"Well, you don't!" sobbed the lady of the house, abandoning the original line of attack to defend herself against this unexpected sortie. Then, suddenly recalling the more recent injury, "At least you don't when you should, and you do when you should not. Let me go to them instantly. Celestine, take baby." But Celestine had vanished.
"Give me the baby, Ruth, and go by all means. Then we can restore quiet to this side of the house at least,"—and she took with firm hands the shrieking infant from the mother's arms. Mrs. Forrest rushed down the hall and melodramatically precipitated herself upon her offspring in the dining-room. In two minutes' time the baby's wailings ceased, and when Mrs. Forrest reappeared, ready to resume the attack after having released the prisoners, she was surprised and, it must be recorded, not especially pleased to see her lately inconsolable infant laughing, crowing, and actually beaming with happiness in her sister-in-law's arms.
"I suppose you've been feeding that child sugar," she said, as she stopped short at the threshold.
"The sugar is in the dining-room, Ruth, not here."
"Well, candy, then, and you know I'd as soon you gave her poison."
"And yet you sent Celestine to my room for some for this very baby yesterday."
"Then, as I have told you more than once, Ruth, Celestine's statements are unreliable. I found her in my room, and she said you sent her for some candy for little Hal, and I gave it to her. I do not at all like her going to my room when I'm not there."
"You are down on Celestine simply because she is mine, and you know it, Fanny. It is so with everything,—everybody that is at all dear to me. That is enough to set you against them. My dear old father rescued Celestine from bondage when she was a mere baby (a favorite paraphrase of Mrs. Forrest's for describing the fact that one of that damsel's parents had officiated as cook at a Southern hospital where the chaplain happened to be on duty in the war-days). Her mother lives with his people to this hour, and she has grown up under my eyes and been my handmaiden, and the nurse of all my children, and never a word has any one ever breathed against her until you came; and you are always doing it."
"Pardon me, Ruth. I have only twice referred to what I consider her shortcomings. She was very neglectful of you and the children at Robinson, and was perpetually going out in the evening with that soldier in Captain Terry's troop, and now she is getting to be as great a gad-about here. That, however, is none of my affair, but it is my right to say that I do not want her prowling about among the trunks and boxes in my room, and if you do not exert your authority over her I must find some other means of making her respect my wishes."
"I suppose you will try and blacken her character and have her sent out of the post, and so rob us of the last relic I have of my home and f-f-friends," and Mrs. Forrest began to sob afresh.
"Hush! Ruth. I hear the doctor in the hall below. For goodness' sake, do try and look a little less like a modern Niobe when he comes up. Here, take baby," and she hugged the little fellow close and imprinted a kiss upon his dimpled cheek. "I must run down and detain him a moment until you can get straightened out."
Nothing loath was Dr. Bayard to spend some moments in tete-a-tete converse with Miss Forrest. She ushered him into the dining-room,—the only reception-room the two households could boast of under the stress of circumstances, and most graciously received his compliments on the "conquests" of the previous evening. "Not only all eyes, all hearts were charmed, Miss Forrest. Never even in the palmiest days of Washington society have I seen more elegant and becoming a toilet, and as for your singing,—it was simply divine." The doctor looked, as well as spoke, his well-turned phrases. He was gallant, debonair, dignified, impressive,—"a well-preserved fellow for forty-five," as he was wont to say of himself. He anxiously inquired for her health, deplored the state of anxiety and excitement in which they were compelled to live, thanked heaven that there were some consolations vouchsafed them in their exile and isolation, and begged her to be sure and send for him should she find the strain was telling upon her nervous system; it was marvellous that she should bear up so well; his little daughter was really ill this morning and unable to leave her room, but then she was a mere child. If it were not for the incomparable pleasure he—they all—found in her presence he could almost wish that Miss Forrest were once more under the shelter of her uncle's hospitable roof in New York and "free from war's alarms." By the way, where was Mr.—a—her uncle's residence?
"Mr. Courtlandt's?" she answered, promptly supplying the name. "In Thirty-fourth Street, just east of the avenue."
"To be sure; I know it well," answered the doctor. "A most refined and aristocratic neighborhood it is, and I'm sure I must have met Mr. Courtlandt at the Union Club. He is near kin, I think, to the Van Cortlandts, of Croton, is he not?"
"Not very near, doctor, though I presume there is some distant connection."
"Ah, doubtless. I recall him only vaguely. He belonged to a much older set and went very little into general society. A man of the highest social connections, however, and of much wealth." And the doctor glanced keenly at her as he propounded this tentative.
"Yes, Mr. Courtlandt is nearly sixty now, and, as you say, doctor, he goes very little into general society. He prefers his library and his books and an occasional canter in the park to any other entertainment. In fact, except his game of whist with some old cronies, that is about all the entertainment he seeks. His wife, my Aunt Laura, is quite an invalid."
"And they have no children?"
"Yes, one; a son, who is now abroad. Shall we go up and see Mrs. Forrest now, doctor? She is looking for a visit from you. Mr. Blunt's appearance was a great shock to her."
It was growing dusky as they passed through the hall-way. The sun was well down in the west, and heavy banks of rain-clouds obscured the heavens. Miss Forrest turned the knob and threw open the door leading into the unpicturesque yard at the rear of the quarters. "A little light here will be an improvement," she said. "Why! who can that be?"
As she spoke, a soldier, who had apparently been seated on the back steps, was striding hurriedly in the direction of the gate. He had started up just as she opened the door.
"Ah, my man, halt there!" called the doctor; and obediently the soldier turned and stood attention, raising his hand in salute. He was a dark, swarthy fellow, with glittering eyes and rather flat features. He wore the moustache of the trooper, and had permitted his chin whiskers to grow. The crossed sabres of the cavalry and the letter and number of the troop and regiment, all brilliantly polished, adorned his forage-cap, and his undress uniform was scrupulously neat and well-fitting. The moment he turned, Miss Forrest recognized him.
"Oh, it is Celestine's soldier friend!" she said.
"What are you doing here, my man?" asked the doctor, loftily.
"Nothing, sir," was the reply, both prompt and respectful. "The doctor probably doesn't remember me. I came in with the wounded to-day at noon,—Mr. Blunt's striker, sir."
"Well, Mr. Blunt's room is in the other division, and you ought to stay there."
"I know, sir. I've only been here a moment," was the respectful answer. "I wanted to ask Celestine to let me have a little ice if she had any, but there's no one around the kitchen."
"Go over to my quarters and tell my man Robert to give you a big lump of it. My house is yonder at the corner. Tell him Dr. Bayard sent you."
The soldier saluted, faced about, and moved away, a trifle wearily this time.
"He looks very tired," said Miss Forrest.
"I believe he is," answered the doctor. "Hold on a moment there!" he called. "Were you out with Mr. Blunt's command?"
"Yes, sir. All yesterday and last night. I had to sit up with the lieutenant all night, sir, to bathe his wound."
"True, true. And of course you hadn't a wink of sleep. Go to your barracks and get a nap. I'm going back to Mr. Blunt in five minutes, and I'll send the ice over right afterward."
"I thank the doctor, but I'm not sleepy. I'll get rest enough to-night," was the reply, and again the soldier saluted and turned away.
"How faithful and devoted those rough-looking fellows can be to their officers!" said Miss Forrest.
"Yes," answered the doctor, musingly, as he gazed after the retreating form. "Yes, very. Some of them are models,—and yet, somewhere or other I think I have seen that man before. Do you know his name?"
"No. I'll ask Celestine, if you wish to know. She ought to be up-stairs with the children now. May I not run over and see Miss Bayard presently."
"My Nellie? We shall be charmed. If you will only wait a moment until I have seen Mr. Blunt, I shall be delighted to escort you. She is all alone unless Mrs. Miller has returned to her, and the house is deserted down-stairs. Mr. Holmes is out somewhere with the major."
But Miss Forrest did not wait. No sooner had the doctor finished his brief visit to her sister-in-law than the young lady threw a light wrap over her shoulders, and, just as the bugle was sounding first call for retreat, she walked rapidly to the big house at the south-west corner, noiselessly opened the door without the formality of ringing for admission, and in the gathering darkness of the hall-way within, where she had to grope a moment to find the banister-rail, she came face to face with Mrs. Miller.
