LANIER OF THE CAVALRY
A Week's Arrest
GENERAL CHARLES KING
Author of "The Colonel's Daughter," "Marion's Faith," "Captain Blake," "Foes in Ambush," "Under Fire," etc.
With illustrations by Frank McKernan
Philadelphia & London J. B. Lippincott Company 1909 Copyright, 1909 by J. B. Lippincott Company Published April, 1909 Printed by J. B. Lippincott Company The Washington Square Press, Philadelphia, U. S. A.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PAGE "TELL HIM THAT I'D LIKE AN EXTENSION OF ARREST." Frontispiece
"MR. LANIER, GO TO YOUR ROOM IN ARREST" 26
"BUT DO YOU MEAN COLONEL BUTTON ACCUSED MR. LANIER OF THOSE LETTERS?" 195
LANIER OF THE CAVALRY
The sun was sinking low beyond the ford of the foaming Platte. The distant bluffs commanding the broad valley of the Sweetwater stood sharp and clear against the westward skies. The smoke from the camp-fires along the stream rose in misty columns straight aloft, for not so much as a breath of breeze had wafted down from the far snow fields of Cloud Peak, or the sun-sheltered rifts of the Big Horn. The flag at the old fort, on the neighboring height, clung to the staff with scarcely a flutter, awaiting the evening salute of the trumpets and the roar of the sunset gun.
The long June day had seemed unusually unconscionably long to the young girl flitting restlessly about the vine-covered porch of the roadside cottage. She laid the big binocular aside, for perhaps the twentieth time within the hour, with a sigh of impatience, a piteous quiver about the pretty, rosebud mouth, a wistful, longing look in the dark and dreamy eyes. Ever since stable call, and her father's departure to his never-neglected duty, she had hovered about that shaded nook, again and again searching the northward slopes and ridges. The scouts had been in three hours ago, reporting the squadron only a mile or so behind. It should have dismounted, unsaddled, fed, watered, and groomed by this time, and Rawdon should have been here at her side—Rawdon, whom she had not seen for three mortal days—Rawdon, whom, for three mortal weeks before the march, she had not missed seeing sometimes several times a day, even when he was on guard—Rawdon, whom she had never set eyes on before the first of April, and whom now she looked upon as the foremost soldier of the regiment, when in point of fact he was but a private trooper, serving the first part of his first enlistment, in the eyes of his elders a mere recruit, and in those of Sergeant Fitzroy an unspeakable thing.
Another long peep through the signal glasses, another sigh, and then she came, this girl of seventeen, in her dainty white frock, and plumped herself dejectedly down on the top step, with two very shapely, slender, slippered feet displayed on the second below, two dimpled elbows planted on her knees, two flushed, soft, rounded cheeks buried in two long and slender hands. Away over at the stables she could hear the tap, tap, of curry-comb on brush-back, as the First Squadron groomed its fidgety mounts. Away up the valley the voices of the children in the Arapahoe village rose gleefully on the air. Away up among the barracks and quarters at the fort, the band of the Infantry was playing sweet melody. Peace, content, and harmony were roundabout her, but the dark eyes, welling with unshed tears, told of a troubled heart.
And then of a sudden the tears were dashed away and the girl sprang to her feet. A blithe voice hailed her from within.
"Dey's comin', Miss Dora—two on 'em, at least—like enough to be twin brudders."
The girl ran to the northward corner again and gazed out across the rushing, swollen river. Not so much as a sign of a dust-cloud to tell of marching cavalry, and she turned again, with rebuke ready on her tongue, but again the voice from within:
"Comin' t 'other way, chile. Must ha' took the lower fohd and rode roun' back o' de stables," and, with the words, a laughing "mammy" came bustling to the front door, a cool white pitcher in one hand, a tray with glasses in the other.
"Ah know well 'nuff what brings de lieutenant round dis way. As for dat—trash—wid him"—and here came a chuckle of delight at her own wit—"he just cain't help hisself." But Dora was not listening. Light as a bird she had flown to the other end of the little porch and was gazing out through the honeysuckles with all her soul in her eyes.
Coming up the slope at easy canter rode a young officer, with broad-brimmed hat and dusty field dress, alert, slender, sinewy, of only medium height and not more than twenty-five years, with a handsome, sun-tanned, smiling face, a picture of healthful, wholesome young manhood. And behind him, at the regulation distance, came what Aunt Chloe, in her "darky" dialect more than once had declared "the very spit of him"—a young trooper in similar slouch hat and dusty field dress, younger, probably, by three or four years, but to the full as alert and active, as healthful and wholesome to look at, his face now all aglow with a light that was sweet for girlish eyes to see.
The leader swung his hat and blithely shouted as he curbed his eager horse. "Howdy, Miss Dora. Bless your heart, Aunt Chloe, I knew you'd have the buttermilk ready! No, Rawdon, I shan't dismount"—this to the young "orderly," who had sprung from saddle and, with his rein over his arm, stood ready to take that of his officer. "Merciful saints! but isn't that good after thirty miles of alkali!" He had swallowed a brimming goblet of the cool, refreshing drink, and Chloe was delightedly refilling. "Father home, Miss Dora?" he went on cheerily.
"Over at the stables, Mr. Lanier," was the smiling answer. The face of the girl was sunshine and roses now, yet merely a glance or two had passed, for Trooper Rawdon had instantly swung once more into saddle and was reining back to his place.
"Stables going yet? Why, I thought it must be supper time. Colonel sent me ahead to find him. Three of 'E' Troop horses act like they'd been eating loco-weed. That's what kept us."
"Colonel Button's always findin' some way of sendin' you in ahaid, Marse Lanier," grinned Chloe. "Ah don't wonder dey says you can do anything you like an' never get hauled up for it."
"You're a gossip, Auntie," laughed Lanier. "The colonel would cinch me quick as the next man if I happened to rub his fur the wrong way. One more swig now and I'm off. Tastes almost like the South again, doesn't it?"
"Lak de Souf!" Aunt Chloe bristled, indignant. "Sho! Dat's no more lak de buttermilk we makes dan dat ar' hawse is lak de racers at Belle Mead. Cows got to have white clover, Marse Lanier, an' white clover don't grow in dis Gawd foh-saken country."
"It's good all the same. Thank you, heartily, Miss Dora. You, too, Auntie. Er—Rawdon, you dismount and wait for Doctor Mayhew in case I miss him. Give him the colonel's message and say the squadron should be in by 7.30." And with that and a wave of his hand and a smiling good-night, he took the rein of the troop horse and away they sped to the stables.
Then Chloe vanished opportunely. The young trooper stood one instant looking gratefully after his officer and those curvetting steeds, eager to reach their home and supper. Dora, with glistening eyes and glowing cheeks, retreated within the shelter of the bowered porch. Then, bounding up the steps and turning with outstretched arms, thither Rawdon followed.
Ten minutes later, at swift trot, came a third horse and rider, the horse all that a cavalry horse should be in gait and build, the rider well nigh as marked in build and proportions. He, too, was well-made and muscular, though somewhat heavy and stocky; he was as soldierly, if not as young, as the two so recently there in saddle. It was the face that repelled, for it was black with wrath and suspicion. In front of the little cottage of the veterinary surgeon he hurriedly dismounted, threw the reins over the post at the horse-block, and strode, angering, through the gate. The murmur of blissful voices had ceased at first sight of him. Dora, her face paling, met him at the head of the steps.
Hardly noticing her by look or word, he brushed by, turned sharp to his left, and in an instant the two men were face to face.
"Rawdon," spoke the new-comer, his tone curt, domineering, insolent, "what do you mean by letting an officer lead your horse to stables? Go you to yours at once! Take my horse, too, and groom him."
Rawdon flushed to his forehead, said not a word, came forth into the light, and then turned squarely.
"My orders were from Lieutenant Lanier, sergeant, and they were distinctly to stop here."
"Go you at once and do as I say," was the instant rejoinder, and the veins in the sergeant's face were swelled almost to bursting. His eyes were fiery, his lips were quivering in his wrath.
"Indeed, Sergeant Fitzroy," began the girl rebukefully, "those were Lieutenant Lanier's orders."
"Hang Lieutenant Lanier's orders! No stripling sub can give such orders in this regiment. How dare you delay there? Go, you townskip, or I'll kick you through the ——"
But now with blazing eyes Dora Mayhew threw herself in front of him. Tall, lithe, and slender herself, she seemed just the height of the young trooper she defended. "If you raise hand or foot against Rawdon, Sergeant Fitzroy, it's the last time you come inside our gate. No, I'll not stand aside! Before you strike him you'll have to strike me."
And then and there Sergeant Fitzroy realized that the fears and forebodings of the past month were more than grounded. If angered before, he was maddened now. Brushing her light form aside with one sweep of his powerful arm, he sprang forward at the young soldier's throat just as a tall, lean man, with grizzled beard but athletic build, bounded up the steps and caught his wrist.
