to smile and be unsentimental.
"How very much more than that you may lose!" said she. "Do you think I could have danced with you if I had dreamed what—what you were doing?"
"You were dancing like a dream," said he. "Do you mean I was dancing like a nightmare?"
"You were doing what was sure to involve you in grave trouble, and—it wasn't kind to me, Mr. Lanier."
"I'm all contrition for the anxiety it caused you, Miss Miriam, and for absolutely nothing else. I wish you to know that I did nothing unusual. Colonel Button was angry with me for a very different matter."
One moment she was silent; then, with lips that quivered in spite of her effort—a quiver that he saw and that set his heart to bounding madly—with lowered voice she hurried on: "And that, too, involves me, or mine. And you"—then uplifting her swimming eyes—"you would not tell."
And then the barrier of his pride was swept away.
"Miriam!" he cried, his hands eagerly seeking and seizing hers, only faintly resisting. "There was no need to tell." He was standing facing her now, close to the curtained window, his back toward the twittering trio near the dining-room door and imperceptibly edging thither at Mrs. Stannard's suggestion of coffee. Was this prearranged? Bob never saw nor heeded. She did, however, and well knew its meaning, and the woman in her, that thrilled and throbbed at sight of the passion in his eyes the worship in his face coquetting with her own delight would have torn herself away to follow them, but her little hands were held in a grasp against which she might struggle in vain. He was lifting them to his heart, and as he drew them he was drawing her. She had to come, her long curling lashes sweeping the soft cheeks, now once more blushing like the dawn. "Oh, Mr. Lanier," he heard her murmur, as though pleading and warning. One swift glance he tossed over his shoulder at the last form vanishing through the doorway, then his dark eyes, glowing and rejoiceful, fastened on hers, and quick and fervent came the next words: "There is only one thing that need be told—that must be told, because I've just been brimming over with it all these weeks" (ah, how the bonny head was drooping now, but drooping toward him), "and now I can keep it back no longer. Miriam, Miriam, I love you—I love you! Have you nothing to tell me?"
One instant of thrilling suspense, then with a sob welling up from her burdened heart, the barrier of her pride and reserve went as his had gone a moment ago. "Oh, you know—you know it! Who hasn't known it since that awful night?" she cried, and then found herself folded, weeping uncontrollably, almost deliriously, in his arms, his lips raining kisses on the warm, wet cheek. A moment he held her close-wrapped to his heart, then gradually, yet with irresistible power, turned upward the tear-stained, blushing, exquisite face, so that he could feast his eyes upon her beauty, then with joy unutterable, his lips sank upon the soft, quivering mouth in the first love kiss she had ever known, and their troubles vanished into heaven at the touch.
Mrs. Stannard, you were a jewel and a general. Now, how about the major?
"For conference with the Judge-Advocate of the Department," read the order that summoned him, and from that conference forth went our doughty dragoon in search of conquest. "It is understood," said the officials, "that you know the circumstances under which Lieutenant Lanier became responsible for the money borrowed at Laramie by or for that young Mr. Lowndes, also that you know him." There were other matters, but that came up first. Stannard knew and was quite willing to set forth with a plain-clothes member of the Omaha force on a mission for and from headquarters.
In a derby hat and civilian suit of the fashion of '72, the latter much too snug for him, our squadron leader of the Sioux campaign looked little like a trooper as he sauntered with his detective companion into the lobby of the Paxton a few minutes later, and listened to his modernized tale of the prodigal son. It was all known to the police. Lowndes had run through the purse and patience of his Eastern kindred some two years before. Lowndes had been transported to a cattle ranch near Fort Cushing in hopes of permanent benefit, but speedily neglected the range for the more congenial society of the fort. He was well born and bred. He was made free at first at the mess, but wore out his welcome. He went on the campaign for excitement and got much more than he wanted. He took to gambling among the scouts and packers and sergeants, for the officers had soon cold-shouldered him. But he was a college man, a secret society man, as had been Lieutenant Lanier before entering the Point. Since the campaign Lowndes had been going from bad to worse; had gambled away the money sent him by his relatives, and they were now sorely anxious about him. Moreover, he was needed as a material witness for the defense in the case of Lieutenant Lanier, and would answer no letters to his post-office address. He hadn't been near the ranch in nearly a month, hadn't been seen about Cushing City since the blizzard; was believed to be somewhere in this neighborhood in disguise.