Cold and still the dawn is breaking. Faint, wan, and pallid is the feeble gleam that comes peeping over the low hills far over at the east. Bare and desolate look the barren slopes on every hand. Not a tree, not a shrub of any kind can eye discover in this dim and ghostly light. All is silence, too. Even the coyotes who have set up their unearthly yelping at odd intervals during the night seem to have slunk away before the coming of the morning's sun and sought the shelter of their lurking-spots. Here on the bleak ridge, where three men, wrapped in cavalry overcoats, are lying prone, not a sound of any kind beyond an occasional muffled word is to be heard. Three hundred yards behind them, down in the valley, some thirty shadowy steeds are cropping at the dense buffalo-grass, while their riders, dismounted now, are huddled together for warmth. The occasional stamp of a hoof and the snort of some impatient charger break the silence here, but cannot be heard out at the front where the picket is lying. Another sound, soothing, monotonous, ceaseless, falls constantly upon the ear of the waking soldiers,—the rush of the swollen Platte over the rocks and gravel of the ford a quarter-mile away, the only point below the fort where the renegade Sioux can recross without swimming, and they are not yet here to try it. When they come they will find Captain Terry, with young McLean and thirty troopers, lurking behind the covering ridge, ready and willing to dispute the passage. Through the darkness of the night those good gray steeds, flitting like ghosts along the shore, have come speeding down the Platte to land their riders first at the goal, and once here, and satisfied by scrutiny of the south entrance to the ford that no Indian pony has appeared within the last twenty-four hours, Terry has posted his lookouts on the ridge, and then, having hoppled and "half-lariated" his horses, has cautioned the men to rest on their arms and not to throw off belt or spur. "There is no telling," he says, "what moment they may come along."
McLean, with his long Springfield rifle, has gone up to the ridge to join the outlying picket. A keen-eyed fellow is this young soldier and a splendid shot, and the Indians who succeed in crossing that next ridge a mile farther south and approaching them unobserved will have to wear the cap of the "Invisible Prince." He has come out on this scout full of purpose and ambition. Things have not gone happily with him during the past few days. Profoundly depressed in spirits at the millstone of debt suddenly saddled upon him as the result of peculations of the deserting sergeant, he has the added misery of seeing the sweet-faced girl with whom he has fallen so deeply in love practically withdrawn from his daily life and penned up within her father's house for the evident object of compelling her to entertain the devotion of a rival, whose wealth and social position make him a man to be feared,—a man whom any woman, old or young, might think twice before refusing. Already the people at Laramie were discussing the possibilities,—some of them in his very presence; and there were not lacking those to say, that, even if she had been more than half inclined to reciprocate McLean's evident attachment, she would be a fool not to accept Roswell Holmes, with his wealth, education, and undoubted high character. A second lieutenant in the army was all very well for a girl who could do no better, but Elinor Bayard was of excellent social position herself. Her mother's people ranked with the best in the land, and her father, despite his galanterie, was a man distinguished in his profession and in society. It was driving McLean wellnigh desperate. Not one word of love-making had been breathed between him and the gentle girl who so enjoyed her walks and rides with him, but he knew well that her woman's heart must have told her ere this how dear she was to him, and it was no egotism or conceit that prompted him to the belief that she would not show such pleasure in his coming if he were utterly indifferent to her. Coquetry was something Nellie Bayard seemed deficient in; she was frank and truthful in every look and word.
And yet, realizing what grounds he had for hope, McLean was utterly downcast when he faced the situation before him. It would take him a year—with the utmost economy he could command—to pay off the load that had been so ruthlessly heaped upon him. He realized that so long as he owed a penny in the world he had no right to ask any woman to be his wife. Meantime, here was this wealthy, well-educated, well-preserved man of affairs ready and eager to lay his name and fortune at her feet. What mattered it that he was probably more than double her age? Had McLean not read of maidens who worshipped men of more than twice their years even to the extent of—"A love that was her doom?" Had he not read aloud to her only a fortnight before the story of Launcelot and the lily maid of Astolat? Poor fellow! In bitterness of spirit he believed that in the last few days she had purposely avoided him, and had treated him with coldness on the few occasions when they met; and now he had sought this perilous duty eagerly and avowedly; he had set forth without so much as a word of farewell to her or a touch of her trembling little hand, affecting to be so occupied in preparation up to the instant of starting that he had no time for a word with anybody. And yet Mrs. Miller had called him aside and spoken to him as the group of officers and ladies gathered near the Laramie bridge to see the little column start, and Nellie Bayard had looked up wistfully at him as he rode by their party, merely waving his scouting-hat in general salutation. It hurt her sorely that he should have gone without one word for her,—and yet she scarce knew why.
And now here they were, squarely across the Indian trail, and ready for their coming. Roswell Holmes could not have that distinction at all events, thought McLean, as he tried the lock and breech-block of his rifle to see that everything was in perfect working order. Come what might,—if it were only Indians,—he meant to make a record in this fight that any woman might be proud of; and if he fell,—well, he wouldn't have to pay for Sergeant Marsland's stealings, or have the misery of seeing her borne off by Holmes's big bank-account, as she probably would be. Poor Mac! He had yet to learn that a reputation as an Indian-fighter is but an ephemeral and unsatisfactory asset as an adjunct to love-making.
Meanwhile, the dawn is broadening; the grayish pallor at the orient takes on a warmer tint, and a feeble glow of orange and crimson steals up the heavens. The slopes and swales around the lonely outpost grow more and more visible, the distant ridge more sharply defined against the southern sky. Off to the left, the eastward, the river rolls along in a silvery, misty gleam; and their comrades, still sheltered under the bluff, are beginning to gather around the horses and look to the bridles and "cinchas." Now the red blush deepens and extends along the low hill-tops across the Platte, and tinges the rolling prairie to the south and west. A few minutes more and the glow is strong enough to reveal an old but well-defined trail leading from the distant ridge straight up to the little crest where McLean is lying. It seems to follow a south-westerly course, and is the trail, beyond doubt, along which the marauders from the reservations have time and again recrossed with their plunder and gained the official shelter of those sacred limits.
"Why, sir," says Corporal Connor, who is lying there beside the young officer, "last October a party came over and scalped two women and three teamsters not three miles from the post, and ran off with all their cattle. We caught up with them just across the Niobrara, and they dropped the mules and horses they were driving and made a run for it. We chased and gained on them every inch of the way, but they got to the lines first, and then they just whirled about and jeered at us and shook the scalps in our faces, and called us every name you could think of,—in good English, too," added the trooper seriously; "and the lieutenant and I rode to the agency and pointed out two of them to the agent that very day, but he didn't dare arrest them. His life depended on his standing by them through thick and thin. Look, lieutenant! Look off there!"
Over to the southwest, dimly visible, three or four shadowy objects are darting rapidly over the distant ridge that spans the horizon in that direction. For one moment only they are revealed against the sky, then can be seen, faint as far-away cloud-shadows, sweeping down into the shallow valley and making for the river above the position of the outpost. Indians, beyond question! the advance guard of the main body; and the time for action has come.
Instead of riding toward them, however,—instead of approaching the ford by the most direct line,—these scouts are loping northward from the point where the trail crosses the ridge, and pushing for the stream. McLean sees their object with the quickness of thought. 'Tis not that they have made a "dry camp" during the night, and are in haste to get to water with their ponies. He knows well that in several of the ravines and "coulies" on their line of march there is abundant water at this season of the year. He knows well that not until they had crept up to and cautiously peered over that ridge, without showing so much as a feather of their war-bonnets, would they venture so boldly down into the "swale." He knows well that both in front and rear they are watching for the coming of cavalry, and that now they are dashing over to the Platte to peer across the skirting bluffs until satisfied no foeman is near, then to scurry down into the bottom to search for hoof-prints. If they find the well-known trail of shod horses in column of twos, it will tell them beyond shadow of doubt that troops are already guarding the ford. "Confound it!" he exclaims. "Why didn't we think of it last night, and come down the other side? We could just as well have crossed the Platte on the engineer bridge, and then they couldn't have spotted us. Now it's too late. Run back, corporal, and warn the captain. I'll stay here and watch them."
Connor speeds briskly down the slope, and, even as they see him coming, the men lead their horses into line. Captain Terry has one foot in the stirrup as the non-commissioned officer reaches him and his hand goes up in salute.
"Lieutenant McLean's compliments, sir" (the invariable formula in garrison, and not omitted in the field by soldiers as precise as the corporal). "Three or four bucks are galloping over to the river above us to look for our tracks."
"How far above us, corporal?"
"Nigh on to a mile, sir."