"None of that in my house, Fitzroy!" came the order, stern and compelling. "In God's name, what does this mean?" And, still grasping the sergeant's arm, the speaker, with his face nearly as white as his stable frock, fairly backed the raging Englishman against the wooden pillar and held him there.
"Let go, Mayhew!" raved the sergeant. "I've ordered that young rip to stables, and he refuses to go."
"He was ordered to stay, papa, until you came," protested Dora, her eyes ablaze. "Lieutenant Lanier—that man's superior officer—gave him the colonel's message to you."
"He was ordered to go by Lieutenant Lanier's superior, the officer-of-the-day, whom I represent," was Fitzroy's answer; "and the longer he stays the worse 't will be for him."
"No officer ever authorized you to come to my quarters and lay violent hands on a man behaving like a gentleman, which you are not," was the cutting rejoinder of the older man, and it stung Fitzroy to fresh fury. Was he, the model rider of the regiment, to be braved like this, and in presence of the girl he loved?
"Let go! You must, Mayhew!" he hissed through clenched teeth. "You have no authority. You are only a civilian. You can be broke and fired if I report this—outrage—and what I know. Let go!" he shouted, freeing himself by furious effort. "Now, you, Rawdon, come with me. No. Stop! Corporal Watts!" he shouted, to a non-commissioned officer, swinging up the pathway toward the guard-house on the bluff, four men of the guard at his back. "Come this way," he continued, for at first no attention was paid to his hail. "Come here and take charge of this man. It's the order of the officer-of-the-day."
Doubtfully, reluctantly, leaving his patrol disgustedly waiting, Corporal Watts slowly descended the incline, crossed the broad, hard-beaten road, then, obviously embarrassed at the presence of Dora Mayhew, demanded further information before he obeyed.
By this time, Rawdon, pale and silent, was standing at the foot of the steps, indignation, resentment, and trouble all mingling in his face. Too well he and other young soldiers had learned to know the weight of Sergeant Fitzroy's spite. But the trouble in his eyes gave way to sudden relief. Two officers were coming swiftly round the corner of the corral, Lanier foremost.
"I say again, Corporal Watts, this man is to be taken in charge at once. It is Captain Curbit's order as officer-of-the-day. I came direct from him," was Fitzroy's final order. But it failed.
"Do nothing of the kind, Corporal Watts," said a quiet voice, at sound of which Sergeant Fitzroy whirled about and turned, if a possible thing, a full shade redder. There at the gate stood Lieutenant Lanier. There, a dozen yards away, but trudging fast as dignity would permit, came the officer-of-the-day.
A jerk of the head to the corporal, in response to his instant salute, and that young soldier, much relieved, strode away to join his men. Then Captain Curbit turned on Sergeant Fitzroy.
"You told me nothing of the facts in this case, sir. Lieutenant Lanier says he directed this man to wait here, with the colonel's message, while he rode to stables. Pardon me, Miss Dora. Come this way, sergeant."
And there was nothing for it but to obey. Abashed, humiliated, rebuked and in her presence, where he had looked but a moment before to humble and humiliate his rival, Fitzroy, could only lift his hand in salute, follow the captain out of earshot, and there make his plea as best he could, leaving Lanier and the silent young trooper, Dora and her grave-faced old father, in possession of the field.
For a moment they watched Fitzroy, eagerly gesticulating as he stood at attention before his superior.
"He'll give you no more trouble, I fancy," said Lanier, in low tone, to the veterinarian. "I'll say good-night again, Miss Dora;" and he walked cheerily away, but Mayhew looked after him long and anxiously, then upon the young people before him, then upon the still protesting sergeant across the way.
"Maybe not—maybe not," he muttered, with sorrowing shake of the head; "but few men can give more trouble than—him, when he's minded, and I reckon he's minded now."
Nearly six long months went the regiment afield on the hardest campaign of its history. Then at last by way of reward it had been ordered in to big Fort Cushing for the winter. It was close to town, close to the railway—things that in those days, thirty years ago, seemed almost heavenly. The new station was blithe and merry with Christmas preparations and pretty girls. All the married officers' families had rejoined. Half a dozen fair visitors had come from the distant East. The band was good; the dancing men were many; the dancing floor was fine, and the dance they were having on Friday night, December 16, was all that even an army dance could be until just after eleven o'clock. Then something happened to cast a spell over everybody.
Bob Lanier was officer-of-the-guard. Bob had asked the colonel to let him turn over his sword to a brother officer, who, being in mourning, could not dance, and the colonel had curtly said no. The colonel's wife was amazed; she did not dream he could do such a thing. Six girls were sorrowful, three were incensed, and one was cruelly hurt. She was under parental orders to start for home on the morrow. It was to be her last dance at the fort. She liked Bob Lanier infinitely more than she liked her father's dictum that she must like him not at all. As for Bob Lanier, the garrison knew he loved her devotedly even before she knew it herself.
Of course she came to the dance. As the guest of Captain and Mrs. Sumter she even had to go up and smile on the colonel and his wife, who were receiving. She and Kate Sumter had been classmates—roommates—at Vassar, and Kate, born and reared in the army, had never been quite content until her friend could come to visit the regiment—her father's home.
A winsome pair they were, these two "sweet girl graduates" of the June gone by, while the regiment was stirring up the Sioux on the way to the Big Horn and Yellowstone. Everybody had lavish welcome for them, and to Miriam Arnold the month at Fort Cushing had been quite a dream of delight, until there came a strange and sudden missive from her father, bidding her break off a visit that was to have lasted until February, and all relations with Lieutenant Robert Ray Lanier.
Up to this moment these relations had been delightful, yet indefinite. For reasons of his own Mr. Lanier had made no avowal of his love to her, even though he had disclosed it to every one else. He was a frank, fearless, out-and-out young soldier, a prime favorite with most of his fellows. Bob had his enemies—frank men generally have. He could hardly believe the evidence of his ears when, just after sunset roll-call, he had confidently approached the colonel with his request and had received the colonel's curt reply. Time and again during the recent campaign the veteran soldier now in command had shown marked liking for this energetic young officer. Then came the march to the settlements, and sudden, unaccountable change. Twice or thrice within the past ten days he had shown singular coldness and disfavor; to-night strong and sudden dislike, and Lanier, amazed and stung, could only salute and turn away.
Everybody by half past ten had heard of it, and most men marvelled. Nobody at eleven o'clock was very much surprised when, in the midst of the lovely Lorelei waltz of Keler Bela, a group of young maids, matrons, and officers near the doorway opened out, as it were, and Bob Lanier, officer-of-the-guard, came gracefully gliding and circling down the room, Miriam Arnold's radiant, happy face looking up into his. It was a joy to watch them dance together, but not to watch the colonel's face when he caught sight of them. Except Lanier, every officer present was in full uniform, without his sabre. Lanier was in the undress uniform of the guard, but with the sabre—not the long, curved, clumsy, steel-scabbarded weapon then used by the cavalry, but a light, Prussian hussar sword that he had evidently borrowed for the occasion, for it belonged to Barker, the adjutant, as everybody knew—as Barker realized to his cost when in less than ten seconds the commander summoned him.
"Mr. Barker, you will at once place Mr. Lanier in arrest for quitting his guard and disobeying my orders."
"I shall have to—get my sabre, sir," stammered the adjutant, meaning the regulation item over at his quarters.
"There it is, sir, before your eyes. Mr. Lanier, at least, can have no further use for it until a court-martial acts on his case."
"Good Lord!" thought Barker, "how can I go up to Bob and tell him to turn over that sword so that I can properly place him in arrest—and here, too—and of all times——"
But the colonel would brook no delay. "Direct Mr. Lanier to report to me in the anteroom," said he, marching thither forthwith, and that message the luckless adjutant had to deliver at once.
Bob saw it coming in Barker's sombre visage. The girl on his arm understood nothing (but noted the hush that had fallen, even though the music went on; saw Barker coming, and something told her it meant trouble, and turned her sweet face white).
"Miss Arnold, may I offer myself as a substitute for the rest of this dance? Bob, the chief wants to see you a second," was the best that Barker could think of. They praised him later for his "mendacity," yet what he said was true to the letter. It took little more than a second for the colonel to say:
"Mr. Lanier, go to your room in arrest," and Bob saluted, turned, and went, unslinging the sword on the way.
Now, that was the first touch to spoil that memorable December night, but it was only a feather to what followed. The waltz soon ceased, but the colonel called for an extra, and led out a lady from town, the wife of a future senator. "Keep this thing going," he cautioned his adjutant and certain of his personal following, which was large, and loyally they tried, but the piteous face of the girl he had left at the door of the ladies' dressing-room and in the hands of Mrs. Sumter was too much for Barker. Moreover, he much liked Lanier and bemoaned his fate.