And even as the story was being told, there came bounding down the broad stairway from above, a slender, well-built youth, in whom the civilization of the East was stamped in the stylish, trim-fitting travelling suit with cap to match, in the further items of natty silken scarf and the daintiest of hand and foot covering. It was the erect, jaunty carriage that caught the major's eye. In build, bearing, and gait the approaching stranger was Bob Lanier all over. He came straight toward them, and was tripping lightly, swiftly by when Stannard sprang to his feet.
"Rawdon!" he cried, voice and manner at once betraying the soldier and the habit of authority and command. It was as imperative as the crisp, curt "Halt" of veteran sentry, and effective as though backed by levelled bayonet.
But if Stannard for an instant looked for demur, resistance, attempt to avoid, or even a trace of confusion on the part of this transmogrified trooper, the idea as quickly vanished. A wave of color, it is true, swept instantly to the young fellow's temples, but the sudden light of recognition in his handsome eyes was frank and fearless. Quickly he whirled about, courteously he raised his cap, instinctively his heels clicked together as he stood attention to his squadron leader of the summer agone.
"I beg the major's pardon," said he. "I did not expect him here, and had never seen him in civilian dress."
And now the detective, too, was on his feet, and curiously noting the pair.
"You're on furlough I understand, but I heard—my wife said—you were in Chicago."
"Mrs. Stannard was right, sir. My wife and her father are there now, visiting my sister. Doctor Mayhew told me of the charges against Lieutenant Lanier, and that is what brings me back at once."
"Going back at once?" began the major, mollified, yet mystified. "I presume you know more of these matters than any one else."
"With possibly two exceptions, sir. I hope to nab one of them here."
"Lowndes?" queried Stannard.
"Lowndes," answered Rawdon.
"Then you're just the man we want."
That afternoon as the Union Pacific express stood ready at the Union station for the start, there boarded one of the sleepers a burly, thick-set, bluff-mannered man in huge fur overcoat, close followed by two younger companions. One of these latter, erect and graceful in bearing, alert and quick in every movement, with clear-cut and handsome features, was dressed with care and taste, evidently a man accustomed to metropolitan scenes and society; the other, a youth of probably his own age, though looking elder, was sallow, shabby, with a dejected down-at-the-heel expression to his entire personality that told infallibly of failure and humiliation. At a sign from their leader he dropped dumbly into a section, settled himself next the frosty window, with his head shrunk down in his worn coat-collar, and his slouch hat pulled over his eyes.
"Better pull off that overcoat and make yourself comfortable, Lowndes," said the younger man. "You've a long journey ahead."
Whereat a tall, spare, elderly gentleman in the adjoining section slowly lowered his newspaper and turned half round, while a tall, spare, elderly, sharp-featured woman beside him, in prim travelling garb, sprang from her seat and brushing the burly man aside, precipitated herself upon the shrinking object in the corner.
"Mortimer Watson Lowndes!" cried she. "Where on earth have you been?"
For answer Mortimer Watson bowed his flabby face in his hands and wept dismally.
Two days later the colonel's office at Fort Cushing was the scene of a somewhat remarkable trial. It had no force in law, yet was held to be conclusive. There was no array of uniformed judges sitting, by order, as a general court-martial. The tribunal consisted, in point of fact, of a single man, acting as judge, jury and attorney, to wit, "Black Bill" Riggs, Inspector-General of the Department of the Platte. To the unspeakable disgust of most of the officers, and the outspoken disapprobation of many of their wives, only those closely concerned in or connected with the case were invited to be present. Certain others who had just happened in, thinking to hear the proceedings, were, indeed, invited to leave.
