FOES IN AMBUSH.
CAPT. CHARLES KING, U. S. A.,
"THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER," "MARION'S FAITH," "KITTY'S CONQUEST," "A SOLDIER'S SECRET," ETC.
J. B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
FOES IN AMBUSH.
The sun was just going down, a hissing globe of fire and torment. Already the lower limb was in contact with the jagged backbone of the mountain chain that rimmed the desert with purple and gold. Out on the barren, hard-baked flat in front of the corral, just where it had been unhitched when the paymaster and his safe were dumped soon after dawn, a weather-beaten ambulance was throwing unbroken a mile-long shadow towards the distant Christobal. The gateway to the east through the Santa Maria, sharply notched in the gleaming range, stood a day's march away,—a day's march now only made by night, for this was Arizona, and from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same anywhere south of that curdling mud-bath, the Gila, the only human beings impervious to the fierceness of its rays were the Apaches. "And they," growled the paymaster, as he petulantly snapped the lock of his little safe, "they're no more human than so many hyenas."
A big man physically was the custodian and disburser of government greenbacks,—so big that, as he stepped forth through the aperture in the hot adobe wall, he ducked his head to avert unwilling contact with its upper edge. Green-glass goggles, a broad-brimmed straw hat, a pongee shirt, loose trousers of brown linen, and dust-colored canvas shoes made up the outer man of a personality as distinctly unmilitary as it was ponderous. Slow and labored in movement, the major was correspondingly sluggish in speech. He sauntered out into the glare of the evening sunshine and became slowly conscious of a desire to swear at what he saw: that, though in a minute or two the day-god would "douse his glim" behind the black horizon, no preparation whatever had been made for a start. There stood the ambulance, every bolt and link and tire hot as a stove-lid, but not a mule in sight. Turning to his left, he strolled along towards a gap in the adobe wall, and entered the dusty interior of the corral. One of the four quadrupeds drowsing under the brush shelter languidly turned an inquiring eye and interrogative ear in his direction, and conveyed, after the manner of the mule, a suggestion as to supper. A Mexican boy sprawling in the shade of a bale of government hay, and clad in cotton shirt and trousers well-nigh as brown as the skin that peeped through occasional gaps, glanced up at him with languid interest an instant, and then resumed the more agreeable contemplation of the writhings of an impaled tarantula. Under another section of the shed two placid little burros were dreamily blinking at vacancy, their grizzled fronts expressive of that ineffable peace found only in the faces of saints and donkeys. In the middle of the enclosure a rude windlass coiled with rope stood stretching forth a decrepit lever-arm. The whippletree, dangling from the end over the beaten circular track, seemed cracked with heat and age. The stout rope that stretched tautly from the coil passed over a wooden wheel, and disappeared through a broad-framed aperture into the bowels of the earth. Close at hand in the shade of a brush-covered "leanto" hung three or four huge ollas, earthen water-jars, swathed in gunny sack and blanket. Beyond them, warped out of all possibility of future usefulness, stood what had once been the running gear of a California buck-board. Behind it dangled from dusty pegs portions of leather harness, which all the neat's-foot oil of the military pharmacopoeia could never again restore to softness or pliability. A newer edition of the same class of vehicle was covered by a canvas "'paulin." A huge stack of barley bags was piled at the far end of the corral, guarded from depredation (quadrupedal) by a barrier of wooden slats, mostly down, and by a tattered biped, very sound asleep.
"Where's the sergeant?" queried the paymaster, slowly, addressing no one in particular, but looking plaintively around him.
Still leaning a brown chin on a nearly black hand, and stirring up his spider with the forked stick he held in the other paw, the boy simply tilted his head towards the dark opening under the farther end of the shed, an aperture that seemed to lead to nothing but blackness beyond.
"What's he doing?"
"No sa-a-abe," drawled the boy, never lifting his handsome eyes from the joys before him.
"Why hasn't he harnessed up?"
A shrug of the shoulders was the only reply.
"No sa-a-abe," slowly as before.
"What's your name?"
"Well, here, Jose, you go and tell him I want him."
The boy slowly pulled himself together and found his feet; started reluctantly to obey; glanced back at his captive, now scuttling off for freedom; turned again, scotched him with his forked stick, and then with a vicious "huh!" drove the struggling Araneid into the sandy soil. This done, he lounged off towards the dark corner in the wall of the ranch and dove out of sight.
Presently there slowly issued from this recess a sturdy form in dusty blue blouse, the sleeves of which were decorated with chevrons in far-faded yellow. Under the shabby slouch hat a round, sun-blistered, freckled face, bristling with a week-old beard, peered forth at the staff official with an expression half of languid tolerance, half of mild irritation. In most perfunctory fashion the soldier just touched the hat-rim with his forefinger, then dropped the hand into a convenient pocket. It was plain that he felt but faint respect for the staff rank and station of the man in goggles and authority.
"Sergeant Feeny, I thought I told you I wanted everything ready to start at sunset."
"You did, sir, and then you undid it," was the prompt and sturdy reply.
The paymaster stood irresolute. Through the shading spectacles of green his eyes seemed devoid of any expression. His attitude remained unchanged, thumbs in the low-cut pockets of his wide-flapping trousers, shoulders meek and drooping.
"W-e-ll," he finally drawled, "you understood I wanted to get on to Camp Stoneman by sunrise, didn't you? Didn't my clerk, Mr. Dawes, tell you?"
"He did, yes, sir, and you don't want to get there no more than I do, major. But I told you flat-footed if you let Donovan and those other men go back on the trail they'd find some excuse to stop at Ceralvo's, and, damn 'em, they've done it."
"Don't you s'pose they'll be along presently?"
"S'pose?" and the sun-blistered face of the cavalryman seemed to grow a shade redder as he echoed almost contemptuously the word of his superior. "S'pose? Why, major, look here!" And the short, swart trooper took three quick strides, then pointed through the western gap in the adobe wall to the gilded edge of the range where the sun had just slipped from view. "It's ten mile to that ridge, it's ten minutes since I got the last wig-wag of the signal-flag at the pass. They hadn't come through then. What chance is there of their getting here in time to light out at dark? You did tell me to have everything ready to start, and then you undid it by sending half the escort back. You've been here in hell's half-acre three days and I've been here three years. You've never been through Canon Diablo; I've been through a dozen times and never yet without a fight or a mighty good chance of one. Now you may think it's fun to run your head into an ambuscade, but I don't. You can get 'em too easy without trying here. I'm an old soldier, major, and too free spoken, perhaps, but I mean no disrespect, only I wish to God you'd listen to me next time."
"You wouldn't have had me leave those women in the lurch back at the crossing, would you?" queried the paymaster, half apologetically.
"Why, I don't believe that story at all," flatly answered Feeny; "it's some damned plant that fellow Donovan's springing on you,—a mere excuse to ride back so they could drink and gamble with those thugs at Ceralvo's. They've just been paid off and had no chance for any fun at all before they were ordered out on this escort duty. That money's been burning in their pockets now for three whole nights, and they just can't stand it so long as a drop of liquor's to be had by hard riding. No soldier is happy till he's dead broke, major, leastwise none I ever see."
"What makes you doubt the story, sergeant? It came straight enough."
"It came too damned straight, sir; that's just the trouble. It came straight from Chihuahua Pete's monte mill. It's only a hook to draw 'em back, and they played it on you because they saw you were new to the country and they knew I was asleep; and now, unless Lieutenant Drummond should happen in with his troop, there's no help for it but to wait for to-morrow night, and no certainty of getting away then."
"Well, if Mr. Drummond were here, don't you suppose he'd have gone or sent back to protect those people?"
"Oh, he'd have gone,—certainly,—that's his business, but it isn't yours, major. You've got government money there enough to buy up every rum-hole south of the Gila. You're expected to pay at Stoneman, Grant and Goodwin and Crittenden and Bowie, where they haven't had a cent since last Christmas and here it is the middle of May. You ought to have pushed through with all speed, so none of these jay-hawkers could get wind of your going, let alone the Apaches. Every hour you halt is clear gain to them, and here you've simply got to stay twenty-four hours all along of a cock-and-bull story about some stage-load of frightened women fifteen miles back at Gila Bend. It's a plant, major, that's what I believe."
Old Plummer kicked the toe of his shoe into the sandy soil and hung a reflective head. "I wish you hadn't shut your eyes," he drawled at length.
"I wouldn't, sir, if I hadn't thought you'd keep yours open. You slept all night, sir, you and Mr. Dawes, while I rode alongside with finger on trigger every minute."
Absorbed in their gloomy conversation, neither man noticed that the wooden shutter in the adobe wall close at hand had been noiselessly opened from within, just an inch or two. Neither knew, neither could see that behind it, in the gathering darkness of the short summer evening, a shadowy form was crouching.
"Then you think we must stay here, do you?" queried the paymaster.
"Think? I know it. Why, the range ahead is alive with Apaches, and we can't stand 'em off with only half a dozen men. Your clerk's no 'count, major."
Old Plummer stood irresolute. His clerk, a consumptive and broken-down relative, was at that moment lying nerveless on a rude bunk within the ranch, bemoaning the fate that had impelled him to seek Arizona in search of health. He was indeed of little "'count," as the paymaster well knew. After a moment's painful thought the words rose slowly to his lips.
"Well, perhaps you know best, so here we stay till to-morrow night, or at least until they get back."
One could almost hear the whisper in the deep recess of the retaining wall,—sibilant, gasping. Some one crouching still farther back in the black depths of the interior did hear.
But when a moment later the proprietor of this roadside ranch, this artificial oasis in a land of desolation, strolled into the big bare room where half a dozen troopers were dozing or gambling, it was with an air of confidential joviality that he whispered to the corporal in charge,—
"Our fren', the major, he riffuse me sell you aguardiente,—mescal; but wait—to-night."