"Sergeant Wallace, stay here with the platoon. Mount, you six men on the right, and come after me as quick as you can!" And away goes Captain Terry, full speed up the valley and heading close under the bluffs. In a minute three of the designated troopers are in a bunch at his heels, the other three scattered along the trail. From McLean's post he can see both parties in the gathering light,—the Indians, slowly and cautiously now, beginning the ascent to the bluffs, the captain and his men "speeding it" to get first to the scene. Another moment, and he sees Terry spring from his horse, throw the reins to a trooper, and run crouching up toward the crest; then, on hands and knees, peep cautiously over, removing his hat as he does so. Then he signals "forward" to his men, slides backward a yard or two, runs to his horse, mounts, gallops some four hundred yards farther along the foot of the slope, then turns, rides half-way up, and then he and four of the men leap from their saddles, toss their reins to the two who remain mounted, and, carbine in hand, run nimbly up the bluffs and throw themselves prone upon the turf, almost at the top. Not two hundred yards away from them four Sioux warriors, with trailing war-bonnets and brilliant display of paint and glitter, are "opening out" as they approach, and warily moving toward the summit. One instant more and there is a sudden flash of fire-arms at the crest; five jets of bluish smoke puff out upon the rising breeze; five sputtering reports come sailing down the wind a few seconds later; and, while two of the warriors go whirling off in a wide, sweeping circle, the other two are victims to their own unusual recklessness. One of them, clinging desperately to the high pommel, but reeling in his saddle, urges his willing pony down the slope; the other has plunged forward and lies stone-dead upon the sward. Even at the echo of the carbines, however, popping up from across the ridge a mile away, there come whirling into view a score of red and glittering horsemen, sweeping down in broad, fan-shaped course, at top speed of their racing ponies, yelling like mad, and lashing their nimble steeds to the rescue. Two minutes of that gait, and the captain and his little squad will be surrounded.
"Mount! mount!" shouts McLean, as he turns and rushes down the slope, followed by his picket-guard. "Lively now, sergeant. Run to the captain. Don't wait for me!"
"Come on, all you fellers!" is Sergeant Wallace's characteristic rallying cry; and away goes the little troop, like a flock of quail. McLean is in the saddle in an instant, and full tilt in pursuit.
Not a moment too soon! Even before the leading troopers have reached the two "horse-holders" under the bluffs, both above and below the captain's position, the plumed and painted warriors have flashed up on the ridge and taken him in flank. Without the prompt aid of his men he would be surrounded in the twinkling of an eye. Already these daring flankers have opened fire on the knot of horsemen, when McLean shouts to some of the rearmost to follow him, and veering to the left he rides straight at the Indians who have appeared nearest him along the bluffs. Two of the troopers follow unhesitatingly; others sheer off toward their main body. There's too much risk in darting right into the teeth of a pack of mounted Sioux, even to follow an officer. Wary and watchful the Indians mark his coming. Circling out to right and left they propose to let him in, then follow their old tactics of a surround. He never heeds their manoeuvres; his aim is to get to close quarters with any one of them and fight it out, as Highland chieftains fought in the old, old days of target and claymore. He never heeds the whistle of the bullets past his ears as one after another the nearest Indians take hurried shots at him. Straight as a dart he flies at a tall savage who pops up on the ridge in front of him. The long Springfield is slung now, and he grasps the gleaming revolver in his hand. Twice the Indian fires, the lever of his Henry rifle working like mad, but the bullets whiz harmlessly by; then, with no time to reload, and dreading the coming shock, he ducks quickly over his nimble piebald's neck and strives to lash him out of the way, just as the young officer from some other hand
Receives but recks not of a wound,
and then troop-horse, pony, soldier, and savage are rolling in a confused heap upon the turf. The Indian is the first on his feet and limping away; no redskin willingly faces white man "steel to steel." McLean staggers painfully to his knees, brushes dust and clods from his blinded eyes with one quick dash of his sleeve, and draws a bead on his red antagonist just as the latter turns to aim; there is a sudden flash and report, and the Sioux throws up his hands with one yell and tumbles headlong. Then a mist seems rising before the young soldier's eyes, the earth begins to reel and swim and whirl, and then all grows dark, and he, too, is prostrate on the sward.
They were having an anxious day of it at Laramie. Early in the morning a brace of ranchmen, still a-tremble from their experiences of the night, made their way into the post and told gruesome stories of the doings of the Indians at Eagle's Nest and beyond. The Cheyenne stage, they said, was "jumped," the driver killed, and the load of passengers burned alive in the vehicle itself. There might have been only fifty warriors when they fought Lieutenant Blunt and his party in the Chug Valley, but they must have been heavily re-enforced, for there were two hundred of them at the least count when they swept down upon the little party of heroes at the stage station. They fought them like tigers, said the ranchmen, but they would probably have burned the building over their heads and "roasted the whole outfit" had it not been that the coming of the stage had diverted their attention. These were the stories with which the two worthies had entertained the guard and other early risers pending the appearance of the commanding officer; and these were the stories that, in added horrors and embellishments, spread throughout the garrison, through kitchen to breakfast-room, as the little community began to make its appearance down-stairs. Major Miller, a veteran on the frontier, had taken the measure of his informants in a very brief interview. Aroused by the summons of Lieutenant Hatton, to whom as officer of the day the guard had first conducted these harbingers of woe, the major had shuffled down-stairs in shooting-jacket and slippers, and cross-examined them in his dining-room. Both men looked wistfully at the brimming decanter on his sideboard, and one of them "allowed" he never felt so used up in his life; so the kind-hearted post commander lugged forth a demijohn and poured out two stiff noggins of whiskey, refreshed by which they retold their tale. Miller "gave them the rein" for five minutes and then cross-questioned, as a result of which proceeding he soon dismissed them to the barracks and breakfast, and announced to Hatton and the adjutant that there would be no change in the orders,—he didn't believe one-fourth of their story. The stage, he said, wasn't due at Eagle's Nest until four o'clock in the morning, and these men had declared it burned at three. It was utterly improbable that it came farther than Phillips's crossing of the Chugwater, where it was due at midnight, and where long before that time all the hands at the station had been warned, both by couriers and fugitives, that the Indians were swarming up the valley. They had cut the telegraph-wire, of course, on striking the road, early in the afternoon, and it was impossible to tell just how things had been going; but he was willing to bet that the stage was safe, despite the assertions of the ranchmen that they had seen the blaze and heard the appalling shrieks of the victims. The major's confidence, however, could not be shared by the dozen houses full of women and children whose closest protectors were far away on the fields where duty called them. Laramie was filled with white, horror-stricken faces and anxious eyes, as the ladies flitted from door to door before the call for guard-mounting, and "boomed" the panic-stricken ranchmen's story until it reached the proportions of a wholesale massacre and an immediately impending siege of the fort by Red Cloud and all his band. Women recalled the fearful scene at Fort Phil Kearney in 1866, when the same old chieftain, Mach-pe-a-lo-ta, surrounded with a thousand warriors the little detachment of three companies and butchered them within rifle range of the trembling wives and children at the post; and so by the time the story reached the doctor's kitchen it had assumed the dimensions of a colossal tragedy. They were just gathering in the breakfast-room,—Nellie a trifle pale and weary-looking, the doctor and Holmes a bit the worse for having sat up so late and smoked so many cigars, but disposed to be jovial and youthful for all that. Coffee was not on the table, and Robert failed to respond to the tinkling of the little silver bell. Then sounds of woe and lamentation were heard in the rear, and the doctor impatiently strode to the door and shouted for his domestics. Robert responded, his kinky wool bristling as though electrified and his eyes fairly starting from their sockets; he was trembling from head to foot.
"What's the matter, you rascal, and why do you not answer the bell?" angrily demanded his master.
But it was "the Johnsons' Winnie" who responded. She had doubtless been going the rounds, and was only waiting for another chance to make a dramatic coup. Rushing through the kitchen, she precipitated herself into the breakfast-room. "Oh, Miss Nellie," she sobbed, "there's drefful news. The Indians burned the stage with everybody in it, and they've shot Captain Terry and Mr. McLean an' all the soldiers with 'em, an'——"
"Silence, you babbling idiot!" shouted Dr. Bayard. "Stop your fool stories, or I'll——"
"But it's God's truth, doctor. It's God's truth," protested Winnie, desperately determined to be defrauded of no part of her morning's sensation. "Ask anybody. Ask the sergeant of the guard. Yo' can see the men what brought the news yo'self."
"Pardon me, doctor," interrupted Mr. Holmes, in calm, quiet tones. "This has been too much of a shock for Miss Bayard, I fear." And already he was by her side, holding a glass of water to her pallid lips. The doctor pointed to the door.
