The cords had just been cut, the seals just broken, the stout paper carefully opened and the contents of the precious packet exposed to view. It held no money at all, nothing but layer on layer of waste and worthless paper!
A week went by at Fort Emory, and not a word came back from Dean. The furious storm that swept the hills and swelled the rivers was the talk of every army post within two hundred miles, while in the gambling halls and saloons of Laramie, Cheyenne and Gate City men spoke of it in low tones and with bated breath. If ever the bolts of heaven were launched to defeat a foul crime it was right there at Canon Springs, for the story was all over Wyoming by this time how the worst gang of cutthroats that ever infested the wide West had galloped in strong force to that wild, sequestered nook to murder Dean and his whole party of the hated "blue bellies," if need be, but at all hazards to get the precious package in his charge. Fifty thousand dollars in government greenbacks it contained, if Hank Birdsall, their chosen leader, could be believed, and hitherto he had never led them astray. He swore that he had the "straight tip," and that every man who took honest part in the fight, that was sure to ensue, should have his square one thousand dollars. Thirty to ten, surrounding the soldiers along the bluffs on every side, they counted on easy victory. But the warning thunder had been enough for the young troop leader, and prompted him to break camp and get out of the gorge. They were starting when Birdsall's scouts peered over the bank and the outlaw ordered instant pursuit, just in time to meet the fury of the flood and to see some of his fellows drowned like rats in a sewer.
But who betrayed the secret? What officer or government employe revealed the fact that Dean was going with so much treasure?—and what could have been his object? Birdsall had taken to the mountains and was beyond pursuit. "Shorty," one of his men, rescued from drowning by the mail carrier and escort coming down from Frayne, confessed the plot and the General was now at Emory investigating. Major Burleigh had taken to his bed. Captain Newhall was reported gone to Denver. Old John Folsom lay with bandaged head and blinded eyes in a darkened room, assiduously nursed by Pappoose and Jessie, who in turn were devotedly attended by Mrs. Fletcher. Possessed of some strange nervous excitement, this energetic woman was tireless in her effort to be of use. Minus ten of their very best, "C" Troop still camped at Emory, the General holding it for possible escort duty, and, to his huge delight, young Loomis was assigned to command it until Dean should return. There came a day when the news arrived from Frayne that the Laramie column had crossed the Platte and marched on for the Big Horn, and then John Folsom began to mend and was allowed to sit up, and told the doctor he had need to see Major Burleigh without delay, but Burleigh could not leave his bed, said the physician in attendance—a very different practitioner from Folsom's—and the old man began to fret and fume, and asked for writing materials. He wrote Burleigh a note, and the doctor forbade his patient's reading anything. Major Burleigh, said he, was a very sick man, and in a wretchedly nervous condition. Serious consequences were feared unless utter quiet could be assured.
Then Folsom was pronounced well enough to be taken out for a drive, and he and Pappoose had the back seat together, while Jessie, with Harry Loomis to drive, sat in front, and Jess was shy and happy, for Loomis had plainly lost his heart to his comrade's pretty sister. Marshall had now been gone nine days and could soon be expected home, said everybody, for with a big force going up there the Indians would scatter and "the boys" would have no trouble coming back. And so this lovely summer afternoon every one seemed bright and joyous at the fort, listening to the band and wondering, some of the party at least, how much longer it would be before they could hope to hear from the absent, when there arose sudden sounds of suppressed commotion in the camp of "C" Troop. A courier was coming like mad on the road from Frayne—a courier whose panting horse reined up a minute, with heaving flanks, in the midst of the thronging men, and all the troop turned white and still at the news the rider briefly told:—three companies at Warrior Gap were massacred by the Sioux, one hundred and seventy men in all, including Sergeant Bruce and all "C" Troop's men but Conroy and Garret, who had cut their way through with Lieutenant Dean and were safe inside the stockade, though painfully wounded. This appalling story the girls heard with faces blanched with horror. Passionate weeping came to Jessie's relief, but Pappoose shed never a tear. The courier's dispatches were taken in to the colonel, and Folsom, trembling with mingled weakness and excitement, followed.
It was an impressive scene as the old soldier read the sad details to the rapidly growing group of weeping women, for that was Emory's garrison now, while the official reports were hurried on to catch the General on his way to Cheyenne. Some one warned the band leader, and the musicians marched away to quarters. Some one bore the news to town where the flags over the hotel and the one newspaper office were at once lowered to half staff, although that at Emory, true to official etiquette and tradition, remained until further orders at the peak, despite the fact that two of the annihilated companies were from that very post. Some one bore the news to Burleigh's quarters at the depot, and, despite assertions that the major could see no one and must not be agitated or disturbed, disturbed and agitated he was beyond per-adventure. Excitedly the sick man sprang from his bed at the tidings of the massacre and began penning a letter. Then he summoned a young clerk from his office and told him he had determined to get up at once, as now every energy of the government would doubtless be put forth to bring the Sioux to terms. It was the young clerk who a few weeks back had remarked to a fellow employe how "rattled" the old man was getting. The major's doctor was not about. The major began dictating letters to various officials as he rapidly dressed, and what happened can best be told in the clerk's own words: "For a man too sick to see any one two hours before," said he, "the major had wonderful recuperative powers, but they didn't last. He was in the midst of a letter to the chief quartermaster and had got as far as to say, 'The deplorable and tragic fate of Lieutenant Dean points, of course, to the loss of the large sum intrusted to him,' when I looked up and said, 'Why, Lieutenant Dean ain't dead, major; he got in all right,' and he stared at me a minute as if I had stabbed him. His face turned yellow-white and down he went like a log—had a fit I s'pose. Then I ran for help, and then the doctor came and hustled everybody out."