"Oh, damn it, Moreno, we'll be half-way to Stoneman by that time," interrupted the trooper, savagely. "Who's to know where we got the stuff? We'll make 'em believe Donovan's squad brought it in from Ceralvo's. Give me a drink now anyhow, you infernal Greaser; I'm all burnt out with such a day as this. We've got to start the moment they get back, and there won't be any time then."
"Hush, caballero; they come not to-night. You will rest here."
"Why, how in blazes do you know?"
"Softly!—I know not. I know noting; yet, mira!—I know. They talk long in the corral,—the major and that pig of a sergeant;—for him I snap my finger. Look you!" And Moreno gave a flip indicative of combined defiance and disdain.
"Don't you count on his not finding out, Moreno. It's all easy enough so far as the major's concerned, but that blackguard Feeny's different, I tell you. He'd hear the gurgle of the spigot if he were ten miles across the Gila, and be here to bust things before you could serve out a gill,—damn him! He's been keen enough to put that psalm-singing Yankee on guard over your liquor. How're you going to get at it, anyhow?"
For all answer the Mexican placed the forefinger of his left hand upon his lips and with that of the right hand pointed significantly to the hard-beaten earthen floor.
"Ah—I have a mine," he whispered. "You will not betray, eh? Shu-u! Hush! He comes now."
The gruff voice of Sergeant Feeny broke up the colloquy.
"Corporal Murphy, take what men you have here and groom at once. Feed and water too.—Moreno, I want supper cooked for eight in thirty minutes.—Drop those cards now, you men; you should have been sleeping as I told you, so as to be ready for work to-night."
"Shure we don't go to-night, sergeant?"
"Who says that?" demanded Feeny, quickly, whirling upon his subordinates. The corporal looked embarrassed and turned to Moreno for support. Moreno, profoundly calm, was as profoundly oblivious.
"Moreno there," began Murphy, finding himself compelled to speak.
"I?" gravely, courteously protested the Mexican, with deprecatory shrug of his shoulders and upward lift of eyebrow. "I? What know I? I do but say the Corporal Donovan is not come. How know I you go not out to-night?"
"Neither you nor the likes of you knows," was Feeny's stern retort. "We go when we will and no questions asked. As for you, Murphy, you be ready, and it's me you'll ask, not any outsider, when we go. I've had enough to swear at to-day without you fellows playing off on me. Go or no go—no liquor, mind you. The first man I catch drinking I'll tie by the thumbs to the back of the ambulance, and he'll foot it to Stoneman."
No words were wasted in remonstrance or reply. These were indeed "the days of the empire" in Arizona,—days soon after the great war of the rebellion, when men drank and swore and fought and gambled in the rough life of their exile, but obeyed, and obeyed without question, the officers appointed over them. These were the days when veteran sergeants like Feeny—men who had served under St. George Cooke and Sumner and Harney on the wide frontier before the war, who had ridden with the starry guidons in many a wild, whirling charge under Sheridan and Merritt and Custer in the valley of Virginia—held almost despotic powers among the troopers who spent that enlistment in the isolation of Arizona. Rare were the cases when they abused their privilege. Stern was their rule, rude their speech, but by officers and men alike they were trusted and respected. As for Feeny, there were not lacking those who declared him spoiled. Twice that day had the paymaster been on the point of rebuking his apparent indifference. Twice had he withheld his censure, knowing, after all, Feeny to be in the right and himself in the wrong. And now in the gathering shades of night, as he stood in silence watching the brisk process of grooming, and noted how thorough and business-like, even though sharp and stern, was Feeny, the paymaster was wishing he had not ventured to disregard the caution of so skilled a veteran.
And yet the paymaster, having a human heart in his breast, had been sorely tried, for the appeal that came for help was one he could not well resist. Passing Ceralvo's at midnight and pushing relentlessly ahead instead of halting there as the men had hoped, the party was challenged in the Mexican tongue.
To which unlooked-for and uncalled-for demand the leading trooper, scorning Greaser interference in American territory, promptly answered,—
"Go to hell!"
All the same he heard the click of lock and was prompt to draw his own Colt, as did likewise the little squad riding ahead of the creaking ambulance. The two leaders of the mules whirled instantly about and became tangled up with the wheel team, and the paymaster was pitched out of a dream into a doubled-up mass on the opposite seat. To his startled questions the driver could only make reply that he didn't know what was the matter; the sergeant had gone ahead to see. Presently Feeny shouted "Forward!" and on they went again, and not until Ceralvo's was a mile behind could the major learn the cause of the detention. "Some of Ceralvo's people," answered Feeny, "damn their impudence! They thought to stop us and turn us in there by stories of Indian raids just below us,—three prospectors murdered twenty-four miles this side of the Sonora line. Cochises's people never came this far west of the Chiricahua Range. It's white cut-throats maybe, and we'll need our whole command."
And yet in the glaring sunshine of that May morning, after they had unsaddled at Moreno's, after the sergeant, wearied with the vigils of two successive nights, had gone to sleep in the coolest shade he could find, there came riding across the sun-baked, cactus-dotted plain at the west a young man who had the features of the American and the grave, courteous bearing of the Mexican.
"My name is Harvey," said he. "My sisters, who have been in San Francisco at school, are with me on the way to visit our parents in Tucson. Father was to have met us at the Bend with relays of mules. We have waited forty-eight hours and can wait no longer. For God's sake let half a dozen of your men ride out and escort them down here. There is no doubt in the world the Apaches are in the mountains on both sides, and I'm trembling for fear they've already found our camp. None of my party dared make the ride, so I had to come."
What was Plummer to do? He didn't want to rouse the sergeant. This wasn't going back to Ceralvo's, but riding northward to the rescue of imperilled beauty. He simply couldn't refuse, especially when Donovan and others were eager to go. From Mr. Harvey he learned that his father had married into an old Spanish Mexican family at Havana, had been induced by them to take charge of certain business in Matamoras, and that long afterwards he had removed to Guaymas and thence to Tucson. The children had been educated at San Francisco, and the sisters, now seventeen and fifteen years of age respectively, were soon to go to Cuba to visit relatives of their mother, but were determined once more to see the quaint old home at Tucson before so doing; hence this journey under his charge. The story seemed straight enough. Plummer had never yet been to Tucson, but at Drum Barracks and Wilmington he had often heard of the Harveys, and Donovan swore he knew them all by sight, especially the old man. The matter was settled before Plummer really knew whether to take the responsibility or not, and the cavalry corporal with five men rode back into the fiery heat of the Arizona day and was miles away towards the Gila before Feeny awoke to a realizing sense of what had happened. Then he came out and blasphemed. There in that wretched little green safe were locked up thousands enough of dollars to tempt all the outlawry of the Occident to any deed of desperation that might lead to the capture of the booty, and with Donovan and his party away Feeny saw he had but half a dozen men for defence.
At his interposition the major had at least done one thing,—warned Moreno not to sell a drop of his fiery mescal to any one of the men; and, when the Mexican expressed entire willingness to acquiesce, Feeny's suspicions were redoubled, and he picked out Trooper Latham, a New Englander whom some strange and untoward fate had led into the ranks, and stationed him in the bullet-scarred bar-room of the ranch, with strict orders to allow not a drop to be drawn or served to any one without the sanction of Sergeant Feeny or his superior officer, the major. Even the humiliation of this proceeding had in no wise disturbed Moreno's suavity. "All I possess is at your feet," he had said to the major, with Castilian grace and gravity; "take or withhold it as you will."
"Infernal old hypocrite!" swore Feeny, between his strong, set teeth. "I believe he'd like nothing better than to get the escort drunk and turn us over bag and baggage to the Morales gang."
Thrice during the hot afternoon had Feeny scouted the premises and striven to find what number and manner of men Moreno might have in concealment there. Questioning was of little use. Moreno was ready to answer to anything, and was never known to halt at a lie. Old Miguel, the half-breed, who did odd jobs about the well and the corral, expressed profound ignorance both of the situation and Feeny's English. The Mexican boy had but one answer to all queries: "No sa-a-abe." Other occupants there were, but these even Feeny's sense of duty could not prompt him to disturb. Somewhere in the depths of the domestic portion of the ranch, where the brush on the flat roof was piled most heavily and the walls were jealously thick, all scouting-parties or escorts well knew that Moreno's wife and daughter were hidden from prying eyes, and rumor had it that often there were more than two feminine occupants; that these were sometimes joined by three or four others,—wives or sweethearts of outlawed men who rode with Pasqual Morales, and all Arizona knew that Pasqual Morales had little more Mexican blood in his veins than had Feeny himself. He was an Americano, a cursed Gringo for whom long years ago the sheriffs of California and Nevada had chased in vain, who had sought refuge and a mate in Sonora, and whose swarthy features found no difficulty in masquerading under a Mexican name when the language of love had made him familiar with the Mexican tongue.
Slow to action, slow of speech as was the paymaster, he was not slow to see that Sergeant Feeny was anxious and ill at ease, and if a veteran trooper whom his captain had pronounced the coolest, pluckiest, and most reliable man in the regiment, could be so disturbed over the indications, it was high time to take precaution. What was the threatened danger? Apaches? They would never assault the ranch with its guard of soldiers, whatsoever they might do in the canons in the range beyond. Outlaws? They had not been heard of for months. He had inquired into all this at Yuma, at the stage stations, by mail of the commanding officers at Lowell and Bowie and Grant. Not for six months had a stage been "held up" or a buck-board "jumped" south of the turbid Gila. True, there was rumor of riot and lawlessness among the miners at Castle Dome and the customary shooting scrape at Ehrenberg and La Paz, but these were river towns, far behind him now as he looked back over the desert trail and aloft into the star-studded, cloudless sky. Nothing could be more placid, nothing less prophetic of peril or ambush than this exquisite summer night. Somewhere within the forbidden region of Moreno's harem a guitar was beginning to tinkle softly. That was all very well, but then a woman's voice, anything but soft, took up a strange, monotonous refrain. Line after line, verse after verse it ran, harsh, changeless. He could not distinguish the words,—he did not wish to; the music was bad enough in all conscience, whatsoever it might become when sung by youth or beauty. As it fell from the lips of Senora Moreno the air was a succession of vocal nasal disharmonies, high-pitched, strident, nerve-wracking.