"Leave the room, you pestilence in petticoats!" he ordered. "Go!" And, having accomplished her desire to create a sensation, though balked of the full fruition of the promised enjoyment, Winnie flew to "Bedlam," where she only prayed that Celestine might not be before her with the news. Meantime, Dr. Bayard had turned to his daughter. His first impulse was to reprove her for her ready credence of the story set afloat by so notorious a gabbler as the Johnsons' "second girl." One glance at Elinor's pale features and drooping mien changed his disposition in a trice. Anxiously he stepped to her side, and his practised hand was at her pulse before a word of question was uttered. Then he gently raised her head.
"Look up, daughter! Why, my little girl, this will never do! I don't believe a word of this absurd story, and you must not let yourself be alarmed by such fanciful pictures. Come, dear! Mr. Holmes will excuse you this morning. Let me get you to your room. Will you kindly touch that bell, Holmes, and send Chloe to me? I'll rejoin you in a moment. Come, Nell?"
And half leading, half carrying, he guided her from the room and up the stairs, while Holmes, with grave and thoughtful face, stood gazing after them. It was some time before the doctor reappeared, even after Chloe joined him in the chamber of her young mistress. When he did the breakfast was cold, and both men were too anxious to get the true story to care whether they breakfasted or not. Each took a swallow of coffee, then hastened forth.
"That poor little girl of mine!" said Dr. Bayard. "She has a very nervous, sensitive organization, and such a shock as that fool of a wench gave her this morning is apt to upset her completely. Now, she has no especial interest in any of Terry's party, and yet you might suppose her own kith and kin had been scalped and tortured."
But Holmes would not reply.
Meantime, Winnie had reached "Bedlam," where, to her disgust, Celestine had already broached the tidings to the breakfast-table, and Mrs. Forrest had been borne half fainting to her room. Pale, but calm and collected, Miss Forrest returned and began questioning the girl as to the sources of her information, and it was on hearing this colloquy that Winnie took heart of grace and impulsively sprang up the steps into the hall-way to add her share to the general sensation. It was with a feeling bordering on exultation that she found the local account to be lacking in several of the most startling and dramatic particulars. Celestine had not heard of the massacre of Captain Terry's command, and it was her own proud privilege to break the news to Miss Forrest. Here, however, she overshot the mark, for that young lady looked determinedly incredulous, dismissed her colored informant as no longer worthy of consideration, and, taking a light wrap from the hat-rack in the hall, tapped at Mrs. Post's door.
"Will you kindly look after Mrs. Forrest a moment in case she should need anything? I will go to Major Miller's and investigate these stories. They seem absurd."
And with that she sped swiftly around the parade, along the broad walk, and was quickly at the major's door and ushered into the parlor. There were Dr. Bayard and Mr. Holmes in earnest talk with the commanding officer. All three arose and greeted her with marked courtesy.
"I am sorry that my wife is not here to welcome you, Miss Forrest," said the major, "but with the exception of her and yourself the entire feminine element of this garrison is stampeded this morning; the women have frightened themselves out of their senses. Have you come for Dr. Bayard? I hope Mrs. Forrest has not collapsed, as Mrs. Gordon has. Mrs. Miller has gone to pull her out of a fit of hysterics."
"Mrs. Forrest will need nothing more, I think, than an assurance that there is little truth in these stories."
"Upon my word, Miss Forrest, I believe they are as groundless as—other sensational yarns that have come to my ears. Two badly-scared ranchmen are responsible for kindling the fire, but the nurse-maids and cooks have fanned it into a Chicago conflagration. The Indians may have built a fire down the road beyond Eagle's Nest, but I'll bet it wasn't the stage. And as for Terry and McLean, we haven't a word of any kind from them. That story is built out of wind."
"Then will you pardon me, Dr. Bayard, if I suggest that it might be well if some one in authority were to warn the hospital nurse who is with Mr. Blunt, to be sure and let no one approach him with such news as has been flying around the post? I fear he had a restless night."
"A most thoughtful suggestion, my dear young lady, and, if you are going home, I will escort you, and then go to Blunt at once. May I have that pleasure?"
"I—had hoped to see Mrs. Miller, doctor, and think I will go to the east side a moment and inquire for Mrs. Gordon."
"By all means, Miss Forrest, and so will I," answered Bayard, bowing magnificently. "You will excuse me, Mr. Holmes? I will be home in a quarter of an hour."
"Certainly, doctor, certainly," was the prompt reply, and both Major Miller and Mr. Holmes followed the two out upon the piazza and stood watching them as they walked away.
"A singularly handsome and self-possessed young woman that, Mr. Holmes!" remarked the major. "Now, there's the sort of girl to marry in the army. She has nerve and courage and brains. By Jove! That's one reason, I suppose, the women don't like her!"
"And they do not like her?" queried Holmes.
"Can't bear her, I judge, from what I hear. She dresses so handsomely, they say, that she's an object of boundless interest to them,—like or no like."
"Our friend the doctor seems decidedly an ardent admirer. He was showing himself off in most brilliant colors last night, and evidently for her benefit."
"Oh, yes, I rather fancied as much. They would make a very distinguished couple," said the colonel, reflectively, "and no bad match, despite the disparity in years. She refused two youngsters up at Red Cloud who were ready to cut each other's throats on her account. That's one reason I admire her sense. The idea of a woman like that, or any woman, marrying a second lieutenant!"
"You waited for your 'double bars,' major?" smilingly queried Mr. Holmes.
"Oh, Lord, no!" laughed Miller. "Like most people who preach, I'm past the practising age. I was married on my graduation leave,—but things were different before the war. Army people didn't live in the style they put on now. Our wives were content with two rooms and a kitchen, a thousand a year, and one new dress at Christmas. Now!" but the major stopped short, words failing him in the contemplation of mightiness as shown in the contrast.
"I'm no great judge of women," said Holmes, presently, "but that young lady roused my interest last night. Are there any tangible reasons why they should give her the cold shoulder?"
Miller colored in the effort to appear at ease.
"None that I have any personal knowledge of or feel like treating with respect. There's no accounting for women's whims," he added, sententiously. "Jupiter! Here it is nine o'clock, and nothing done yet. I can't telegraph, for they've cut the wires. I've sent out scouts, but it may be noon before they'll get back. Meantime, we have to sit here with our hands tied, and the devil to pay generally in garrison. Ah! there go the doctor and Miss Forrest over to 'Bedlam.' Isn't he a magnificent old cock? Just see him court her! Will you come with me to the office?"
"I believe not, major. I think I'll walk around a little. I'm a trifle fidgety myself this morning, and eager for reliable news. There's no objection, is there, to my going down to the barracks and interviewing those ranchmen? You know I'm something of a 'cow-puncher' myself, and may be able to squeeze some grain of truth out of them."
"No, indeed! Go ahead, Mr. Holmes, and if you extract anything veritable let me know."
Passing Bedlam, Mr. Holmes glanced up at the open gallery where the hospital attendant happened to be standing. The doctor had entered the other hall with Miss Forrest, and was doubtless majestically ministering to the nervous ailments of her sister-in-law.
"How is Lieutenant Blunt this morning?" he asked.
"He had a hard night, sir," was the low-toned answer. "He was in a high fever much of the time, but he seems sleeping now. Is there any further news, Mr. Holmes?"
"There is no truth in the news you have heard, if you have been afflicted with the stories sent around the post this morning. Be sure and keep everything of the kind from Mr. Blunt. Here! Can you catch?" And fumbling in his waistcoat-pocket, he fetched out a glittering gold piece and tossed it deftly to the gallery. It fell upon the boards with a musical ring, and was quickly pounced upon by the man, who blushed and grinned awkwardly.
"I don't like to take this, sir," he said. "It's five dollars."
"Never mind what it is! It's worth a thousand times its weight if you keep all such yarns from the lieutenant.—Oh! Good-morning, Mr. Hatton! I thought your rooms were up-stairs," he said, as at that moment the infantryman stepped forth from the lower hall.
"They are, Mr. Holmes, but I have taken up my quarters temporarily in McLean's, so as not to disturb Blunt with the creaking of those ramshackle old stairs. What is Mac's is mine, and vice versa. Won't you come in?"
Mr. Holmes hesitated a moment. Then a sudden thought struck him. He sprang lightly up the steps and was ushered into the sanctum of the young soldier, whom he had marked the night before starting upon the scout with Terry's troopers.
"So this is McLean's vine and fig-tree, is it?" said he, as he looked curiously around. "Ha! Lynchburg sun-dried, golden leaf! Can I have a pipe?"
"Most assuredly! Excuse me five minutes, while I run over to the guard-house. Then I'll rejoin you, and we'll have a whiff together." Another moment, and Mr. Holmes was sole occupant of the premises.