But not till late that night did these details reach "Old Pecksniff" at the post. A solemn time was that veteran having, for many of the women were almost in hysterics and all were in deep distress. Two of their number, wives of officers, were widowed by the catastrophe, and one lay senseless for hours. It was almost dark when Mr. Folsom and the girls drove homeward, and his face was lined and haggard. Pappoose nestled fondly, silently at his side, holding his hand and closely scanning his features, as though striving to read his thoughts. Jessie, comforted now by the knowledge that Marshall was rapidly recovering, and the words of praise bestowed upon him in the colonel's letters, was nevertheless in deep anxiety as to the future. The assurance that the Sioux, even in their overwhelming numbers, would not attack a stockade, was not sufficient. Marshall would be on duty again within a very few days, the colonel said. His wounds would heal within the week, and it was only loss of so much blood that had prostrated him. Within a few days, then, her loved brother would be in saddle and in the field against the Indians. Who could assure her they would not have another pitched battle? Who could say that the fate that befell the garrison at Warrior Gap might not await the troop when next it rode away? And poor Jess had other anxieties, too, by this time. Loomis was burning with eagerness for orders to lead it instantly to join the field column, and importuned Colonel Stevens, even in the midst of all the grief and shock of the early evening. Almost angrily the veteran colonel bade him attend to his assigned duties and not demand others. "C" Troop should not with his advice and consent be sent north of the Platte. "First thing you know, sir, after they've got all the troops up along the Big Horn you'll see the Sioux in force this side of the river, murdering right and left, and not a company to oppose them. No, sir, more than enough of that troop have already been sacrificed! The rest shall stay here."
And well was it, for one and all, that "Old Pecksniff" held firm to his decision. It was one of his lucid intervals.
Late that evening, after ten o'clock, there came the sound of hoof-beats on the hard road and the crack of the long-lashed mule-whip, and the fort ambulance clattered up to Folsom's gate, and the colonel himself, his adjutant by his side, came nervously up the gravel walk. Folsom met them at his door. Instinctively he felt that something new and startling was added to the catalogue of the day's disastrous tidings. Pecksniff's face was eloquent of gravest concern, mingled with irrepressible excitement.
"Let me see you in private, quick," he said. "Mr.—Ah—Mr. Adjutant, will you kindly remain in the parlor," and, taking Folsom by the elbow, Pecksniff led impetuously into the library. The girls had gone aloft only a moment before, but, dreading news of further evil, Pappoose came fluttering down.
"Go in and welcome the adjutant, dear," said Folsom hurriedly. "The colonel and I have some matters to talk of." Obediently she turned at once, and, glancing up the stairs, noted that Mrs. Fletcher's door must have been suddenly opened, for the light from her room was now streaming on the third-floor balusters. Listening again! What could be the secret of that woman's intense watchfulness? In the parlor the young staff officer was pacing up and down, but his face lighted at sight of Elinor.
"Do you know—Is there anything new?—anything worse?" she quickly asked, as she gave her slim young hand.
"Not concerning our people," was the significant answer. "But I fear there's more excitement coming."
Barely waiting for Elinor to withdraw, "Pecksniff" had turned on Folsom. "You know I opposed the sending of that party? You know it was all ordered on Burleigh's urging and representations, do you not?"
"Yes, I heard so," said Folsom. "What then?"
"You know he planned the whole business—sent 'em around by Canon Springs and the Sweetwater?"
"Yes, I heard that, too," said Folsom, still wondering.
"You know some one must have put that Birdsall gang on the scent, and that Burleigh has had alleged nerve prostration ever since, and has been too ill to see any one or to leave his bed."
"Yes, so we were told."
"Well, he's well enough to be up and away—God knows where, and here is the reason—just in from the north," and, trembling with excitement, Pecksniff pointed to the closing paragraph of the letter in his hand:
"Cords, seals and wrapping were intact when handed to the quartermaster, but the contents were nothing but worthless paper. It must have been so when given to Lieutenant Dean."
Folsom's eyes were popping from his head. He sank into a chair, gazing up in consternation.
"Don't you see, man!" said Pecksniff, "some one in the depot is short ten thousand dollars or so. Some one hoped to cover this shortage in just this way—to send a little squad with a bogus package, and then turn loose the biggest gang of ruffians in the country. They would have got it but for the storm at Canon Springs, and no one would have been the wiser. They couldn't have got it without a murderous fight. No one would ever dare confess his complicity in it. No statement of theirs that there wasn't a cent in the sack could ever be believed. Some one's shortage would be covered and his reputation saved. The plot failed, and God's mercy was over Dean's young head. He'd 'a been murdered or ruined if the plan worked—and now Burleigh's gone!"
Yes, Burleigh was gone, and there was confusion at the depot. At six the doctor had come forth from his room, saying he was better, but must not be disturbed. At seven the major, carrying a satchel, had appeared at his office, where two clerks were smoking their pipes, innocent of all thought of their employer's coming. It was after hours. They had no business there at the time. Smoking was prohibited in the office, yet it was the major who seemed most embarrassed at the unexpected meeting. It was the major who hastily withdrew. He was traced to the railway, and it was speedily found that he had sent word to the division superintendent that the General had telegraphed for him to join him at once at Cheyenne, and a special engine and caboose would be needed. At a quarter past seven this had started full speed. It was eleven when the discovery was made. Meantime Folsom and Stevens had consulted together. Folsom had told of the large sum he had loaned Burleigh and the conditions attached, and between them a dispatch, concisely setting forth their suspicions, was sent the General at Cheyenne, with orders to "rush," as they were determined if possible to head off the fugitive at that point. Back came the wire ten minutes before midnight that the General had left Cheyenne for Laramie by stage that evening, and must now be near the Chugwater and far from telegraphic communication. Then Stevens wired the sheriff at Cheyenne and the commanding officer of the new post of Fort Russell to stop Burleigh at all hazards, and at two in the morning the answer came that the major had reached Cheyenne about midnight and they would search everywhere for him. That was the last until long after the rising of another sun.