Unable to listen after the third repetition, Plummer slowly retired from the corral and once more appeared at the front, just in time for a sensation. Two troopers, two of the men who had ridden back with Donovan, came lurching into the lighted space before the main entrance. At sight of the paymaster one of them stiffened up and with preternatural gravity of mien executed the salute. The other, with an envelope in his hand, reeled out of saddle, failed to catch his balance, plunged heavily into the sand and lay there. Corporal Murphy sprang eagerly forward, the first man to reach him, and turned the prostrate trooper over on his back.
"What's the matter?" queried Plummer. "Is he sick?"
"Sick is it?" was the quick retort, as the corporal sniffed at the tainted breath of the sufferer. "Be the powers! I only wish I had half his disayse."
And then came Feeny, glaring, wrathful.
"Come down off the top of that horse, Mullan," he ordered, fiercely. "How—how'd ye get here? Which way'd ye come? Where's the rest?"
With the ponderous dignity of inebriety, Mullan slowly pointed up the desert under the spot where the pole-star glowed in the northern skies.
"Sarsh'nt," he hiccoughed, "we're—we're too late; 'Paches got there—first."
"Hwat! hwat!" thundered Feeny. "D'ye mean there were women,—that it wasn't a plant?"
"Hware's your despatches, you drunken lout? How dare you dhrink when there was fight ahead? Hware's your despatches? and may heaven blast the souls of you both!"
"Here, sergeant," said Murphy, wrenching the soiled envelope from the loose grasp of the prostrate trooper.
"It's to you, sir," said Feeny, with one glance at the sprawling superscription. "In God's name read and let us know what devil's work's abroad to-night."
Even Plummer's pudgy fingers trembled as he tore open the dingy packet. Old Moreno came forth with a light, his white teeth gleaming, his black eyes flashing from one to another of the group. Holding the pencilled page close to the lantern, the paymaster read aloud,—
"Camp burned. One man killed; others scattered; mules and buck-board gone. For God's sake help in the pursuit. Strike for Raton Pass. The Indians have run away my poor sisters.
The major dropped the paper, fairly stunned with dismay. Feeny sprang forward, picked it up, and eagerly scrutinized the page. Mullan, standing unsteadily at the head of his wearied and dejected horse, was looking on with glassy eyes, his lips vainly striving to frame further particulars. Leaving their supper unfinished, the other men of the little squad had come tumbling out into the summer night. No one paid other heed to the trooper sprawling in the sand. Already in deep, drunken slumber, he was breathing stertorously. Feeny's eyes seemed fastened to the letter. Line by line, word by word, again and again he spelled it through. Suddenly he leaped forward and clutched Mullan at the throat, shaking him violently.
"Answer now. Hware'd you get your liquor? Didn't this fellow give it to you?"
"On my honor—no, sarsh'nt, 'pon my 'on—"
"Oh, to hell with your honor and you with it! Hware'd you get it if it wasn't from him? Shure you've not been near Ceralvo's?"
"No, sarsh'nt, no Ceralvo's. We met couple gen'l'men—perfec' gen'l'men, ranchers; they were going after the Indians. They gave us jus' o-one drink—'piece. Jus' five minutes—go."
"How far away was this? Hware were they? Answer or, damn you, I'll shake the truth out of you!" shouted Feeny, suiting action to word. "Spake before you, too, are lying like that other hog. Did you ever see the camp? Did you ever get to the crossing at all? Douse a dipper of water over him, you Latham, quick. Wake up, I say, Mullan. For the love of God, major, I believe they're both drugged. I believe it's all a damned lie. I believe it's only a skame to get you to send out the rest of your escort, so they can tackle you alone. Kick him, Murphy, kick him; throt him round; don't let him get to sleep. Answer me, you scoundrel!" he fairly yelled, for Mullan's head was drooping on his breast and every lurch promised to land him on his face. Twice his knees doubled up like a foot-rule and the stout little sergeant had to jerk him to his feet.
"Search 'em both. See if they've a flask betune 'em, Latham. Answer me, Mullan, did you see the burned camp? Did you see the dead man? Did—Oh, murther! he's gone! There's never a word to be got out of aither of them this night. But don't you believe that letther, major. Don't you trust a word of it; it's false as hell. It's only a plant to rob ye of your escort first and your life and money later. That's it, men, douse them, kick them, murther them both if you like,—the curs!—and they'd drink when they knowed every man was needed." And adding force to his words, Feeny drove a furious kick at the luckless Mullan.
"Do you mean there is no truth in this? Do you mean you think it all a fraud, a trick?" at last queried the major. "Why, it seems incredible!"
"I say just what I mean, major. It's a plot to rob you. I mean the gang has gathered for that very purpose. I mean that every story told us about the Apaches west or south of here or between us and the Gila is a bloody lie. The guard at the signal-station hadn't seen or heard of them. They laughed at me when I told them what they tried to make us believe at Ceralvo's. 'Twas there they wanted to have you stop, for there you'd have no chance at all. Shure, do you suppose if the Apaches were out—if this story was true—they wouldn't have heard it and investigated it by this time, and the beacon-fire would have been blazing at the Picacho?"
Then Murphy turned and ran around the corner of the corral to a point where he could see the dim outline of the range against the western sky. The next moment his voice rose upon the night air, vibrant, thrilling,—
"Look! God be good to us, major! It's no lie. The signal-fire's blazing at the peak."
Late that night, with jaded steeds, a little troop of cavalry was pushing westward across the desert. The young May moon was sinking to rest, its pure pallid light shining faintly in contrast with the ruddy glow of some distant beacon in the mountains beneath. Ever since nightfall the rock buttress at the pass had been reflecting the lurid glare of the leaping flames as, time and again, unseen but busy hands heaped on fresh fuel and sent the sparks whirling in fiery eddies to the sky. Languid and depressed after a long day's battling with the fierce white sunshine, horses and men would gladly have spent the early hours of night dozing at their rude bivouac in the Christobal. Ever since nine in the morning, after a long night march, they had sought such shade as the burning rocks might afford, scooping up the tepid water from the natural tanks at the bottom of the canon and thanking Providence it was not alkali. The lieutenant commanding, a tall, wiry, keen-faced young fellow, had made the rounds of his camp at sunset, carefully picking up and scrutinizing the feet of his horses and sending the farrier to tack on here and there a starting shoe. Gaunt and sunburned were his short-coupled California chargers, as were their tough-looking riders; fetlocks and beards were uniformly ragged; shoes of leather and shoes of iron showed equal wear. A bronze-faced sergeant, silently following his young chief, watched him with inquiring eyes and waited for the decision that was to condemn the command to another night march across the desert, or remand them to rest until an hour or so before the dawn.
"How far did you say it was to Ceralvo's, sergeant?"
"About twenty-two miles, west."
"And to Moreno's?"
"About fifteen, sir; off here." And the sergeant pointed out across the plain, lying like a dun-colored blanket far towards the southern horizon.
"We can get barley and water at both?"
"The men would rather wait here, I suppose, until two or three o'clock?"
"Very much, sir; they haven't been able to rest at all to-day. I've fed out the last of the barley, though."
The lieutenant reflected a moment, pensively studying the legs of the trumpeter's horse.
"Is there any chance of Moreno's people not having heard about the Apaches in the Christobal?"
"Hardly, sir; they are nearer the Tucson road than we are. The stage must have gone through this morning early. It's nothing new anyhow. I've never known the time when the Indians were not in the neighborhood of that range. Moreno, too, is an old hand, sir."
The lieutenant looked long and intently out over the dreary flats beyond the foot-hills. Like the bottom of some prehistoric lake long since sucked dry by the action of the sun, the parched earth stretched away in mile after mile of monotonous, life-ridden desert, a Sahara without sign of an oasis, a sandy barren shunned even by scorpion and centipede. Already the glow was dying from the western sky. The red rim of the distant range was purpling. The golden gleam that flashed from rock to rock as the sun went down had vanished from all but the loftiest summits, and deep, dark shadows were creeping slowly out across the plain. Over the great expanse not so much as the faintest spark could be seen. Aloft, the greater stars were beginning to peep through the veil of pallid blue, while over the distant pass the sun's fair hand-maiden and train-bearer, with slow, stately mien, was sinking in the wake of her lord, as though following him to his rest. Not a breath of air was astir. The night came on still as the realms of solitude. Only the low chatter of the men, the occasional stamp of iron-shod hoof or the munching jaws of the tired steeds broke in upon the perfect silence. From their covert in the westward slope of the Christobal the two sentries of the little command looked out upon a lifeless world. Beneath them, whiffing their pipes after their frugal supper, the troopers were chatting in low tone, some of them already spreading their blankets among the shelving rocks. The embers from the cook fire glowed a deeper red as the darkness gathered in the pass, and every man seemed to start as though stung with sudden spur when sharp, quick, and imperative there came the cry from the lips of the farther sentry,—
"Fire, sir,—out to the west!"
In an instant Lieutenant Drummond had leaped down the rocky canon and, field-glass in hand, was standing by the sentry's side. No need to question "Where away?" Far out across the intervening plain a column of flame was darting upward, gaining force and volume with every moment. The lieutenant never even paused to raise the glass to his eyes. No magnifying power was needed to see the distant pyre; no prolonged search to tell him what was meant. The troopers who had sprung to their feet and were already eagerly following turned short in their tracks at his first word.
"Saddle up, men. It's the beacon at Signal Peak."