Colonel Button was "hopping mad," as the quartermaster put it, and as all men could see, yet at what? Lanier's offence, when fairly measured, had not been so grave. It had happened half a dozen times that the officer-of-the-guard, making his rounds and visiting sentries in the course of a dance evening, would casually drop in by one door and out by another, taking a turn or two on the floor, perhaps—"just waltzing in and waltzing out," as they said—and no one the worse for it, even when the colonel happened to be present. Nor could men now see what it was that so angered the commander against Lanier.
"Disobeyed his orders flatly," suggested Captain Snaffle, who stood by the colonel on every occasion when not himself the object of that officer's satire or censure.
"Disobeyed no order," said Sumter, as stoutly. "Simply did what many another has done, and nobody hurt. Nor would Lanier have been noted, perhaps, if he had not first asked to turn over his sword to Trotter."
But even that could not fully account for the colonel's rancor, and, though the music and dance went on, men and women both, with clouded faces, found themselves asking the question: "What could have angered him so at Lanier?" And in a corner of the ladies' dressing-room two pretty girls, with difficulty soothed by Mrs. Sumter, were vainly striving not to cry their eyes out—Kate Sumter dismayed at the almost uncontrollable grief of her friend, who, strange to military measures, imagined that Bob's arrest was but the prelude to his being shot at sunrise, or something well nigh as terrible.
Not ten minutes after Lanier went out, and went silent but in unspeakable wrath, Paymaster Scott came dawdling in, and though but a casual visitor at the post, just back that day from a tour of the northward camps and forts along the Indian border, he saw at a glance that something had gone amiss. The colonel was laboriously waltzing; three or four couples were mechanically following suit, but most of the men were gathered about the buffet, and most of the women huddled at the dressing-room door, and Scott, marching over to pay his respects to the colonel's wife, and explain his coming at so late an hour, noted instantly the trouble in her serious face. He had known her long and liked her well, as, despite occasional differences at whist, he did her husband. Captain Snaffle was speaking with her at the moment. Mrs. Snaffle was at her side. "Why did they tell her at all?" Mrs. Snaffle was asking, with much spirit and obvious effort to control a racial tendency to double the final monosyllables. "Sure they might have known 't would sc—frighten the life out of her."
"Sc—frighten who?" asked Scott, who was friends with everybody and, for more reasons than his office, a welcome guest wherever he went. Snaffle shot a warning glance at his wife, which fell, as he said, "unaided."
"It's Bobby Lanier, meejor, only you mustn't sp—refer—to it." Mrs. Snaffle, when self-controlled, discreetly shunned such vowels as betrayed her origin, a totally useless precaution, since all men knew it and liked her none the less.
"Lanier? Oh, yes, I thought it was Bob I saw a while ago streaking it across the parade. It's bright as day in the moonlight with the snow. What's Bob got to do with frightening folk?" And now he was shaking hands with all three.
"Something very unfortunate has happened, major," said Mrs. Button. "Mr. Lanier was officer-of-the-guard and asked to attend the dance, Mr. Trotter offering to take charge of the guard. Colonel Button felt compelled to decline, and—he came any way. You know, of course, that couldn't be overlooked."
"H'm," said Scott gravely and reflectively. "And who is so frightened?"
"Miriam Arnold; a very charming girl who is visiting the Sumters. Indeed, it looks as though she cared for him. It's no secret that he's in love with her."
"Ah, yes. Well, then, it was she I saw getting into the Fosters' sleigh at the side door."
"Oh, I think not! I hope not!" cried Mrs. Button, a flush mounting to her face. "I wanted to say a reassuring word after a little——"
But at the moment Mrs. Sumter was seen coming forth from the dressing-room. Half a dozen women were upon her at once with sympathetic inquiries. To these she spoke briefly, yet courteously, and, escaping on the arm of the regimental quartermaster, came straightway to Mrs. Button.
"You will forgive my girls for not saying good-night," she cordially spoke. "Miriam has been quite upset by a letter from home; and this little—episode—this evening, which she cannot understand as we do, has so unstrung her that Mrs. Foster offered to send them over home in her sleigh. The side door had been barred, but Mr. Horton pried it open for them, so they had no need to come this way, and face everybody—and explain."
"You know how sorry I am," said Mrs. Button. "Of course they are excusable for leaving as they did. Why, where are the others going?"
The music had suddenly stopped. There was a scurry on the part of the men at the anteroom. Several had run to the entrance. Others were following. Some one among the women, with startled eyes and paling face, sprang up saying, "It's fire"—always a dread at wind-swept Cushing. Almost at the same instant the colonel and Scott reached the veranda without. A dozen officers were there, intent and listening. "I tell you I heard it plainly," said one of their number, "and the Foster sleigh isn't back."
"Heard what, sir?" demanded the colonel. "What's the trouble?"
"A cry for help—or something, over yonder. Barker and Blake are gone. There was a stir at the guard-house, too."
And as though to confirm this much, at least, there presently appeared round the corner of the building the sergeant of the guard, in his fur cap and overcoat, and with him a burly soldier, bleeding at the nose and bristling with wrath. One hand covered a damaged eye; with the other he saluted Captain Snaffle, who had edged to the front of the group.
"Sir, I have to report Trooper Rawdon assaulting a non-commissioned officer."
For an instant there was silence. Then Major Scott gave tongue.
"Trooper Rawdon!" cried he, "why he's been with me nearly a month, and now has a month's furlough from General Crook. He's the best man of the escort."
"Refused to obey my orders to go to his quarters, sir, and assaulted me when I tried to enforce 'em. Sergeant Blunt says he won't confine him unless Captain Snaffle orders it."
"One moment, sergeant," interposed Colonel Button. "Has any disturbance—any cry for help—been heard at the guard-house,—or was this the explanation?" And he looked with disfavor on the battered complainant.
"Number Five, sir, hasn't called off half past 'leven. I've sent the corporal to see what's the matter."
"Number Five!" cried two or three men at the instant, and without a word Captain Sumter hurried away, on a bee line across the snow-covered parade, following the tracks of the adjutant.
"Number Five!" repeated the colonel. "That's just back of Sumter's quarters;" and he stepped out into the moonlight for clearer view.
Afar over across the glistening level a few lights glimmered faintly in the row of officers' quarters, bounding the northward side of the garrison, but neither along their front nor that of the westward row was there sign of moving humanity. The moon at its full, in that rare, clear atmosphere, illuminated the post, the frozen slopes beyond, and the dazzling range of the Rockies, with a radiance that rendered objects visible almost as at midday. Only the hurrying form of Captain Sumter could be seen half way across the parade. The Fosters' sleigh, that by this time should have been back at the assembly room, was nowhere in sight. Sumter's quarters were about the middle of the row. Lanier's were at the eastward end. For the moment the complaint of the aggrieved sergeant was ignored. All men stood waiting, watching. Then, on a sudden, two or three black forms darted from the shadow of the middle quarters. One came running out across the parade, hardly slackened speed at the hail of Captain Sumter, pointed back with one hand, shouted something that doubled Sumter's pace, but hurried onward toward the group.
It was Conroy, corporal-of-the-guard. "The adjutant orders me to report Number Five sick, sir," he panted to the colonel. "I found him all doubled up in the coal-shed back of the major's. 'T wasn't him hollered. 'T was somebody at Captain Sumter's. They got the steward over from the hospital, but they want the sergeant and some of the guard to search the back buildings."
"Who wants them?" demanded the colonel.
"The adjutant, sir. Lieutenant Blake's with him. There has been some prowlers—and the young ladies were frightened."
"They are safely home?" asked the colonel. "Then where's the sleigh?"
"They're home all right, sir, and the sleigh went on out of the east gate—to the store, I suppose. Number Six didn't stop it——"
"One moment," interposed the colonel. "Sergeant-of-the-guard, take four of your men and report to Captain Sumter; or to the adjutant. Now, corporal, when was this cry heard?"
"Just after the young ladies got home, sir—leastwise that's what I was told. We didn't hear it at the guard-house."
"Was the officer-of-the-guard over there?"
"Not the—new one, sir, but——" And then the corporal suddenly stopped, contrite and troubled.
"But what?" demanded the colonel, instant suspicion in his eyes and tone. "Do you mean that Lieutenant Lanier was there—out of his quarters?"
"Out of his head, if he was," growled the paymaster, who loved him well and was deeply concerned over his trouble.
"I—I didn't see him, sir," answered the young soldier, but in manner so confused that it simply added to the commander's suspicion.
"Come with me, Horton," said the colonel to his quartermaster, and turning back for his cap and overcoat. Then once again the voice of the aggrieved and importunate sergeant was heard, this time with convincing appeal.
"I beg the colonel's pardon, but if he wants to get the truth as to this night's business, it would be well to arrest Trooper Rawdon, or he'll be off for good and all."
"Find him, then, sergeant-of-the-guard, and have it done," said Button. "Report it to the officer-of-the-day as my order."