Events and excitements, alarms and rumors followed each other with startling rapidity during the day. In glaring headlines the local paper published the details of the massacre at the Gap, lauding the valor and devotion of the soldiers, but heaping abuse upon the commander of the post, who, with other troops at his disposal, had looked on and lifted no hand to aid them. Later, of course, it was proved that the veteran had foiled old Red Cloud's villainous plan to lure the whole garrison into the open country and there surround and slowly annihilate it, while then, or at their leisure later, his chosen ones should set fire to the unprotected stockade and bear off those of the women or children whose years did not commend them to the mercy of the hatchet. Soldiers and thinking men soon saw the colonel was right and that the only mistake he had made was in allowing any of the garrison to go forth at all. But this verdict was not published, except long after as unimportant news and in some obscure corner. The Laramie column, so the news ran, was hastening down the Powder River to strike Red Cloud. The Indians would be severely punished, etc., etc. But old Folsom's face grew whiter yet as he read that such orders had been sent and that the General himself was now at Laramie directing matters. "In God's name," urged he, "if you have any influence with the General, tell him not to send a foot column chasing horsemen anywhere, and above all not to follow down the Powder. Next thing you know Red Cloud and all his young men will have slipped around their flank and come galloping back to the Platte, leaving the old men and women and worn-out ponies to make tracks for the 'heap walks' to follow."
And Stevens listened dumbly. Influence he had never had. Folsom might be right, but it was a matter in which he was powerless. When a depot quartermaster, said he, could dictate the policy that should govern the command of a colonel of the fighting force, there was no use in remonstrance. Noon came and no news from the Cheyenne sheriff. The commanding officer at Russell wired that he, too, was stripped of his troops and had not even a cavalry courier to send after the General with the startling news that Major Burleigh had vanished with large sums, it was believed, in his possession. At one o'clock came tidings of the fugitive. He, together with two other men, had spent the late hours of the night at the lodgings of one of the party in Cheyenne, and at dawn had driven away in a "rig" hired at a local stable, ostensibly to follow the General to Laramie. They had kept the road northwestward on leaving town—were seen passing along the prairie beyond Fort Russell, but deputies, sworn in at once and sent in pursuit, came back to say the rig had never gone as far as Lodge Pole. At six P. M. came further tidings. Lieutenant Loring, engineer officer of the department, had reached Cheyenne and was in consultation with the commanding officer at Russell. The rig had been found at Sloan's ranch, far up Crow Creek, where the party had taken horses and ridden westward into the Black Hills. In anticipation of a big reward, the sheriff had deputies out in pursuit. From such information as they could gather it was learned that the name of one of the parties gone with Burleigh was Newhall, who claimed to be a captain in the army, "out there looking after investments"—a captain who was too busy, however, to go and see the few fellows of his cloth at the new post and who was not known to them by sight at all. The engineer, Mr. Loring, was making minute inquiries about this fellow, for the description given him had excited not a little of his interest.
And so the sun of the second day went down on Gate City and Emory, and everybody knew Burleigh was gone. The wildest rumors were afloat, and while all Fort Emory was in mourning over the tragedy at Warrior Gap, everybody in town seemed more vividly concerned in Burleigh and the cause of his sudden flight. As yet only certain army officers and Mr. Folsom knew of the startling discovery at the stockade—that the package was a bogus affair throughout. But all Gate City knew Burleigh had drawn large sums from the local bank, many citizens had heard that John Folsom was several thousand dollars the poorer for his sudden going, and all interest was centered in the coming from Chicago of an expert, summoned by wire, to open the huge office safe at the quartermaster's depot The keys had gone with Burleigh. At the last moment, after loading up with all the cash his own private safe contained, for that was found open and practically empty in its corner of his sitting-room, and when he had evidently gone to the office to get the funds there stored, he was confounded by the sight of the two employes. He could have ordered them to leave and then helped himself, but conscience had made a coward of him, even more than nature. He saw accusers in every face, and fled. Burleigh had lost his nerve.
Two days went by and excitement was at its height. All manner of evil report of Burleigh was now afloat. The story of the bogus package had been noised abroad through later messengers and dispatches from the Gap. Lieutenant Loring had come to Fort Emory under the instructions of the department commander, and what those instructions were no man could find out from the reticent young officer. If ever a youth seemed capable of hearing everything and telling nothing it was this scientist of a distinguished corps that frontiersmen knew too little of. What puzzled Folsom and old Pecksniff was the persistence with which he followed up his inquiries about Captain Newhall. He even sought an interview with Pappoose and asked her to describe the rakish traveler who had so unfavorably impressed her. She was looking her loveliest that evening. Jessie was radiant once more. A long letter had come from Marshall—sad because of the fate that had befallen his companions, stern because of the evidence of the deep-laid plot that so nearly made him a victim, but modestly glad of the official commendation he had received, and rejoicing over the surgeon's promise that he would be well enough to make the march with a command ordered back to Frayne. Red Cloud's people had scattered far and wide, said he. "God grant they may not turn back to the south." He was coming home. He would soon be there. The papers had told their readers this very morning that the General had plainly said his force was too small to risk further assault upon the Sioux. Alarmed at the result of its policy, the Bureau had recommended immediate abandonment of Warrior Gap and the withdrawal of the troops from the Big Horn country. The War Department, therefore, had to hold its hand. The Indians had had by long, long odds the best of the fight, and perhaps would be content to let well enough alone. All this had tended to bring hope to the hearts of most of the girls, and Loring's welcome was the more cordial because of this and because of his now known championship of Marshall's cause. From being a fellow under the ban of suspicion and the cloud of official censure, Marshall Dean was blossoming out as a hero. It was late in the evening when Folsom brought the young engineer from the hotel and found Elinor and Jessie in the music-room, with Pecksniff's adjutant and Loomis in devoted attendance. It was nearly eleven when the officers left—two returning to the fort, Loring lingering for a word with Folsom at the gate. The night was still and breathless. The stars gleamed brilliantly aloft, but the moon was young and had early gone to bed. A window in the third story softly opened, as the two men stopped for their brief conference—the one so young-looking, sturdy and alert, despite the frost of so many winters; the other so calm and judicial, despite his youth.
"Up to this afternoon at five no trace of them has been found," said Loring. "Day after to-morrow that safe-opener should reach us. If you have influence with Colonel Stevens you should urge him to have a guard at the quartermaster's depot, even if he has to strip the fort. The General cannot be reached by wire."