Then came a scene of bustle. No words were spoken; no further orders given. With the skill of long practice the men gathered their few belongings, shook out the dingy horse-blankets and then, carefully folding, laid them creaseless back of the gaunt withers of their faithful mounts. The worn old saddles were deftly set, the crude buckles of the old days, long since replaced by cincha loop, snapped into place; lariats coiled and swung from the cantle-rings; dusty old bits and bridles adjusted; then came the slipping into carbine-slings and thimble-belts, the quick lacing of Indian moccasin or canvas legging, the filling of canteens in the tepid tanks below, while all the time the cooks and packers were flying about gathering up the pots and pans and storing rations, bags, and blankets on the roomy apparejos. Drummond was in the act of swinging into saddle when his sergeant hastened up.
"Beg pardon, lieutenant, but shall I leave a small guard with the pack-train or can they come right along?"
"They'll go with us, of course. We can't leave them here. We must head for Ceralvo's at once. How could those Indians have got over that way?"
"It is beyond me to say, sir. I didn't know they ever went west of the Santa Maria."
"I can hardly believe it now, but there's no doubting that signal; it is to call us thither at all speed wherever we may be, and means only one thing,—'Apaches here.' Sergeant Wing is not the man to get stampeded. Can they have jumped the stage, do you think, or attacked some of Ceralvo's people?"
"Lord knows, sir. I don't see how they could have swung around there; there's nothing to tempt them along that range until they get to the pass itself. They must have come around south of Moreno's."
"I think not, sergeant."
The words were spoken in a very quiet voice. Drummond turned in surprise, his foot in the stirrup, and looked at the speaker, a keen-eyed trooper of middle age, whose hair was already sprinkled with gray.
"Why not, Bland?"
"Because we have been along the range for nearly fifty miles below here, sir, and haven't crossed a sign, and because I understand now what I couldn't account for at two o'clock,—what I thought must be imagination."
"What was that?"
"Smoke, sir, off towards the Gila, north of Ceralvo's, I should say, just about north of west of where we are."
"Why didn't you report it?"
"You were asleep, sir, and by the time I got the glasses and looked it had faded out entirely; but it's my belief the Indians are between us and the river, or were over there north of Ceralvo's to-day. If not Indians, who?"
"You ride with me, Bland. I'll talk with you further about this. Come on with the men as soon as you have the packs ready, sergeant." And so saying, Lieutenant Drummond mounted and rode slowly down the winding trail among the boulders. At the foot of the slope, where the water lay gleaming in its rocky bed, he reined his horse to the left to give him his fill of the pool, and here the trooper addressed as Bland presently joined him.
"Where was it you enlisted, Bland?" was the younger soldier's first question. "I understand you are familiar with all this country."
"At Tucson, sir, six months ago, after the stage company discharged me."
"I remember," was the answer, as the lieutenant gently drew rein to lift his horse's head. "I think you were so frank as to give the reason of your quitting their employment."
"Well, there was no sense trying to conceal it, or anything else a man may do out here, lieutenant. They fired me for drinking too much at the wrong time. The section boss said he couldn't help himself, and I don't suppose he could."
"As I remember," said Drummond, presently, and with hesitation, for he hated to pry into the past of a man who spoke so frankly and who made no effort to conceal his weakness, "you were driver of the buck-board the Morales gang held up last November over near the Catarinas."
"Yes; that's the time I got drunk, sir. It's all that saved me from being killed, and between keeping sober and losing my life or getting drunk and losing a job, I preferred the latter."
"Yet you were in a measure responsible for the safety of your passengers and mail, were you not?"
"Well, no, sir, not after the warning I gave the company. I told them Ramon Morales was in Tucson the night before we had to pull out, and wherever he was that infernal cut-throat of a brother of his wasn't far away. I told them it was taking chances to let Judge Gillette and that infantry quartermaster try to go through without escort. I begged to throw up the job that very night, but they held me to my contract, and I had to go. We were jumped not ten miles out of town, and before any one could draw a Derringer every man of us was covered. The judge might have known they'd shoot him on sight ever since that Greaser from Hermosillo was lynched. But they never harmed the quartermaster."
"Huh! The devil they didn't!" laughed the lieutenant. "They took his watch and his money and everything he had on except his underclothing. How long had you been driving when that happened?"
"Just eight months, sir, between Tucson and Grant."
"And did you never serve with the cavalry before? You ride as though you had."
"Most men hereabouts served on one side or other," said Bland, calmly, as his horse finished his long pull at the water.
"And your side was—?"
"Confederate," was the brief reply. "I was born in Texas. Here comes the troop, sir."
"Come on, then. I want to ask you about that trail to Crittenden as we ride. We make first for the Picacho Pass from here."
"Why, that's south of west, sir," answered Bland. "I had thought perhaps the lieutenant would want to go northward towards the Gila to head off any parties of the Apaches that might be striving to get away eastward with their booty. They must have picked up something over at the Bend."
"They're more likely to go southward, Bland, for they know where we've been scouting all the week. No, I'll march straight to the signal. There they must know where the Indians have gone."
"Ay, ay, sir, but then you can only pursue, and a stern chase is a long one."
Drummond turned in saddle as they rode forth upon the dark falda and gazed long and fixedly at the trooper by his side. Imperturbably Bland continued to look straight ahead. Queer stories had been afloat regarding this new acquisition. He mingled but little with the men. He affected rather the society of the better class of non-commissioned officers, an offence not likely to be condoned in a recruit. He was already distinguished for his easy mastery of every detail of a cavalryman's duty, and for his readiness to go at any or all times on scout, escort, or patrol, and the more hazardous or lonely the task the better he seemed to like it. Then he was helpful about the offices in garrison, wrote a neat hand, was often pressed into service to aid with the quartermaster or commissary papers, and had been offered permanent daily duty as company clerk, but begged off, saying he loved a horse and cavalry work too well to be mured in an office. He was silence and reticence itself on matters affecting other people, but the soul of frankness, apparently, where he was personally concerned. Anybody was welcome to know his past, he said. He was raised in Texas; had lived for years on the frontier; had been through Arizona with a bull-team in the 50's, and had 'listed under the banner of the Lone Star when Texas went the way of all the sisterhood of Southern (not border) States, and then, being stranded after the war, had "bullwhacked" again through New Mexico; had drifted again across the Mimbres and down to the old Spanish-Mexican town of Tucson; had tried prospecting, mail-riding, buck-board driving, gambling; had been one of the sheriff's posse that cleaned out Sonora Bill's little band of thugs and cut-throats, and had expressed entire willingness to officiate as that lively outlaw's executioner in case of his capture. He had twice been robbed while driving the stage across the divide and had been left for dead in the Maricopa range, an episode which he said was the primal cause of his dissipations later. Finally, after a summary discharge he had come to the adjutant at Camp Lowell, presented two or three certificates of good character and bravery in the field from officers who bore famous names in the Southern army, and the regimental recruiting officer thought he could put up with an occasional drunk in a man who promised to make as good a trooper under the stars and stripes as he had made under the stars and bars. And so he was enlisted, and, to the surprise of everybody, hadn't taken a drop since.
Now this, said the rank and file, was proof positive of something radically wrong, either in his disposition or his record. It was entirely comprehensible and fully in accordance with human nature and the merits of the case that a man should quit drinking when he quit the army, but that a man with the blot of an occasional spree on his escutcheon should enlist for any other cause than sheer desperation, and should then become a teetotaler, was nothing short of prima facie evidence of moral depravity.
"There's something behind it all, fellers," said Corporal Murphy, "and I mean to keep an eye on him from this out. If he don't dhrink next pay-day, look out for him. He's a professional gambler laying for your hard-earned greenbacks."
And so while the seniors among the sergeants were becoming gradually the associates, if not the intimates, of this fine-looking trooper, the mass of the regiment, or rather the little detachment thereof stationed at Lowell, looked upon Bland with the eye of suspicion. There was one sergeant who repudiated him entirely, and who openly professed his disbelief in Bland's account of himself, and that was Feeny. "He may have testimonials from all Texas," said he, hotly, "but I've no use for that sort of credentials. Who can vouch for his goings and comings hereabouts before he joined us? I think Murphy's right, and if I was stationed at Lowell and belonged to his troop, you bet I'd watch him close."
Now, in all the command it would have been a hard matter to find a soldier in whose favor appearances were so unanimously allied. Tall, erect, sinewy, and active, he rode or walked with an easy grace that none could fail to mark. His features were fine and clear cut; his eyes a dark hazel, with heavy curling lashes and bushy, low-arched brows; his complexion, naturally dark, was bronzed by sun and sand-storm to a hue almost Mexican. He shaved clean all but the heavy moustache that drooped over his firm lips, and the sprinkling of gray about the brows, temples, and moustache was most becoming to his peculiar style. One prominent mark had he which the descriptive book of his company referred to simply as "sabre-scar on right jaw," but it deserved mention more extended, for the whitish streak ran like a groove from just below the ear-tip to the angle of the square, resolute chin. It looked as though in some desperate fray a mad sweep had been made with vengeful blade straight for the jugular, and, just missing that, had laid open the jaw for full four inches. "But," said Feeny, "what could he have been doing, and in what position could he have been, sitting or standing, to get a sabre-stroke like that? Where was his guard? A Bowie-knife, now ——" and there the suggestion ended.
But it was the scarred side of Bland's soldierly face that young Lieutenant Drummond was so closely studying as they rode out into the starlit Arizona night. He, too, had heard the camp chat about this apparently frank, open-hearted trooper, and had found himself more than once speculating as to his real past, not the past of his imagination or of his easy off-hand description. By this time, in perfect silence save for the occasional clink of canteen, the gurgle of imprisoned water, or, once in a while, the click of iron-shod hoof, the troop was marching in shadowy column of twos well out beyond the falda and over the almost dead level of the plain. Far ahead the beacon still blazed brightly and beckoned them on. It was time for precaution.