Colonel Button, as post commander and principal accuser, was, of course, at his usual desk. Colonel Riggs, his jealously regarded rival, was seated at a little table, whereon was much stationery and a stack of memoranda. Lieutenant Lanier, somewhat pale but entirely placid, occupied a chair to the left of that table, with Captain Sumter, as his troop commander and counsel, by his side. Captain Snaffle was in support of the post commander to cross-question if he saw fit. Barker, the adjutant, was present, as a matter of course. A headquarters clerk sat facing Riggs, prepared to take notes, and the trim orderly stood outside the closed door. Three or four people in civilian garb sat awaiting summons in the adjutant's office across the hall, and Sergeant Fitzroy, with trouble in his eyes and wrath in his heart, was flitting uneasily about in the domain of the sergeant-major.
"If you are ready, Colonel Button," began Riggs, with elaborate courtesy, "I am, and let me briefly say that I have seen Trooper Rafferty at the hospital, also certain other men named by Captain Snaffle; but in order that all parties may be given opportunity to hear and to examine, and at the request of Lieutenant Lanier, who desires the fullest investigation and publicity, I have invited you and the captain to hear what I consider the really valuable evidence. Will you call in Trooper Rawdon?"
Snaffle's face was a sight when the door opened and there entered a very self-possessed young man, in stylish and becoming civilian dress, who nevertheless stood bolt upright, with his hand raised in salute.
"Hwat's he mean by coming here in 'cits'?" said Snaffle, in hoarse whisper, to his commander.
"Yes, Colonel Riggs; if this man's a soldier, why isn't he in uniform?"
With perfect respect, at a nod from Riggs, the newcomer replied: "My uniforms, and other belongings of mine, were taken from my trunk in town during my absence."
"You could have borrowed one," said Snaffle truculently.
"I told him he need not," retorted Riggs. "And now, gentlemen, we'll waste no time trying to worry the witness. Mr. Rawdon, you were a duly enlisted trooper, I believe. Take that chair."
"And am still, sir, as far as I know."
"But your discharge is ordered, as I understand it."
"It was applied for and recommended, and General Whipple told me in Chicago a few days ago it was settled; but that would have made no difference, sir. I should have been proud to wear the uniform until officially discharged."
Riggs wheeled in his chair. "Colonel Button, it has been fully explained to this—man, and to the next, that what they tell us here is to be just what they would swear to before a court. You can decide for yourself on hearing it whether you wish them to swear to it or not. Now, Rawdon, tell us how you came to enlist."
"As the representative of three newspapers, in Chicago and the East. They were anxious to have an Indian campaign, and the life of an enlisted man, described as it really was. I joined a squad of recruits for this regiment right after the news of the Crazy Horse Battle on Powder River."
"Do you still hold that job?"
"No, sir;" and there was a twitch of the muscles about the corners of the mouth suggestive of amusement.
"I failed to—give satisfaction. Only scraps of my letters were published."
"What did they want?"
"Criticism principally, and confirmation of the stories of abuse and ill treatment of soldiers by their officers."
"Were your letters never published?"
"Three of them, eventually, after the campaign—in the New York Morning Mail."
Whereupon Riggs spun in his chair and rejoicefully surveyed Button, who sat like a man in a daze, staring, opened-eyed, at the witness. For the life of him Sumter could not suppress a chuckle.
"Then, as I understand it, you were favorably impressed with the life—and conditions?"
"In spite of hardship and privation, yes, sir; and because I found complete refutation of the stories about the officers, both as regarded their dealing with the Indians and with their own men."
"Were there any persons with the command who knew you and your mission?"
"Two, sir, as it turned out. Trooper Cary, who enlisted at the same time I did, and a civilian, Mr. Lowndes, who recognized us at Fort Frayne. We were at college together. He and Cary became very intimate toward the last, and yet I think they kept my secret in spite of our falling out."
