Roughing It Series.
GEORGE AT THE FORT;
Life Among the Soldiers.
Author of "The Gunboat Series," "The Sportsman's Club Series," "The Boy Trapper Series," Etc.
Philadelphia: Porter & Coates.
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Each volume handsomely illustrated and bound in fine extra cloth, black and gold stamp. 16mo.
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FRANK THE YOUNG NATURALIST. FRANK ON THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI. FRANK BEFORE VICKSBURG. FRANK ON THE PRAIRIE. FRANK IN THE WOODS. FRANK ON A GUNBOAT.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SERIES. 3 vols.
FRANK AMONG THE RANCHEROS. FRANK AT DON CARLOS' RANCHO. FRANK IN THE MOUNTAINS.
SPORTSMAN'S CLUB SERIES. 3 vols.
THE SPORTSMAN'S CLUB IN THE SADDLE. THE SPORTSMAN'S CLUB AFLOAT. THE SPORTSMAN'S CLUB AMONG THE TRAPPERS.
FRANK NELSON SERIES. 3 vols.
SNOWED UP; OR, THE SPORTSMAN'S CLUB IN THE MOUNTAINS. FRANK NELSON IN THE FORECASTLE. THE BOY TRADERS; OR, THE SPORTSMAN'S CLUB AMONG THE BOERS.
BOY TRAPPER SERIES. 3 vols.
THE BURIED TREASURE; OR, OLD JORDAN'S HAUNT. THE BOY TRAPPER; OR, HOW DAVE FILLED THE ORDER. THE MAIL-CARRIER.
ROUGHING IT SERIES. 3 vols.
GEORGE IN CAMP; OR, LIFE ON THE PLAINS. GEORGE AT THE WHEEL; OR, LIFE IN A PILOT HOUSE. GEORGE AT THE FORT; OR, LIFE AMONG THE SOLDIERS.
GO AHEAD SERIES. 3 vols.
GO AHEAD; OR, THE FISHER BOY'S MOTTO. NO MOSS; OR, THE CAREER OF A ROLLING STONE. TOM NEWCOMBE; OR, THE BOY OF BAD HABITS.
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Copyright, 1882, by Porter & Coates.
PAGE CHAPTER I. DISCONTENTED RECRUITS 5
CHAPTER II. AN OLD FRIEND TURNS UP 24
CHAPTER III. BOB'S FIRST COMMAND 45
CHAPTER IV. A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING 66
CHAPTER V. THE NEW SCOUT 90
CHAPTER VI. AN UNEXPECTED GUEST 113
CHAPTER VII. HOW BRYANT WAS CAPTURED 137
CHAPTER VIII. GEORGE AT THE FORT 159
CHAPTER IX. WHAT GEORGE KNEW ABOUT TRAILING 179
CHAPTER X. HOW GEORGE SAVED THE CAMP 200
CHAPTER XI. TELEGRAPHING BY SMOKES 222
CHAPTER XII. ANOTHER FEATHER FOR BOB'S CAP 242
CHAPTER XIII. HE WINS IT FAIRLY 262
CHAPTER XIV. "THREE CHEERS FOR THE 'BRINDLES'!" 282
CHAPTER XV. MORE BAD LUCK FOR MR. WENTWORTH 303
CHAPTER XVI. CONCLUSION 327
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST facing page 6
STORMING THE DUG-OUT " " 84
BOB CAPTURES THE DESERTER " " 146
TELEGRAPHING BY SMOKE " " 280
GEORGE AT THE FORT.
"Captain, this thing must be stopped. I say it must be stopped, even if we have to resort to summary measures. We must find out who the ringleaders are, and make an example of them."
The speaker was Colonel Brown, the commanding officer of Fort Lamoine. As he uttered these emphatic words he slammed a paper-weight down upon a pile of reports which the adjutant had just brought in, and, settling back in his chair, looked sharply at the officer who stood in front of the table. The red sash the latter wore around his waist proclaimed him to be the officer of the day.
"How many did you say there were in the party who deserted last night?" continued the colonel.
"Seven, sir," replied the officer of the day, "and there is a list of their names. They took no horses with them, but they each secured a carbine and a box of cartridges."
"That makes thirty men who have deserted since I took command of this post," said the colonel, angrily, "and not more than half of them have been captured.—Orderly, tell Corporal Owens I want to see him. He is one of the few non-commissioned officers in the command whom I am not afraid to trust.—Captain, have six picked men, with two days' rations, detailed to go with him in pursuit of these deserters. He can find and arrest them if anybody can."
The officer of the day closed the door of the colonel's head-quarters behind him, and in a few minutes the orderly opened it again to admit a sturdy young soldier, about eighteen years old, who wore upon his arms the yellow chevrons of a corporal of cavalry. This was Bob Owens—the boy who stole the mail-carrier's hard-earned money and ran away from home to enjoy it. He had not changed much in appearance. He had grown taller and his shoulders were broader, but any one who had known him before he entered the army would have recognized him now. The fact that he had been selected to perform the hazardous duty of pursuing and arresting the deserters who had left the fort the night before fully armed, and who would not hesitate to make a desperate resistance rather than allow themselves to be taken back to stand the punishment that would be inflicted upon them by a court-martial, and the colonel's declaration that he was one of the few non-commissioned officers in the command whom he was not afraid to trust, seemed to indicate that our old friend Bob had won a reputation since he enlisted in Galveston, nearly a year ago, and done something to win the confidence of his superiors. Let us go back and see what it was.
The last time we saw Bob Owens he was just coming out of a recruiting-office, having enlisted in the regular cavalry and sworn away his liberty for a long term of years. He did not take this step of his own free will, but was driven to it by force of circumstances.
When Bob found Dan Evans in his camp in the woods and stole from him the money that David, with Dan and Bert Gordon's assistance, had earned by trapping quails, he ran away from home, and after escaping from the constable who arrested him at Linwood on suspicion of being a horse-thief he took passage on board the steamer Sam Kendall for St. Louis. While he was on the steamer he made the acquaintance of George Ackerman, who was one of the pilots, and whom he twice saved from drowning. George owned an extensive cattle-ranche in Texas, which was held in trust for him by his uncle, John Ackerman, who was his guardian. After the Sam Kendall was burned he tried to show his gratitude to his preserver, whom he believed to be alone in the world, by offering him a home at his house. At first Bob was inclined to refuse. His imagination having been excited by the cheap novels he had read, he had left home intending to go on the Plains and make himself famous as a hunter and Indian-fighter; but George, who had seen more than one professional hunter in his frontier home, said so much against it, and painted the poverty and worthlessness of this class of men, and the dangers of the life they led, in such gloomy colors, that Bob was finally induced to give up his long-cherished idea, and to consent to accompany his new friend to his home in Texas. As George had no money, Bob footed all their bills, and in due time, in spite of the efforts which Uncle John Ackerman made to separate them in New Orleans, they arrived in Galveston.
They had scarcely stepped ashore before their troubles began in earnest. Bob's pocket was picked while he was passing through the crowd on the wharf, and the boys found themselves alone in a strange city, without money enough in their possession to pay for supper or lodging, and no friend to whom they could go for assistance. They spent the night on the streets, keeping constantly in motion to avoid attracting the attention of the police, and when morning came they found a good-natured grocer who gave them a breakfast of crackers and cheese, and provided George with the means of writing to Mr Gilbert for money to pay his fare and Bob's by rail and stage-coach to Palos. If they could only reach that place, their troubles would be over, for George was well known there, and everybody would be ready to lend him and his new friend a helping hand. But Mr. Gilbert lived a long way from Galveston, the mail facilities between Palos and his rancho were none of the best, and the boys were utterly at a loss to determine how they were going to exist during the two or three weeks that must elapse before George could receive an answer to his letter.
The two friends passed the day in roaming about the city looking for work, but nobody needed them. When the afternoon began drawing to a close they were almost tired out, and George talked of going to some station-house to spend the night—a project to which Bob could not bear to listen. The idea of having a policeman's key turned upon him was dreadful; the bare thought of it was enough to make him gasp for breath. As he walked along the streets he was continually searching his pockets in the faint hope of finding the missing money tucked away in some unexplored corner, and finally he discovered fifty cents in currency in the watch-pocket of his trousers. His heart bounded at the sight of it. It was enough to provide him with supper and a night's lodging, but was not enough to pay for the same comforts for George.
When Bob found this stray piece of currency he was not long in making up his mind how to act. He resolved to slip away from George, and accomplished his purpose by gradually slackening his pace and allowing the young pilot to get some distance in advance of him, and then he turned down a cross-street and took to his heels. He made his way to a cheap lodging-house, ate a hearty supper and went to bed, wondering how George was getting on and where he would pass the night. The latter, as we know, fared much better than Bob did, and the latter made a great mistake in deserting him. His companion had not been gone more than a half an hour before George encountered Mr. Gilbert, the friend to whom he had written that morning, and who had come to Galveston on business. The two looked everywhere for Bob, but were finally obliged to abandon the search. The missing boy had disappeared as completely as though the earth had opened and swallowed him up.
The first question that forced itself upon the mind of Bob Owens when he awoke the next morning was, "What shall I do next?" A careful examination of all his pockets showed him that there were no more fifty-cent pieces in them, and he was obliged to confess to himself that the future looked exceedingly dark. He walked the streets in a very disconsolate frame of mind, and had almost decided that he would step into the nearest grocery-store and ask the proprietor if he would not give him a job of sawing wood to pay for something to eat, when he happened to pass a recruiting-office. A sign posted up in front of the door conveyed to the public the information that men were wanted there for the United States cavalry service, and suggested an idea to Bob. He took a few minutes in which to run it over in his mind, and then faced about and entered the office.