"Sergeant," said Drummond, "send a corporal and four men forward. Let them spread out across the front and keep three or four hundred yards ahead of us. Better take those with the freshest horses, as I want them to scout thoroughly and to be on the alert for the faintest sound. Any of our men who know this valley well?"
"None better than Bland here, sir," was the half-hesitant reply.
"W-e-l-l, I need Bland just now. Put some of the old hands and older heads on, and don't let anything escape their notice."
"Beg pardon, lieutenant, but what's to be the line of direction? When we started it was understood that we were to take the shortest cut for Ceralvo's, and now we're heading for the Picatch."
"No, we make for the pass first; that's the quickest way to reach the signal-station, then we learn where to strike for the Indians. Did you ever hear of their being as far west as the Maricopa range before?"
"Never, sir, in the whole time we've been here, and since the lieutenant joined they've never been heard of crossing the Santa Maria valley."
"What on earth could tempt them out so far? There's nothing to be gained and every chance of being cut off by troops from Grant and Bowie, even if they do succeed in slipping by us."
"That's more than I can tell, sir. The men say the paymaster's coming along this week; they heard it from the quartermaster's train we passed at the Cienega three days ago."
Trooper Bland was riding in silence on the left of the detachment commander as he had been directed. The sergeant had come up on the other flank.
"What men heard this?" asked Drummond, quickly.
"Why, Patterson told me, sir, and Lucas and Quinn, and I think Bland here was talking with the train escort and must have heard it."
"Did you, Bland?" asked the lieutenant, as he whirled suddenly in his saddle and faced the trooper.
"Yes, sir," was the prompt reply; "several of the men spoke of it. It's about the most welcome piece of news they could give to fellows who had four months' pay due."
In the isolation of this mountain scouting business, when, as often happens, one officer is out alone for weeks with no comrades or associates but his detachment, it naturally results that a greater freedom of intercourse and speech is developed between the commander and some, at least, of his party than would ever be the case in years of garrison life; and so it happened that for the moment Drummond forgot the commander in the man.
"It is most extraordinary," he said, "that just when a paymaster is anxious to keep secret the date and route of his coming the whole thing is heralded ahead. We have no telegraph, and yet three days ago we knew that Major Plummer was starting on his first trip. He ought to have been at Ceralvo's last night. By Jupiter! suppose he was—and had but a small escort? What else could that signal-fire mean? Here! get those men out to the front now at once; we must push ahead for all we're worth."
And so at midnight, with steeds panting and jaded, with the pass and the Picacho only four miles ahead, the little detachment was tripping noiselessly through the darkness, and, all alert and eager, Drummond was riding midway between his scouts and the main body so that no sound close at hand might distract his attention from hails or signals farther out. Suddenly he heard an exclamation ahead, the snort of a frightened horse, then some muffled objurgations, a rider urging a reluctant steed to approach some suspicious object, and, spurring his own spirited charger forward, Mr. Drummond came presently upon the corporal just dismounting in the darkness and striving to lead his boon companion, whom he could not drive, up to some dark object lying on the plain. This, too, failed. A low whistle, however, brought one of the other scouts trotting in to the rescue.
"Hold him a minute, Burke," said the corporal, handing up the reins. "There's something out here this brute shied at and I can't get him near it again." With that he pushed out to the front while the others listened expectant. A moment later a match was struck, and presently burned brightly in the black and breathless night. Then came the startled cry,—
"My God! lieutenant. It's Corporal Donovan and his horse,—both dead."
And even there Mr. Drummond noted that Bland was about the first of the column to come hurrying forward to the scene.
Ten minutes' investigation threw but little light upon the tragedy. Some stumps of candles were found in the saddle-bags and packs, and with these the men scoured the plain for signs. Spreading well out from the centre, they closely examined the sandy level. From the north came the trail of two cavalry horses, shod alike, both at the lope, both draggy and weary. From the point where lay Donovan and his steed there was but one horse-track. Whirling sharply around, the rider had sent his mount at thundering gallop back across the valley; then a hundred yards away, in long curve, had reined him to the southeast. The troopers who followed the hoof-marks out about an eighth of a mile declared that, unwounded, both horse and rider were making the best of their way towards Moreno's ranch. Farther search, not fifty yards to the front, revealed the fact that at the edge of a little depression and behind some cactus-bushes three human forms had been lying prone, and from this point probably had sped the deadly bullet.
"Apaches, by God!" muttered one of the men.
"Apaches, your grandmother!" was the sergeant's fierce reply. "Will you never learn sense, Moore? When did Apaches take to wearing store clothes and heeled boots? There's no Apache in this, lieutenant. Look here, sir, and here. Move out farther, some of you fellows, and see where they hid their horses. Corporal Donovan was with 'C' troop down the Gila last week, sir. They were to meet and escort the paymaster most like. It's my belief he was one of the guard, and that the ambulance has been jumped this very night. These are road agents, not Apaches, and God knows what's happened if they've got away with Patsy. Sure he was one of the nerviest men in the whole troop, sir."
Drummond listened, every nerve a-tingle, even while with hurried hands he cut open the shirt at the brawny throat and felt for fluttering heart-beat or faintest sign of life. Useless. The shot-hole under the left eye told plainly that the leaden missile had torn its way through the brain and that death must have been instantaneous. The soldier's arms and accoutrements, the horse's equipments, were gone. The bodies lay unmutilated. The story was plain. Separated in some way from the detachment, Donovan and his companion had probably sighted the signal blazing at the pass and come riding hard to reach the spot, when the unseen foe crouching across their path had suddenly fired the fatal shots. Now, where was the paymaster? Where the escort? Where the men who fed the signal-fire,—the fire that long before midnight had died utterly away. Whither should the weary detachment direct its march? Ceralvo's lay a dozen miles off to the northwest, Moreno's perhaps eight or nine to the southeast. Why had the escaped trooper headed his fleeing steed in that direction? Had there been pursuit? Ay, ten minutes' search over the still and desolate plain revealed the fact that two horsemen lurking in a sand-pit or dry arroyo had pushed forth at top speed and ridden away full tilt across the desert, straight as the crow flies, towards Moreno's well. Even while Drummond, holding brief consultation with his sergeant, was deliberating whether to turn thither or to push for the signal-peak and learn what he could from the little squad of blue jackets there on duty, the matter was decided for him. Sudden and shrill there came the cry from the outskirts of the now dismounted troop clustered about the body of their comrade.
"Another fire, lieutenant! Look!—out here towards the Santa Maria."
The sergeant sprang to his feet, shouldering his burly way through the excited throng. One moment more and his voice was heard in louder, fiercer tones.
"No signal this time, sir. By God! they've fired Moreno's ranch!"
Shortly after sunset on this same hot evening the sergeant in charge of the little signal-party at the Picacho came strolling forth from his tent puffing at a battered brier-root pipe. Southward and a few hundred feet below his perch the Yuma road came twisting through the pass, and then disappeared in the gathering darkness across the desert plain that stretched between them and the distant Santa Maria. Over to the east the loftiest crags of the Christobal were still faintly tinged by the last touch of departed day. Southward still, beyond the narrow and tortuous pass, the range rose high and precipitous, covered and fringed with black masses of cedar, stunted pine, and juniper. North of west, on the line of the now invisible road, and far out towards the Gila, a faint light was just twinkling. There lay Ceralvo's, and nowhere else, save where the embers of the cook fire still glowed in a deep crevice among the rocks, was there light of any kind to be seen. A lonely spot was this in which to spend one's days, yet the soldier in charge seemed in no wise oppressed with sense of isolation. It was his comrade, sitting moodily on a convenient rock, elbows on knees and chin deep buried in his brown and hairy hands, who seemed brooding over the desolation of his surroundings.
Watching him in silence a moment, a quiet smile of amusement on his lips, Sergeant Wing sauntered over and placed a friendly hand on the broad blue shoulder.
"Well, Pikey, are you wishing yourself back in Frisco?"
"I'm wishing myself in Tophet, sergeant; it may be hotter, but it isn't as lonely as this infernal hole."
"No, it's populous enough, probably," was the response, "and," added he, with a whimsical smile, "no doubt you've lots of friends there, Pike."
"Maybe I have, and maybe I haven't. At all events, I've none here. Why in thunder couldn't you let me look into that business over at Ceralvo's instead of Jackson?—he gets everything worth having. I'm shelved for his sake day after day."
"Couldn't send you, Pike, on any such quest as that. Those Greasers have sharp eyes, and one look at your face would convince them that we'd lost our grip or were in for a funeral. Jackson, now, rides in as blithe as a May morning,—a May morning out of Arizona, I mean. They never get the best of him. The only trouble is he stays too long; he ought to be back here now."
"Humph! he'll be apt to come back in a hurry with Pat Donovan and those 'C' troop fellows spending their money like water at Ceralvo's."
"You still insist they're over there, do you, Pike? I think they're not. I flagged old Feeny half an hour ago that they hadn't come through here."
"Who was that fellow who rode back here with the note?" asked Pike.
"I don't know his name. 'Dutchy' they call him in 'C' troop. He's on his second enlistment."
"More fool he! The man who re-enlists in this Territory must be either drunk or Dutch." And Pike relapsed into gloomy silence again, his eyes fixed upon the faint flicker of the bar lights at Ceralvo's miles away; but Wing only laughed again, and, still puffing away at his pipe, went on down the winding trail to where in the deep shelter of the rocky walls a pool of water lay gleaming. Here he threw himself flat and, laying aside his precious pipe, drank long and eagerly; then with sudden plunge doused his hot face in the cooling flood and came up dripping.