"Do you care to tell us why you fell out?"
"I prefer that Mr. Lowndes should do that. He and Cary had been chums in college days, and though we were in the same society I did not know them then as I do now."
"You had trouble with Sergeant Fitzroy at first, did you not?"
"Almost from the start, sir."
"We have heard his version. What is yours?"
Rawdon's frank face clouded and colored one moment, but the eyes never flinched.
"It was partly on account of the lady who is now my wife, and partly on account of—money. Fitzroy is an out-and-out usurer, and has a dozen sergeants in the regiment in his debt and under his thumb, Captain Snaffle's first sergeant among them."
"It's a lie!" said Snaffle.
"It's the truth," said Riggs, "and I have other proofs. You will curb your tongue and your temper, Captain Snaffle, if you please. Go on, Rawdon."
"I had reason to believe he was squeezing Doctor Mayhew. I had learned to love Mayhew's daughter. I had a little money laid by, and was getting a good salary. I made Doctor Mayhew take enough to free himself, and won Fitzroy's hate on both accounts."
"You are accused of assaulting him the night of the 16th. What of that?"
"I did not even see him or speak to him. I had been in town in the afternoon, arranging for our marriage. Doctor Mayhew would not hear of it until I had got my discharge, but we had decided to be married Saturday morning, and to go East that afternoon, as important business called me. Mr. Lowndes will tell you that he owed me much money. I had lost my position as correspondent, needed the cash, and pressed him for it. He had promised faithfully to have it ready, but ready it was not. I knew of his relatives in Massachusetts and urged him to telegraph, but he said he could get some of it, at least, at the fort. So I drove him and Cary out in a sleigh, left them at the store, and, circling the fort, spent two hours with Miss Mayhew. Then getting uneasy, as they did not come, drove round back to the store just in time to see Lieutenant Foster's sleigh going like the wind to town, and found Rafferty in frantic excitement. He said there was hell to pay. The lieutenant was in arrest. Lowndes and Cary had run away with some of his clothes. There'd been a shindy up the row, and just then a soldier friend came running. 'Skip for your life, Rawdon,' said he. 'There's been robbery at Captain Sumter's, and Sergeant Fitzroy swears it was you, and that you've struck him and assaulted him. The colonel orders you arrested wherever found. The patrols are out now!' There was no time to explain. I lashed my team to town, caught Lowndes in cavalry overcoat and cap, the fool, and with not a cent to his name. I gave Cary a note to Miss Mayhew, which he never delivered, and took Lowndes with me on Number Six at 11.40."
"Then you were not at Captain Sumter's that night?"
"Nowhere near it, sir."
Snaffle's eyes were fairly popping from their sockets. Hadn't he said all along it was Lanier?
"Now, another matter," continued Riggs. "That night at Laramie of which you told me. These gentlemen will be interested."
"There was nothing remarkable in that. I had heard of the same thing being done at West Point. I heard in the nick of time of the order to the officer-of-the-day to inspect for Lieutenant Lanier. I imagined that something very serious would happen to him. I knew he'd gone to the post with Lowndes, and why. So, with my apologies now to the lieutenant, I slipped round to his tent and into his blankets."
"Did the lieutenant know of it—or of the reason?"
"Never, so far as I know. I doubt if he knows it now. Lowndes told me the lieutenant—before he entered West Point—was a member of our fraternity. That was enough."
"And so far as I am concerned," said Riggs, "that is enough. Have you gentlemen any questions to ask?"
"Not—now," answered Button slowly. "But I desire personally to see—the witness—later."
One more witness appeared before this informal court that memorable day, and with him, as prearranged, the tall, elderly civilian who had arrived with Stannard and his party from the East. Mr. Arnold came in, hat in hand, bowing gravely and profusely, with a very puzzled look in his face.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Arnold," said Riggs, with bluff civility. "You have met these gentlemen—Colonel Button, Mr. Barker, Mr. Lanier, Captain Sumter." He pointedly omitted Snaffle, to whom, none the less, Mr. Arnold bowed as ceremoniously as to each of the others who had risen at his entrance. "Pray take this chair, sir. As I have explained to you, Mr. Lowndes, your nephew could not be compelled to testify before a military court, and need not make public admission here of what he told us at Rawdon's demand during our journey hither. I hope this is fully understood."