"Why?" asked Folsom, looking up in alarm. "You don't suppose he'd come back to rob his own office?"
"He is not the man to take a risk, but there are those with him not so careful, and the hand that sent Birdsall's gang in chase of Dean could send them here, with the safe-key. Those few clerks and employes would be no match for them."
"By heaven, I believe you're right!" cried Folsom. "Which way are you going now?"
"Back to the hotel by way of the depot," was the answer. "Will you go?"
"One moment. I do not travel about just now without a gun," said Folsom, stepping within doors, and even the low sound of their voices died away and all was still as a desert. The old trader did not return at once. Something detained him—Miss Folsom, probably, reasoned the engineer, as he stood there leaning on the gate. Aloft a blind creaked audibly, and, gazing upward, Loring saw a dark, shadowy shutter at the third-story window swing slowly in. There was no wind to move it. Why should human hands be so stealthy? Then a dim light shone through the slats, and the shade was raised, and, while calmly watching the performance, Loring became aware of a dim, faint, far-away click of horse's hoofs at the gallop, coming from the north.
"If that were from the eastward, now," thought he, "it might bring stirring news." But the sound died away after a moment, as though the rider had dived into sandy soil.
Just then Folsom reappeared, "I had to explain to my daughter. She is most reluctant to have me go out at night just now."
"Naturally," said Loring calmly. "And have you been way up to the third story? I suppose Miss Folsom has gone to her room."
"The girls have, both of them—but not to the third story. That's Mrs. Fletcher's room."
"Ah, yes. The woman, I believe, who accidentally scared your horse and threw you?"
"The very one!" he answered. "I'm blessed if I know what should have taken her out at that hour. She says she needed air and a walk, but why should she have chosen the back-gate and the alley as a way to air and sunshine?"
"Would you mind taking me through that way?" asked the engineer suddenly. "It's the short cut to the depot, I understand."
"Why, certainly. I hadn't thought of that," said Folsom. "Come right on."
And so, while the hoof-beats up the road grew louder, the two turned quickly back to the rear of the big frame house. "That coming horse brings news," muttered Loring to himself, as he turned the corner. "We can head him off, but I want to see this situation first."
Looking away southeastward from the porch of Folsom's homestead, one could see in the daytime a vista of shingled roofs and open yards, a broad valley, with a corral and inclosures on the southern edge of the town, but not a tree. To-night only dim black shadows told where roof and chimney stood, and not a sign could they see of the depot. Loring curiously gazed aloft at the rear and side windows of the third story. "They command quite a view, I suppose," said he, and even as he spoke the sash of the southeast room was softly raised, the blind swung slightly outward. That woman watching and listening again! And it was she whose sudden and startling appearance at the rear gate had led to Folsom's throw so early the morning Burleigh and his mysterious friend were found missing from their quarters just after dawn—the very morning Dean, with his treasure package and little escort, rode forth from Emory on that perilous mission—the very morning that Birdsall and his murderous gang set forth from Gate City in pursuit.
And now those hoof-beats up the road were coming closer, and Folsom, too, could hear and was listening, even while studying Loring's face. Suddenly a faint gleam shot across the darkness overhead. Glancing quickly upward, both men, deep in shadow, saw that the eastern window on the southern side was lighted up. Out in the alleyway, low yet clear, a whistle sounded—twice. Then came cautious footsteps down the back stairs. The bolt of the rear door was carefully drawn. A woman's form, tall and shrouded in a long cloak, came swiftly forth and sped down the garden walk to that rear gate. "Come on, quick!" murmured the engineer, and on tiptoe, wondering, the two men followed. They saw her halt at the barred gate. Low, yet distinct she spoke a single name: "George!" And without, in the alley, a voice answered: "I'm here! open, quick!"
"Swear that you are alone!"
"Oh, stop that damned nonsense! Of course I'm alone!" was the sullen reply, and at the sound of the voice Loring seemed fairly to quiver. The gate was unbarred. A man's form, slender and shadowy, squeezed in and seemed peering cautiously about. "You got my note?" he began. "You know what's happened?"
But a woman's muffled scream was the answer. With a spring like a cat Loring threw himself on the intruder and bore him down. In an instant Folsom had barred the gate, and the woman, moaning, fell upon her knees.
"Mercy! Mercy!" she cried. "It is all my fault. I sent for him."
"Take your hands off, damn you, or you'll pay for this!" cried the undermost man. "I'm Captain Newhall, of the army!"
"You're a thief!" answered Loring, through his set teeth. "Hand over the key of that safe!"
The sound of hoof-beats at the front had suddenly ceased. There was a sputter and scurry in the alley behind. Full half a dozen horses must have gone tearing away to the east. Other lights were popping in the windows now. Folsom's household was alarmed. Attracted by the scream and the sound of scuffle, a man came hurrying toward them from the front.
"Halt! Who are you?" challenged Folsom, covering him with his revolver.
"Don't shoot. I'm Ned Lannion—just in from the ranch. Have you heard anything of Hal, sir?"
"Of Hal?" gasped Folsom, dropping his pistol in dismay. "In God's name, what's wrong?"
"God only knows, sir. Mrs. Hal's nigh crazy. He's been gone two days."
Five days later the women and children from Warrior Gap, most of them bereaved, all of them unnerved by the experiences of that awful day, arrived at old Fort Frayne, escorted by a strong command of infantry and all that was left of the cavalry troop at the stockade. A sad procession it was as it slowly forded the Platte and ascended the winding road to the post, where sorrowing, sympathetic army women met and ministered to them. With them, too, came such of the wounded as could be moved, and at the head of the little squad of horse rode Lieutenant Dean, whom the post commander and several officers greeted almost effusively.
Yet almost the first question was, "Did you see any Indians?"
"Not one," answered Dean. "They seem to have drawn away from the Big Horn road entirely. Why do you ask?" he added anxiously.
"There were signal fires out at Eagle Butte last night, and I've just had a letter from old Folsom at the ranch on the Laramie. He begs us to send a guard at once, and I haven't a horseman. There's been the devil to pay at young Folsom's place."