"Thank the Lord I have no desert march to make to-day,—all on a wild-goose chase," was his pious ejaculation. "What on earth could have induced the paymaster to send a detachment over to the Gila?" He took from his pocket a pencilled note and slowly twisted it in his fingers. It was too dark to read, but in its soldierly brevity he almost knew it by heart. "The major sent Donovan with half the escort back to the Gila on an Apache scare this morning. They will probably return your way, empty-handed. Signal if they have passed. Latham knows your code and we have a good glass. Send man to Ceralvo's with orders for them to join at once if they haven't come, and flag or torch when they pass you. It's my belief they've gone there." This was signed by Feeny, and over and again had Wing been speculating as to what it all meant. When the escort with the ambulance and paymaster went through before the dawn, Feeny had roused him to ask if anything had been heard of Indians on the war-path between them and the Sonora line, and the answer was both prompt and positive, "No." As for their being north or north of west of his station, and up towards the Gila, Wing scouted the suggestion. He wished, however, that Jackson were back with such tidings as he had picked up at Ceralvo's. It was always best to be prepared, even though this was some distance away from the customary raiding-ground of the tribe.
Just then there came a hail from aloft. Pikey was shouting.
"All right," answered Wing, cheerily; "be there in a minute," and then went springing up the trail as though the climb of four hundred feet were a mere bagatelle. "What's up?—Jackson here?" he asked, short of breath as he reached the little nook in which their brush-covered tents were pitched. There was no reply.
"Pike. Oh-h, Pike! Where are you?" he called.
And presently, faint and far somewhere down in the dark canon to the south, a voice replied,—
"Down hyar. Something's coming up the road."
Surely enough. Probably a quarter-mile away a dim light as of a swinging lantern could be seen following the winding of the rough and rock-ribbed road. Then came the click of iron-shod hoofs, the crack of the long mule-whip, and a resonant imprecation in Spanish levelled at the invisible draught animals. Bounding lightly down the southward path, Sergeant Wing soon reached the roadside, and there found Pike in converse with a brace of horsemen.
"It's old Harvey's outfit, from Yuma, making for Moreno's," vouchsafed the soldier.
"Oh, is that you, Sergeant Wing? I ought to have known you were here. I'm Ned Harvey." And the taller horseman held out a hand, which Wing grasped and shook with cordial fervor.
"Which way, Mr. Harvey, and who are with you?"
"Home to Tucson. My sisters are in the Concord behind us, going to visit the old folks for a few weeks before their trip to Cuba."
"You don't tell me!" exclaimed Wing. "They're the first ladies to pass through here since I came on duty at the station two months ago. You stay at Moreno's, I suppose?"
"Yes; the governor meets us there with relays and four or five men. We knew there would be no danger west of the Santa Maria."
"W-e-ll,—did you stop at Ceralvo's or see any of their people?"
"No, I never put in there. Father's very suspicious of that gang. Why do you ask, though?"
Wing hesitated. "There was some story afloat about Apaches," he finally said. "The paymaster's escort threw off a detachment towards the Gila this morning, and I sent one of my two men back to Ceralvo's to inquire. You must have met him."
"No, we made a circuit,—came by the old trail around the head of the slough. We haven't passed anybody, have we, Tony?" he asked of the silent horseman by his side.
"None, senor; but there were many hoof-trails leading to Ceralvo's," was the answer, in the Spanish tongue.
"Then you'll need water here, Mr. Harvey. It's a ten-mile pull across to Moreno's," said Wing, as the four-mule team came laboring up to the spot and willingly halted, the lantern at the forward axle slowly settling into inertia from its pendulum-like swing.
"Where are we, Ned?" hailed a blithe young voice. Sweet and silvery it sounded to the trooper's unaccustomed ears. "Surely not at Moreno's yet?"
"Not yet, Paquita mia. Is Ruth awake? Tell her to poke that curly pate of hers out of the door. I want you to know Mr. Wing, Sergeant Wing, who has charge of the signal-station here."
Almost instantly a slender hand, holding a little brass hurricane lantern, appeared at the opening, followed by a sweet, smiling face, while just behind it peered another, only a trifle older and more serious, yet every whit as pretty. Wing raised his old felt hat and mentally cursed the luck that had sent him down there in his ragged shirt-sleeves. Pike, the cynic, busied himself in getting the buckets from underneath the stout spring wagon, and bumped his head savagely against the trunk-laden boot as he emerged.
"I never dreamed of seeing ladies to-night," laughed the sergeant. "It's the rarest sight in all the world here; but I remember you well when you came to Yuma last year. That was when you were going to school at San Francisco, I believe."
"That was when I was in short dresses and a long face, sergeant," merrily answered the younger girl. "I hated the idea of going there to school. Fan, here, was willing enough, but I had never known anything but Arizona and Mexico. All I could think of was that I was leaving home."
"She was soon reconciled, Mr. Wing," said Miss Harvey; "there were some very pleasant people on the steamer."
"Oh, very pleasant for you, Fan, but what did they care for a chit of fourteen? You had lovely times, of course."
"So did you, Ruth, from the very day Mr. Drummond helped you to catch your dolphin."
"Ah! we were more than half-way to San Francisco then," protested Miss Ruth, promptly, "and nobody had taken any notice of me whatever up to that minute."
"Well, Mr. Drummond made up for lost time from that on," laughed the elder sister. "I never told of her, Ned,—wasn't I good?—but Ruth lost her young heart to a cavalry cadet not a year out of the Point."
"Is it our Lieutenant Drummond who was with you?" queried Wing.
"Oh, yes; why, to be sure, he is of your regiment. He was going back to testify before some court at the Presidio, and—wasn't madame mean?—she wouldn't allow him to call on Ruth at the school, even when I promised to play chaperon and insure strict propriety and no flirting."
Ruth Harvey had, with quick movement, uplifted a little hand to silence her sister, but the hand dropped, startled, and the color rushed to her face at Wing's next words.
"Then you're almost sure to meet the lieutenant to-night or to-morrow. He's been scouting the Santa Maria and the Christobal and is due along here at this very moment."
And now Miss Harvey had the field to herself, for the younger sister drew back into the dark depths of the covered wagon and spoke no more. In ten minutes the team was rattling down the eastward slope, and Sergeant Wing turned with a sigh, as at last even the sound of hoof and wheel had died away. Slowly he climbed the steep and crooked trail to their aerie at the peak. No sign of Jackson yet, no message from the ranch, no signal-fires at Moreno's or beyond. Yet, was he right in telling Harvey with such precious freight to push on across that open plain when there was even rumor of Apache in the air? The loveliness of those two dark, radiant faces, the pretty white teeth flashing in the lantern light, the soft, silvery, girlish voices, the kindly, cordial hand-clasp vouchsafed him by the elder, as they rolled away,—these were things to stir the heart of any man long exiled in this desert land. It had been his custom to spend an hour in chat with his comrades before turning in for the night; but with Jackson still away and Pike still plunged in gloom, with, moreover, new and stirring emotions to investigate and analyze, Wing strolled off by himself, passed around the rocky buttress at the point and came to the broad ledge overlooking the eastward way to the distant range. Here a mass of tinder, dry baked by weeks' exposure to the burning sunshine, stood in a pyramid of firewood ready to burst in flame at first touch of the torch. Close at hand were the stacks of reserve fuel. "Never light this until you know the Indians are raiding west of the Christobal," were his orders. But well he knew that once ignited it could be seen for many a league. Here again he filled his faithful pipe and, moving safe distance away, lighted its charge and tossed the match-stump among the jagged rocks below. He saw the spark go sailing downward, unwafted from its course by faintest breath of air. Then he heard Pike's growl or something like it, and called to him to ask if he heard Jackson. No answer. Sure that he had heard the gruff, though inarticulate, voice of his comrade, he hailed again more loudly than before, and still there came no reply. Surprised, he stepped quickly back around the rocky point to where the tents lay under the sheltering cliff, and came face to face with three dark, shadowy forms, whose moccasined footsteps gave no sound, whose masked and blackened faces defied recognition, whose cocked revolvers were thrust into his very face before a lariat settled over his shoulders, snapped into place, and, yelling for help when help was miles beyond range of his ringing voice, Sergeant Wing was jerked violently to earth, dragged into a tent, strapped to a cot, deftly gagged, and then left to himself. An instant later the Picacho was lighted up with a lurid, unearthly glare; the huge column of sparks went whirling and hissing up on high, and, far and near, the great beacon was warning all seers that the fierce Apache was out in force and raiding the Yuma road.
Away out across the desert its red glare chased the Concord wagon wherein, all unconscious of the danger signal, the sisters were now chatting in low tone.
"Drive your best," had Harvey muttered to his Mexican Jehu, as he leaned out of the saddle to reach his ear. "Not a word to alarm the girls," he cautioned his companion, "but be ready for anything."
Far out beyond the swaying, bounding vehicle; far out across the blistered plain, the glare and gleam fell full upon the brown adobe walls at Moreno's, and glittering eyes and swarthy faces peered through the westward aperture, while out in the corral the night lights were dancing to and fro, and Feeny, sore perplexed, but obedient to orders, was hurrying the preparations of his men. Murphy's wild announcement had carried conviction to the major's soul, despite all Feeny's pleadings, and the sight of that beacon furiously burning, the thought of those helpless women being borne off into the horrors of captivity among the Indians, had conspired to rouse the paymaster to unlooked-for assertion of himself and his authority. In vain had Feeny begged him to think of his money, to remember that outlaws would resort to any trick to rob him of his guard, and might have even overpowered Wing and his party and then lighted the beacon. The chain of evidence, the straight story told by his morning visitor, the awful news contained in the pencilled note brought in by Mullan, were considerations too potent to be slighted. In vain did Feeny point out to him that if Apaches were really in the neighborhood Wing would not be content with starting the fire, but would surely signal whither to go in search of them, and that no vestige of signal-torch had appeared. Old Plummer vowed he could never again know a moment of peace if he neglected to do anything or everything in his power to save the girls. Most reluctantly he agreed that Feeny should remain in charge of the safe and the two drugged and helpless men. Murphy and all the others were ordered out forthwith to march rapidly northeastward until they struck the trail of the pursuit and then to follow that. In fifteen minutes, with four pack-mules ambling behind, away they went into the darkness, and all that was left to man the ranch and defend the government treasury against all comers was the phlegmatic but determined paymaster, his physically wrecked but devoted clerk, Sergeant Feeny, raging at heart but full of fight, and a half-breed packer named Pedro; the two senseless and drunken troopers were of course of no use to anybody.