Mr. Arnold cleared his throat and beamed benevolently about him. The occasion seemed propitious, and a moral lesson appropriate, and he began:
"My unhappy nephew realizes, with, I trust, genuine contrition, that he has been the cause of grave trouble, not only to us, his kindred in the East, but—er—to you military gentlemen in the West. He has, prompted, as we must admit, by Mr.—Mr. Rawdon, made a clean breast of his lamentable conduct, and has promised Mr. Rawdon to repeat every word of it—er—to Colonel Button, but, as his——"
"Then we'll waste no time," said Riggs impatiently. "We'll have him in, and I can catch the afternoon train. Orderly, call Mr. Lowndes."
"Er—I was about to remark," proceeded Mr. Arnold, "that if any—er—suit for damages, or—er—recovery of money should be in contemplation, we desire——"
"Don't fear, sir. Nobody's going to sue for damages. What we want is the quashing of all charges against this young gentleman, who has been made to suffer abominably. Ah, come in, Mr. Lowndes. Sit down, sir. You have met everybody here. Now, as speedily as possible, we'll finish this matter, and in four hours we'll be off for home."
It was but a dejected specimen of a college-bred man that sank into the chair in front of Riggs and faced him with pallid cheek and somber eyes. One look he gave at Bob Lanier, a furtive, forlorn glance, which met no recognition whatsoever. Lanier looked him over with indifference that bordered closely on contempt, but gave no other sign.
"Mr. Lowndes," said Riggs abruptly, "there is no need of going over the entire story. I'll ask you to answer certain questions. Who was your earliest friend in this regiment?"
The dreary eyes turned once more toward Bob, and the nervous hands started the slouch hat in swifter revolution.
"Mr. Lanier, sir."
"How came that?"
"I knew he was of my college fraternity before I entered college, and I showed him my pin and certificate."
"That insured a welcome, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir. He—he made me at home in his quarters—and tent."
"Shared the best he had with you—home, food, drink, even clothes and money, I'm told."
The flush deepened in the dejected face.
"It is all true, sir."
"Yet you quarrelled with him during the campaign."
"I lost money gambling, and he wouldn't lend me any more."
"Did you ever pay what he had lent you?"
"Even after your quarrel did he not aid you?"
"Yes, at Laramie. I didn't seem to have any friend left by that time, and had to go to him for help when they wired me to come home."
"In point of fact, he enabled you to get one hundred dollars at Laramie?"
"Yes. I gave my note and he gave his word."
"What did you do with the money?"
"Tried to win back some that I had lost, at poker, and lost most of what I had raised. I suppose I'd have lost all of it if Rawdon hadn't caught me playing and pulled me out."
"You owed him still more?"
"Nearly two hundred dollars, sir."
"Did you go home?"
"I couldn't; I had only enough to bring me to Cushing, and they wouldn't send me any more. I had to go to the ranch and stay."
"Did you try to earn any money?"
"Yes, sir, writing about the campaign. Rawdon lost his position because he didn't send what they wanted, so I thought I might. The editor didn't know me, and asked for references, so I sent my stories to—to Mr. Arnold and my aunt. She often wrote for the papers."
"Is that the way the Boston and other papers came to publish those scandals at the expense of Colonel Button?"
"She dressed them up a good deal and made it worse than I described," faltered Lowndes.
"Er—let me explain, gentlemen," interposed Mr. Arnold, who had been twitching in uneasiness. "My sister is of a very sympathetic nature, and her heart has long been wrung by the injustice meted out to the Indian. When this unhappy boy wrote those—er—descriptive letters she had no reason to doubt their entire truth. Indeed, her conviction was that he was concealing, or glossing over, worse things."