Dean's face went a shade paler. "What's happened?" he asked.
"A dozen of his best horses run off by Birdsall's gang, probably to replace those they lost in the flood, and Hal himself was shot and left for dead in the hills. He'd have died but for an Ogallalla girl and a couple of half-breeds who had a hunting lodge out near the Peak. There are letters for you at the office."
There were two—one from Loomis, at Emory; one from Jessie, of all places in the world, at Folsom's ranch. This he read first.
"We got here late night before last, after such an exciting journey, Marshall dear," said she, "and I can't begin to tell you all the strange things that have happened, for Mr. Folsom says the messenger must start for Fort Frayne in twenty minutes. That villain, Major Burleigh, who dared to speak ill of you, turned out to be as bad as I ever said he was. They haven't caught him yet, but they've got Captain Newhall. Mr. Folsom and Mr. Loring did that—caught him in the backyard of our house, down by the gate, and in some way Mrs. Fletcher induced him to come there, for he had the key of the safe at the quartermaster's depot, and was going to get the money Major Burleigh dared not take when he fled. I can't understand it at all, and Pappoose doesn't like to talk about it. But Mr. Folsom was robbed of lots of money by Major Burleigh. Mrs. Fletcher is mixed up in it in such a queer way, I can't explain how. She was nearly crazy when we came away, and Mr. Folsom was so good and kind to her, left a nurse with her, and made her stay at the house, although she wanted to pack her things and go to the hotel or the jail, she didn't care which; but he wouldn't let her.
"And right in the midst of it all Ned Lannion, who came with news before, galloped in to tell how Halbert Folsom had been missing two days and Mrs. Folsom was crazy with fear, so Mr. Folsom left Lieutenant Loring to attend to all the matters about the robbery and started at once for the ranch, and Pappoose, of course, insisted on going with him, and I would not be left behind. And here we are. Now I can see the hills where you had the fight and wore Elinor's picture, and it was right out there among them that Halbert was found. Horse thieves had run off his best horses—the same gang of murderers that, they say, planned to trap you and that you outwitted. Oh! Marshall, was ever a girl so proud of her brother!—and they shot Hal and he was found and taken care of by some Indian people, tame ones, and one was a girl, Lizette, who had fallen in love with him four years ago. Wasn't it romantic? And she's gone again, but Hal is safe here, although Mrs. Folsom is more than half-crazy, and now old Mr. Folsom is worried to death, and says we must start back for home to-morrow. It's seventy-five miles and we don't want to go at all—only I'm so eager to see you, and I heard—at least Mr. Loomis told me you'd be back any day, and he has your troop till you come, and he's so fond of you—Oh, here's Pappoose to say this must go at once."
The colonel sat watching the young fellow as he read. "Bad news, Dean?" he queried.
"Every kind of news, sir. It's all a whirl. The devil seems to have broken loose in Wyoming. Let me skim through Loomis' note.
"DEAR DEAN: In case the letter sent yesterday passes you on the way, I add a line to say that if ever I said a mean thing about Loring when we were in the corps, I take it back. I thought him a prig when we wore the gray. He rather 'held us under' anyhow, being a class ahead, you know, but the way he has panned out here and wiped up Wyoming with the only men I ever knew that tried to wrong you is simply wonderful. He's nabbed three of the Birdsall gang and is away now after Burleigh. The news from Folsom's ranch is more reassuring. Hal was shot by horsethieves who were running off stock, and was found and taken care of by friendly Indians, but Mrs. Hal had an awful scare and sent for the old man, who went, of course—both young ladies going with him. They were miles away before we knew it at the fort. I tried to pursuade old Pecksniff that he ought to let me go with twenty troopers to guard the ranch and scout the Laramie, and he threatened to put me in arrest. Of all the double-dashed, pig-headed old idiots he's the worst. I don't want people at the ranch to be scared, but if the Sioux only would make some demonstration this way that would give me a chance. I'd try to earn a little of the reputation that you're winning, old boy, and no man knows better how much you deserve it than
"Your friend and classmate, HANK L."
"P. S.—Loring took ten of the troop into the Black Hills to beat up Burleigh, but he said if they struck Indian sign he meant to make for Folsom's ranch. Now, if we could only meet there!"
The sun was well down at the west. The day's march had been long and tedious, as only cavalry marches are when long wagon trains have to be escorted. Dean had not yet fully recovered strength, but anxiety lent him energy.
"If Mr. Folsom says there is need of cavalry guard at the Laramie, it is because he dreads an other Indian visit, colonel. I have nine men in good shape. Our horses are fresh, or will be after a few hours' rest. May I push on to-night?"
And to the young soldier's surprise the elder placed a trembling hand upon his shoulder and looked him earnestly in the eyes. "Dean, my boy, it's my belief you cannot start too soon. Do you know who Lizette is?"
"I've heard the story," said Marshall briefly. "She must have been hovering about there for some time."
"Yes, and now her people know it, and it will rekindle their hatred. The moment I heard of this I sent old Bat to watch the crossing at La Bonte. Not an hour ago this came in by the hand of his boy," and the colonel held out a scrap of paper. It a rude pictograph, a rough sketch, map-like, of a winding river—another and smaller one separated from the first by a chain of mountains. The larger one was decorated by a flag-pole with stars and stripes at the top and a figure with musket and bayonet at the bottom. The smaller one by a little house, with smoke issuing from the chimney, and a woman beside it. Above all, its head over the mountains pointing toward the house, its tail extending north of the bigger stream, was a comet—the "totem" or sign of the Ogallalla lover of Lizette. The story was told at a glance. Burning Star was already south of the Platte and lurking in the mountains near Folsom's ranch.