The law against enlisting minors without the consent of their parents or guardians is very strict, but Bob got around it by repeating the story he had told George Ackerman, that he was an orphan, and that there was no one who had a right to control his actions. The recruiting-officer was a young man, not more than two or three years older than himself, but he had seen service away up in the Yellowstone country, and the scar on his forehead, which was not yet fully healed, marked the track of the Indian bullet which had come very near putting an end to his career as a soldier. Being unable to do duty in the field, he had been sent to Texas to recuperate his health and to recruit men to fill up some of the depleted cavalry regiments. He questioned Bob very closely, but the latter gave satisfactory replies, and, having passed the surgeon, his "descriptive list" was taken and he was duly sworn into the service. There were a number of newly-enlisted men hanging about the office waiting to be ordered to some post, and one of them, who acted as quartermaster-sergeant, took Bob into a back room and served out a uniform to him.
"What shall I do with my citizen's rig?" asked Bob as he twisted himself first on one side and then on the other to see how he looked in his new clothes. "I suppose I can't keep it?"
"Of course not," was the sergeant's quick reply. "It would come too handy in case you should make up your mind to desert."
"I shall never make up my mind to any such thing," exclaimed Bob, indignantly. "I have gone into this business with my eyes open, and I am going to see it through."
"That's the right spirit," said the sergeant. "But wait till you have ridden twelve hundred miles at a stretch in pursuit of a band of hostiles, and perhaps you'll weaken."
"What do you know about hostiles?" asked Bob.
"Well, I should think I ought to know all about them, for I have been there. This is my third enlistment in the regular army."
"Is that so?" exclaimed Bob. "I should think that after so many years' service you ought to be an officer."
"I was a non-com when I was discharged, and that is as high as any enlisted man can get now," replied the soldier. "I was a captain during the war, but they don't take men out of the ranks and make officers of them any more. When I enlisted this time I had to go in as a private; but I have my old warrants in my pocket, and perhaps they will help me get a new one when I reach the post where I am to serve."
"What's a non-com?" asked Bob.
"Why, a non-commissioned officer," answered the soldier, staring at Bob as if he were surprised at his ignorance. "You never did any soldiering, I'll bet."
"No, I never did," replied the recruit; "this is my first experience."
"And before you get through with it you will wish that you had never had any experience at all."
"Don't you think I shall like the army?"
"Well, I know I don't like it."
"Then why did you enlist again?"
"Because I couldn't do anything else. A man who has soldiered for nearly fourteen years isn't fit for civil life. Now, make your citizen's clothes into a bundle and take them around the corner to a little Jew store you will find there. Mose buys all the recruits' cast-off clothing. He'll not give you much for them, but the little he will give you will keep you in gingerbread as long as you stay in the city."
"How long do you suppose that will be?"
"I am sure I don't know, but if recruits keep coming in as rapidly as they have during the last few days, the lieutenant will probably take a squad off next week."
"Where will he take it?"
"That's a conundrum. A private never knows where he is going until he gets there."
"Where do you eat and sleep?"
"We take our meals at the restaurant next door, and having no bunks we sleep on the benches in the office. You can go about the city as much as you please, but you must be sure and report at meal-time. If you fail to do that, you will have the police after you."
"Why will I?" asked Bob in surprise.
"Because the lieutenant will think you have deserted."
Bob was beginning to feel the tight rein of military discipline already. At home he had always been accustomed to go and come when he pleased, and he did not like the idea of having his liberty restricted or of being obliged to obey without question the orders of a boy scarcely older than himself. But it was too late to think of that now. The youthful officer was backed up by the entire military and police force of the United States, and there was no such thing as getting out of reach of his authority.
"I am in for it," thought Bob as he rolled up his clothes and started for the little Jew store around the corner, "but I don't know that I could have done anything else. I shall have plenty to eat and a place to sleep, and at the same time I shall be earning money to pay off that debt I owe Dave Evans. What an idiot I was to keep that money! To pay for that one act of folly and dishonesty I am compelled to waste some of the best years of my life in the army. I hope I shall get a chance to show them that I am no coward, if I am a greenhorn."
It was little indeed that Mose gave Bob for the articles he had to offer for sale—just four dollars for clothing that had cost over thirty; but those four dollars made him feel a little more independent. They brought him a few delicacies to supplement the plain fare that was served up to him and his companions at the cheap restaurant at which they took their meals, and were the means of gaining him the friendship of one of the recruits, Bristow by name, who stuck to him like a leech until the last cent had been expended.
Bob remained in Galveston nearly two weeks, and during that time he saw everything of interest there was to be seen in the city. Then he began to grow tired of having nothing to do, and took to hanging about the office as the others did, and making comments upon those who presented themselves for enlistment. He was glad indeed when the lieutenant mustered all the recruits one night and ordered them to report at the office the next morning at nine o'clock, sharp; but he was provoked because the officer did not tell them where they were going. This, however, only proved the truth of the old sergeant's words—that a private never knew where he was going until he got there. Bob knew that they were bound for Brownsville when a steamer landed them there a few hours later, and he found out that they were going from there to Fort Lamoine when they arrived at that post after a weary tramp of more than three hundred miles.
The recruits camped beside the trail at night, and during the daytime plodded along behind the army-wagon which contained their tents, blankets, rations and cooking-utensils. It was very fatiguing to all of them, and it was not long before Bob began to learn something of the dispositions of the men with whom he was to be intimately associated during his term of enlistment. The majority of them grumbled lustily, and even talking of deserting, and there were not more than two or three besides himself who bore the discomforts of the march with anything like patience. There was not much restriction placed upon their actions, and, although they were not permitted to stray away from the line of march during the daytime, they were allowed to visit any ranches or farm-houses that might be in the neighborhood of their camping-grounds. The people they met along the route were very liberal with the products of their gardens and with their milk, butter and eggs, and the recruits fared sumptuously every day; but it would have been much better for some of them if they had remained in camp at night and left the settlers entirely alone. Not a few of the men with whom they exchanged civilities unconsciously sowed among them seeds of discontent that were destined eventually to bear a fruitful crop of trouble. By endeavoring to live up to the sentiments they heard expressed on every hand, more than one of the recruits found themselves landed in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.
"I don't see why you chaps swear away your liberty, and work for thirteen dollars a month, when you might just as well get forty and be free men," said a rancheman one night, after he has given Bob and three companions, one of whom was Bristow, all the milk he had to spare. "You'll soon get enough of soldiering, I tell you. I know, for I have tried it. It is a heap easier to ride around on your horse and watch your cattle while they are fattening themselves for market on the rich grass."
"But we don't happen to have any cattle to watch," said Bob.
"Who would give us forty dollars a month?" demanded Bristow, who was one of the loudest and most persistent grumblers among the recruits.
"You could get it almost anywhere in this country," replied the rancheman. "I'd give it to you, for one, and I know of a dozen others who stand ready to snap up the first man that comes along, no odds whether he ever herded cattle or not. You have made precious fools of yourselves, and you'll get a fool's reward. You'll have mean grub, hard work and poor pay, and be niggers to every little snipe who wears a shoulder-strap."
"We've found that out already—haven't we, boys?" said Bristow, as he and his companions reluctantly took leave of the hospitable rancheman and retraced their steps toward the camp. "We are precious fools to work for thirteen dollars, when we might just as well earn three times that amount, and be our own masters besides. There is no need that anybody should tell us that our officers will treat us like niggers, for we have found that out too. Look at that lieutenant! He rides in the wagon every day, while we have to hoof it."
"But you must remember that he is not strong," said Bob. "He has not yet fully recovered from the effects of his wound."
"I don't believe a word of it," declared Bristow. "He's just as able to march and cook his own grub and pitch his own tent as we are. It makes me sick to see how that man Haskins waits on him." (Haskins was the one who had served out clothing to the recruits in Galveston.) "But a blind man could see what he is working for," added Bristow. "He wants to get into the good graces of the lieutenant, hoping that he will be recommended for a non-com's position when we reach the fort. I tell you I have seen enough of soldiering already, and the very first chance I get I am going to skip out."
"I'll go with you," said one of the recruits.
"All right! Shake on that."
"You may depend upon me," said the recruit as he grasped Bristow's proffered hand. "Do you remember that big-whiskered, loud-voiced rancheman who gave us the potatoes the other night? He is sadly in need of help, and he told me that if I would come to his house, bringing three or four friends with me, he would give us citizens' clothes and hide us until the officers gave up looking for us. All he asked was, that we should agree to work for him for twelve months, and promise not to leave without giving him due notice."
"I am in for that," exclaimed the recruit who had not spoken before.—"What do you say, Owens?"
"I say I am out of it," was the quick reply. "If I did a thing like that, I never could look a white man in the face again. I have been guilty of a good many mean acts during my life—some that I would gladly recall if I could—but I am not mean enough to desert. Besides, I have no desire to have a bullet sent into me."
Bob's companions did not know whether to be surprised or angry at this plain speech. They stared hard at him for a moment, and then Bristow said,
"Are you really afraid of being shot? Well, I can set your fears on that score at rest. I know that the penalty for desertion in the face of the enemy is death, but we are not in the face of the enemy now. The country is at peace."
"I know it is nominally so," answered Bob, "but it is not so in reality, and never will be so long as these hostile Indians and lawless Mexicans continue to raid over the Texas border. If you skip out, as you threaten to do, you may rest assured that you will be brought back by force of arms, and if you resist you will be shot."
"How does it come that you know so much more than the rest of us?" demanded Bristow angrily. "You are not an old soldier."
"I am aware of that fact, but I have been talking to an old soldier, and that was Haskins. He told me that Major Elliot, one of General Custer's officers, pursued a party of deserters, and when they resisted he shot three of them; and Haskins himself was one of the squad that did the shooting."
"I don't believe a word of it," exclaimed Bristow.
"Neither do I," said another of the recruits. "Of course we expect to be pursued, but we shall take good care that we are not caught. Any of these ranchemen who want herdsmen will furnish us with citizens' clothing, and before our year is out the thing will blow over, and then we'll go home, and stay there."