"He seems to have later supplied you with worse things, Mr. Arnold. For instance, I will ask you what was his final explanation of his need for money?"
"He begged me to send him two hundred dollars at once, saying he would be disgraced if he could not pay Lieutenant Lanier, who had won it from him at cards."
"Mr. Lowndes," said Riggs, "did Lieutenant Lanier ever win a dollar from you?"
"Never, sir." And now the miserable head went down into the hot and feverish hands, and the silence in the room became something oppressive.
Riggs let him rest a minute, then went on. "Now, then, in your own way, tell us what happened that night of the 16th."
For a few seconds there was silence. Then, suddenly uplifting his head and looking at no one, Lowndes desperately plunged into his narrative. "I—I—was mad, I suppose, with debt and misery, and I began to drink. Rawdon told me he must have the money. My uncle had flatly refused to send me more. I got desperate. There was left me only one way, and that was through my cousin Miriam. I knew she was out here, and she—she had always been my best friend in my troubles at home. We'd almost been brought up together until they sent me out here. She didn't know where I was. They didn't wish her to know. But I knew if I could see her she would help me.
"Rawdon had changed into citizen's clothes in town, and I had pawned my overcoat, so he lent me his cavalry overcoat and a fur cap, drove me and Cary out to the fort, and left us at the store, promising to join him at Doctor Mayhew's in an hour. We were chilled from the ride, and drank more. Rafferty told me Mr. Lanier was officer-of-the-guard, and everybody else was at the dance. We filled Rafferty up, for Cary'd made up his mind he was going to Rawdon's wedding in 'cits' instead of soldier clothes, and he was bent on borrowing a suit of Lieutenant Lanier's, even though they would hardly fit him. He swore he'd return them the next day, and Rafferty let him have them, and he put them on in the lieutenant's back room. Then he and I went up the rear fence and caught sight of Number Five—Trooper Kelly. Cary knew him and went ahead to 'fix things' with him, as he said. Kelly had seen us come out of Lieutenant Lanier's back gate, and was suspicious. Cary, to quiet him, told him he was with Lieutenant Lanier—that we were helping Rawdon get ready for his wedding. He made Kelly drink to Rawdon's happiness, and drink three or four times, and finally left him with a half full flask up the row toward Major Stannard's. Then we went to Captain Sumter's. Kelly told Cary the servants were in at Captain Snaffle's. The door was open. Cary watched below, while I hunted for my cousin's room. I found it easily. I knew they had sent her money, and orders to come home—uncle had written me as much. I found her desk. I knew it well of old, and then, to my horror, I heard her voice, and in a second she was in the room. She gave one awful scream, though I tore off my cap and begged her to know me, but she fell in a faint. Others were coming. I broke out of the back window, slid and scrambled down the roof to the shed and so to the ground. I heard men come running, so I dove into the coal-shed, where the sergeant grabbed me in the dark and I—had to make him let go, and—said I was Lieutenant Lanier. Later I crawled through a hole in the fence and started for the store, scared out of my wits. Right at the next gate I crashed into two men, grappled and fighting. We all three fell in a heap. I picked myself and cap up and ran again; caught Cary at the store just jumping into a sleigh, and we lashed those horses every inch of the way, left them at a ranch gate, and ran to the station. The train was a few minutes late. Rawdon presently came, and he took me to Omaha, as I begged him, for I didn't know what could or would be done to me if I was caught. He, too, had to get away or be thrown into the guard-house, and that—that's about all."
"You have that overcoat with you yet, I believe—that cavalry coat."
"It's all I have had to wear, sir," was the rueful answer, as, rising, he took the garment from the arm of his chair and laid it upon the table, with the yellow lining of the cape thrown back, exposing a rent or gash, whereupon Captain Sumter arose, took from an envelope a sliver of yellow cloth, and fitted it into the gap. "This," said he, "I found on the hook of the storm-sash, and this," he continued, laying beside it a rusty sheath knife, "was later found under the snow, close under the dormer window." Then turning the overcoat inside out, he displayed on the back lining in stencil the name "Rawdon."