He seemed to forget his desire for a smoke, and in its stead to become possessed with a devil of mild inquisitiveness. After a rapid glance around the front room, with its bare, barrack-like, soldier furnishing, he stepped quickly into the bed-chamber in the rear and went unhesitatingly to the bureau. The upper drawer came out grudgingly and with much jar and friction, as the drawers of frontier furniture are apt to do even at their best, but his firm hand speedily reduced it to subjection. A little pile of handkerchiefs, neatly folded, stood in the left-hand corner. He lifted the topmost, carried it to the window, compared the embroidered initials with those of the handkerchief he took from an inside pocket, scribbled a few closely-written words on a blank card, carefully folded the handkerchief he had brought with him, slipped the card inside the folds, replaced both on the pile, closed the drawer, and was placidly puffing away at his pipe when Hatton returned.
Late that afternoon the guard caught sight of a horseman loping rapidly up the valley and heading for the bridge across the Laramie. Long before he reached the post an orderly had notified the commanding officer that a courier was coming,—doubtless from Captain Terry's party, and Major Miller's appearance on his north piazza, binocular in hand, and gazing steadfastly over the distant flats to the winding trail along the river, was sufficient to bring strong representations of every household into view, all eager to see what he was seeing or to hear what he might know. Mr. Hatton came hurriedly over from "Bedlam," took his place by the major's side, and a peep through the same big glasses. Then, after a moment's consultation, the two officers started down the steps and walked briskly past the quarters on the east side, merely calling, in answer to the many queries, "Somebody coming with news from Terry!" and by the time they reached the old blockhouse at the north end, the somebody was in plain view, urging his foam-flecked and panting steed to a plunging gallop as he neared the Laramie. The hoofs thundered across the rickety wooden bridge, and the rider was hailed by dozens of shrill and wailing voices as he passed the laundresses' quarters, where the whole population had turned out to demand information. The adjutant had joined the commanding officer by this time, and several of the guard had come forth, anxious and eager to hear the news. No man in the group could catch the reply of the horseman to the questioners at "Sudstown," but in an instant an Irish wail burst upon the ear, and, just as one coyote will start a whole pack, just as one midnight bray will set in discordant chorus a whole "corral" of mules, so did that one wail of mourning call forth an echoing "keen" from every Hibernian hovel in all the little settlement, and in an instant the air rang with unearthly lamentations.
"D—— those absurd women!" growled the major, fiercely, though his cheek paled at dread of the coming tidings. "They'll have all the garrison in hysterics. Here, Hatton! run down there and stop their infernal noise. There isn't one in a dozen of 'em that has any idea of what has happened. They're howling on general principles. What the devil does that man mean by telling his news before he sees the commanding officer, anyhow?"
Meantime, straight across the sandy flats and up the slope came the courier, his horse panting loudly. Half-way from "Sudstown" he was easily recognized,—Corporal Zook, of "Terry's Grays," and a tip-top soldier. Reining in his horse, throwing the brown carbine over his shoulder and quickly dismounting, he stepped forward to the group and, with the unfailing salute, handed his commander a letter.
"How came you to tell those women anything?" asked Miller, his lips and hands trembling slightly, despite his effort to be calmly prepared for the worst. "Don't you see you've started the whole pack of them to yowling? I thought I warned you never to do that again, when you came in with the news of Lieutenant Robinson's murder."
"The major did, sir; I had it in mind when I came in sight of those Irishwomen this time, and wouldn't open my lips, sir. They are bound to make a row, whatever happens. I only shook my head at them, sir." And Corporal Zook, despite fatigue, hard riding, and dust, appeared, if one could judge by a slight twinkle of the eye, to take a rather humorous view of this exposition of national traits. Followed by two or three of the guard, Mr. Hatton had obediently hastened to quell the tumult of lamentation, but by the time he reached the nearest shanty the infection had spread throughout the entire community, and—women and children alike—the whole populace was weeping, wailing, and gnashing its teeth,—and no one knew or cared to know exactly why. Having been wrought up to a pitch of excitement by the rumors and rapid moves of the past forty-eight hours, nothing short of a massacre could now quite satisfy Sudstown's lust for the sensational, and, defrauded of the actual cause for universal bewailing, was none the less determined to indulge in the full effect. Poor Hatton had more than half an hour of stubborn and troublesome work before he could begin to quell the racket in the crowded tenements, and meantime there was mischief to pay in the fort. No sooner did the Irish wail come floating on the wind than the direst rumors were rushed from house to house. The courier had barely had time to hand his despatches to Major Miller, and the major had not had time to read them, when a messenger came post-haste for Dr. Bayard, and stood trembling and breathless at his door while the punctilious old major-domo went to call his master. Holmes was reading at the moment in the doctor's library, and, at the sound of excited voices and scurrying footfalls without, came forward into the hall just as the door of Nellie's room was heard to open. Glancing up, he caught sight of her at the head of the stairs,—her hair dishevelled and rippling down over her shoulders and nearly covering the dainty wrapper she wore.
"Mr. Holmes! please see what has happened?" she cried, with wild anxiety in her eyes. "I hear such dreadful noise, and see men running down toward the laundresses' quarters."
But there was no need for him to ask. The messenger at the door was only too eager.
"Oh, Miss Nellie!" she called, sobbing, half in eagerness, half in genuine distress. "There's such dreadful news! There's a man come in from Captain Terry's troop, and they've had a terrible fight, and Mr. McLean an' lots of 'em are killed. It's all true, just as we heard it this——"
But here Mr. Holmes slammed the door in the foolish creature's face and went tearing up the stairs, four at a bound, for, clasping the balusters with both her little hands in a grasp that seemed loosening every second, Nellie Bayard was sinking almost senseless to the floor. Chloe, too, came running to her aid, and, between them, they bore her to the sofa in her pretty room, and then the doctor reached them, almost rejoicing to find her in tears, instead of the dead faint he dreaded.
"How could I have been so mad as to bring her to such a pandemonium as this?" was his exclamation to Holmes as, a moment later, they hastened forth upon the parade. "Yes," he hastily answered, as a little boy came running tearfully to him, to say that mamma was taken very ill and they didn't know what to do for her. "Yes. So are all the women in garrison, I doubt not; though they're all scared for nothing, I'll bet a dinner. Tell mamma I'll be there just as soon as I've seen Major Miller. Here he comes now."
The major, with his adjutant, and followed by his orderly, was coming rapidly into the quadrangle as he spoke, and the two gentlemen hastened forward to meet him. From half a dozen houses women or children were rushing to question the commanding officer with wild, imploring eyes and faltering tongues. He waved his hands and arms in energetic gyrations and warned them away.
"Go back! Go back! You distracted geese!" he called. "It's all a lie! There's hardly been a brush worth mentioning. Terry and his men are all safe. Now, do stop your nonsense! But come with me, doctor," he quickly added, in a lower tone. "Come, Mr. Holmes. I want you both to hear this. It's so like Terry. D—— those outrageous Bridgets down there! Did you ever hear anything like the row they raised? And all for nothing."
"Has there been no fight at all?" asked Dr. Bayard.
"Yes,—a pretty lively one, too. McLean is shot and otherwise hurt, but can't be dangerously so, for he wanted to go on in the pursuit. Three horses killed and two troopers wounded; that's about the size of it, but there's more to come. Doctor, I want two ambulances to go down at once; and will send half a dozen men as guard. They can ride in them. We have no more available troopers. Will you go or send your assistant? You cannot get there much before ten or eleven o'clock, even if you trot all the way. Better let Dr. Weeks go, don't you think so?"
"Whichever you prefer, major. Weeks has been devoting himself to Blunt, though of course I could relieve him there. When could we get back?"
"Not before noon to-morrow. The wounded are 'way down at Royal's Ford, where Terry had left them with two or three men, and pushed on after the Indians with the rest. They tricked him, I fancy, and he isn't in good humor."
By this time the quartet had entered the office, and there, handing the despatch to his adjutant, and bidding the orderly close the door, the major seated himself at his desk; invited the others to draw up their chairs; produced a map of the Platte country and the trails to the Sioux Reservation over along the White River, and bade the adjutant read aloud. This the young officer proceeded to do:
"ON THE TRAIL, NEAR NIOBRARA, 10.30 A.M.