"It won't blow over as easily as you think for," said Bob. "It will be known to your home authorities and to everybody else that you are deserters, and all the detectives in the United States will be on the lookout for you. If you want to live in constant fear of arrest, you can do it, but I won't."
Bob stuck to his resolution, and his discontented companions stuck to theirs. We shall see in due time which of the four made the wisest decision.
AN OLD FRIEND TURNS UP.
The long, toilsome journey was completed at last, and late one afternoon the weary and footsore recruits found themselves drawn up in line on the parade-ground at Fort Lamoine. After the roll had been called and the colonel commanding the post had hurriedly inspected them, they were turned over to a sergeant, who marched them into the barracks. There they found about two hundred or more soldiers, who, as soon as the order was given to "break ranks," crowded about them inquiring for late papers and asking a thousand and one questions in regard to what was going on in the States.
Learning from the sergeant that no duty would be required of him that day, Bob spread his blankets in one of the empty bunks, and, stretching himself upon them, placed his hands under his head and looked about him with no little curiosity. Presently a young trooper, a boy about his own age, who looked as though he were just recovering from a long siege of sickness, approached, and, seating himself on the edge of Bob's bunk, began a conversation with him. Those of our readers who have met this boy before in citizen's dress might have seen something familiar about him, but still it is doubtful if they would have recognized in him—Well, we will let him reveal his identity. After a few commonplace remarks Bob inquired, as he nodded his head toward a soldier who was hobbling about the room with the aid of a crutch,
"What's the matter with that man?"
"Raiders," was the sententious reply.
"Been in a fight?" asked Bob.
The young soldier nodded his head.
"How long since?"
"Last full moon."
"I hope these fights don't occur very often."
"Well, they do—much oftener than I wish they did. I have been in two pretty hard ones, and that's enough for me. I suppose we shall have more of them now, for I understand that we have received orders to follow the raiders across the river and thrash them wherever they can be found."
"Were you wounded in one of those fights?" asked Bob. "Then you must be sick," he added when the boy shook his head.
"Yes, I am sick," was the reply—"homesick and sick at heart. I have been in the army nearly two years and a half, and I don't see how I can live to serve out the rest of my time. I am dying by inches."
"What did you come into the army for, anyhow?"
"Because I was a fool," answered the young soldier bitterly.
"Shake," exclaimed Bob, extending his hand; "I came in for the same reason."
"Did your parents give their consent?" asked his new acquaintance.
"No, they didn't. They live in Mississippi, and don't know anything about it."
Bob's long tramp had taken a good deal of spirit out of him, and somehow he could not muster up energy enough to tell any more falsehoods concerning himself.
"My parents live in Ohio," said the soldier.
"Then how in the world did you happen to stray down here to Texas?" asked Bob.
"I ran away from home."
"Shake," said Bob, again extending his hand; "that's just what I did."
The two runaways shook each other's hands in the most cordial manner, and instantly all reserve between them vanished. They were companions in misery and united by a bond of sympathy. The young soldier at once became very communicative. He had closely guarded his secret for more than two years, because there was not one among the rough men by whom he was surrounded who could understand or appreciate his feelings. But here was one who could sympathize with him, and it was a great relief to him to know that he could speak freely and run no risk of being laughed at for his weakness.
"My name is Gus Robbins," said he, moving up a little closer to Bob and speaking in a low, confidential tone. "I had as good a home as any boy need wish for, but I wasn't contented there; still, I don't believe that I ever should have left it as I did if circumstances had not smoothed the way for me. My father is the senior partner in the largest dry-goods store in Foxboro', and he had in his employ two persons, father and son, who are in a great measure responsible for all the trouble I have got into. The buy was a clerk like myself, and his father was our bookkeeper. They had a very wealthy relative, a rancheman, living here in Texas, and when that relative died it was found that he had willed his property to our bookkeeper, to be held in trust for his (the rancheman's) son. They came to Texas to take charge of the estate, and after a while I received a letter from Ned (that was the boy's name) inviting me to pay him a visit. As he sent me money enough to bear the expenses of the journey, I came; and I am very sorry for it. We got ourselves into trouble by shooting some cattle that had broken into Ned's wheat-field, and had to dig out for Brownsville at a gallop. Ned went squarely back on me, and as I had no money to pay my way home, and hadn't the cheek to ask my father for it, I did what I thought to be the next best thing—I enlisted. I am very sorry for that too, for there was where I made my mistake. I ought to have gone back into the country and hired out to some stock-raiser. Then I could have gone home as soon as I had earned and saved money enough to take me there; but now I must stay my time out; that is, unless—"
Gus paused and looked at Bob. The latter understood him. Here was another fellow who had made up his mind to desert at the first opportunity.
"Don't do that," said Bob, earnestly. "You'll only get yourself into trouble if you attempt it."
"I don't care if I am shot for it. I'll make a break for liberty the very first good chance I get."
The tone in which these words were uttered satisfied Bob that it would be of no use whatever to argue the matter. It was plain that Gus had made up his mind after mature deliberation, and that he was not to be easily turned from his purpose.
"Where did your friend Ned go after you reached Brownsville?" asked Bob, who was much interested in the young soldier's story.
"I don't know; I left him at the hotel. He will come to some bad end, and so will his father, for they are both rascals. The property of which they have charge, and which brings in a big fortune every year, rightfully belongs to George Ackerman, Ned's cousin; but Ned and his father—"
"George Ackerman?" exclaimed Bob, starting up in his bunk.
Gus nodded his head, and looked at the recruit in great surprise.
"Is he a cub pilot?" continued the latter.
"'A cub pilot'?" repeated Gus. "No, he's a herdsman, or I ought rather to say he was a herdsman. He had stock of his own worth six thousand dollars. Where he is now I don't know, for on the morning after we left his ranche, while we were camped in the edge of the timber making up for the sleep we had lost the night before, we were surprised by a couple of Greasers, who made a prisoner of George and carried him across the river into Mexico. I don't know what they did with him, for all George could induce them to say was that 'Fletcher wanted to see him.'"
"It's the same fellow," exclaimed Bob, rising from his blanket and seating himself on the edge of the bunk by his companion's side. "He told me all about it, but his story was so very remarkable that I didn't know whether to believe it or not. He gave those Greasers the slip, secured a berth as cub pilot on a Mississippi River steamer, and that was where I found him."
With this introduction Bob went on to tell how he had saved George from going to the bottom when Uncle John Ackerman pushed him overboard from the Sam Kendall; related all the thrilling incidents connected with the burning of the steamer; described how Uncle John had tried to separate them in New Orleans; in short, he gave a truthful account of his intercourse with the cub pilot up to the time he deserted him in Galveston. Bob was heartily ashamed of that now, and could not bear to speak of it.
"I became separated from him in some way—it is very easy to lose a companion in the crowded streets of a city, you know—and that was the last I saw of him," said Bob in conclusion; and when he told this he forgot that he had afterward seen George go into a hotel accompanied by Mr. Gilbert. "Then I didn't know what to do. I had no money; I was hungry and sleepy, utterly discouraged; and, like you, I sought to end my troubles by enlisting. I see now that I made a great mistake, but I am going to serve faithfully during my term of enlistment, if I live. Is George's ranche far from here?"
"I don't know, for I am not much acquainted with the country east of here, never having scouted in that direction. It is about one hundred and fifty miles from Palos, if you know where that is. As you are George's friend, I am sorry that you enlisted, for I know that you are going to have a hard time of it; but since you did enlist, I am glad you were ordered to this post, for misery loves company, you know. Let's walk out on the parade, where we can talk without danger of being overheard. Perhaps you would like to take a look at the place which will always be associated in your mind with the most unhappy days of your existence."
It was plain that Gus took a very gloomy view of things, and of course his discouraging remarks made an impression upon Bob, although they did not take away the interest he felt in his surroundings. Everything was new to him, and he asked a great many questions as he and Gus walked slowly around the parade toward the stables.
Fort Lamoine was situated on a high, rocky eminence which overlooked the surrounding country for half a dozen miles or more in every direction. The stockade, which enclosed about two acres of ground, was built of upright logs deeply sunk in the earth. The tops were sawed off level, and a heavy plate of timber, through which stout wooden pins had been driven into the end of each log, held them firmly in their place. The officers' quarters, barracks, store-houses and stables were built in the same manner. On the outside of the parade were long rows of stately cottonwood trees, interspersed with shrubs and flowers. In one corner, on the right-hand side of the principal gate, was the well that supplied the garrison with water, and in the other was the flagstaff, from which floated the Stars and Stripes.
"Emblem of liberty!" said Gus with a sneer as he pointed up at the flag—"emblem of tyranny, rather."
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Bob quickly.
"Oh, you will find out before you have been here long," replied Gus, shaking his head and looking very wise. "A bigger lot of tyrants than the officers who command us were never crowded into any one post."
"Perhaps you don't do your duty as well as you might?" mildly suggested Bob.
"I know I don't. I do no more than I am obliged to do, I tell you, and for the simple reason that I didn't enlist to act as lackey to a lot of shoulder-straps. I am just as good as they are, but they say I am not. Why, the last time the paymaster was here his little snipe of a clerk remarked in my hearing that enlisted men were nothing more than servants to the officers. What do you think of that?"
Bob did not know what to think of it, so he said nothing in reply. He simply resolved that he would not pass judgment upon his superiors until he had had some experience with them himself.
"This is by no means the gloomy place that I expected to find it," said Bob as he and Gus resumed their walk.