That ended the dance, but not the excitement. Women and girls were seeking their wraps even before the corporal came, and now went twittering homeward, each on the arm of her escort, except in the case of those allied forces, the wives of certain seniors, who long had lived, moved, and ruled in the regiment, and now in eager yet guarded tones were discussing the events of the hour gone by. With these went Mrs. Foster, her husband having joined the searching party, and her sleigh, instead of returning, being still missing and unaccounted for.
Not yet midnight, and in the space of less than one hour all Fort Cushing had been stirred by the news. A most popular and prominent young officer had been placed in close arrest. A prominent, if not most popular, sergeant, had been pummelled. An alarming scene of some kind had occurred at the quarters of Captain Sumter. No one outside of the immediate family knew just what had happened, and those inside cared not to tell. Mrs. Sumter had hurried away the minute she learned that her husband had gone. The colonel, sternly silent, led his wife to their door, and there left her, saying he had summoned certain officers to join him at once, and she, who ruled him in all matters domestic almost as she managed the children, knew well that when roused he would brook no interference in matters professional, and Bob Lanier, a prime favorite of hers, had in some way managed to fall under the ban of his extreme displeasure.
At the office were presently assembled the colonel, the adjutant, the quartermaster, the post surgeon, and to them came Paymaster Scott. At the "store," the only club-room they had in those days, were gathered half the commissioned officers of the post. At Sumter's there kept coming and going by twos and threes, from all along the officers' line, a succession of sympathetic callers, who left even more mystified than when they arrived. Mrs. Sumter was aloft with Kate and their guest, and, as the captain civilly but positively told all visitors, "had to be excused." One of the girls was "somewhat hysterical." Miriam had had a fright in the dark on their return home and screamed. Something foolish, probably, but none the less effective. No! Sumter thought Mrs. Sumter would need no help, yet he was so much obliged to the several who suggested going up just to see if they couldn't "do something." Captain Sumter was a devoted husband and father, a capital officer, and a gentleman to the core, but the captain could be just a trifle distant at times, and this was one of them.
Another house was virtually closed to question. To the disappointment of many and the disapprobation of a few, Bob Lanier had closeted himself with his classmate and most intimate friend "Dad" Ennis; then, after a brief colloquy with Barker, the adjutant, had caused a big card to be tacked on his door whereon was crayoned in bold black letters "BUSY." But at quarter past twelve the assistant surgeon, Doctor Schuchardt, called, as was known, for the second time, and entered without ceremony. When the officer-of-the-day came tramping along the boardwalk at 12.30, and turned in at the gate, he struck the panel with the hilt of his sabre, by way of hint that his call was official and not to be denied. Ennis, therefore, came to the door, but came with gloomy brow.
"I am ordered by Colonel Button to ask certain questions of Lieutenant Lanier," said the official from the depths of his fur cap.
"How's that, Doc?" called Ennis, over his massive shoulder. "Can your patient see the officer-of-the-day?"
"Not yet, with my consent," came the stout answer.
"Shout your questions, captain," sang out the patient, with much too little humility of manner, yet Lanier knew Curbit well and knew his mission to be unwelcome.
Therefore, in Captain Curbit's most official tones, ab imo pectore, came question the first:
"Is Trooper Rawdon in hiding anywhere about your quarters?"
To which, truculently, came response in Lanier's unmistakable voice:
"He is not, if I know it."
"Do you know or suspect where he is?"
"Neither. And there is no reason why I should."
"Have you seen him—to-night?"
An instant's pause; then, "I don't know whether I have or not."
"You don't know?" exclaimed Curbit, puzzled and beginning to bristle.
"I don't know," repeated Lanier, positive and beginning to rejoice.
"Suppose the colonel tells me to explain that," began Curbit, but Doctor Schuchardt set his foot down summarily.
"Here," said he, "this thing's got to stop;" and he came to the door in his shirt sleeves, leaning half way out, with one hand behind him. "Lanier's in a highly nervous and excited state. He has had a fall—and I'm trying to get him to bed and asleep. He doesn't know—whom—he has seen since he got home in arrest, and you can say so for me."
"All right Shoe," was the philosophical answer. "It's none o' my funeral, and personally I don't give a cuss if they never find him, but there are just s-teen reasons why the Old Man wants to see that young man Rawdon forthwith, and as many for believing he's skipped."
"Then skip after him. You can track anything but a ghost in this new-fallen snow."
Curbit lowered his voice. "That's exactly the trouble, doctor. Go to the back of the quarters and see for yourself. His trail starts—and ends—here."
In all its history Fort Cushing had never known such a day of bewilderment as that which followed. Guard mounting was held as usual at eight A.M., and Colonel Button, awaiting in his office the coming of the old and the new officers-of-the-day, directed his adjutant to drop his own work at their entrance and give attention to what took place. Half a dozen other officers, with little or no business to transact at that hour, made it their business to be present, drawn thither from sheer sympathy, as some declared, and downright curiosity, as owned by others. The office building was large and roomy; the colonel's desk was close to the door; beyond it were tables spread with maps, magazines, and papers; a big stove stood in the middle, and a dozen chairs were scattered about, for it was here the officers met one evening each week in the one "book-schooling" to which they were then subjected—a recitation in regulations or "Tactics." Across the hall was a smaller office—the adjutant's—and beyond that the room where sat the sergeant-major and his clerks. The windows, snow-battered and frost-bitten, gave abundant light from the skies, but none on the surroundings—the view being limited to scratch-hole surveys. There was nothing to distract attention from what might be going on within, and all eyes were on the two burly captains who entered at 8.30, fur-capped, fur-gloved, in huge overcoats and arctics. The wind had begun, even earlier than usual, to whine and stir as it swept down from the bleak northwest, and the mercury had dropped some ten degrees since the previous evening.
"Blizzard coming," said Scott, as he glanced at the sullen skies, and Scott knew the Rockies as he did the Paymaster's Manual.
"I report as old officer-of-the-day, sir," said Curbit, with brief salute, tendering the guard report book.
The colonel went straight to business, as he glanced over the list of prisoners.
"No sign of Trooper Rawdon?"
"No, sir. The patrol sent to search in town got back at reveille."
"His horse and kit all right?"
"All right, sir. Nothing missing that he was supposed to have."
"Police notified to watch all trains—and stages?"
"Yes, sir, and Sergeant Stowell, who commanded the paymaster's escort, remains in town with a couple of men to help."
There was impressive silence in the office. The colonel sat with troubled brow, looking grimly over the roster of the guard, the written "remarks" of the officer-of-the-day, and the hours of his inspections of sentries, etc. Barker, the adjutant, had dropped into a chair, a few feet back of the fur-capped officers, and, though listening as bidden, was gloomily contemplating the frost-covered panes of the nearest north window.
Eight men had gone with Sergeant Stowell as escort to the paymaster when, nearly four weeks earlier, he had set forth on his trip. Then the little iron safe was full of money. Seven men had come back with him, when, as the safe was well nigh empty, the paymaster said he hardly needed an escort. Of the eight who started, four were "casuals" who belonged to companies stationed at Fort Frayne, well up in the Indian country, and there they remained when the duty was over. Of the seven who came with Stowell, three belonged at Fort Frayne, a corporal and two men of Captain Raymond's troop, and they came fortified with the orders of their post commander, a copy of which was now in Barker's hands.
"What I don't understand," said the colonel, whirling his chair to the right about and addressing the paymaster, "is how or why those men should be down here."
"It seems simple," answered Scott, placidly, he being entirely independent of the post commander. "From Frayne I had to go to the cantonments up along the Big Horn, and we doubled the size of the escort accordingly. When we got back there these three were permitted to come all the way, whether to buy Christmas things for the Frayne folk, or for affairs of their own, I didn't inquire."
"To whom did you assign them for rations and quarters?" demanded the colonel, of Barker.
"Captain Snaffle, sir—'C' Troop."
"Are they there?—the others, at least?"
"Corporal Watts and Trooper Ames are there, sir. Trooper Rawdon, as you know, is not. He has not been seen about the quarters since some time last evening. Moreover, the few personal belongings he had are gone."
Again a pause. Then presently: "You arrested Kelly, I see, the man who was on Number Five."
"Yes, sir. Both Doctor Schuchardt and the steward said his sickness was due to drink. The sergeant and corporal-of-the-guard are willing to swear he was perfectly sober when they stationed him. The men say he hadn't touched a drop of liquor for a month. He must have drunk after he was posted as sentry, for he vomited whiskey at the hospital. I believe he was doped."
"That he could get whiskey anywhere along back of the officers' quarters," said the colonel, reflectively as well as reflecting, "is not improbable. That it should have been doped, judging from the way one or two have misbehaved, is not impossible. Captain Snaffle's cook, it seems, was indulging some of her friends with a surreptitious supper, at his expense. That, very possibly, is how Kelley came to grief. The others seem to have hidden their tracks thus far." Then, as though with sudden resolution, he turned abruptly again.