That night, toward ten o'clock, an anxious council was held. Halbert Folsom, fevered by his severe wound, was lying half-unconscious on his bed, his unhappy wife wandering aimlessly about at times, wringing her hands and weeping, evidently unbalanced by the terrors that had beset her of late and the tidings of that awful Indian revenge along the Big Horn. Silent, helpful, almost commanding, Elinor spent the hours sometimes at her brother's bedside, then at that of her sister-in-law when the poor creature could be induced to lie still a moment. The burly little son and heir, long since sound asleep in his cradle, was watched over by Jessie, whose heart fluttered in dread she dare not say of what. Twice that afternoon she had seen whispered conferences between old Folsom and Lannion. She knew that for some better reason than that he was overpersuaded by Pappoose, Mr. Folsom had not carried out his project of sending them back to Gate City. She saw that he made frequent visits to the cellar and had changed the arrangement of the air ports. She noted that the few ranch hands hung about the premises all day, their rifles ever within reach, and that often Mr. Folsom took the glasses and searched the road to Frayne. She saw that earth was being heaped up in places against the ranch where the walls were thin or made of boarding. She saw that water and provisions were being stored in the cellar, and she knew that it could all mean only one thing—that the Indians were again in force in the neighborhood, and that an Indian siege was imminent.
And all this time Pappoose, though very brave, was so still and so intent upon her duties. Even when supper was served for the ranch people in the kitchen that evening, as the sun went down, Jess noted that two of the men kept constantly in saddle, riding round the buildings and anxiously scanning the open prairie on every side. There were only six men, all told now, including Folsom (of course not counting Hal, who was defenseless), altogether too small a number to successfully protect so large a knot of buildings against an insidious and powerful foe, and even of these six there were two who seemed so unstrung by tidings of the massacre as to be nearly nerveless.
Darkness settled down upon the valley, and, though calm and collected, Folsom seemed oppressed by the deepest anxiety. Every now and then he would step forth into the night and make a circuit of the buildings, exchange a word in low tone with some invisible guardian, for, heavily armed, the employes were gathered at the main building, and the wife and children of the chief herdsman were assigned to a room under its roof. Particularly did Folsom pet and encourage the dogs, two of them splendid mastiffs in whom Hal took unusual pride. Then he would return to his son's bedside, bend anxiously over him and lay a loving hand on Pappoose's lustrous hair. It must have been ten o'clock and a night wind was rising, making the occasional cry of the coyotes even more weird and querulous, when they heard the sudden, fierce challenge of Trooper, the keenest, finest of the mastiffs, and instantly his bark was echoed by the rush and scurry of every canine on the place. The men on the porch sprang to their feet and Folsom hastened out to join them. The dogs had charged in the darkness toward the northeast, and somewhere out in that direction were now all furiously barking. Aloft the skies were heavily clouded. The moon was banked and not a glimmer of light shone on earth or heaven. Suddenly, afar out over the prairie, beyond where the dogs were challenging, there was heard the sound of a pony's neigh, an eager appeal for welcome and shelter, and Folsom sprang confidently forward, his powerful tones calling off the dogs. They came back, growling, sniffing, only half-satisfied, still bristling at the unseen visitor. "War ponies never neigh," said Folsom. "Who are you, brothers—friends?" he called, in the Sioux tongue, and a faint voice answered from the darkness, a pony came loping dimly into view, almost running over him, and in another minute an Indian girl, trembling with fear and exhaustion, had toppled from the saddle and clasped the old trader's hand.
"Good God! Lizette," he cried, "you again? What is wrong?" for her head was drooping, her knees giving way beneath her, as the poor child whispered her answer:
"Sioux coming—plenty braves! Hide—quick!"
And Folsom bore her in his arms within.
Never unless sure of its ground and the weakness of the adversary does the modern Indian band attack at night. Folsom and his people well knew that. Yet not five minutes after the Indian girl, faint with exhaustion and dread, was carried within doors, the big mastiff challenged again. The dogs charged furiously out to the northeast and would not be recalled. For nearly half an hour they kept up their angry clamor. Time and again during the night, suspicious and excited, they dashed out again and again, and once one of them, venturing further than his fellows, broke suddenly into loud cries of mingled pain and rage, and when at last he came whining piteously back to the ranch it was found that he was bleeding from a gash along the flank, where an Indian arrow had seared him. Only by fits and starts did any man sleep. Hour after hour Folsom's little garrison was on the alert. The women had all been moved to the deep, dry cellar, Mrs. Hal moaning over her baby, utterly unnerved, Jessie silent, but white and tremulous; the herdsman's wife, an Amazon, demanded the right to have a gun and fight by her husband's side; Lizette, the Indian girl, faint and starved, asked nothing but to be allowed to crouch at the door of the room where Halbert lay, fevered and unconscious, and Pappoose, scorning danger, flitted from her brother's bedside to her father's log-barricade at the east porch. In dread anxiety the hours dragged by, and at last Lannion reached forth his hand and pulled the shirt sleeve of his comrade Jake, half-dozing at his side. In an instant the latter was kneeling at his post. "What is it?" he queried, and Lannion, pointing to the first faint, pallid gleam in the eastern sky, whispered: "Time to be up, man. It's coming."
For half an hour, except for the rushing of the Laramie, a silence almost unearthly had brooded over the prairie, and even the dogs seemed lulled to sleep. But now, as the cold light crept slowly over the distant range, and a soft flush began to overspread the pallor of the dawn, far out over the valley the yelp of a coyote began again and all men strained their ears and listened, while strong hands grabbed the growling dogs and pinned them to earth, for, beginning at the east, the cry was taken up on every side. Folsom's ranch seemed beleaguered by the gaunt, half-famished wolves of the upland prairies. "Look to your sights, now, men! Down into the cellar, Pappoose!" exclaimed Folsom, kindling with fierce excitement. "I've been the friend of all that tribe for thirty years, but when they break faith with me and mine that ends it! Look to your sights and make every shot count!" he cautioned, as he made the rounds of the little shelters thrown up during the past two days. "We can stand off a hundred of 'em if you only keep your grit."
Again the clamor as of coyotes ceased. It was only the Indian signal "Ready," and every ranchman knew that with the rising sun, if not before, the swoop would come. Again as the light broadened the dogs were loosed and presently were challenging all four points of the compass. The unseen foe was on every hand.