"And now," said Riggs, "we will hear the accused."
"It isn't necessary," began Button, turning in his chair. "I have heard more than enough——"
"It is necessary, Colonel Button, if you please, for my satisfaction as investigator. Of course Mr. Lanier is not obliged to speak, but a few matters remain to be cleared up. There is yet the time-honored problem of 'who struck Billy Patterson,'" and Button subsided.
"The matter is quite simple," said Lanier. "I went direct from the dancing room to my quarters, not even stopping for my overcoat. I was chilled when I got there. The fire was low, and I went back to call Rafferty. He didn't answer, so I had to lug in some fuel. His overcoat hung in the kitchen and I put that on, and just as I opened the back door there came the scream from up the row. Fire was the only thing I thought of, and I saw others running toward Captain Sumter's as I started from the back gate. Then a man rushed past me, going the other way, and then the next thing somebody sprang out from Captain Snaffle's back yard, tripped me, and I went headlong. I was on my feet in a second, but he had me round the neck, ordering me to surrender. I wrenched loose and let him have two hard ones, right and left, before he clinched again. Somebody else collided with us. We all went down. The last man was up first and ran away, with the first cap he could reach, and I followed in an effort to overtake him, knowing by that time it wasn't fire, but robbery. Then when I realized no life was in danger, I remembered I was in arrest, dropped the chase, and went straight to my quarters the way I came. Both hands were bruised and left badly cut. I am sorry, of course, to have struck Sergeant Fitzroy, but the language he used was vile, and it seemed to me the only way to convince him I was not Trooper Rawdon."
"Colonel Button, have you any questions to ask?" demanded Riggs, as Lanier concluded.
"Why didn't you tell me this?" demanded Button.
"I should have been glad to, colonel. Indeed, I tried to the last time I was in the office," was the deferential reply.
"Well, gentlemen," said the colonel, as a parting shot, "between us we seem to have stirred up a pretty kettle of fish." Yet in that culinary maelstrom even Snaffle disowned either responsibility or complicity. He always had said Lanier was a perfect gentleman.
And so ended Bob's arrest and most of our story. Riggs went back with his report that very afternoon. Rawdon lingered for a word with Cassidy, Quinlan, and poor remorseful Rafferty; then followed, unhampered even by his arch enemy Fitzroy, who slipped away to the stables three minutes after the close of the conference. But he was not even there when, along in the spring, Mr. and Mrs. Rawdon came out for a visit to Doctor Mayhew. Like Rawdon, he had received his discharge. Unlike Rawdon, there was serious objection to his reenlistment. Even Snaffle dare not "take him on" again.
The snows lay long and deep in the ravines and hollows. It was not until mid-May that the poor victims of the blast and blinding storm were uncovered, and the bodies of the missing were found, save that of Cary—Cary, who, having been given up for lost, turned up most unexpectedly the very day that Fitzroy, applicant for reenlistment, was summarily turned down. But Cary came not of his own volition. He marched with a file of the guard. Cary's story was simple enough. Rawdon and Lowndes had hardly got away on the train when Sergeant Stowell and his party came searching. Cary hid. He was still half drunk. Some one told him of Kelly's arrest, and charged him with that and with running off the Fosters' sleigh. He dared not face the music. He forgot his precious missive to Dora Mayhew until next day. Then the storm held him. Not until the fire night did he summon up courage to sneak home. He had no money left and could buy no more liquor. He stole into Lanier's back door to return the civilian suit and recover the cavalry blouse and trousers left hanging in Rafferty's room. He could hear the lieutenant moving about overhead. He had to strike a light; he struck several matches; found the clothes, slipped out of the "cits" and into his own. He was cold and numb. He knew there was liquor on the sideboard in the middle room. The craze was on him, and he risked it. He struck more matches and threw the burning stumps to the floor, drank his fill, then stumbled away, intending to give himself up to his first sergeant for absence without leave. Back round by way of the store and the east front he went, but before he could reach the barracks came the appalling cry of fire—Lanier's quarters! His doing beyond doubt, and now, in dismay and terror, he fled from the post. Some ranch folk took him in next day, and cared for him awhile, then sent word to the fort. Poor Cary had Lanier to plead for him before his trial, but three months' hard labor was the least the law would allow. He was still "doing time" when his happier friend of college days came back with his sweet young wife.