"The usual orders, for the present, captain," said he, to the new incumbent. "And you are relieved, Captain Curbit"—to the old. "But I shall need to see you later, so do not leave the post."
"The man that leaves the post this day," said Major Scott, with a squint through the upper and unincumbered panes of the nearest window, "may need a seven days' leave."
"And that, colonel," said a quiet voice at the commander's elbow, "is what I applied for earlier. Pardon me, sir, but I need to know your decision, for I should now be going to town."
It was Captain Sumter who spoke, and the colonel flushed promptly at sound of his voice.
"I had intended sending for you, Sumter," said he, "but these rather engrossing matters had to be taken up first. I—have your application," he continued, fumbling among the papers on his desk. "It is an awkward time—and these are awkward circumstances. It will leave your troop without an officer."
"Mr. Lanier will be here, colonel."
"Here—but in close arrest," frowned the colonel, "and you haven't had a first lieutenant since I have been in command."
"My misfortune, sir, but hardly my fault," answered Captain Sumter tersely yet respectfully. "General Sheridan selects his aides-de-camp where he will, and last month you thought it a compliment to the regiment and to my troop."
"You feel that—you ought to go?" asked the colonel, dropping the subject like a hot brick, and resuming the previous question.
"Our guest, Miss Arnold, is in no condition to travel alone," said Captain Sumter gravely. "My wife decides to accompany her, at least to Chicago, and I desire to go with my wife."
The colonel bit his lip, and bowed. "I see," said he. "Miss Arnold was very much shaken by what happened—after she got home?"
"Rather by what happened before she got home," was the calm yet suggestive reply, and it stung the commander to the quick.
"Captain Sumter," said he, flushing angrily, for no one of his officers held he in higher esteem, "your attitude is that of opposition, if not of rebuke, to the official acts of the post commander."
"Then let me disclaim at once the faintest disrespect, Colonel Button, but—as Mr. Lanier's troop commander and personal friend, I beg leave to say that so far as I know, his offense is one which his comrades have committed time and again, without rebuke."
"Which simply goes to show, sir," responded the colonel, with glittering eyes, "that you do not know the twentieth part of his offense."
For a moment the silence in the office was painful. Men looked at each other without speaking. Sumter stood before his commander, turning paler with the flitting seconds. At last he spoke:
"If that be true, Colonel Button, of course I cannot think of going. I withdraw my application;" and, turning slowly, left the office.
Between him and the adjutant flashed one quick glance. There was something to come yet. The officers-of-the-day had gone—Curbit to shed furs and sabre at his quarters and say "Thank God!" Snaffle, his junior in rank but senior in years, a veteran of the old dragoons, to plod wearily back towards the guard-house for a conference with Lieutenant Crane, commander-of-the-guard.
In the office of the sergeant-major the clerks were busily at work consolidating the morning reports of the ten companies—six of cavalry, four of infantry—stationed at the post. A note on that of Captain Snaffle had already caught the eye of the sergeant-major, who had bustled in to impart the tidings to his immediate superior, the adjutant, and was disappointed to find them known already.
Instead of carrying three enlisted men present as "casually at post," the "return" of Troop "C" had but two. Trooper Rawdon, whose horse, horse equipments, and field kit were safely stored in the troop-stables since noon the previous day, was himself accounted for nowhere. In view of the fact that he had not been seen, and could not be found, there was nothing remarkable about that. With the morning report book, however, there was handed in a copy of an order duly submitted by Corporal Watts to Snaffle's first sergeant, and by him to his captain, which read as follows:
FORT FRAYNE, Wyoming, December 11, 1876.
S. O. } } (Extract) No. 81. }
* * * * *
3. On arriving with his detachment at Fort Cushing, and in compliance with the telegraphic instructions from Department Headquarters, Trooper G. P. Rawdon, Troop "L," —th Cavalry, is granted thirty days' furlough, at the expiration of which he will report to the commanding officer of Fort Cushing for transportation to his proper station.
By order of Lieutenant-Colonel Kent, DOUGLAS JERROLD, Second Lieut. —th Inf., Post Adjutant.
Just as the paymaster predicted, the wintry storm broke with the early afternoon. A genuine blizzard came shrieking down from the mountain pass to the northwest, charging madly through the post, blinding the eyes and snatching the breath of the few hardy men who had to venture out of doors, driving before it a dense white snow-cloud, sweeping clean the westward roofs and prairie wastes, and banking up to the very eaves on the lee side of every building. Even the sentries had to be severally taken off post and lodged within. (Number Five, so it was reported, had been blown bodily into the Snaffles' kitchen.) Even the commanding officer's "orderly," who had barely managed to make his way back after dinner, was now relieved. Only by hauling himself hand over hand along the picket fence, and turning his back to the gale every ten seconds to catch his breath, had he succeeded in returning to his post. Even stable duty was abandoned, so far as grooming was concerned, for though the men could readily be blown from barracks to their steeds, no power could fetch them back for supper. Veteran first sergeants told off a stout squad in each troop, and sent them with a sack-load of rations to reinforce the stable sergeant and grooms, there to stay to feed, guard, and water the horses. Unless the roofs blew away, and all were buried in drifts, there was safety, if not comfort, in the sheltered flats below the bluffs.
But the telegraph wires went with the first hour. The stage, of course, couldn't be hoped to return from town, and, so far as getting news from the surrounding universe was concerned, Fort Cushing might as well have been in Nova Zembla. And the Sumters, three, with Miriam Arnold, had set forth at noon, intending to intercept the east-bound express, and the colonel's spirit was raging in sympathy with the storm, and in spite of his wife, for some one had started a tale that Sumter and his household had ostentatiously called upon Robert Ray Lanier, in close arrest, in utter disfavor and inferential disgrace.
Now, while an officer in arrest may not quit his quarters under seven days, and may not even thereafter visit his commanding officer unless ordered, or his brother officers unless authorized by that magnate, there is no regulation prohibiting other officers or their households visiting him. Nevertheless, they who publicly do so lay themselves liable to the imputation of sympathizing with the accused at the expense of the accuser, and some commanding officers are so sensitive that they look upon such demonstrations as utterly subversive of discipline, and aimed directly at them.
And of such was Colonel Button, a brave soldier, a gentleman at heart, a kind, if crotchety, commander, and a lenient man rather than a disciplinarian. Much given, himself, to criticism of his own superiors or contemporaries, he could not abide it that he should lack the full and enthusiastic support, much less be made the object of the criticism, of his officers or men. A vain man, was Button, and dearly he loved the adulation of his comrades, high or low. Veteran Irish sergeants knew well how to reach the soft side of "The Old Man." Astute troop commanders, like Snaffle, saved themselves many a deserved wigging by judicious use of blarney. Sterling, straightforward men like Major Stannard, like Sumter, Raymond, and Truscott, of his captains—men who could not fawn and would not flatter—were never Button's intimates. He admired them; he respected them; but down in his heart he did not like them, because they were, in a word, independent.
And during the long and trying campaign that began early in June and closed only late in November, Button had made more than one error that set men to saying things, and at least one blunder that had called for rebuke. It was supposed at the time that the rebuke would end it, but, to Button's wrath, and indeed that of most of his friends, the story appeared in exaggerated form in many an Eastern paper. What made it worse was that, as told in Boston, Philadelphia, and other far Eastern communities, where the Indian is little known and much considered, Button's interests were bound to suffer, for he was declared to have butchered defenseless women and children in a surrendered village—a most unjust accusation in spite of the fact that certain squaws and boys had died fighting with their braves by night, when bullets could not well discriminate. Button had but just got his promotion to regimental command, and friends at court were working hard for his further advancement to the grade of brigadier-general—a fact that hurt him in an army so benighted as then was ours, in believing that generalships should be bestowed only upon the seniors and service-tried among the colonels. We have broadened much since then, and, as it was once said that every French soldier carried the baton of a marshal in his knapsack, so now may the silver star be hidden in the pocket of the lieutenants of every staff department as well as those of the Fighting Force. There are none who may not aspire.
So Button believed it of Sumter that he and his, on the way to the railway station, went in and condoled with Bob Lanier, and doubtless vituperated him, the commander, when in point of fact no one of their number had seen, or spoken with, Bob. Sumter merely left a big basket filled with fruit, and a little note with friendliness, from Mrs. Sumter, then sprang into the curtained escort wagon, and was whisked away.
Then came the storm, and then a Sunday and Monday in which no man went either way between the fort and town. And then a third, in which the gale went down, and the garrison first dug itself out, and then tunnelled in to the colonel's, the adjutant's office, and other submerged quarters, and on the morning of that third day Captain Sumter, in snow-covered furs, reported his return in person to his post commander, and explained that he had been storm-bound at the station in the meantime.