Perched as it was on a little rise, the ranch stood forth conspicuous over the valley. At the foot of the slope to the south lay the corral and some of the buildings, about one hundred yards away, where the shallow Laramie curled and lapped beneath their walls, and now the dogs seemed to concentrate their attention on that side. Folsom, rifle in hand, was kneeling on the porch, listening intently. Two of the hands were with him. Jake and Lannion, experienced and reliable, had been given independent posts on the other front, and just as objects could be dimly recognized along the flats, there burst upon the ears of the little garrison a sudden chorus of exultant yells. A tongue of flame leaped upward from beyond the huts lately occupied by the ranchmen. The half-used haystacks caught and held one moment the fiery messenger, and then in a broad glare that reddened the flood of the Laramie for miles and lighted up the ranch like a sunburst, gave forth a huge column of blaze and smoke that could be seen far over the Black Hills of Wyoming, and all the valley seemed to spring to instant life. On every side arose the stirring war-cry of the Sioux, the swift beat of pony hoofs, the ring of rifle, and brave John Folsom's heart sank within him as he realized that here was no mere marauding party, but a powerful band organized for deliberate vengeance. The Laramie plains were alive with darting, yelling, painted horsemen, circling about the ranch, hemming it in, cutting it off from the world.
The bullets came whistling through the morning air, biting fiercely into the solid logs, spattering the chinking, smashing pane after pane. Some of the dogs came howling and whining back for shelter, though the mastiffs held their ground, fiercely barking and bounding about, despite the whistles and calls from the besieged who sought to save them to the last, but not once as yet had the ranch replied with a shot. Down in the cellar women clung together or clasped their wailing children and listened fearfully to the clamor. In Hal's room the fevered sufferer awoke from his stupor and, demanding his rifle, struggled to rise from the bed, and there John Folsom found Pappoose, pale and determined, bending over her weakened brother and holding him down almost as she could have overpowered a child. Lifting his son in his strong arms, he bore him to the cellar and laid him upon a couch of buffalo robes. "Watch him here, my child," he said, as he clasped her in his arms one moment. "But on no account let any one show above ground now. There are more of them than I thought, yet there is hope for us. Somebody is vexing them down the Laramie."
Bounding up the steps, the veteran was almost back at his post upon the porch when there came a sound that seemed to give the lie to his last words and that froze the hope that had risen in his breast—the sudden rumble and thunder of at least two hundred hoofs, the charging yell of an Indian band, the sputter and bang of rifles close at hand, and then a rush of feet, as, with faces agonized by fear, three of the men came darting within. "It's all up! There's a million Indians!" they cried. Two of the demoralized fellows plunged into the passage that led to the cellar. One burst into childish wailing and clung to Folsom's knees.
"Let go, you coward!" yelled the old man in fury, as he kicked himself loose, then went bounding out upon the porch. God, what a sight! Sweeping up the gentle slope, brandishing rifles and lances and war-clubs, racing for their hapless prey, came fifty Ogallallas, Burning Star among the leaders. Bullets could not stop them now. The two men who had stood to their posts knelt grim and desperate, and Lannion's last shot took effect. Within fifty yards of the walls Burning Star's rushing pony went down on his nose, and in the fury of his pace, turned sudden and complete somersault, crushing his red rider under him, and stretching him senseless on the turf. An inspiration, almost God given, seemed to flash upon the old trader at the instant. Bareheaded, in his shirt sleeves, throwing upward and forward his empty hands, he sprang out as though to meet and rebuke his assailants. "Hold!" he cried, in the tongue he knew so well "Are my brothers crazed? Look! I am no enemy It is your friend! It is old John!" And even in the rage of their charge, many Indians at sight of him veered to right and left; many reined up short within ten paces of the unarmed man; two sprang from their ponies and threw themselves between him and their brethren, shouting to be heard. And then in the midst of furious discussion, some Indians crying out for the blood of all at the ranch in revenge for Chaska, some demanding instant surrender of every woman there in expiation for Lizette, some urging that old John be given respectful hearing, but held prisoner, there came lashing into their midst a young brave, crying aloud and pointing down the now well-lighted valley where, darting about a mile away, a few Indians were evidently striving to head off the coming of some hostile force. Leaving two or three of their number trying to restore consciousness to the stricken chief, and a dozen, Folsom's advocates among them, to hold possession of the ranch, away scurried most of the warriors at top speed to the aid of their outlying scouts.
Meantime, under cover of the fierce argument, Jake and Lannion had managed to crawl back within the building. Folsom himself, in such calm as he could command, stood silent while his captors wrangled. The warriors who pleaded for him were Standing Elk, a sub chief of note, whose long attachment to Folsom was based on kindnesses shown him when a young man, the other was Young-Shows-the-Road, son of a chief who had guided more than one party of whites through the lands of the Sioux before the bitterness of war arose between the races. They had loved Folsom for years and would not desert him now in the face of popular clamor. Yet even their influence would have failed but for the sound that told of hotter conflict still among the foothills along the opposite side of the valley. With straining ears, Folsom listened, hope and fear alternating in his breast. The mingling yells and volleying told that the issue was in doubt. Man after man of his captors galloped away until not half a dozen were left. Now, Jake and Lannion could have shot them down and borne him within, but to what good? Escape from the ranch itself was impossible! Such action would only intensify the Indian hate and make more horrible the Indian vengeance. For twenty minutes the clamor continued, then seemed to die gradually away, and, with fury in their faces, back at full gallop came a dozen of the braves. One glance was enough. They had penned their foe among the rocks, but not without the loss of several at least of their band, for the foremost rode with brandished war-club straight at Folsom, and despite the leap of his two champions to save, felled the old trader with one stunning blow, then gave the savage order to burn the ranch.