"Oh, the fort itself is good enough," replied Gus; "it's the people who live in it that I object to. If one could pick his own company, and could do as he pleased, he might manage to live here for a few years very comfortably; but we have to associate with some rough characters there in the barracks, and the officers hold us with our noses close to the grindstone all the time. They look upon a private as little better than a dog, and they'll slap him into the guard-house on the slightest provocation. Now, this is one of the stables; it will accommodate seventy horses. Those you see in here are blooded animals, and they belong to the officers. The government horses are always picketed outside, except when there is danger of a visit from the raiders, and then they are brought in for safe-keeping. Now, take a good look at the stable, and then come out and take another look at the stockade. Every night there are two sentries placed over this stable—one at the front, and the other at the rear, between the stable and the stockade—and a guard sleeps inside. Would you believe that, after all these precautions, it would be possible for anybody to come into the fort and steal a horse?"
Bob said he would not.
"Well, it was done not more than two weeks ago," continued Gus. "One stormy night these two logs were removed from the stockade, and four of the best horses in the stable were run off. It must have taken hours to do the work, and although the sentries were changed while it was going on, no one knew that a theft had been committed until the next morning."
"Who did it?" inquired Bob.
"A couple of Comanches, who were surprised and killed by the squad that was sent in pursuit of them. The Comanches are acknowledged, even by the Indians themselves, to be the most expert horse-thieves on the Plains. Why, one night, when a scouting-party to which I was attached were in camp and fast asleep, a Comanche crept up and stole the lieutenant's horse; and in order to do it he had to cut the lariat that was tied to the officer's wrist. He got away with the horse, and never awoke one of us."
Gus Robbins had accumulated an almost inexhaustible fund of such anecdotes as these during his two and a half years of army-life, and he related a good many of them to Bob while they were walking about the fort examining the different objects of interest. From some of them Bob gained a faint idea of what might be in store for himself.
The next morning the newly-arrived recruits were formed into an awkward squad and turned over to the tender mercies of a grizzly old sergeant, who proved to be anything but an agreeable and patient instructor. He drilled them for four hours without allowing them a single moment's rest, abusing them roundly for every mistake they made; and when at last he marched them to their quarters, it was only that they might eat their dinner and take half an hour's breathing-spell preparatory to going through the same course of sprouts again in the afternoon. This routine was followed day after day until the members of the awkward squad were declared to be sufficiently drilled to warrant their appearance on dress-parade. After that they were assigned to the different troops (or companies) that stood the most in need of men, Bob, to his delight, finding himself in the same troop to which his new friend, Gus Robbins, belonged. But even then their troubles did not cease. Instead of drilling eight hours each day, they drilled six, and were obliged to do guard-duty besides. Among the three hundred and eighty men who composed the garrison there were not a few old soldiers who hated this hard work as cordially as some of the new-comers did, and there was a good deal of grumbling among them; but Bob Owens never uttered a word of complaint. Firmly adhering to the resolution he had made when he first enlisted, he set himself to work to learn just what was required of him, and when he found out what his duty was, he did it cheerfully and faithfully. He was always on hand when he was wanted, his equipments were always ready for inspection, and his horse shone like satin. When his own steed had been fed and groomed, he turned his attention to the horse belonging to the lieutenant who commanded the troop to which he belonged, and thereby aroused the indignation of some of his brother-soldiers.
"What are you doing that for?" demanded Gus Robbins one day as he and Bristow entered the stable and found Bob busy at work grooming the lieutenant's horse. "You are in pretty business, I must say!"
"Yes, I rather like it," answered Bob. "I always liked to work about horses, and I am doing this because I haven't anything else to do just now."
"Well, I wouldn't do it any more if I were in your place," continued Gus. "The law expressly prohibits an officer from compelling, or even hiring, an enlisted man to do his dirty work."
"It does, does it?" exclaimed Bob. "Didn't you tell me when I just came here that enlisted men were nothing but servants to their officers?"
"I didn't mean that, exactly," stammered Gus. "What I did mean was, that they don't treat us like human beings. If an officer wants a servant, he must hire a civilian and pay him out of his own pocket; that's what the law says."
"I am aware of that fact; but the law doesn't say that I shall not groom the lieutenant's horse if I choose to do it of my own free will, does it?"
"Let the toady alone, Robbins," said Bristow angrily. "The troop hasn't got all the non-coms that it is entitled to, and Owens is working for chevrons. You know the lieutenant said the other day that there were four corporals' and two duty sergeants' warrants waiting for those who were willing to win them; and this is the way Owens is going to work to get one of them."
Bob straightened up, looked sharply at Bristow for a moment, and then drew back the brush he held in his hand, as if he had half a mind to throw it at his head.
"That's what all the boys say, Bob," observed Gus. "If you want to keep on the right side of the privates, you must not try to curry favor with the officers."
"If you want a non-com's warrant, why don't you wait until you get a chance to win it in battle?" added Bristow. "That's what I intend to do, and I shall think much more of a promotion earned in that way than I should of one I had gained by cleaning an officer's horse."
"Look here, fellows," said Bob earnestly: "I don't do this work for the lieutenant because I hope to gain anything by it. I do it simply to pass away the time, for I can't see any fun in loafing about the quarters doing nothing. If the boys don't like it, let's see them help themselves."
"If the lieutenant was a decent man, I wouldn't say a word," answered Bristow. "But he is so mean that I wouldn't turn my hand over to save his life."
"Anybody with half an eye could see what is the matter with you," retorted Bob. "You have been in the guard-house about half the time since you have been here, and spent the other half in doing extra duty; and that's the reason you don't like the lieutenant. If you will wake up and attend to business, he will treat you well enough."
Bob's prompt and soldier-like way of performing the work that was required of him very soon attracted the attention of Lieutenant Earle (that was the name of the officer in command of the troop to which Bob belonged), and he took his own way to reward him for it. If he was ordered off on a scout, Bob Owens was always one of the "picked men" who accompanied him. If he was sent out with a squad during the full of the moon to watch the ford a few miles below the fort, Bob was one of the members of that squad. This did not excite the jealousy of the good soldiers, for they were always glad to have a brave comrade to back them up in times of danger, no matter whether he was a greenhorn or a veteran; but the grumblers and the discontented ones, especially those who belonged to his own troop, had a good deal to say about it, and declared that the lieutenant took Bob with him on his expeditions to pay him for grooming his horse. They disliked him cordially, and it was not long before an incident happened that caused the dislike of at least one of them to grow into positive hatred.
One pleasant afternoon some of the men received permission to go outside the gates for a short stroll. They wandered off in squads, some going one way and some another, and Bristow and two companions—one of whom was Gus Robbins—bent their steps toward the crumbling remains of an old adobe outpost which marked the spot where more than one desperate fight with the Apaches had taken place in the days gone by. There they seated themselves and entered into conversation, Bristow's first words indicating that they were about to discuss a subject that had before occupied their attention.
"I tell you, Robbins," said he, "if you are in earnest in what you say, now is the time to prove it."
"I certainly am in earnest," answered Gus; "but, to tell you the honest truth, I am afraid."
"'Afraid'!" repeated Bristow in a tone of contempt. "What in the world are you afraid of?"
"Of pursuit," replied Gus. "If we resist, we run the risk of being shot; and if we are captured, we stand an excellent chance of going to prison."
"Now, Robbins," said Bristow earnestly, "let me once more explain our arrangements to you, and you will see that we do not risk anything. In the first place, the horses are left picketed outside the stockade every night. They are never brought in, as you know, unless there is danger of a visit from the raiders. Four of the six men who are to act as horse-guards to-night belong to our party. When the time for action arrives, these four men will go to work on the other two and try to induce them to accompany us. If they don't succeed, they'll bind and gag them, and so put it out of their power to give the alarm. The sentry who will be on duty between the stable and the stockade is also one of us, and of course he will raise no objection when we slip out of the quarters, one by one, and climb the stockade. As fast as we get over we will select our horses—I've got mine picked out, and I could put my hand on him in the darkest of nights—and when the last one has made his escape we'll mount and put off. Of course we hope to escape by running, but if we can't do that, we shall turn at bay and make a fight of it. We have all sworn to stand by one another to the last, and thirty determined, well-armed men can make things lively for a while, I tell you."
Bristow continued to talk in this strain for half an hour, his companion now and then putting in a word to assist him; and he talked to such good purpose that Gus Robbins finally consented to make one of the large party that was to desert the post that very night. Bristow then gave him the names of the other members—there were several non-commissioned officers among them—and after urging him to be very careful of himself, and to say and do nothing that might arouse the suspicions of "outsiders," the three got upon their feet and walked toward the fort.
They had scarcely left the ruins when a fatigue-cap arose from behind a pile of rubbish scarcely a dozen feet from the place where the three conspirators had been sitting, and a pair of eyes looking out from under the peak of that cap watched them as they moved away.
BOB'S FIRST COMMAND.
The eyes that were so closely watching the movements of Bristow and his companions belonged to Bob Owens. The latter had strolled off alone, and thrown himself behind an angle of the ruined wall to indulge in a few moments' quiet meditation, and thus unwillingly placed himself in a position to overhear the details of the plot which we have just disclosed. If Bristow had not so promptly entered upon the discussion of the subject of desertion, Bob would have made his presence known to him; but after he had listened to the first words that fell from his lips he thought it best to remain quietly in his place of concealment, for he knew that if he revealed himself, then he would be accused of playing the part of eavesdropper.
"Now, here's a go!" thought Bob, rising to his feet when he saw Bristow and his two friends walk through the gate into the fort, "and I wish somebody would be kind enough to tell me what I ought to do about it. Shall I stand quietly by and let them go, or shall I tell the officers what I have heard? If I let them go, they will run the risk of being gobbled up by that party of Kiowas who are now raiding the country north of us; and if I tell the colonel, and it should ever be found out on me, I should lead a hard life in the quarters. I wish I had been somewhere else when they came here."
Thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, Bob left the ruins, and, walking slowly around the stockade, entered at a gate on the opposite side. His first care was to hunt up the sergeant-major of his regiment, whom he found in the quarters. This man had grown gray in the service, and he was a soldier all over—brave, faithful and untiring in the performance of his duty. He readily responded to Bob's significant wink, and followed him out on the parade.