Even as the detachment mounted, Latham with it, old Moreno appeared at the door-way shrouded in his serape. Approaching Murphy by the side farthest from Plummer and the sergeant, he slipped a fat canteen from under his cloak and thrust it into the corporal's ready hand.
"Hush-h,—no words," he whispered. "All is well. I keep my promise." And so saying he had slunk away; but Feeny was on the off side quick as a shot, quicker than the corporal could stow the bulky vessel in his saddle-bags. Wresting it from the nerveless hand of his junior, Feeny hurled it with all his force after the Mexican's retreating form. It struck Moreno square in the back of the neck and sent him pitching heavily forward. Only by catching at a horse-post did he save himself from a fall, but, as he straightened up, his face was one not to be looked at without a shudder; grinding teeth, snapping, flashing eyes, vengeful contortions of brow and jaw, hate, fury, and revenge, all were quivering with the muscles under that swarthy skin, and the gleaming knife was clasped in his upraised hand as, driving into the ranch and out of sight of the hated "Gringos," he burst into the room where sat his wife and daughter, and raging aloud, through that he leaped like a panther to another door, fastened on the farther side, where one instant he stood before admission could be gained, and through a panel in which there warily peered a bearded face, swarthy as his own. And then Senora Moreno hurriedly banged the shutter and took up her guitar. Something had to be done to hush the uproar of blasphemy and imprecation, mingling with the shout of exultation that instantly followed her lord's admission to the den.
Nine o'clock came. Murphy and his party were gone. The beacon still blazed at the westward pass. The twang of the guitar had ceased. Silence reigned about the ranch. Old Plummer with anxious face plodded slowly up and down the open space in front of the deserted bar. Feeny, with three loaded carbines close at hand and his belt bristling with revolvers, was dividing his attention between the safe and the still sleeping troopers. Every once in a while he would station the major at the safe, which had been hauled into the easternmost of the rooms that opened to the front instead of on the corral, and, revolver in hand, would patrol the premises, never failing to stop at a certain window behind which he believed Moreno to be lurking, to warn that impulsive Greaser not to show his head outside his room if he didn't want it blown off his shoulders; never failing on his return to stir up both recumbent forms with angry foot, and then to shower in equal portions cold water and hot imprecations upon them. To Pedro he had intrusted the duty of caring for the horses of his prostrate comrades. Every faculty he possessed was on the alert, watching for the faintest sign of treachery or hostility from within, listening with dread but stern determination for the first sound of hoof-beats from without. It must have been about ten o'clock when, leaving Mr. Dawes, the clerk, seated in the dark interior beside the safe, Feeny stepped forth to make another round, stopped to look at Mullan and his partner, now beginning to twitch uneasily and moan and toss in their drunken sleep, and then turned to seek the paymaster. Whatsoever lights Moreno had been accustomed to burn by way of lure or encouragement to belated travellers, all was gloom to-night. The bar was silence and darkness. The bare east room adjoining the corral was tenanted now only by the clerk and the precious iron box of "greenbacks." No glimmer of lamp showed there. The westward apartments, opening only one into another and thence into the corral, were still as the night, and even when a shutter was slowly pushed from within, as though the occupants craved more air, no gleam of light came through.
"Don't show your ugly mug out here, Moreno," cautioned Feeny for the fourth or fifth time, "and warn any damned cut-throat with you to keep in hiding. The man who attempts to come out gets a bullet through him."
There had been shrill protestation in Mexican Spanish and Senora Moreno's strident tones when first he conveyed his orders to the master of the ranch, but Moreno himself had made no audible reply, and, as was conjectured, had enjoined silence on his wife, for after that outbreak she spoke no more.
"I've got this approach covered anyhow," muttered the veteran. "Now if I only had men to watch those doors into the corral, I could pen Moreno and whatever he has here at his back. It's that gang of hell-hounds we passed at Ceralvo's that will pay us a call before morning, or I'm a duffer."
Once again he found the paymaster wearily, anxiously patrolling his self-assumed post out beyond the westward wall. The presence of common danger, the staff official's forgetfulness of self and his funds in his determination to aid the wretched women whom he firmly believed to have been run off by the Apaches, had won from the sergeant the tribute of more respectful demeanor, even though he held the story of the raid to be an out-and-out lie.
"Any signs or sounds yet, sir?" he questioned in muffled tone.
"Why, I thought—just a moment ago—I heard something like the crack of a whip far out there on the plain."
"That's mighty strange, sir; no stage is due coming east until to-morrow night, and no stage would dare pull out on this stretch in face of the warning there at Picacho."
"Well, it may have been imagination. My nerves are all unused to this sort of thing. How do you work this affair when you want to reload, sergeant? I'm blessed if I understand it. I never carried a revolver before in my life."
Feeny took the glistening, nickel-plated Smith & Wessen, clicked the hammer to the safety-notch, tested the cylinder springs, and, touching the lever, showed his superior by the feel rather than sight how the perfect mechanism was made to turn on its hinge and thrust the emptied shells from their chamber.
"The Lord grant we may have no call to shoot to-night, sir, but I misdoubt the whole situation. That fire's beginning to wear itself out already, and any minute I look to hear the hoof-beats of the Morales gang, surrounding us here on every side. If they'll only hold off till towards morning and I can brace up these two poor devils they've poisoned, we can stand 'em off a while until our fellows begin to come back or Lieutenant Drummond hears of the gathering."
"And do you still believe there are no Apaches in this business?" asked the major.
"Not out north or west, sir; they're thick enough ahead in the Santa Maria, but not to the north, not to the west; I can't believe that. Those Morales fellows know everything that is going on. They knew that just about this time Ned Harvey was expected along escorting his sisters home. They knew you had never seen him and could easily be made to believe the story. Everything has been done to hold us back, first at Ceralvo's and afterwards here, until they could gather all their gang in force sufficient to attack, then—Hist! listen! There's hoofs now. No, not out there, the other way, from the Tucson road, east. God grant it's some of our fellows coming back! Keep watch here, major; I'll run out and challenge."
Hastily picking up a carbine as he passed the door, Feeny ran nimbly out across the sandy barren, disappearing in the darkness to the southeast. Old Plummer's heart beat like a hammer as he listened for the hail. A moment more he could hear hoof-beats and the voices of men in low tones; then, low-toned too, but sharp and stern, Feeny's challenge rose upon the night:
"Who comes there?"
Instantly the invisible party halted, surprised; but with the promptness born of frontier experience, back came the answer:
"Who are you, and where from?"
"George Harvey and party from Tucson, looking for Moreno's. Who are you?"
"United States cavalry on escort duty. How many in your party?"
"Only two here. We were delayed by Apache signs in the Santa Maria. The rest are some miles behind with relay mules. Are we near the ranch? What's that light out to the west?"
"Never mind that now. Dismount and come up alone, Mr. Harvey; I must recognize you first."
Feeny wanted to gain time. His brain was whirling. Here was partial confirmation of the story told by the alleged Ned Harvey in the morning. Here was the father coming with guard and relay mules to meet his children just as their morning visitor declared he was expected to do. Was it possible after all that the tale was true,—that the children were there at the Gila, making wide detour around Ceralvo's and taking the northward route around that ill-favored ranch? If so, what awful tidings had he to break! Stout soldier that he was, Feeny felt that he was trembling from head to foot. Up through the gloom strode a tall figure, fearless and confident.
"There's no Irishman in all the Morales gang," laughed the coming man, "and I know a cavalryman's challenge when I hear it, and so honor it at once. Where are you, sentry?"
"Here; this way," answered Feeny, standing erect and peering sharply through the gloom. "I've never met you, Mr. Harvey, but we all know you by reputation. Just tell me your business and how you happen to be riding the desert this time of night and then I'll tell you why I ask."
"I am expecting my son and daughters coming up from Yuma. We were to meet at Moreno's this evening; but a scouting-party in the mountains warned us to hide until night, so we're late. Have they reached Moreno's? We must be close there."
"You're close enough to Moreno's; it's not a hundred yards back there; but that light across the valley is the warning beacon at Picacho. They would hardly venture across knowing what that means."
"Why, my God, man!" exclaimed Harvey, "that says the Apaches are out west of the Santa Maria or the Christobal. Have you seen,—have you heard anything of them?"
"For the love of God, sir, don't ask me now. Come to the ranch. Major Plummer's there,—the paymaster. He'll tell you all we know."
A moment more and, with glaring eyes, with agonized, ashen face, the Arizona merchant stood at the entrance of the ranch, clinging to the horse-rail for support, listening with gasping breath to Plummer's faltering recital of the events of the morning.
"Are you sure it was my son,—my Ned?" he moaned.
"I never saw him before, Mr. Harvey; but some of my men were sure, and old Moreno here—"
The wooden shutter behind them swung open. From the inner darkness Moreno's voice, tremulous with sympathy and distress, fell upon their ears.
"Senor Harvey, my heart bleeds for you. I saw him but an instant, but it was he,—Senor Edward, your son."
"God of heaven! and your men have gone, all of them?"
"All but Feeny here."
"Northeast, towards the Christobal?"
"Yes; but stop one moment now, and look at this note. Is it your son's writing?" And Plummer produced the crumpled page while Feeny held the light. Feverishly Harvey examined the scrawl, his hand trembling so hard he could not steady the paper.