It was then barely nine o'clock. Guard mounting, the first held since Saturday, was just over. The morning reports, the first rendered since Saturday, were just in, and the staff and company officers for the first time since Saturday were beginning to gather at headquarters and to compare notes. All had much to tell. Stannard's wood-pile, Snaffle's storm-shed, and Barker's cow had blown away. Somebody had just reported Sumter's north dormer window "torn out by the roots," which moved Button to say:
"I hope your quarters sustained no damage in your absence."
"I do not know, sir, I came direct to the office to report."
"Ah, true; your household started before the storm."
"Only started, sir. They went no farther than the surgeon's quarters, where we learned the train was six hours late. I had—business—in town, and went on. They remained."
"Then the ladies have not gone East?"
"Neither they nor any one else, since early Saturday morning. The road is blocked."
"The paymaster, too? He went in right after luncheon."
"I cannot say, sir. I neither saw nor heard of him about the station. It is crowded with people. Three trains are stalled there, unable to go either way, and now—with your permission, colonel——"
"Oh, certainly, certainly, Sumter. I didn't wish to detain you. I hope you'll find the ladies well." Whereat the captain withdrew, giving place to the quartermaster who had hurried in, an anxious look in his eyes. That he should have numerous losses and damages to report was to be expected; that he should appear in the least concerned was not. A faithful and loyal staff officer was Horton, but one of the most philosophic, if not phlegmatic, souls in the service. It took nothing short of a national disaster seriously to disturb his equanimity; therefore at sight of his face the colonel was almost instantly on his feet.
"Can I have a sergeant and twenty men at once, sir, armed and mounted? The ambulance with the paymaster never reached town."
"Order them out at once, Mr. Barker," was Button's instant answer, turning to his adjutant, who went out like a shot. "What time did they start?"
"About two Saturday afternoon. It was blowing a gale then and the snow so thick we lost sight of them within a hundred yards. Major Scott declined an escort; said he and the clerk and the two men inside were more than enough. He had only three thousand dollars left and thought that too little to tempt anybody. Everybody knew he was just back from a long pay trip—not going—yet they have disappeared utterly. I had men ride the length of the creek valley 'twixt here and town, and there isn't a sign of them."
The silence in the office was oppressive. Men looked at each other in dumb consternation.
"How did you learn they hadn't reached town?" demanded Button.
"Sergeant Fitzroy just came out. He'd been in there with Sergeant Stowell to help find Rawdon, he said. Major Scott had a section engaged in the Pullman for Omaha, and Fitzroy says he never claimed it—says he searched every stable for the ambulance, but there was no sign of it, and he says there was a gang of half a dozen toughs that had been hanging about town for a week, and they've cleared out. I'd like to go and get into riding rig, sir."
"Go, and I'll have a troop out after you if need be." Then turning to his adjutant: "Barker, have Sergeant Fitzroy sent for at once."
Another moment and a trig, well-groomed soldier, florid-faced, muscular, yet burly in build, stepped briskly in and "stood attention." His right eye and cheek were still heavily bruised and discolored. His nose was somewhat swollen. The colonel had looked upon him with sombre eyes the night of the dance. It annoyed him that a non-commissioned officer should have taken such a time and place to offer a complaint. He still disapproved. Moreover, he had given Sergeant Fitzroy no authority to go as volunteer aid to Sergeant Stowell.
"How did you happen to be in town, sergeant?" was the abrupt demand.
Fitzroy colored to the brows, but the answer was prompt:
"I understood the colonel to say 'find him,' referring to Trooper Rawdon, Friday night, and I went in Saturday morning thinking to help. Then we couldn't get back, sir."
"My order was to the sergeant-of-the-guard, not to you," interposed Button curtly. "Sergeant Stowell was sent and that was enough."
"Sergeant Stowell was looking for a man in uniform, sir, and had never seen Rawdon except in trooper dress, and would never perhaps have known him."
"Then how should you?" was the sharp query.
Fitzroy started. "I—had known him longer, sir, and much better. I—had occasion to reprimand him once or twice, and knew him and his—pals, if the colonel will pardon me—as none of the others knew him. There was that young civilian, Lowndes, that went along with us and got into trouble, and—there were others. In fact, if the colonel will pardon me again, sir, I do not hold a high opinion of Trooper Rawdon, and if the colonel were to investigate, it's my belief he could trace many a disloyal trick—and tale—to that man. What's more," and now the speaker's tone betrayed undue and most unprofessional excitement, and it seemed as though he had quite forgotten himself and his official surroundings, for he finished with voice querulous and upraised, "if Paymaster Scott came to grief he has nobody to blame but his pet and himself——"
"No more of that, sir," broke in the colonel angrily, "unless you are ready to prove your words."
"Give me two days and half a chance, Colonel Button," was the confident answer, "and I'll do it."
As Captain Sumter said, the ladies had gone no further than the surgeon's quarters that memorable Saturday, and with Sumter's full consent they had not gone even that far. Friday afternoon he had wired his protest to the father of Miriam Arnold, and with startling emphasis the reply had come early Saturday morning: "I repeat that I desire my daughter to return at once." It angered this honest gentleman and soldier. The tone was abrupt, if telegrams can be said to have either tone or manner, but that "wire" settled the matter. Miriam said she must obey, and nothing short of Doctor Larrabee, senior surgeon of the post, had prevailed against her decision. He himself had met the covered vehicle at his gate, and with calm but forceful courtesy had insisted on their alighting. "Your train is half a day late," said he. "You'll be wiser waiting here than at the frowsy station. Besides, I wish to see this young woman again." So saying, he fairly lifted Miss Arnold from the fur-robed depths of the dark interior, and deposited her on the wind-swept path. "Run in," said he, then similarly aided Mrs. and Miss Sumter. Their hand luggage and wraps came next, and Sumter drove away, saying he'd be back to them in abundant time for the train—which he was, though not until Tuesday morning. It was Thursday before the road was open or the telegraph again at work.
Less than half an hour the trio spent under the doctor's hospitable roof. Before two o'clock the wind had increased to a gale. The snow was driving swift and hard. "I checked you just in time," said he. "There'll be no train either way this night." And so by two o'clock, and just as the paymaster was driving away down the front of officers' row, Mrs. and Miss Sumter, with Miss Arnold, escorted by the two medical officers, were struggling across the open space between the surgeon's houses and the rear fence of the long line, and presently entering the back gate at Sumter's.
It was an odd arrangement, somewhat peculiar to frontier stations of the day. The enclosure of Fort Cushing was diamond-shaped. The entrance gate was at the eastern apex. The hospital and surgeons' quarters stood on a line with this gate, their front perpendicular to the long axis of the diamond. Their "rear elevations," therefore, were not far from officers' row. From the front of Sumter's house, around by way of the main gate to the doctor's door—the first to the left (north) of the post traders's—was quite a walk. From back door to back door, however, it was less than two hundred paces. "We are near neighbors," Doctor Larrabee had been saying, "though my wife thinks it a long walk on a windy day. I could reach you day or night, almost in a minute. As for Schuchardt and Bob Lanier, they could talk to each other out of their back windows this morning, but you couldn't hear a bugle across there now."
"Is he sitting up?" Mrs. Sumter inquired. "I thought, from what we heard, Doctor Schuchardt was trying to keep him in bed."
"He won't stay," was the brief answer. "I doubt if he slept a wink last night."
But Schuchardt was even less communicative. In answer to Mrs. Sumter's appeal, that young but gifted physician had looked perturbed, and finally answered: "Mr. Lanier's hurt is more mental than physical, therefore the more difficult for me to reach."
"You've seen him this morning?"
"Twice, Mrs. Sumter, and I'm going again as soon as we've seen you home."
And the moment they reached the rear storm-door, and their fur-hooded, fur-mantled charges were safely within, Schuchardt excused himself, Miriam Arnold's eyes following with a mute message that he felt, if he did not hear.
But Larrabee lingered. Stamping and shaking off the snow, he followed into the warm and cozy army quarters. Cook and housemaid both looked astonished at the unexpected procession through the kitchen. Mrs. Captain Snaffle's "chef"—like her mistress, of Hibernian extraction—sprang up in some confusion from her chair and the cup of "tay" over which the three had been chatting, as is the way of our domestics at such times and places,—she had reason to know the mistress of the house did not well approve of her, or of these frequent visitations. "We shall probably dine at home," said Mrs. Sumter, somewhat coldly, to her own retainers, and bestowing no notice upon their visitor. "There may be no train till to-morrow;" and with that led the way to the parlor.
Almost immediately, without waiting for the coming of the attendants with their hand-bags, Miss Arnold fled up-stairs, followed, at a glance from her mother, by Kate.
"You see how wretchedly nervous she continues," said Mrs. Sumter. "How could we have let her go alone?"
"How should we let her go at all?" said Larrabee. "Indeed"—with a glance from the clouding window over the storm-swept parade—"I repeat, there will be no going anywhere for anybody just now. Has—has she—told you anything, as yet?"