"Sergeant," said Bob as soon as they were beyond earshot of everybody, "I have accidentally come into the possession of a secret, and I don't know what to do with it. There are thirty men in the garrison who are going to desert to-night."
The old fellow took a fresh chew of tobacco, pushed his cap on the back of his head and looked at Bob, who, after telling him where he had been and how he happened to overhear the plot, continued:
"It would never do to let them go. You know I was detailed to act as the colonel's orderly this morning, and I heard that scout who came in just before noon tell him that there is a large party of hostiles between here and Fort Tyler. These deserters intend to take their weapons with them, and think they can make a good fight; but those Kiowas are strong enough to annihilate them."
"Small loss that would be to us!" growled the veteran. "We are going to have some hot work to do before long, and such men are no good in a fight."
"It would never do to let them go," repeated Bob, "but there is only one way to prevent it that I can see; and that is by telling the colonel all about it. If I do that, and they should find it out, they would go back on me, sure."
"Of course they would," said the sergeant.
"Well, what would you do if you were in my place?" asked Bob.
"What would I do? I would go straight to the officer of the day and tell him the whole thing. The good-will of such men don't amount to anything, any way, and what do you care if they do go back on you? There's only thirty of them, and that leaves three hundred and fifty good fellows who will always be ready to befriend you. Do you know who these deserters are? I'll report the matter if you are afraid, and then let's see one of them open his head to me."
Bob repeated the names of the would-be deserters which Bristow had given as nearly as he could recall them, and the sergeant hurried off to hunt up the officer of the day, while Bob went back into the quarters. He had been there but a few minutes when the orderly appeared at the door and sung out,
"Owens, the colonel wants to see you."
"Aha!" exclaimed Bristow, "our good little boy has been doing something bad at last.—There are no bunks in the guard-house, Owens."
Bob made no reply. He followed the orderly across the parade and into the colonel's head-quarters, where he found the officer of the day, the sergeant-major and all the ranking officers of the garrison. The colonel questioned him closely in regard to the plot he had discovered, and finally dismissed him and the sergeant without making any comments. Half an hour later the entire cavalry force of the garrison was drawn up in line, the names of forty men who were ordered to the front and centre were read off, and the rest of the troopers were sent back to their quarters. Then the bugle sounded "Boots and saddles!" and in a few minutes more these forty men—one of whom was Bob Owens—rode out of the gate, led by the scout who had brought the information concerning that war-party of Kiowas. The squad was commanded by Lieutenant Earle.
"That's all right," whispered Bristow to one of his fellow-conspirators as they stood in front of their quarters and saw their comrades ride away. "There will be just so many men less to follow us to-morrow morning. But I wish we knew which way they are going," he added in a tone of anxiety; "and we must find out if we can. We don't want to run into them if we can possibly avoid them, for there are some of the best men in the garrison in that party."
"I suppose we are off after the hostiles," said the soldier who rode by Bob's side. "The scout told the colonel that there were three hundred braves in that party, didn't he?"
Bob answered that that was what he understood him to say.
"Then I wish we had a hundred men instead of forty," continued the trooper. "Our squad is too large to conceal itself, and too small to make a successful fight against such overwhelming odds. Well, if worst comes to worst—"
The speaker thrust his hand into his boot-leg and drew out a loaded Derringer. He intended to send its contents through his own head rather than fall alive into the hands of the hostiles. Probably nine out of ten men in that squad were provided with weapons just like it, and which they intended to use in the same way should circumstances require it. Veteran Indian-fighters never fail to give this advice to a recruit: "When it comes to a fight, save the last shot for yourself."
But, as it happened, Bob and his companions were not out after hostiles on this particular afternoon, for that raiding-party of Kiowas was already beyond the reach of any force that the commander of Fort Lamoine could have sent in pursuit of it. They found out in due time that their mission was of an entirely different character. They rode at a sharp trot until it was nearly dark, and then they went into camp in a belt of post-oaks and cooked and ate their supper. After an hour's rest they mounted and rode back toward the fort again. Arriving within a mile of the stockade, a halt was ordered, the men were dismounted, and, every fourth trooper being left to hold the horses, the others marched off through the darkness, armed only with their revolvers. Then Bob began to understand the matter. The object of the expedition was to capture the deserters. It had been led away from the fort simply as a "blind," and in order to lull the malcontents into a feeling of security no change whatever had been made in the guards who were to do duty that night.
After the lieutenant had marched about half a mile another halt was ordered, and sixteen men, divided into squads of four men each, were told off to begin the work. The officer approached each squad in turn, and after designating some one to take charge of it, gave him his instructions in a whisper. When he walked up to Bob he asked,
"Do you know where post No. 4 is? and can you go straight to it without making any mistake?"
"Yes, sir, to both your questions," was the prompt reply.
"Very well. Take command of this squad and go and arrest Dodd, whom you will find on guard there. Then put Carey in his place, and come back and report to me at post No. 1, and I will tell you what else to do. The countersign," added the lieutenant, coming a step nearer to Bob and speaking in a tone so low that no one else could catch his words, "is 'Custer.' Be quick and still. Forward, march!"
As Bob moved away with his squad he told himself that fidelity is sometimes appreciated. This was his first command, and he knew that much depended upon the way in which he executed the orders that had been given him. If they were faithfully and skilfully carried out, he might hope to be entrusted with other commands in future, and so be given opportunities to distinguish himself and win promotion; for Bob, like every ambitious boy, was anxious to get ahead as rapidly as possible.
"What's the matter, Owens?" asked all the members of his squad in concert as soon as they were out of the lieutenant's hearing. They were all in the dark, and so was every man belonging to the expedition with the exception of the lieutenant, the sergeant-major and Bob Owens. The latter explained the state of affairs in as few words as he could, and the general verdict was that it would have been no loss to the garrison, or to the service either, if Bristow and his companions had been permitted to depart in peace.
In a few minutes Bob and his men arrived within sight of the place where the horses were staked out, and a hoarse voice broke the stillness. "Halt! Who comes there?" was the challenge.
"Friends, with the countersign," answered Bob after bringing his squad to a halt.
"Advance, one friend, and give the countersign," was the next command.
"Now, boys," said Bob in a low whisper, "you stay here, and when I call out 'Advance, squad,' come up briskly and surround Dodd, so as to be ready to overpower him if he shows the least disposition to resist or cry out."
So saying, Bob moved off in the direction from which the hail sounded, and presently discovered the sentry, who stood at "arms port."
"Halt!" commanded the guard when Bob had approached within a few feet of him. "Give the countersign."
Bob whispered the magic word.
"The countersign is correct," said the sentry, bringing his carbine to a carry.—"It's you, is it, Owens? What's the matter?"
"Advance, squad," said Bob in a low tone. "You haven't seen anything suspicious going on about your post, have you?" he added, wishing to occupy the sentry's attention until his men could come within supporting distance of him. "No? Well, I am sorry to say that there is something suspicious about you, and I am ordered to put you in arrest."
He laid hold of the carbine as he said this, and at the same moment two of his men placed their hands upon the sentinel's shoulders. The latter, seeing that resistance was useless, promptly gave up his piece and dropped his hands by his sides. "It's all that Bristow's work," said he in angry tones. "I knew he wouldn't do to tie to."
"Don't say too much," interposed Bob. "You don't want to condemn yourself.—Carey, take this post until relieved."
As Bob marched his squad and his prisoner to the place where he was to meet his commanding officer, he found the intervening posts in the charge of trusty men. Four of the discontented ones had been secured, and it only remained for the lieutenant to perfect arrangements for seizing the others as fast as they came out of the fort. He had already decided upon his plan of operations, and Bob Owens was called upon to take the first step toward carrying it out. After he had listened to some very explicit instructions from his commander, he stole off into the darkness, and, creeping along the outside of the stockade until he reached a point opposite the place where the sentry was posted behind the stables, he stopped and waited to see what was going to happen. About ten feet from him on his left was another soldier, standing upright and motionless in the shadow of the stockade. Ten feet beyond this soldier was another. These were all that Bob could see, but he knew that there were good men and true stationed at regular intervals all along the stockade, waiting to act the several parts that had been assigned to them.
Bob waited and listened for a quarter of an hour or more, and then he heard a conversation carried on in a low tone on the other side of the stockade. He could not catch the words, but he knew that the deserters were beginning to bestir themselves, and that one of their number was talking with the sentry. Presently a scratching, scrambling sound, accompanied by heavy, labored breathing and those incoherent exclamations that men sometimes use when they are exerting themselves to the utmost, told Bob that somebody was making his way up the logs. Keeping his eyes fastened on the top, he saw a soldier climb up and seat himself on the plate. He could see him very plainly against the light background of the sky, and he recognized him at once. It was Bristow. He was about to swing himself off when he discovered Bob standing beneath him. He stopped, peered down into the darkness for a moment, and then called out in a frightened whisper,
"Who is it?"
"It's all right," whispered Bob in reply; "come on."
"Who is it, I say?" repeated Bristow in still more earnest tones.
"Why, don't you know Dodd? Hand me your carbine."
"Oh!" said Bristow with a great sigh of relief. "It is all right, isn't it? Here you are."
Holding his carbine by the strap, Bristow passed it down to Bob, who promptly slung it upon his back. The latter then pushed up his sleeves, moved back a little from the stockade, and when Bristow swung himself down by his hands and dropped lightly to the ground, Bob stepped up and took him by the arm.
"I don't need any help," said Bristow, who had landed squarely on his feet. "But I say, Dodd—"
"We'll talk about it as we go along," interrupted Bob. "But not a loud word out of you, unless you want to be gagged."
"Why, good gracious, it's Owens!" gasped Bristow, reeling back against the stockade. He did not ask what Bob was doing there or why he had seized him, for he knew without asking.