"POST ADJUTANT, FORT LARAMIE:
"SIR,—Reaching Royal's Ford before daybreak, we posted lookouts and headed off the Indians, who appeared at dawn. In the fight Lieutenant McLean, Sergeant Pierce, and Trooper Murray were wounded; two Indians killed and left on the field; others wounded, but carried off. After skirmishing some time at long range, they drew off, and were next seen far down the Platte below the ford. I started at once in pursuit, but had gone only four miles when we discovered it was only a small band, and that the main body, with considerable plunder, had got down to and were crossing the ford. This led us to hasten back, and we have kept up hot pursuit to this point. Now, however, the horses are exhausted, and we have not even gained upon their fresh ponies, although they were forced to abandon a good many horses they were driving away. As soon as our horses and men are rested, I will start on return via the north bank. Please send ambulance, etc., for the wounded.
"Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
"GEORGE F. TERRY,
To this military and matter-of-fact correspondence the auditors listened in silence.
"Not much about that to stir up such a bobbery!" said the major, presently.
"How did you hear about McLean's wanting to join the pursuit?" inquired Mr. Holmes. "Captain Terry seems to make rather slight mention of him and the other wounded. I know enough of Indian-fighting to feel sure there must have been some sharp work when they leave two dead on the field."
"So do I," answered the major, "and that is why I inquired of old Zook for particulars. He is the last man in the ranks to be exaggerative or sensational, and as for his captain,—well, this despatch is simply characteristic of Terry. He has a horror of anything 'spread-eagle,' as he calls it, and will never praise officers or men; says that it must be considered as a matter of course that they behaved well and did their duty. Otherwise he would be sure to prefer charges. Now, Dr. Bayard, if you will kindly send for Dr. Weeks I will give him his instructions, and, meantime, will you make such preparations as may be necessary?"
This the "Chesterfield of the Medical Department" could not but understand as a hint to be off, and he promptly arose and signified his readiness to carry out any wishes the commanding officer might have. Holmes, too, arose and started for the door with his host and entertainer, and, though the major called him back and asked if he would not remain, he promptly refused, saying that he greatly wished to accompany the doctor and see the preparations made in such cases.
But he tarried only a few moments with Bayard at the hospital, and when the doctor strove to detain him he begged to be excused a little while. There was a matter, he said, he wanted to look into before those ambulances started. The post surgeon gazed after him in some wonderment as the Chicagoan strode away, and tried to conjecture what could be taking him back to the house at this moment. Nellie was not to be seen, and he knew of no other attraction.
But Mr. Holmes had no idea of going to the surgeon's quarters. Over near the block-house he saw Mr. Hatton with his little party returning from their inglorious mission to Sudstown,—the lieutenant disgustedly climbing the slope, while a brace of his assistants, the guards, were chuckling and chatting in a low tone together, evidently extracting more amusement from their recent duty than did the officer of the day. Joining Hatton and allaying his anxiety by telling him the particulars of Captain Terry's despatch,—supplemented by the information that McLean's injuries were not considered serious,—Mr. Holmes asked permission to send one of the men in quest of Zook, with whom he desired very much to speak.
"He has gone to the stable, sir, to take care of his horse," said a corporal of the guard.
"If you are in a hurry to see him, Mr. Holmes, perhaps the best way would be to go to the troop stables. Yonder they are, down that slope to the north. He must attend to his horse,—groom and care for him before he can leave; and then, I fancy, he will be mighty glad of something to eat. I'll send for him if you wish, and tell him to come as soon as he's through his duties. Where will you have him call,—at the doctor's?"
"No, I believe not. If it is all the same to you, would you mind my seeing him at your quarters? I am greatly interested in this scout and fight, and want to get his story of the affair. Terry doesn't tell anything but the baldest outline."
"Certainly, Mr. Holmes. My room,—that is, McLean's, be it. The door is open, and I'll be out of your way by that time. I'm going at once to ask the adjutant to take my sword, and get the major to let me go down for Mac."
"The ambulance is being put in readiness now. I'll go with you to Major Miller's. What time can I best see the corporal?"
"Right after retreat roll-call, just after sunset, I should say. He would like time to spruce up a bit and get supper."
"Then say nine o'clock. I must not leave my host alone at the dinner-table, and I fear Miss Bayard will not be down."
"Is Miss Bayard ill?" asked Mr. Hatton.
"Hardly that! She was greatly overcome by the shock of hearing this news as it was told her. Some idiot of a servant came rushing in, and said a courier was back from Captain Terry's command and that Mr. McLean was killed."
"And she swooned or fainted?" asked Hatton, with evident interest.
"Very nearly," answered Mr. Holmes, with grave face and eyes that never flinched. "I think she would have fallen down the stairs, had she not been caught in the nick of time."
"That will be something poor Mac will hear with comfort."
"Yes," was the decided answer, after an instant of silence. "Yes. It would comfort me if I were in his place. Nine o'clock then, Mr. Hatton, and at your quarters."
Before dark the ambulances got away, Dr. Weeks and the lieutenant going with them on horseback. Cutting short a post-prandial cigar, Mr. Holmes left the surgeon to sip his coffee in solitude when a glance at his watch showed him that the hour of nine was approaching. Quickly he strode over toward "Bedlam," and sprang up the low flight of steps to the veranda. To his surprise, the hall-door was closed; he turned the knob, but there was no yielding. Looking in through the side-lights, he could see that a lamp was burning on the second floor, but that the hall-lantern below had either been forgotten or its light extinguished. Retracing his steps, he decided to go to the quartermaster and ask if he could have the key, but before he had taken thirty strides up the parade he remembered that Hatton had told him that the hall-door was never locked and rarely closed. This struck him as odd, and he stopped to think it over in connection with what he had just observed. Standing there just beyond the southern end of the big, faded white rookery, invisible himself in the darkness, he looked up at the lights in the rooms occupied by the Forrest family, and wondered how the self-possessed and handsome young lady, now occasionally alluded to as the "Queen of Bedlam," had borne the day. The garrison was unusually still; not a sound of mirth, music, or laughter came from the barracks of the men; not a whisper from the quarters of the officers around the parade. Somewhere, perhaps a mile away, out beyond the rushing Laramie, a dog or a coyote was yelping, but all within the old fort was still as death. Suddenly, from the northern end of the veranda, there came the sound of a latch or lock quickly turned, a light footfall on the creaking wooden floor, the swish and swirl of silken skirts, coming toward him rapidly. He gazed with all his eyes, but could not discern the advancing figure; so, struck by a sudden impulse, he sprang to the veranda, up the southern steps, and almost collided with a woman's form, scurrying past him in the darkness.
"I beg pardon, Miss For——" he began to say; but without a word, with sudden leap the slender shape whisked out of reach of voice or hand and vanished into the southern hall-way.
Before the sounding of tattoo that night, the stage came in from Cheyenne. It had been warned by fleeing ranchmen of the presence of the Sioux at Eagle's Nest, and had turned back to the strong defences at "Phillips's," on the Chug, remaining there in security until the driver had satisfied himself that the coast was clear. No passengers came down with him, but he brought the mail; and, as none had been received for two days, and the wires were still down, the major commanding turned out and tramped to the combined stage-station and post-office the moment he was notified of the arrival. Here, while the letters and papers were being distributed, he was accommodated with a chair in Mrs. Griffin's little parlor, and his own personal mail was handed in to him as rapidly as the swift fingers of the postmistress could sort the various missives. Outside, the stage-driver was surrounded by a little crowd of soldiers, scouts, and teamsters, and held forth with frontier descriptive power on the adventures of the night previous. He could "swar" the Sioux had burned a "Black Hills outfit" not far below Eagle's Nest, for he had come far enough this side of the Chug to see the glare in the skies, and had passed the charred remnants just before sundown this very evening. He had heard along the road that there were anywhere from two to five hundred Indians on the raid; and Miller, listening to the eager talk and comparing the estimate of the ranch-people with the experiences of his own campaigning, readily made up his mind that there were probably four or five score of young warriors in the party,—too many, with their magazine rifles, revolvers, and abundant ammunition, for Terry to successfully "tackle" with his little detachment. The major rejoiced that the captain was sensible enough to discontinue the pursuit at the Niobrara crossing. Beyond that there were numerous ridges, winding ravines, even a shallow canyon or two,—the very places for ambuscade; and it would be an easy matter for a small party of the Sioux to drop back and give the pursuers a bloody welcome. No! Terry had done admirably so long as there was a chance of square fighting, and his subsequent moves, barring the one dash down-stream after a "fooling party" while the main body slipped across the ford, had been dictated by sound judgment. He deplored the crippled and depleted condition of his little command, however. Here was Blunt, one of his best cavalry officers, seriously wounded and in high fever; here was McLean, another admirable young soldier, he knew not how seriously wounded; and, with old Bruce laid up with rheumatism, he had not a company officer for duty at the post. The adjutant and quartermaster, the doctor and his own energetic self were the only ones he could count on for the next twenty-four hours, as belonging to the garrison proper. The infantry battalion that had camped down on the flats so short a time before was already beyond his jurisdiction, in march toward Fetterman up the Platte. It was with great relief, therefore, he read that six troops of the —th Cavalry had reached Cheyenne, and were under orders to march to Laramie as soon as supplied with ammunition and equipments for sharp field-service.