By this time the sun was just peering into the valley. The smoke and flame from the corral were dying or drifting away. Eagerly half a dozen young braves rushed for faggots and kindling with which to do his bidding, and a cry of despair went up from within the walls. Recklessly now Lannion and his comrade opened fire from the loopholes and shot down two of the dancing furies without, sending every other Indian to the nearest cover. But the arrows that came whistling speedily were firebrands. The besiegers gained in force with every moment. Poor old Folsom, slowly regaining senses as he lay bound and helpless down by the stream, whither his captors had borne him, heard the jeers and shouts of triumph with which the Indians within the corral were rapidly making their fire darts, when suddenly there rose on the morning air a sound that stilled all others, a sound to which the Indians listened in superstitious awe, a sound that stopped the hands that sought to burn out the besieged and paralyzed just long enough all inspiration of attack. Some of the Indians, indeed, dropped their arms, others sprang to the ponies as though to take to flight. It was the voice of Lizette, chanting the death song of the Sioux.
An hour later, once more in force, the band was gathered for its rush upon the ranch. Jake, gallant fellow, lay bleeding at his post. Hope of every kind was well-nigh dead. The silence without was only portent of the storm so soon to burst. Pappoose, grasping her brother's rifle, crouched facing the narrow entrance to the cellar. Jessie clung to the baby, for Mrs. Hal, only dimly conscious, was moaning by her husband's side, while Lizette in silence was kneeling, watching them with strange glitter in her eyes. Suddenly she started, and with hand to ear, listened intently. Then she sprang to an air port and crouched there, quivering. Then again the ground began to tremble under the distant thunder of pony feet, louder and louder every second. Again came the rush of the Indian braves, but with it no exultant yell, only cries of warning, and as this sound swept over and beyond their walls, there followed another, the distant, deep-throated trooper cheer, the crack of carbine, the rising thunder of the cavalry gallop, and then the voice of Ned Lannion rang jubilantly over the dull clamor.
"Up! Up, everybody! Thank God, it's Dean and the boys!"
* * * * *
Long years after, in the camps and stockades and the growing towns of the far West that almost marvelous rescue was the theme of many an hour's talk. The number of men who took part in it, the number of hardy fellows who personally guided the troops or else stood shoulder to shoulder with Ned Lannion at the last triumphant moment, increased so rapidly with the growing moons that in time the only wonder was that anything was left of the Sioux. Official records, however, limited the number of officers and men engaged to a select few, consisting entirely of Lieutenant Loring, United States Engineers, Lieutenant Loomis, —th Infantry, a few men from scattered troops, "pickups" at Frayne and Emory, with Lieutenant Marshall Dean and fifty rank and file of Company "C."
Loring, it will be remembered, had taken a small detachment from Emory and gone into the hills in search of Burleigh. Loomis, fretting at the fort, was later electrified by a most grudgingly given order to march to the Laramie and render such aid as might be required by the engineer officer of the department. Dean, with only fifteen men all told, had dashed from Frayne straight for the ranch, and, marching all night, had come in sight of the valley just as it was lighted afar to the eastward by the glare of the burning buildings. "We thought it was all over," said he, as he lay there weak and languid, a few days later, for the wound reopened in the rush of the fight, "but we rode on to the Laramie, and there, God be thanked! fell in with Loomis here and "C" Troop, heading for the fire. No words can tell you our joy when we found the ranch still standing and some forty Sioux getting ready for the final dash. That running fight, past the old home, and down the valley where we stirred up Loring's besiegers and sent them whirling too—why, I'd give a fortune, if I had it, to live it over again!"
But Loring, after all, had the most thrilling story to tell—of how he wormed a clew to Burleigh's hiding place out of a captured outlaw and beat up the party in a nook of the hills, nabbed the major asleep, but was warned that all the Birdsall "outfit" would rally to the rescue, and so sent a courier to Emory for "C" Troop, and, making wide detour to avoid the gang, ran slap into the Sioux in the act of firing Folsom's ranch. Then he had to take to the rocks in the fight that followed, and had a desperate siege of a few hours, even Burleigh having to handle a gun and fight for his life. "I spotted him for a coward that day we stumbled on Red Cloud's band up by the Big Horn. You remember it, Dean, I thought him a villain when I learned how he was trying to undermine you. Time proved him a thief and a scoundrel, but, peace to his ashes, he died like a gentleman after all, with two Indian bullets through him, and just as rescue came. He had time to make full confession, and it was all pretty much as I suspected. The note Dean picked up at Reno, that so stampeded him, told how a blackmailing scoundrel was on his way to Emory to expose him unless headed off by further huge payments. It was the fellow who called himself Newhall."
"The fellow who gave the tip to Birdsall's people?" said old Folsom at this juncture, raising a bandaged head from his daughter's lap. "Who was he, really?"
"Burleigh knew all the time and I suspected the moment I heard Miss Folsom's description, and was certain the instant I laid eyes on him. He was a rascally captain cashiered at Yuma the year before, and I was judge advocate of the court."
"And Mrs. Fletcher?" asked Pappoose, extending one hand to Jess, while the other smoothed the gray curls on her fathers forehead.
"Mrs. Fletcher was his deserted wife, one of- those women who have known better days."
The ranch is still there, or was twenty years ago, but even then the Sioux were said to raise more hair in the neighborhood than Folsom did cattle. The old trader had been gathered to his fathers, and Mrs. Hal to hers, for she broke down utterly after the events of '68. Neither Pappoose nor Jessie cared to revisit the spot for some time, yet, oddly enough, both have done so more than once. The first time its chronicler ever saw it was in company with a stalwart young captain of horse and his dark-eyed, beautiful wife nine years after the siege. Hal met us, a shy, silent fellow, despite his inches. "Among other things," said he, "Lieutenant and Mrs. Loomis are coming next week. I wish you might all be here to meet them."
"I know," said Mrs. Dean, "we are to meet at Cheyenne. But, Hal, where's your wife?"
He looked shyer still. "She don't like to meet folks unless——"
"There's no unless about it," said the lady with all her old decision as she sprang from the ambulance, and presently reappeared, leading by the hand, reluctant, yet not all unhappy, Lizette. Some people said Hal Folsom had no business to marry an Indian girl before his wife was dead three years, but all who knew Lizette said he did perfectly right, at least Pappoose did, and that settled it. As for Loring—But that's enough for one story.