"Yes, it is Owens, and the men you saw ride out of the gate with me this afternoon are with me now. Here's one of them," added Bob as a soldier named Loring stepped up and took his place in readiness to catch the next deserter who came over the stockade.
Just then the sentry on the inside placed his mouth close to one of the cracks between the logs and asked, in a cautious tone,
"How is it, Bristow? Is the coast clear?"
"All clear," replied Loring, speaking through the same crack. "Tell the boys to hurry up; we've no time to waste."
If Bob's captive had any idea of attempting to escape or of alarming his companions by crying out, he abandoned it very quickly when he saw the soldiers that were stationed along the stockade. There was a trooper for every deserter, and as fast as the man at the head of the line caught one, another moved up and took his place.
"This bangs me!" said Bristow, in great disgust. "Now comes a court-martial of course, and Goodness only knows what will come after that—the guard-house and a heavy fine, or the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.—I say, Owens, how did the colonel find it out?"
"Do you suppose he tells his secrets to us privates?" asked Bob in reply.
"We spoke to somebody who was not worthy of the confidence we placed in him," continued Bristow. "The thing never could have become known unless one of our own number had proved treacherous. But we can easily find out who he is. There are just thirty of us, and if there are only twenty-nine arrested, the missing man is the guilty one. When I find out who he is, I shall take particular pains to see that the next battle he gets into is his last."
This threat was uttered in a very low tone of voice, for Bristow and his captor had by this time reached the place where the lieutenant had stationed himself to receive his men when they came in with their prisoners. Bob reported, "Your orders have been obeyed, sir," and took his stand close behind his officer.
"I counted only twenty-six," said Bristow when the sergeant-major came up and announced the complete success of the undertaking. "There must be four traitors among us."
"Have you counted in the horse-guards?" asked Bob. "There they are on the top of that ridge."
No, Bristow had not counted them in, for he did not know until that minute that they had been arrested. He was very much astonished when he learned that every one of his party had been secured, and could not for the life of him imagine how the colonel had found out about it; for that he knew all about it was evident from the manner in which the arrests had been effected.
Having sent one of his men back to order up the horses, the lieutenant formed his captives in line, threw a guard around them and marched them into the fort. Halting them on the parade, he went in to report to the colonel, and when he came out again he put every one of them into the guard-house; after which Bob and his companions went to the quarters and tumbled into their bunks.
Great was the astonishment among the soldiers the next morning when it became known that the expedition, which they supposed had gone out in search of the hostiles, had returned to the fort and captured thirty armed men, and that the work had been done so quietly that the sentry at the gate never knew anything about it until it was all over. Of course they were quite at a loss to determine who it was that told the colonel about it; and the general impression seemed to be that if there were a traitor among the deserters, he had allowed himself to be captured with the others in order to avoid suspicion.
Among the non-commissioned officers who had attempted to desert was one of the corporals belonging to Bob's troop, and the next morning Bob was ordered to take his place and do duty as corporal of the guard. He saw the prisoners served with breakfast, and the numerous orders he had to give opened the eyes of one of them, who began to think he had made a discovery. And so he had, but he could not prove it.
"I'll tell you what's a fact, boys," said Bristow as he walked to a remote corner of his prison with a cup of coffee in one hand and some cracker and bacon in the other: "I know whom we have to thank for our arrest."
"Who is it?" asked a dozen voices at once.
"I'd like to send him my compliments in the shape of a bullet from my carbine," said the corporal whose place Bob was then filling. "Tell us who he is, so that we can improve the first chance to get even with him."
"There he is," said Bristow, shaking his piece of cracker at Bob. "He has been trying to get on the blind side of the officers for a long time, as you all know, and he has accomplished his object at last by going back on his comrades."
The prisoners looked at Bob as if they expected him to deny the accusation; but, to the disappointment of some of them who really liked him, he had nothing to say.
"Why don't you speak up and declare that it isn't so?" demanded the corporal.
"Because he dare not," exclaimed Bristow. "He couldn't without telling a lie, and, as he is a good little boy, he wouldn't do that for the world."
"I don't believe he did it," said another of the culprits. "He is not one of us, and how could he have found it out? I believe that the traitor is right here in the guard-house under arrest."
"I know he isn't," declared Bristow. "Bob Owens is the only traitor there is, and you may depend upon it. Now, let me tell you just what is going to happen when the court-martial comes off: it will be proved to the satisfaction of all of you that Owens found out about our plans in some way or other, and went straight to the colonel with them. You will be disrated, Corporal Jim, and Lieutenant Earle, in order to reward Bob for carrying tales and to encourage him to carry more, will give him your place. Why, he has just as good as got the stripes on his arm now."
Corporal Jim looked daggers at Bob, and declared that if he was the one who had disclosed their plot to the colonel, he was too mean for any use, and ought to be drummed out of the fort.
"I promised that if I ever found out who the informer was I would serve him worse than that," said Bristow in savage tones. "I shall keep my promise, too, if I ever get the chance, for I am one who never forgets an injury."
Bob Owens—who, as we know, was not wanting in physical courage—was not at all alarmed by this threat and a good many others like it to which he listened during the fifteen minutes the prisoners were occupied in eating their breakfast. He believed that he was able to take care of No. 1; and when the critical time came, as it did a few weeks later, he proved to the satisfaction of everybody that his confidence in himself was not misplaced.
The court-martial was not long delayed, and the findings being approved by the proper authorities, the sentences were promptly carried out. The culprits were confined in the guard-house for different periods of time, those who had been the most active in inducing their comrades to desert serving a longer sentence than their victims, and fines were imposed upon all of them, Bristow's being by far the heaviest, as he was proved to be the ringleader. He and Gus Robbins—both of whom had been almost constantly in trouble ever since they arrived at the post—were given to understand that if they were detected in another attempt at desertion they could make up their minds to see the inside of the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. Bristow proved to be a first-class prophet. During the progress of the trial it came out that Bob Owens was the one who discovered the plot, and that through him it was communicated to the colonel. Corporal Jim was of course reduced to the ranks, and Bob was promoted to fill the vacancy.
During the next few weeks nothing of interest happened at the fort. The deserters were released as fast as the terms for which they were sentenced expired, some of them penitent and fully resolved to do better in future, while the others were more than ever determined to escape from military control, in spite of all the officers and guards that could be placed around them. They carried out their determination, too, at every opportunity, deserting in parties numbering half a dozen or so, and they generally succeeded in eluding pursuit. It was a singular fact that when the pursuers were commanded by commissioned officers they very often returned without having accomplished anything, but when they were commanded by sergeants or corporals they were almost always successful. Luck was on the side of the "non-coms," and the colonel finally learned to put a great deal of confidence in them. Bob Owens was particularly fortunate in this respect, and that was the reason his superior sent for him one morning after the officer of the day had reported that seven men had deserted during the previous night, taking their arms and a supply of ammunition with them.
A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING.
"Corporal," said the commandant, taking off his eye-glasses with a jerk, as he always did when he was about to say something emphatic, "there are the names of seven men who deserted last night. I want you to take command of a squad and follow them up and arrest them."
"Very good, sir," replied Bob.
"I don't know which way they went, or anything about it," continued the colonel. "That is something you will have to find out for yourself. I do know, however, that they went on foot, and that they are armed and well supplied with ammunition. I want you to capture them at all hazards—at all hazards, I say," repeated the colonel, bringing his open hand down upon the table with a ringing slap. "If you come back without them you need not offer any excuses, for I shall not listen to them. Arrest anybody you catch outside the stockade wearing a United States uniform, no matter who he is. There have been no passes granted this morning, and no one except the guards and the officer of the day has any business outside. That's all."
Bob saluted and hurried from the room. As he passed through the hall he glanced at the list he held in his hand, and saw that it was headed by the names of Bristow and Gus Robbins.
"This is about the easiest job I have had yet, and these fellows are just as good as captured already," said he to himself. "I know right where to look for them, and I wouldn't be in their shoes for all the money the paymaster had in his safe the last time he was here. They are booked for Leavenworth, sure.—May I go out, Willis?" he asked of the sentry at the gate; "I am acting under orders."
"That's all right," was the reply; "the officer of the day told me to pass you. You are going after those deserters, I suppose? Well, now, look here," added the sentry, after looking all around to make sure that there was no officer in sight: "you remember those mulewhackers who brought that freight here the other day, don't you? Well, Bristow and the rest have gone off to join them. I am certain of it, for I heard Bristow talking with them, and they assured him that the wagon-master would give him steady work and good wages if he would hire out to him. Bristow didn't hesitate to talk with them about it in the presence of a dozen of us."
"That was only a ruse on his part," said Bob confidently. "If I followed the trail of those teamsters I should have my trouble for my pains. I am going as straight toward Brownsville as I can go, and I shall have my hand on Mr. Bristow's collar before I have gone thirty miles. You may rest assured that I shall not come back without him, for if I do I don't know what the colonel will say to me."
Bob hastened toward the place where the horses were picketed, and there he found the officer of the day and the six picked men who had been detailed to accompany him. It was the work of but a few minutes to lead their horses into the fort and put the saddles and bridles on them; and when this had been done, and Bob and his men had secured their carbines, sabres and revolvers and put two days' rations in their haversacks, they mounted and rode through the gate at a sharp trot. They were quiet and orderly enough as long as they remained within sight of the fort, but when the first ridge over which they passed shut them out from view they abandoned their efforts to keep in column, threw off all restraint and shouted and sang at the top of their voices. They looked upon an expedition like this as a "lark," and enjoyed it as much as a schoolboy enjoys a picnic.
Bob did not stop at the first ranches he passed, for he knew that the deserters (provided, of course, that they had fled along that trail) must have gone by them in the night, and that consequently their inmates could give him no information. Besides, Bob had learned by experience that there was very little confidence to be placed in anything the ranchemen might say regarding a deserter. A good many of them had served in the army during the war, and, knowing how very hard is the life a soldier leads, they sympathized with him in his efforts to escape, and aided him by every means in their power. Where there was one farmer or stock-raiser who would give a squad like Bob's any information that could be relied on, there were a dozen who would conceal the deserter in their houses and send his pursuers off on the wrong trail.