"It is like enough," he moaned. "It was written in such mad haste. My horse!" he cried, "and you come with me, George. Send the others on our trail as soon as they get in. Give me another pistol if you can,—I have but one,—and in God's name order along the first troops that reach you."
Then in less than a minute even the galloping hoofs had muffled their dull thunder in the darkness and distance. With wild dread spurring him on, the father was gone to the rescue of his children, leaving old Plummer and his faithful sergeant shocked and nerveless at the ranch.
And now, with such confirmation of the truth of the story of an Apache raid, the paymaster thought it only right to release Moreno from the duress in which Sergeant Feeny had placed him. When so old an inhabitant of Arizona as Mr. Harvey gave entire credence to the report; recognized the note as really his son's handiwork and hastened at all speed to overtake the pursuers, what room for doubt could be left in the mind of a new-comer to the soil? It was time, thought Plummer, to form an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the Mexican denizens of the ranch against the enemy common to both. But again Feeny shook his head in solemn protest.
"I may have been wrong as to the Apaches, sir, but I can't be mistaken as to Moreno. He's in the pay of the Morales brothers, even if not an active member of the gang. He is lurking in there now, I'll warrant you, with two or three of them in hiding, waiting for the coming of the main body. They'd 'a' been here before this, perhaps, if it hadn't been for the Apache story. They're more afraid of one of Cochises's band than of all the sheriffs from Tucson to Tacoma. I wish the rest of Harvey's people would get here," he continued, looking longingly out into the darkness. "Unless they are of better stuff than most of these mule-whackers in the Territory, you won't catch them hustling out alone trying to find their master this night. And yet, what use would they be to us?"
Plummer turned anxiously away and gave himself up to thought. Nothing but a faint glimmer now remained of the beacon-light. All was still as the grave about the lonely rancho. Walking over to the eastward door he entered the dark room, and was instantly hailed by the voice of his clerk.
"You're there, are you, Dawes?" he asked. "Not getting sleepy, I hope."
"Not a whit, major; I couldn't, even if I hadn't slept most of the day. I'm sitting here on the safe with a Colt's six-shooter in each hand. If old Moreno's door cracks, by gad! I'll let drive."
"Well, that's all right; but suppose they come around through the corral to this door?"
"I'm ready. I came within an ace of blazing away at you, but I happened to recognize your figure and step just in the nick of time."
A low whistle without broke up the colloquy. Plummer waddled off in the direction of the sound.
"What is it, sergeant?"
"They're coming, sir. Harvey's men, I mean. Will you deliver his message?"
"Just as you say; why shouldn't you?"
"It'll have so much more effect from your lips, major. They may misdoubt me."
Far out on the trail the quick-tripping hoofs of mules could now be heard. Presently a horseman shot up out of the gloom.
"Halt there!" sung out Feeny. "Whose party's this?"
"Harvey's, Tucson. Looking for Moreno's. Are we near?"
"You're there now, but you can't stop. Mr. Harvey wants you to come right along after him. He has taken the trail to the Christobal, where the Indians have carried off his daughters."
The man fairly reeled in saddle, shocked at the dreadful tidings.
"When?—how did it happen? Who's gone with him?"
"Some time this morning, from all we can learn. Two squads of cavalry are on the trail, one with Ned Harvey, the other just out from here at dark. The old man and George followed them as soon as they got in. Who's with you?"
"Two Mexicans, that's all; they're no account. I'd best leave them here with the mules. They're just behind and have been scared to death already."
And so in ten minutes two more of the low-caste, half-breed Mexicans were added to the paymaster's garrison, and Sergeant Feeny's brief exposition of the situation at the ranch only delayed the incoming American long enough to water his horse and stow a little grain in a sack.
"I wouldn't wonder a damned bit if the Morales gang were around here," was his discomforting assurance. "None of 'em have been seen about Tucson for a week before we left. Wish I could stay and stand by you, but my first duty is with Mr. Harvey. I've been in his employ nigh on to eight years."
"What sort of looking man is Ned Harvey?" persisted the sergeant, still hopeful of some fraud.
"Tall, dark, smooth face; looks like a Spaniard almost. I never saw anybody who resembled him hereabouts. I'm afraid it's no plant. I don't want to offend you, sergeant, but I wish to God it was all the Morales gang's doings and that it was only your money they were after. If it's Apaches and they have got the old man's children, he'll never get over it."
"By heaven!" muttered Feeny to himself, as the loyal fellow put spurs to his horse and disappeared,—"by heaven! I begin to believe it's both."
And now with gloomy face the sergeant returned to where he had left Major Plummer watching the westward trail. A brief word at the door-way assured him the clerk was still alert and ready. A pause under the open window, high above the ground, of the room where slept Moreno's wife and daughter, if they slept at all, told him that all was silence there if not slumber, and then he joined his superior.
"That fellow was of the right sort, sergeant," said Plummer. "I wish we had one or two like him."
"I wish we had, sir; those Greasers are worse than no guards at all. They'll sit there in the corral and smoke papellitos by the hour, and brag about how they fought their way through the Apaches with Harvey's mules; but for our purpose they're worse than useless. At the first sign of an attack they'd be stampeding out into the darkness, and that's the last we'd see of them. Heard anything further out this way, sir?"
"Why, confound it! yes. I try to convince myself it's only imagination; but two or three times, far out there towards the Picacho, I've heard that whip cracking. I have felt sure there was a hammering sound, as though some one were pounding on a wagon-tire. Once I was sure I heard a horse snort. That I was in a measure expecting. If those fellows mean to attack, they'll come mounted, of course; but what wagon would they have?"
"One of Ceralvo's, perhaps, to cart off the safe in, if they couldn't bust into it here."
"There! Hark now, sergeant! didn't you hear?" suddenly spoke the major, throwing up a warning hand.
Both men held their breath, listening intently. For a moment nothing but the beating of their own hearts served to give the faintest sound. Then, out to the west, under the starlit vault of the heavens, somewhere in that black expanse of desert, plainly and distinctly there rose the measured sound of iron or stone beating on iron. Whether it were tire or linch-pin, hame or brake, something metallic about a wagon or buck-board was being pounded into place or shape.
"It's them, sir," muttered the sergeant; "it's that bloody gang, for there's no stage due to-night, and if it was Harvey's ambulance, recaptured, 'tis from the northeast it would be coming."
"Mightn't they have missed the trail in the darkness, and, having no ranch lights to guide them, got lost somewhere out there?"
"Not likely, sir; shure there'd be a squad of the troop and half a dozen old hands with 'em if it was Harvey's. This has come from the pass, and it won't be long before they'll be coming ahead. You'll need your carbine then. Damn that man Mullan! can't I wake him yet?"
Apparently not; even the well-directed kick only evoked a groan. Taking a couple of carbines, Feeny returned to the major, silently handing him one of the weapons, saying, "It's loaded, sir, and here's more cartridges."
Then again both men listened intently.
No sound now. The hammering had ceased. One—two minutes they waited, then nearer at hand than before, clear, sharp, and distinct, out from the darkness came the unmistakable crack of a whip. At the sound Feeny knelt. Click, click went the hammer of his carbine to full cock. Another moment of breathless silence. Then the muffled sound of hoofs, the creak of wagon-springs, then a voice,—
"It can't be far away. Ride ahead and see if you can't rout somebody out."
And then Feeny's challenge again rang out on the still night air, followed instantly by muffled sound of stir and excitement in the ranch behind them.
"Who comes there?"
"Hello! What's that? Who's that? Is that Moreno?"
"Who comes there, I say? Halt! or I'll fire."
"For God's sake don't fire, man; we've got ladies here."
"What ladies? Who are you anyhow? Quick!"
"George Harvey's daughters, of Tucson. I'm his son."
"God be praised!" shouted Feeny, springing to his feet and rushing forward. "Are they all safe?—unharmed? Where did you overtake them?"
"Overtake who? What in blazes are you talking about?" queried a tall, slender fellow, bending down from his saddle. "Who are you?"
"Sergeant Feeny, of the cavalry,—and here's the major just back of me."
"Major Plummer; him you was talking with this morning when you came for help," answered Feeny, his voice tremulous with excitement. Already he was beginning to see light.
"Why, I've never seen Major Plummer nor any other major to-day. The only troops I met were Sergeant Wing and his guard at the pass just after nightfall. Have you met the Apaches? You saw the signal, of course."
"Signal, yes, but devil an Apache. Tell me now, wasn't it you was here at Moreno's this morning begging for troops to go and fetch your ladies down from the Gila? Wasn't it you sent the note saying they was run off by Indians?" And, as was the case whenever excited, Feeny's grammar ran to seed.
"Not a bit of it. My sisters are here, safe and sound. We'd have been here an hour ago but for slipping a tire. Is father here?"
"Talk to him, major; I'm done up entirely," was all poor Feeny could say, as, between relief, rejoicing, and the inestimable comfort of finding he was right in his theories after all, he dropped his carbine, threw himself upon the soft, sandy ground, and fairly rolled over and over in his excitement and emotion.
What wondering eyes,—what startled ears were at the wagon door-way, as, in his ponderous manner, the major endeavored to tell of the morning's adventure and the counterfeit presentment of the Ned Harvey now before him! Long before he could finish, the thoughtful son begged an instant's interruption.
"And father has gone on the trail to the Christobal?"
"Yes, an hour ago."
"After him, Leon! Ride like the devil, even if you have to ride all night. Fetch him back here as quick as you can. Tell him Fan and Ruth are safe here at Moreno's."
In ten minutes the Concord wagon with its fair freight, now trembling and excited, was standing side by side with the paymaster's ambulance. The weary mules were unhitched and, with the saddle-horses, led in to water. The major and the sergeant, prompting each other, went on with their recital, Harvey listening with attentive ear.