Mrs. Sumter was gradually emerging from her winter coat of furs. For a moment she hesitated, then closed the door leading back to the dining-room and returned to him as he stood there, warming his hands at the great parlor stove then indispensable in our frontier homes. His fine, intellectual face, in its silver-gray fringe of crisp curling hair, was full of sympathy and interest. It was a face to confide in, and all Fort Cushing swore by its senior surgeon. "Doctor," said she, calling him by the title he best loved, "Miriam says she believes it was all a mere delusion—a dream. She blames herself bitterly and—begs us to think no more of it—to forgive her, but——"
"But?" and the kind dark eyes studied the gentle, matronly face.
"But—oh, why should I attempt to conceal it? You know, and we have reason to know, she did see some one—some one right there in her room. Some one who went out like a thief, through the window, and down the roof to the shed, and away in spite of sentries or—or anybody—some one who was in there when they so unexpectedly got home. You saw——"
"Yes, I saw the tracks in the fresh snow on the roof. I could see them when I came hurrying over," murmured the doctor.
"Captain Sumter had the snow swept off before reveille. What was the use of advertising it further? Mr. Barker and Mr. Blake saw it, too. They hold it was some garrison sneak-thief, looking for jewelry. Yet not so much as a ring, or a pin, was touched—only her desk."
"Did she tell of that?"
"No, Kate was the first to see it. She flew up-stairs when she heard the scream; found Miriam a senseless heap on the floor, the desk open on the little table by the window, the contents scattered, the window up, and somebody bounding and slipping away in the moonlight. Then she heard the challenge and scuffle outside and thought the guard had him, and gave her whole attention to Miriam, until Mr. Barker shouted from the lower hall. Oh, yes, cook and Maggie both declare they were in their room, but—I believe they were next door at the Snaffles'. I believe the back door was left open for—whoever it was."
"And nothing is missing?"
"Nothing. He was frightened off evidently. But Captain Sumter wished to have it all kept quiet until he could confer with the detectives in town. He has a theory of his own."
She had lowered her voice, and now walked to the hall door, as though listening for sounds from aloft, whither Kate and Miriam had vanished.
"Miss Kate has a level head," presently spoke Larrabee. "What does she say?"
"Doctor, that is what troubles me! Kate won't say—anything. It's the first time she ever kept a secret from me." And now tears of genuine distress were welling in Mrs. Sumter's eyes.
It was half after two, and the wind was shrieking through the open space back of the line, when Doctor Larrabee, bending almost double, managed to fight his way homeward. Schuchardt, occupant of the adjoining set to his own, had not yet returned. At Sumter's gate the senior surgeon encountered the corporal-of-the-guard, nearly blind and well nigh exhausted. He had been sent round to relieve the men on post and bid them make the best of their way to the guard-room. He was even then searching for Number Five, who had most justifiably, in fact, involuntarily, taken refuge as previously explained. Had he not been blown into the Snaffles' kitchen, he might, like Barker's cow, have been blown away.
"You will probably find Doctor Schuchardt at Lieutenant Lanier's quarters," shouted Larrabee at the corporal, with kindly intent. "Take Number Five in there and get thawed out. Tell him I think a nip of whiskey advisable under the circumstances."
And thus it happened that two storm-beaten soldiers presently shoved their way through Lanier's back gate and banged at the kitchen door. Nobody answering, they presently entered, passed through that deserted apartment, and, hearing voices further on, the corporal ventured into the dark hallway leading through the little frame house, now fairly quivering in the blast. Here he caught sight of two officers—big, powerful men, in fur caps and canvas overcoats, just pushing forth through the front door into the fierce blast without. One was Doctor Schuchardt, the other Lieutenant Ennis, joint occupant with Lanier of the tiny premises. As Corporal Cassidy later expressed it, he felt "like I'd lost a bulging pot on an ace full." He couldn't run after and beg them to come back, yet he and his comrades were stiff from cold and almost breathless from exhaustion. Suddenly Number Five's carbine slipped from his frozen glove and fell with a crash on the kitchen floor. The next instant the voice of Lieutenant Lanier was heard.
"Who the devil's that?"
"Corporal Cassidy, sir. The post surgeon told me to bring Number Five in here and thaw him out. We'd find Doctor Schuchardt. But the doctor's just gone, sir, and——"
But by this time Mr. Lanier himself appeared in the hall, his feet in warm woollen slippers, his hands in bandages. "Well, I should say! Come right in here, you two. Pull off your gloves and get out of those caps and things. Man alive"—this to Number Five—"why didn't you come before? This is no time to stand on ceremony—or stay on post, either. My striker's stormbound somewhere. I'd help you if I could, but I can't. Help yourselves now, best you can; rub and kick all you want to; dance if it'll warm you." And all the time he was crowding them up about a roaring stove, where presently he made them sit while he bustled about at a buffet in the adjoining room. "You'll have to help me, corporal," presently he cried. "One hand can't mix and pour and lift. There's sugar; there's hot water on the stove; there's glasses and here's whiskey. Mix it hot, and down with it!"
And so hospitably and heartily, after the manner of old frontier days and men, the young officer administered to his humbler comrades; cheered, and warmed, and insisted on their eating with their second tumbler, and when in course of half an hour the two stood before him, glowing, grateful, and resuming their buffalo coats and fur caps and gloves, honest Cassidy tried to say his say:
"'D' Troop's fellers never can brag enough about their lieutenant, sir, and though we don't belong to 'D' Troop, it hasn't taken this to tell us why. If ever the time comes when me or Quinlan here can do the lieutenant a good turn he'll—he'll know it."
After which they were gone, rejoicing in their new-found strength, yet reaching the nearest barracks only after severe struggle, and, later still, the crowded, suffocating guard-room,—where now some thirty men were huddled in a space intended for twenty at most—where Cassidy and Number Five were speedily telling to eager, appreciative ears their unusual and rejoiceful experience.
"Well, ain't he the dandy lieutenant, though?" queried Casey, of "F" Troop. "And did he give you yer new cap, too, Quinlan? Sure the wan you marched on wid had the mange!"
Cassidy snatched it from his comrade's head. "Mother av Moses! If he hasn't lifted the lieutenant's——" But he broke off short. One glance he had given the band within. A sudden cloud swept over his face. There was an instant of indecision, then he whipped his own cap from his head and thrust it on Quinlan.
"I'm a liar," said he; "it's me own he's had."
"Then you wear two sizes, Jim Cassidy, an' both different." Quinlan had pulled the headpiece down, and was staring in at the soft lining. "What's this?" he began, when the corporal's fingers closed like a vise on his arm.
"Shut up, Quinlan. The whiskey's gone to yer noddle. Come here!" And Cassidy led him, wondering, to the barred corridor without and slammed the door behind them. "Not a word do you whisper of this to any man, Pat Quinlan," said he, never relaxing his grasp. "You heard what that Cockney Fitzroy was swearin' to this morning? Sure—you'd never say the word to back that whelp—an' harm the lieutenant!"
"God helps those who help themselves," quoth Lieutenant Blake, on hearing of the incident at Lanier's quarters, "but God help those who help other fellows, unless 'the Old Man' likes it." Blake was but a "casual" at Fort Cushing at the moment, summoned thither as a witness before a general court-martial then in session, but there was nothing casual in his friendship for Bob Lanier. Two years' campaigning in Arizona and one in Wyoming had made these subalterns fast friends, despite the difference of ten years in their ages and nearly twenty "files" in rank, Blake being one of the senior and Lanier one of the junior lieutenants of the regiment. Blake was no pet of the post commander. Blake had a way of saying satirical things of seniors whom he did not fancy, and Button was one of these. Blake should have returned to his proper station the day after the dance, but, like everybody else, so far as heard from, he had been held by the storm, and therefore happened to be in the club-room at the store along toward eleven o'clock on Tuesday, watching the distant deployment over the southeastward slopes of the barren upland. Fully half the mounted force of the garrison was on search for the paymaster's "outfit," and with Blake stood half a dozen infantry officers and two or three of the —th. To them, on his way to rejoin his searching troop, had entered big Jim Ennis, Lanier's chum and classmate, and Ennis looked the picture of smothered wrath. Half an hour previous he had been seen trotting up from stables to the adjutant's office, summoned thither by the orderly of the commanding officer. A few minutes later that same hard-worked orderly had been seen sprinting to the surgeon's quarters, and Doctor Larrabee, wrapped in furs and meditation, obeyed the summons, stood in the presence of an irate commander not more than fifty seconds, came forth wrapped in gloom, and took the short cut back of the major's house to his own bailiwick at the hospital.