Presently he heard the suave tones of Dr. Bayard accosting Mrs. Griffin with anxious inquiries for his letters, and courteous apologies for intruding upon her during "business hours," but he had been without letters or papers so long now, had just heard of the arrival of the stage, Mr. Holmes was visiting him, and would she kindly put any mail there might be for Mr. Holmes in his box? Mrs. Griffin was quite as susceptible to courteous and high-bred and flattering manners as any of her sex, and to her thinking no man in all the army compared with the post surgeon in elegance of deportment. At his bidding she would willingly have left the distribution of the mail to almost any hands and come forth from behind the glass partition to indulge in a chat with him. She would gladly have invited him to step into the little parlor, but the major was already there poring over his letters, and she could not neglect her official duties in the august presence of the post commander. But Mrs. Griffin was all smiles as she handed out the doctor's partially-completed packet, and then, in a low tone, informed him that Major Miller was in the little parlor behind the office, if he saw fit to wait there, and Dr. Bayard, who could not abide being jostled by his fellow-men or even being seen among what he considered the common herd, eagerly availed himself of her offer. Miller looked up and greeted him with a pleasant nod, and immediately read to him the news of the coming of the cavalry battalion from Cheyenne, then bade him pull up a chair and read his letters by the bright "astral" burning on the centre-table. Outside in the hall and corridor in front of the dusty glass partition the crowd had rapidly increased. Not one in a dozen in the gathering had the faintest expectation of getting a letter, but there was no harm in asking and much mental solace, apparently, in cultivating the appearance of a man of the world or a woman of society who was in the daily habit of receiving and responding to a dozen. And so teamsters, laundresses, scouts, "Indian-bound" Black Hillers, and one or two sauntering soldiers were swarming about the porch and hall-way, and jamming in a compact mass in front of the little window whereat the postmistress behind her vitreous barrier was still at work. It was a good-natured, chaffing, laughing crowd, but still one very independent and self-satisfied, after the manner of the frontier, where every man in a mixed gathering is as good as his neighbor, and every woman is as good as she chooses to hold herself. It had made a passage for the commanding officer and afterward for the post surgeon, but that was before it had attained its present proportions. Now when Mr. Roswell Holmes paused at the outskirts with Corporal Zook by his side, some of the loungers looked around with their hands in their pockets; some of the cowboys who had earned their dollars on his ranch nodded cheerily at sight of their employer; but this was the United States post-office, these were sovereign citizens, and every man or woman of them, except the half-dozen enlisted men whose mail was always taken to barracks, had just as much right there as the capitalist from Chicago,—and knew it. So did Mr. Holmes. He returned the greetings as cheerily as they were given; made no attempt to push through, and probably would have remained contentedly until the crowd dispersed and let him in, had not the notes of the infantry bugle sounding first call for tattoo summoned Zook and the other soldiers to make their way to barracks.
"I'm a thousand times obliged to you, Corporal Zook, for all you've told me, and I assure you I'm as proud of the lieutenant as you are. Now, I may not be here when the troop gets back to-morrow,—I may have to go back to see if all is well at the ranch; but after their ride they'll all be thirsty, and when I'm very thirsty there's nothing I like better than a glass of cool lager. There is plenty of it on ice at the trader's, and,—you do the entertaining for me, will you?" And the corporal found his palm invaded by a fold of crisp greenbacks.
"If it's for the troop, sir, I can't say no," answered Zook, with dancing eyes. Pay-day was some weeks off after all, and he knew how "the fellers" would relish the trader's beer. "Now, if you would like to sit down, why not go around to the other side and away from this crowd? There are empty benches at the stage-office. I must run, sir; so good-night, and many thanks."
The office-window had just been thrown open and the distribution was just begun. It would be some time before his turn would come. Holmes knew perfectly well that, only for the fun of the thing, some of those teamsters and scouts would form a "queue," and, with unimpeachable gravity, march up to the window and inquire if there was anything for Red-Handed Bill, or Rip-Roaring Mike, or the Hon. G. Bullwhacker, of Laramie Plains. He wanted time to think a bit before he returned to the doctor's house, anyhow. He had drawn from Corporal Zook a detailed account of McLean's spirited and soldierly conduct in the fight; learned that it was he who killed the second warrior in what was practically a hand-to-hand struggle, and that his wounds were painful and severe, despite his effort to overcome and hide them when the pursuit began. Hatton's remarks had been echoing time and again through his memory. It would indeed be comfort to McLean to hear how shocked and painfully stricken was Nellie Bayard at the news of the fight and his probable death. If it proved half the comfort to McLean that it was sorrow to his elderly rival, thought Holmes with a deep sigh, "he'll soon be well, and 'twill be high time for me to vanish."
Pacing slowly up the road, he turned an angle of the old wooden building, and found himself alone in a broad, square enclosure. The stars were shining brightly overhead, but there was no moon and the darkness in this nook among the storehouses and offices was simply intense. The only light came through the slats of the shutter at a side-window back of the post-office. Merely glancing at it as he passed, Holmes walked on with bowed head and hands clasped behind him, thinking deeply over the situation. Had he come too late to win that sweet, youthful, guileless heart, or had he come only just in time to see it given to another? Had he, in the light of what he had seen and heard, any right to speak of matters that had gravely distressed him? Was it his bounden duty to disclose certain suspicions, display certain proofs? Or was it more than all his, the man's, part to stay and help to sweep aside the web that was unquestionably weaving about that brave-faced, clear-eyed, soldierly young subaltern? Despite Bayard's detractions; despite Mrs. Miller's whispered confession that there was a thief in their midst; despite the fact that his wallet was stolen from the overcoat-pocket when no one, to his knowledge, but McLean himself had been there; despite the discovery on the floor—in front of his bureau—of a handkerchief embroidered with McLean's initials; despite the fact that it was known that he had been placed heavily in debt by the stoppage of his pay,—Mr. Roswell Holmes could not find it in his heart to believe that the young soldier could be guilty of theft. He would not believe it of him, even as a rival.
Then there was another thing. Who was the silken-skirted woman he met in the darkness but an hour or so before,—the woman whom he had attempted to accost, but who slipped past him like a will-o'-the-wisp—in silence? How was it that the door to Hatton's hall was closed and locked, when Hatton told him it was always open? Why was it that the light in that lower hall was extinguished, and by whom was it done? Had he not gone thither almost immediately after recovering from the surprise of his encounter on the veranda, and found the hospital attendant grumblingly relighting it? The man had heard some queer, swishing sound, he explained, as he sat by Mr. Blunt's bedside, and "something that sounded like drawers being opened in the room below." He stepped out in the hall, he said, just in time to hear the lock of the front door hastily turned, and somebody go stealthily and quickly out on the veranda, "swishing" all the way. The ladies had been over along the upper gallery two or three times, to bring cool drinks to Mr. Blunt's door and inquire how he was getting on,—Mrs. Post and the young lady, Miss Forrest, he meant,—but they wouldn't want anything in Mr. McLean's rooms down-stairs. The man looked curiously up at Mr. Holmes as he told his tale. Holmes was puzzled too, but bade him keep quiet. Some one of the servants, perhaps, who wanted a match, he suggested; but the little soldier shook his head. Servants didn't wear dresses that "swished" like that.