After Bob and his troopers had ridden about fifteen miles, and had shouted and sung off a little of their surplus enthusiasm, they relapsed into silence and settled down to business. They halted on the top of every ridge to survey the country before them, and called at every ranche that lay along their route; but nothing was to be seen or heard of Bristow and his party. About noon they came within sight of a squatter's cabin, and Bob decided to stop there and eat dinner. The owner of the cabin was at home, and he welcomed the horsemen with every appearance of cordiality.
"Alight an' hitch, strangers," said he, when he had succeeded in quieting the small army of dogs which came out from under the cabin to dispute the further advance of the troopers. "You're as welcome as the flowers in May."
"Thank you," said Bob as he swung himself from his saddle. "We intend to stop here and rest for an hour or so. We'll boil our coffee and cook our rations on your stove, if you have no objections."
"I ain't got no stove," replied the squatter hastily—"leastways, none that you can do cookin' on," he added, with some confusion, when he saw Bob and one or two of his men look up at the stovepipe which projected above the roof.
"All right!" replied the corporal, silencing by a look one of the troopers who was about to say something. "Then we shall have to build a fire outside; but that will do just as well, for we are used to cooking our grub in that way.—Now, Carey, if you and Loring will skirmish around and find some wood and start the coffee-pot going, we will look out for your nags."
"Corporal," whispered one of the troopers, "there's a bug under that chip. In other words, this old rascal has some reason for wishing to keep us out of his cabin."
"Say nothing out loud," replied Bob with a warning gesture. "We are on the right track, and I know it. If we fail now, it will be through our own blundering."
Having seen the horses staked out, Bob walked back to the cabin, and found the squatter in conversation with Carey and Loring. His first words indicated that he had been trying to pump them, but without success.
"Say, soldier, where might you be a-travellin' to?" he asked as Bob came up. "I asked them two fellows, an' they told me I had better ask you."
"We are looking for seven deserters who passed this way some time this morning," answered Bob. "They were on foot and carried carbines. Seen anything of such a party?"
The squatter brought his hands together with a loud slap before he replied.
"I jest knowed them fellows wasn't what they allowed they was," said he. "In course I seed 'em, an' they told me they was a-lookin' for deserters themselves. They went off that way, toward the old Brazos trail," added the squatter, pointing in a direction which lay exactly at right angles with the course Bob had been pursuing.
"Did they?" exclaimed the corporal with a great show of eagerness. "Thank you for the information. We will go that way too as soon as we have eaten dinner. How long ago did they pass this way?"
"Jest at daylight."
"That's another lie," said Bob to himself. "They didn't desert until after midnight, and they couldn't have travelled between fifteen and twenty miles in less than five hours on foot. An infantryman might do it on a pinch, but a trooper couldn't."
"You'll have to hurry up if you want to ketch 'em," continued the squatter, who seemed to grow nervous when he saw how deliberately the troopers went about their preparations for dinner. "They was a-lumberin' along right peart."
"Oh, there's no need that we should throw ourselves into a perspiration," replied Bob indifferently. "We don't care if we don't find them for a week. You see, when we are out on an expedition like this we are not obliged to drill, and our pay goes on just the same. If you have anything good to eat, trot it out; we're wealthy."
But the squatter protested that he had nothing in his cabin except bacon and crackers, and his supply of these necessary articles was so small that he could not possibly spare any of it. He said so much on this point that the troopers would have been dull indeed if they had not suspected something.
"He wants to get us away from here, doesn't he?" said Carey as soon as he had a chance to speak to Bob. "He thinks that if he provides us with a good dinner we will spend a long time in eating it. Now, corporal, I will bet you anything you please that—"
"I know," interrupted Bob, "and I want you to take a look into the matter at once. This is my plan."
Here Bob whispered some rapid instructions to the trooper, who winked first one eye and then the other to show that he understood them. Pulling his pipe from his pocket, he proceeded to fill it with tobacco, while Bob walked up to the squatter, and, taking him confidentially by the arm, said, as he led him out of earshot of the men, who had seated themselves about the fire,
"May I have a word with you in private? You see, I am an officer, and it won't do for me to talk too freely in the presence of those I command."
So saying, Bob led the squatter behind the cabin and began making some very particular inquiries concerning Bristow and his party: What sort of looking fellows were they? What did they say? Did they get anything to eat at the cabin? and did his friend the squatter really think they had gone toward the old Brazos trail? The man was very uneasy, and seemed impatient to go back to the fire again; but by holding fast to his arm, and plying him with such questions as these, Bob managed to keep him behind the cabin for about five minutes, and that was long enough for Carey to carry out the orders that had been given him.
As soon as Bob and the squatter disappeared around the corner of the cabin, Carey put his pipe into his mouth, and, enjoining silence upon his comrades by shaking his fore finger at them, he quickly mounted the steps that led to the porch and walked into the cabin. As he did so there was a faint rustling in one corner of the room, and, looking over his left shoulder without turning his head, Carey saw a man who was lying on a rude couch draw a blanket quickly over his face. In his eagerness to conceal his features the man probably forgot that he had a pair of feet, for he pulled the blanket up a little too high.
"Aha! my fine lad," said the trooper as he noiselessly opened the stove-door and looked into it, as if he were searching for a live coal with which to light his pipe, "I see a pair of No. 12 army brogans, and also the lower portions of a pair of light blue breeches with a yellow stripe down the seams. Bryant, my boy, that's you. I see also that this stove is in perfect order, but as there are no coals in it, I'll have to get a light at the fire outside."
When Carey came out of the cabin his comrades' faces were full of inquiry, but the trooper only winked at them and nodded his head, as if to say that he could tell something that would astonish them if he only felt so disposed.
By this time dinner was ready, and Loring's loud call of "Coffee!" brought Bob and the squatter from behind the cabin. The latter accepted Loring's invitation to drink a cup of coffee with "the boys," but he disposed of it in great haste, hot as it was, as if he hoped by his example to induce them to do likewise. But Bob and his companions were in no hurry. They lingered a long time over their homely meal, and then the smokers were allowed to empty a pipe apiece before the order was given to "catch up." The squatter began to breathe easier after that, and when he saw the troopers in their saddles and ready to start, his delight was so apparent that they all noticed it.
"Wa'l, good-bye, if you must go," said he cheerily. "Will you stop when you come back?"
"Oh, you needn't expect to see us here again," said Bob. "If we go to Brazos City, we shall take a short cut across the country when we return to the fort."
"That's where I reckon they're goin', as I told you; an' my advice would be for you to go straight to Brazos, without stoppin' on the way, an' when they get there you'll be all ready to take 'em in. See?"
"Yes, I see," answered Bob, "and it's something worth thinking of.—Forward, column left! Trot! gallop!"
The troopers moved rapidly away from the cabin, and, to the intense surprise and indignation of all his followers, who thought that their corporal had been deceived by the squatter, Bob led them off toward the old Brazos trail. At length one of them ventured to remonstrate.
"Corporal," said he, "you're going wrong."
"I know it," answered Bob.—"Carey, tell us what you saw in that cabin. Were our suspicions correct?"
"Indeed they were," was Carey's reply. "In the first place, that stove was all right, but the squatter didn't want us to use it, for Bryant was hiding in the cabin. He was lying on the floor, covered up with a blanket."
"How do you know it was Bryant?" asked Bob. "Did you see his face?"
"No, I didn't; it was concealed by the blanket. I saw his feet," said Carey; and his answer was received by the troopers with a sigh of satisfaction. It was all that was needed to establish the identity of the man who had taken refuge in the squatter's cabin.
"I didn't think I could be wrong," observed Bob, "for that man condemned himself before we had been in his presence ten minutes."
"Why don't you go back and snatch Bryant?" demanded one of the troopers, seeing that the corporal did not slacken his pace. "Why didn't you do it while we were at the cabin?"
"Because I had no right to do it," answered Bob. "If I should go to searching houses, I might get myself into trouble with the colonel. Another thing, boys: I shouldn't care to enter that man's castle to look for anything unless I was a civil officer and armed with a search-warrant. He is a hard one, unless his looks belie him."
"I thought so myself," said Loring. "But you are not going back without Bryant, are you? What do you suppose he is doing there, anyway?"
"Of course I shall not go back without him," answered Bob quietly. "He has probably hired out to that squatter, and we must watch our chance and catch him out of doors before we can arrest him."
"Well, are you going to Brazos City?"
"Not by a long shot. Bristow and the fellows who are still with him have not gone that way. As soon as we get behind that belt of post-oaks you see in advance of us, I intend to circle around and go back toward the river again."
Although the troopers rode at a rapid gait, it took them nearly three hours to carry out this programme. At the end of that time they struck the old stage-road, which, in the days gone by, had served as a highway between Brownsville and some of the remote frontier-towns; but when the raiders forced the settlements back into the interior the stage-route was abandoned, and all that now remained to tell of the business that had once been done on it were the half-ruined stations which were scattered along the road at intervals of fifteen or twenty miles.
These stations were built of stone, and were large enough to accommodate a dozen horses and half as many stable-men and drivers, besides the necessary food for both men and animals. Each station was provided with a "dug-out," a miniature fort, into which the employees of the route could retreat in case they were attacked by hostile Indians or Mexican raiders. It was simply a cellar of sufficient size to shelter nine or ten men at close quarters, covered with logs and dirt, and furnished with loopholes on all sides at the height of a foot or more above the ground. It looked like a mound of earth supported on logs about two feet high. The only way of getting into one of these little fortifications was through an underground passage-way which led from the stables. With these arrangements for their defence a few well-armed and determined men could hold their own against all the raiders that could get around them.