About the only officer not to put in an appearance that morning out of doors, afoot, in saddle, or adrift in snow, was Lieutenant Lanier. About the first officer Button wished to see was Bob, and about the last was Blake. Yet such was the freakishness of Fate that the first man to hail him, with ill-timed jocularity, was Blake, and the last of his officers whom he was destined that day to set eyes on was Bob Lanier, whom Schuchardt, in answer to the commander's summons, had earlier declared unfit to leave his quarters.
If it had not been for the startling announcement about the paymaster, Colonel Button would have fought that matter out with the doctor then and there. First, however, he had to send forth his mounted men by scores in search of the missing officer and party. This done, he had once more summoned Schuchardt. Then he sent for Ennis, and had what they termed a "red hot row."
In his exasperated frame of mind, Button had been ready to believe almost any story at the expense of Lanier, and, such is the perversity of human nature, it added to rather than diminished his wrath that his revered senior surgeon should promptly corroborate the statements of both Schuchardt and Ennis, and further assume personal and entire responsibility for the episode of Saturday afternoon in Lanier's quarters. That episode had started many a tongue, and one of Button's henchmen, thinking to win favor at the fountain-head by mention of new iniquity on the part of the culprit, had deftly enlarged upon it. Snaffle, of course, was the fellow at fault, and he justified it on the plea that Lanier was demoralizing two men of his troop. The story he told was that Lanier had been carousing at his quarters with certain enlisted members of the guard. When told of it Button was furious, so much so that for the time he forgot about Sumter and the ladies of the Sumter household, and the north dormer window of Sumter's quarters, reported "stove in by the storm."
Nor had Sumter himself much time for domestic duties before the order came for him and his troop to turn out to aid in the search. He found the family fairly tranquil under the circumstances. He had sent a messenger galloping out from town, to assure his wife of his safety, when Tuesday's dawn showed the storm sufficiently abated. A devious course the rider took, for the road was blocked in a dozen places, and every ravine and hollow was packed to the brim with snow. But he bore glad tidings and banished all anxiety on account of the husband and father. Their anxieties now were mainly for Miriam, their guest.
Mrs. Sumter had not half finished what she had to say concerning Miriam when the summons came that called the captain forth to join the searching squadron, but he had heard enough to increase the anxiety in his fine, soldierly face. He went up with Mrs. Sumter and looked critically over the damage to the window, in what had been Miriam's room. She had moved, per force, to the front—to Katherine's—room Saturday night, for toward sunset the storm-sash was torn out of the north dormer, and the window blew in with a crash. By dark the room was bank full of snow that Sergeant Kennedy and a brace of loyal troopers had been shovelling out since seven that Tuesday morning, without making any great addition to the huge drifts at the back. Front, flank, and rear, most of the houses along the line were packed solidly to the attic windows. On several the boys and girls were already coasting from the peak of the roof down over the back yards, sheds, and fences and out toward Larrabee's half-submerged hospital.
It was easy to see how and why the storm-sash had failed to withstand the buffeting. In his frantic haste and panicky flight the intruder of Friday night had wrenched a hinge from its fastening. The sash had sagged at the windward end, and the rest was easy for rude Boreas.
"That sash is probably somewhere down in the back yard, sergeant," Sumter quietly remarked to faithful Kennedy. "It's under fifteen feet of snow, but when it comes to tunnelling, look after it, see that it isn't injured, and call me as soon as you find it."
Mrs. Sumter looked quickly at her lord. She well knew the reason of his instructions.
"Did you show that scrap of lining?" she asked, a moment later, as they stood alone before the parlor fire.
"They have it," was the answer. "I expect two of them out any moment."
And then had come the sudden summons to turn out, and with only brief greeting to his daughter, and a hurried kiss and caress, Captain Sumter had mounted and spurred away.
It must have been after twelve, for orderly call and mess had sounded in front of the adjutant's office, when one of the hospital attendants came floundering up the row from Lanier's, and made his way to Sumter's door, a little note in his hand. He would wait, he said, for an answer, and the maid bade him step inside while she ran up-stairs. Mrs. Sumter answered her knock at the door of Miss Kate's room, into which the damsels were now doubled. To the disappointment of that somewhat volatile domestic, Mrs. Sumter closed the portal before proceeding to open the missive, but her announcement, "From Mr. Lanier," caused Miriam Arnold to sit bolt upright.
DEAR MRS. SUMTER [it read]:
I've been living since Saturday mainly on your kindness and that delicious fruit. It was more than good of you to take such care of your incarcerated sub, and I'm ashamed to have sent no earlier thanks, but we've been banked in until this morning, and that rascal striker of ours is missing. He hasn't been about the house since Friday night. Like Barker's cow, he may have blown away. I reckon they'll find him, her, and the paymaster's outfit snowed under somewhere down toward Nebraska, safe, but possibly starving. Schuchardt has gone with the command, so has Ennis, and I'm all alone with nothing to read. If you have anything moral, instructive, and guaranteed to soften the unrepentant sinner's heart—something I could read with profit as well as pleasure—don't send it, but tell me how you all stood the storm and how you are. It is so hard to get anything but admonition out of "Shoe," and "Dad" is now more unreliable than ever.
I hope Miss Arnold is entirely recovered. Yours most sincerely, R. R. LANIER.
"The last thing a man mentions in a note is the first thing he wants answered," said Mrs. Sumter sagely. "What shall I tell him for you, Miriam?"
"Tell me what is to be done to him," was the sole reply, as the girl settled back dejectedly upon the pillows.
"I've tried to, child," answered her hostess kindly, patiently. "There isn't a court in the army that would sentence him to more than a brief confinement to limits, and reprimand." Yet Mrs. Sumter spoke with much less confidence than on Saturday. Had not her husband had to tell her his application for leave was withdrawn, and why? Had not Doctor Larrabee admitted to her that the colonel spoke of misdeeds far more serious for which Lanier must suffer? Was there not, indeed, a story in circulation, mainly in the Snaffle set, of a two-days escapade when the regiment camped near Frayne, and then a financial transaction in which Lanier had been involved—something growing out of an affair up on the Yellowstone—something including that young civilian friend of his, the collegian turned cowboy—Mr. Watson Lowndes?
Even as she strove to assure Miss Arnold, for the twentieth time, that a military arrest was far more portentious in sound than in effect, something in Kate's determined silence and Miriam's insistence added to the effect of these rumors. Could it be that the boy had confided to the daughter, hitherto his stanch friend and ally, that which he dare not confide to her, his captain's wife? Could this account for the fact that, though it was impossible to conceal his love for Miriam, he never yet had owned it to her—to her to whom it was now obvious that the avowal would mean so much—so very much?
Then another thing weighed heavily upon the brave heart of this loving friend and mother. Never had she known her child to be so silent, so strange, as now. Ever since Friday night she seemed to avoid all mention of the affair, to shrink from the subject—she who had ever been frankness itself—she who had never had a thought the mother did not share. She had become fitful and nervous. She seemed oppressed with some secret. In the long hours of their enforced confinement, with the lamps burning on the ground-floor by day as well as by night, Mrs. Sumter had pondered much over the result of her husband's investigations. Although Miriam's desk was open and its contents lay scattered on the table, nothing was missing, even to the packet of ten-and twenty-dollar "greenbacks" in its secret drawer. If robbery had been the object of the intruder, he had neglected his opportunity, or else been frightened off in time. If robbery was not his object, then what could it have been? The house was deserted at the moment of his entrance, that was now settled, for first the cook and then "Maggie" had owned to having run over to Mrs. Snaffle's kitchen for a moment, and the probability was, they stayed the best part of the evening. The lights had been left turned low in the upper and lower halls, in the kitchen and the captain's den. Army doors were seldom locked or bolted. Any one could enter, front or rear. A marauder, if such he was in this instance, might have been there from tattoo at 9.30 until discovered some two hours later, and been there undisturbed.
But why should the situation so strangely affect her daughter? Could it be that she, too, cared for Bob Lanier? The thought for the moment made the mother's heart stand still.
She was writing her reply to his note, when Maggie again appeared. "Two gentlemen to see the captain, mum," and Mrs. Sumter hurriedly closed the note and went below-stairs to meet them. She knew well who they were and why they had come. A branch office of the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency had been maintained long months at the great and growing railway station. They had been summoned by her husband, and that was enough.
Yet she shrank from meeting them, shrank from the thought of the questioning that must ensue. They might ask to speak with Kate, even with Miriam, but they did not. They asked to be shown the room, with the storm-battered dormer, by this time emptied of its load of snow. They asked to see Miriam's desk. Yes, the lock had been forced and by a big knife. They begged that Mrs. Sumter would not mention that to any one but the captain yet awhile. They were confident he would soon return. They smiled at the idea of the paymaster being held up and robbed in broad daylight by any gang in their neighborhood. They admitted that many questionable characters were in town—there always were toward the holidays, and just now, of course, the town was overcrowded—three big trains still stranded there.
While they were yet at their work, there came sounds of stamping feet at the front door, and in came Sumter, stiff from cold, but brimful of energy.