By which time, too, another wedding was announced as near at hand. Only two days did Mr. Arnold and Aunt Agnes allow Miriam in which to prepare for the homeward journey, but it is safe to say that in that brief time their views of frontier life and people had undergone marked amendment, for they had found an old expounder of their faith in the post chaplain, for one thing, and many surprising facts as to officers, men, and Indians for another. There came a bright wintry afternoon, at the fag end of the year, when the station platform held a lively little assembly waiting for the east-bound express. The colonel and his wife were there, the former by no means the blood-thirsty warrior of the elder's imagination. The Stannards had come in, and the Sumters, Kate, and "Dad" Ennis, the chaplain, and both doctors, and all these surrounded the brother and sister and held them in cheery converse, while Bob and Miriam sauntered, self-centred, away.
There was a sheltered, sunshiny little nook down the platform, between the baggage and express sheds, with a high, board fence at the back, to keep off the north wind and human intruders. They passed it twice in their stroll, but the third time turned in—it was so good to get out of the piercing wind—as well as out of sight.
What wonders a few days of delight will do for a girl! The pallor and lassitude had gone. The soft eyes were brimming with bliss. The rounded cheeks had regained all their bloom. The sweet, rosebud mouth seemed all smiles and warmth and witchery, and Lanier's eyes were glowing as he drew her to his heart and gazed down into the depths of those uplifted to his.
"That brute of a train has been late for a week," said he, "but to-day it comes on time. It is going to be a long, long wait for May. How does papa seem to take it now?"
"Papa is quick to make amends when he has wronged—any one, and now he knows."
"Well, so does Aunt Agnes, Miriam, yet she doesn't approve."
"Well, Aunt Agnes, don't you know—she's different. She's a good deal like other women I know. When she's placed somebody else in a false position, she thinks that person ought to be very sorry for her, and sympathize with her, for having been deceived and misled. She thinks you ought to say how sorry you are."
"How can I say I'm sorry when I'm so glad—all glad?"
"Well, then, there's Cousin Watson, don't you know? He was always her pet. He was brought up by a weak mother and a doting aunt, and she knows you don't approve of him."
"Does she expect a man to approve of one who maligned him as Lowndes maligned me?"
"You should see his earlier letters about you! Why, if I'd known anything of them I would never dared to meet such a paragon."
"And yet, after all, he turned to and painted me black as an imp of Satan. What had I done but good to him? I never took or won a penny of his."
A moment of silence, then the fond eyes looked up.
"You won something he wanted and thought—was his—he never had any sense. Won't you try to forgive him—for my sake—Bob?"
His arms went round and folded her closely; his face bowed down to hers. There was a wordless moment, then the sound of a distant whistle, of nearer shouts of "T-r-a-i-n." The dark mustache, the unsinged side, was sweeping very, very near the soft curve of those parted lips.
"What ransom will you pay?" he murmured. "I've not yet felt these arms about my neck. I've kissed you, heaven be praised, but, Miriam, have you ever kissed me?"
"T-r-a-i-n! Train, train! You'll be left!" again came the shrill feminine appeals, and with them, approaching, unwelcome, unheeded footfalls. With sudden, impulsive movement she threw her arms about his neck and upraised her lips to his. One moment of silence, two seconds of bliss, then "Dad" Ennis's voice, barely a dozen yards away: "Come forth into the light, you wanderers!" There was barely time for Bob's fervent words:
"If I couldn't forgive him after that, I'd deserve a dozen weeks' arrest."