About four o'clock in the afternoon Bob and his troopers came within sight of one of these stations, and as soon as their eyes rested upon it they drew up their horses with a jerk, at the same time uttering exclamations of astonishment and delight. Standing in front of the open door were several men dressed in the uniform of the regular army. They seemed to be holding a consultation, and so deeply engrossed were they with their deliberations that they did not notice the approach of the troopers, although the latter had stopped their horses on the summit of a high ridge in plain view of them.
"I wonder if those are our men?" said Carey, with some excitement in his tones.
"We shall soon know," was Bob's calm reply. "Whoever they are, they will have to give an account of themselves, for I am instructed to arrest everybody I meet wearing a uniform."
"If they are our fellows, we've got them corralled," remarked Loring.
"Yes, but I don't much like the way we have 'corralled' them," returned Carey. "Do you see that dug-out about twenty yards from the northwest corner of the station? If they go in there they can laugh at us. The only way we could get them out would be to starve them out."
"That would take too long," said Bob; and the tone in which the words were uttered made his comrades look at him with some curiosity. "Let's go down there and interview them, and then we shall know how to act. Forward! Trot!"
Just as these commands were given a commotion among the men in front of the station indicated that somebody had sounded an alarm. They gazed at the troopers for a moment as if they were thunderstruck, and then made a simultaneous rush for the entrance. This action on their part told Bob as plainly as words that they were the men of whom he had been sent in pursuit, and that they did not intend to go back to the fort if they could help it. A moment later a loud slamming and pounding indicated that the deserters were trying to close and barricade the door. This had scarcely been accomplished when the troopers dashed up to the station and swung themselves out of their saddles.
Leaving two of his men to hold the horses, Bob and the rest walked around the corner of the station and looked at the dug-out. There was a face in front of every loophole. Anybody could see that the deserters had the advantage of position, and the troopers wondered what Bob was going to do about it. They glanced at his face, but could see nothing there to tell them whether he was excited, afraid or discouraged. It wore its usual expression.
"Well, boys," said Bob at length, "if you have grown tired of roaming about the country, come out, and we will go back to the post. The colonel wants to see you."
"We don't doubt it, but we don't want to see him," replied a voice that Bob recognized at once. "We think we see ourselves going back! We didn't desert for that."
"Gus Robbins, I am sorry that you are in there," said Bob. "What will you say to your father and mother when you see them again?"
"Don't know, I am sure," answered Gus. "Haven't had any time to think about that. But you know yourself that I can't go back to the post. The colonel said that if I were ever court-marshaled again for desertion, I should go to prison; but I'll fight till I drop before I'll do that."
"Say, Bob," shouted another voice, "do you remember what I said I would do to that informer if I ever found out who he was? You are the fellow, and here's your pay."
It was Bristow who spoke, and as he uttered these words he thrust the muzzle of his carbine through the loophole in front of him. The chorus of ejaculations and remonstrances which arose from the inside of the dug-out showed that the rest of the deserters were not yet ready to resort to the use of their firearms; but Bristow was almost half crazed by rage and fear, and just as somebody seized him from behind and jerked him away from the loophole, his carbine roared, and Bob Owens turned halfway round and staggered back a step or two, as if he were struck and about to fall.
This unexpected act excited Bob's troopers—with whom he was an especial favorite—almost to frenzy. Believing that he had been seriously if not fatally injured—it did not seem possible that anybody could miss a mark of the size of his body at the distance of ten paces—one of them sprang forward to support him, while the others discharged their carbines at the loopholes in rapid succession. Their volley was not entirely without effect, for a loud yell of agony came from the inside of the dug-out, bearing testimony to the fact that one bullet at least had found a target somewhere on the person of one of the deserters.
"Cease firing!" shouted Bob.
He gently released himself from the embrace of the strong arms that had been thrown around him, and looked down at the gaping rent Bristow's bullet had made in the breast of his coat. The missile had passed through his thick carbine-sling and breast-belt, had cut into his coat, vest and shirt, and ploughed a deep furrow through a well-filled wallet which he carried in his inside pocket. Fortunately, it was a glancing shot, but the force with which it struck him was almost sufficient to knock him off his feet.
"I'm not hurt at all," said he as his men crowded about him, "but I shall have to put a patch on my coat when I get back to the post.—I say, there," he shouted, addressing himself to the inmates of the dug-out, "was there anybody hurt in there? I thought I heard a yell."
"Yes, and you'll hear another yell if you don't go away and let us alone," replied Bristow. "I'll make a better shot the next time I pull on you."
"All right!" said Bob. "I'll give you a chance in just about five minutes.—Loring," he added in a lower tone, "you and Phillips stay here and hold the horses, and the rest of you follow me."
"Are you going to storm them?" asked Loring.
"I am," was the decided reply. "It is the only way I can get them out, for they'll not come of their own free will."
"Then I sha'n't stay here and hold the horses; that's flat," declared Loring.
"Neither will I," chimed in Phillips. "The picket-pins will hold them as well as we can."
"All right!" replied Bob. "Stake them out, and while you are doing it Carey and I will see how we are going to get into the station."
The door to which Bob now turned his attention did not prove to be a very serious obstacle. It was made of heavy planks, and if it had been in good condition it would have taken a good deal of chopping with a sharp axe before one could have forced his way through it; but the hinges had rusted off, and the planks had shrunk to such a degree that the bar which held the door in its place could be seen and reached with a sabre. A few blows with one of these weapons knocked this bar from its place, and when that was done, the door, having nothing to support it, fell back into the stable with a loud crash. Bob entered, with Carey at his heels, and, making his way to a small apartment which had once been used as a sleeping-room by the stable-men and drivers, he found there a trap-door, which he threw open, revealing a flight of rude steps leading into the underground passage that communicated with the dug-out. By this time the rest of the troopers arrived on the scene. They looked dubiously at the dark passage-way, and then they looked at Bob.
"Do you really mean to go down there, Owens?" asked Loring. "It's sure death."
"I believe so myself, but I am going all the same," replied Bob, who was thoroughly aroused by the attempt that had been made on his life. "If we are not willing to face death at any moment, we had no business to enlist. Must I go alone?"
"Not much," was the unanimous response. "If you are bound to go, we are going too."
"Leave your sabres and carbines here," commanded Bob. "They will only be in the way. Draw revolvers, but don't shoot except in self-defence."
Bob knew as well as his men did that he was about to enter upon a very perilous undertaking. Bristow had shown that he was desperate enough to shoot, and he had even threatened that if he got another chance at Bob he would make a better shot than he did before. Some of the men who were with him were known to be hard characters, and it was very probable that they would back him up in the resistance he seemed determined to make. But Bob, having made up his mind as to the course he ought pursue, never once faltered. He was a soldier, and a soldier's first duty was to obey orders. He had been commanded to find the deserters and arrest them at all hazards; and, having obeyed the first part of his instructions, he was resolved to carry them out to the letter or perish in the attempt.
"Now I think we are all ready," said Bob, after the sabres and carbines had been laid in the empty bunks and the revolvers drawn and examined. "Stick close to me, and remember that if we don't take them they will kill us. Bristow, Sandy and Talbot are the only men we have to fear, and if we can only get the drop on them we are all right. Come on."
Although Bob was the youngest soldier, he was the calmest one of the seven troopers who descended those steps. When he reached the bottom he looked along the passage-way toward the dug-out, which was dimly lighted by the sunbeams which streamed in through the loopholes on the western side, and saw the deserters standing in line awaiting his approach.
"Halt!" cried a voice. "Come a step nearer and you are all dead men."
It was Bristow who spoke, and the words were followed by the ominous click of the lock of his carbine.
THE NEW SCOUT.
"Halt!" cried Bristow again. It was so dark in the passage-way that he could not see the troopers, but the sound of their footsteps told him that they were still advancing toward the dug-out. "That's twice," he continued. "If I have to halt you the third time, I'll send a bullet out there."
"Bristow, you had better not try that," answered Bob, without the least tremor in his voice. "You have already done more than you will want to stand punishment for. Besides, I have got you covered, and if you move that carbine a hair's breadth you are a gone deserter."
"And I've got the drop on you, Sandy," said Carey, thrusting his cocked revolver over Bob's shoulder, "so don't wink.—I say, corporal," he added in a whisper, "I don't see Talbot anywhere."
"Neither do I," answered Bob. "Keep your eyes open, for he may be up to playing us some trick."
Whether it was the cool determination exhibited by Bob and his men, or the consciousness that they were in the wrong that took all the fight out of the deserters, we cannot tell; but they were cowed by something, and when Corporal Owens and his troopers filed into the dug-out, and the former sternly commanded them to "throw up," every carbine was dropped to the ground and five pairs of hands were raised in the air.
"Where's the other?" demanded Bob. "There ought to be six of you."
"Here I am," said a faint voice.
Bob looked in the direction from which the voice came, and saw Talbot sitting in a dark corner, his carbine lying by his side and both his hands raised above his head. He wore a handkerchief around his forehead, and, dim as the light was, Bob could see that it was streaked with blood.
"Are you badly hurt?" he asked with some anxiety.
"No, he isn't," exclaimed Bristow, before the wounded man could speak. "A glancing ball cut a little crease in his scalp, and he thinks he is killed."
"I wish you had this little crease in your own scalp," said Talbot, looking savagely at Bristow. "If it hadn't been for you I never should have been here."
"And if it hadn't been for you, and a few cowards just like you, we never should have been captured," retorted Bristow. "We could have held our own against a squad four times as big as the one Owens has brought with him; but now—"
"That'll do," interrupted Bob. "I am not going to have any quarrelling here; and, Bristow, there's a court-martial coming, and you had better keep a quiet tongue in your head.—Carey, stand in the mouth of that passage-way.—Phillips, pick up the carbines, and the rest of you sound them."
These orders were promptly obeyed, and when the "sounding" had been completed the deserters had not even a pocket-knife left.