The crowd was beginning to thin considerably, as Holmes could tell by the sound of receding voices. He decided that it was about time for him to move and get his own mail, when he became aware of something dark and shapeless crouching along close under the post-office end of the building and slowly and cautiously approaching the window from which the light was streaming. At first he thought it some big dog scratching his side along the cleats of the wooden wall, but as he stood silently observing the dim shadow it was evident that no quadruped was thus warily creeping toward him. Holmes stood leaning against a storehouse platform in the deepest shade of an over-hanging roof; the figure was perhaps twelve or thirteen yards away, and, as it neared the window, the vague outlines of the mysterious creature became more easily discernible. Immediately under the beams of light that shot across the dark enclosure the figure paused; slowly raised itself; a hand went up to the head and whipped off a cap just as the crown was tinged by the gleam from within. Holmes distinctly saw the reflection of the light on the brightly polished brass of the device, but could not make out whether the device itself was the crossed rifles of the infantry or sabres of the cavalry. Then the hand was laid upon the sill, the body slowly unbent, and the head was raised until two beady eyes, under a low forehead and a crop of thick, dark hair, could peer in between the slats. One lingering scrutiny of every person and object visible in the room, then down he crouched, and, almost on all-fours, slipped away to the corner of the building, Holmes now briskly striding in pursuit. Half-way back across the court, just as he entered the beam of light, the latter's foot came down upon the edge of one of those tough and elastic hoops, such as are sure to be lying about in the yards of commissary and quartermaster storehouses, and in the twinkling of an eye it whirled up and struck him with a sharp and audible snap. In an instant the crouching figure shot to its full height and darted out of sight around the corner. When Holmes reached the front of the building, not a man in uniform was visible. Cowboys and a scout or two remained. The stage-driver was again the centre of attraction, and all were grouped about him on the low piazza. Holmes called one of the ranchmen to one side, and asked him if he had seen or heard anything of a soldier who came suddenly around the corner, but the man shook his head. Stepping inside the office he met the major and his host, Dr. Bayard, while a tall, well-formed, colored girl stood in front of the little wicket, and a number of loungers still hung about the place. The officers stopped and said they would wait until he got his letters, and, as he took his place near the window, Mrs. Griffin was just handing a little packet to the colored girl. The light fell on the topmost letter, addressed in bold, legible hand to Miss Fanny Forrest; and Holmes could plainly see the post-mark and device on the upper corner, showing that it came from the Red Cloud Agency, and old Camp Robinson. "Halloo!" thought he to himself, "I had forgotten that we were as good as cut off from them now, and they are sending around by way of Sidney and Cheyenne." Quickly the girl turned over the letters, made some laughing remark expressive of disappointment at getting nothing from her beau; then, facing Mr. Holmes and showing her white teeth, with a coquettish toss of her head accosted him: "Good-evening, Mr. Holmes. S'pose you don't know me; I'm Celestine,—Miss Forrest's girl. Miss Griffin, yere's Mr. Holmes waitin' for his mail. Ain't no use you lookin' for anything for this trash," she said, contemptuously indicating the two or three intervening frontier folks. "Han' it to me an' I'll give it to him."
But just at this moment there was a stir at the door. The loungers who had never budged an inch for Mr. Holmes drew promptly back, making way for a tall young lady, who entered, all aglow from a rapid walk, her dark eyes gleaming, her fine, mobile lips wreathed with pleasant smiles the instant she caught sight of the doctor, who, cap in hand, advanced to meet her. It was Miss Forrest herself, and behind her came her escort, the adjutant.
"I thought I heard Celestine's voice," she said, looking questioningly around; and Holmes quickly noted that the girl had suddenly slunk back behind a little group of camp-women. Finding it useless to evade the searching glance of her young mistress, the girl came forth.
"Yes, Miss Fanny. I got your letters, miss," she said, but the confident tone was gone. Holmes marked the look in Miss Forrest's flashing eye as she took the little packet with no gentle hand. He was near enough, too, to hear the low-spoken but clearly enunciated words:
"And I told you never again to touch my letters. This must be the last time."
Four days had passed since Terry's fight down the river. McLean, painfully wounded, but very quiet and plucky, had been re-established in his old quarters at "Bedlam." Dr. Bayard, after one or two somewhat formal visits, had relinquished the entire charge of the case to his assistant; so that Dr. Weeks was now the medical and surgical attendant of both the young officers in the north hall, while his senior continued assiduously to care for the wants of the feminine colony in the other. It may be said right here, that, so far as those sturdy "refugees" the Posts were concerned, professional and personal attentions from Dr. Bayard were both declared unnecessary. Mrs. Post was a woman of admirable physique and somewhat formidable personality. She did not fancy the elaborate manners of the surgeon at their first meeting, and allowed her lack of appreciation of "His Elegancy" to develop into positive dislike before she had known him a fortnight. Now, since the "north end" had become a hospital, she was willing to admit the doctor to her confidence, for the good lady was incessant in the preparation of comforting drinks or culinary dainties for the two invalids; but what was the measure of her indignation when she discovered that Bayard's attentions at "Bedlam" were confined to the south hall and to Mrs. Forrest's quarters?
He had always been a specialist in the maladies of women and children, to be sure, and we all know of what vital importance are such practitioners in our large garrisons. He was a welcome visitor either at the fireside or in the sick-room of every family homestead on the reservation—except Mrs. Post's—whensoever he chose to call, but that his presence at Mrs. Forrest's should be requisite and necessary three or four times every twenty-four hours was something Mrs. Post could not be brought to believe, and her scepticism speedily inoculated the entire community.
Mrs. Forrest declared she did not know how she could have lived through the terrors of the past week had it not been for Dr. Bayard's delicate and skilful ministrations. The doctor himself was understood to say that the poor lady's nervous system was utterly unstrung, that she was in a hyper-sensitive condition which might readily develop into nervous prostration unless she was carefully guarded. The officers of the garrison, when they spoke of the matter at all, which was not often, laughingly referred to the admirable tactics of the astute physician in finding excuses for frequent professional visits to a house where it was now apparent to all he was personally interested. The women, when they did not speak of the matter to one another, which was seldom indeed, were divided in their opinions. That Dr. Bayard was "smitten" with Fanny Forrest was something they had seen from the start, but that brilliant and most incomprehensible young woman had on more than one occasion treated him with marked coldness and aversion. What was the matter? Had he been too precipitate in his wooing? Twice since Hatton returned with his little escort, bringing in the wounded, had Miss Forrest declined Dr. Bayard's arm, and, on the other hand, while she seemed to repel the senior, she was now showing a marked interest in his junior,—the attendant of the wounded officers. Twice while Dr. Bayard was known to be visiting at the Forrests', she was seen to come forth, and, after an irresolute glance up and down the walk, as though she had no other purpose in venturing out than to escape from her elderly admirer, the young lady had walked down the path away from the officers' quarters and disappeared from view in the direction of the trader's store. Some of the ladies were beginning to believe that, faute de mieux, the doctor was consoling himself in a flirtation with his lackadaisical patient; but it was speedily noted that he stayed only a few moments when Miss Forrest left the premises, and the idea was as speedily scouted by the entire sisterhood, unless, indeed, we except the lady herself. Poor Mrs. Forrest! In these days of her faded beauty, she could not forget the fact that it was only a few years before that her rosebud complexion and tender blue eyes had been the cause of many a heartache among the young fellows in the garrison where she, the only damsel, reigned supreme; and lives there a woman who, having once queened it over the hearts of the opposite sex, can quite abandon the idea that her powers still exist?
Knowing, from plain declarations to that effect, that her spirited sister-in-law totally disapproved of Dr. Bayard after a conversation held with him the night McLean was returned to the post, Mrs. Forrest was fain to flatter herself that these frequent visits to her were impelled by an interest transcending the professional and rapidly becoming sentimental. It really did her good; gave her something to think about besides her woes; rescued her from the slatternly ways into which she was falling and restored a faded coquetry to her dress and mien; brightened her dreary eyes and lent color to her pallid cheek, and prompted her to surround herself with those domestic barricades against unhallowed glances and unwarranted sighs,—the children. But when Fanny Forrest flatly told her it was all nonsense, this encouraging Dr. Bayard's visits on account of some supposititious malady, and that she was looking better than she had seen her look in six months, the lady took offence at the first statement and alarm at the second, and between the two a relapse was accomplished which, of course, triumphantly established the justice of her position and the ineffable cruelty of her sister's charge.
Fanny Forrest's life could hardly have been pleasant just then, said superficial commentators. To every woman who called upon the lady of the house in her invalid state, Mrs. Forrest had something to say about the heartlessness and utter lack of sympathy with which she was treated; and who can doubt that the letters she wrote her soldier husband made frequent complaint to the same effect? Now, if in the domestic circle Miss Forrest had no friend or sympathizer, it was quite as bad without. With all her frankness, brilliancy, and dash, with all her willingness to be cordial and friendly, there had arisen between her and the whole sisterhood in the garrison a strange, intangible, but impenetrable barrier. She was welcome nowhere, and was too proud to inquire the cause.
This state of things could not go on long, as a matter of course. Sooner or later the reason would be demanded by somebody, and then the stories would come out. Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Bruce, as recorded in an earlier chapter, had covenanted together to keep the secret; but that mysterious theft the night of the dinner at the doctor's had made the former determine on another revelation to her lord and master, the post commander. As for Mrs. Bruce, she struggled—well, womanfully—to hold her tongue, and womanfully succeeded.