[Frontispiece: His fingers gripped the iron top rail, and he slowly pulled his body up.]
A Tale of the Old Frontier
BY RANDALL PARRISH
Author of "Keith of the Border," "My Lady of Doubt," "My Lady of the South," etc.
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS IN COLOR
BY ERNEST L. BLUMENSCHEIN
A. L. BURT COMPANY
PUBLISHERS ——————— NEW YORK
A. C. McCLURG & CO.
Published April, 1912
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England
I AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION II "BRICK" HAMLIN III THE NEWS AT RIPLEY IV THE ATTACK V THE DEFENCE OF THE STAGE VI THE CONDITION IN THE COACH VII PLANS FOE ESCAPE VIII A WAY TO THE RIVER IX ACROSS THE RIVER X THE RIPENING OF ACQUAINTANCE XI A REMEMBRANCE OF THE PAST XII THE PARTING XIII BACK AT FORT DODGE XIV UNDER ARREST XV AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE XVI THE MEETING XVII AT CROSS-PURPOSES XVIII ANOTHER MESSAGE XIX A FULL CONFESSION XX MOLLY TELLS HER STORY XXI MOLLY DISAPPEARS XXII A DEEPENING MYSTERY XXIII THE DEAD BODY XXIV IN PURSUIT XXV IN THE BLIZZARD XXVI UNSEEN DANGER XXVII HUGHES' STORY XXVIII SNOWBOUND XXIX THE CHASE XXX THE FIGHT IN THE SNOW XXXI THE GIRL AND THE MAN XXXII WORDS OF LOVE XXXIII MOLLY'S STORY XXXIV THE ADVANCE OF CUSTER XXXV THE INDIAN TRAIL XXXVI READY TO ATTACK XXXVII THE BATTLE WITH THE INDIANS XXXVIII AT CAMP SUPPLY
His fingers gripped the iron top rail, and he slowly pulled his body up . . . . . . Frontispiece
"No, don't move! The stage has been gutted and set on fire"
The two started back at his rather abrupt entrance
His Colt poised for action, he lifted the wooden latch
AN UNPLEASANT SITUATION
When, late in May, 1868, Major Daniel McDonald, Sixth Infantry, was first assigned to command the new three company post established southwest of Fort Dodge, designed to protect the newly discovered Cimarron trail leading to Santa Fe across the desert, and, purely by courtesy, officially termed Fort Devere, he naturally considered it perfectly safe to invite his only daughter to join him there for her summer vacation. Indeed, at that time, there was apparently no valid reason why he should deny himself this pleasure. Except for certain vague rumors regarding uneasiness among the Sioux warriors north of the Platte, the various tribes of the Plains were causing no unusual trouble to military authorities, although, of course, there was no time in the history of that country utterly devoid of peril from young raiders, usually aided and abetted by outcast whites. However, the Santa Fe route, by this date, had become a well-travelled trail, protected by scattered posts along its entire route, frequently patrolled by troops, and merely considered dangerous for small parties, south of the Cimarron, where roving Comanches in bad humor might be encountered.
Fully assured as to this by officers met at Fort Ripley, McDonald, who had never before served west of the Mississippi, wrote his daughter a long letter, describing in careful detail the route, set an exact date for her departure, and then, satisfied all was well arranged, set forth with his small command on the long march overland. He had not seen his daughter for over two years, as during her vacation time (she was attending Sunnycrest School, on the Hudson), she made her home with an aunt in Connecticut. This year the aunt was in Europe, not expecting to return until fall, and the father had hopefully counted on having the girl with him once again in Kentucky. Then came his sudden, unexpected transfer west, and the final decision to have her join him there. Why not? If she remained the same high-spirited army girl, she would thoroughly enjoy the unusual experience of a few months of real frontier life, and the only hardship involved would be the long stage ride from Ripley. This, however, was altogether prairie travel, monotonous enough surely, but without special danger, and he could doubtless arrange to meet her himself at Kansas City, or send one of his officers for that purpose.
This was the situation in May, but by the middle of June conditions had greatly changed throughout all the broad Plains country. The spirit of savage war had spread rapidly from the Platte to the Rio Pecos, and scarcely a wild tribe remained disaffected. Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Comanche, and Apache alike espoused the cause of the Sioux, and their young warriors, breaking away from the control of older chiefs, became ugly and warlike. Devere, isolated as it was from the main route of travel (the Santa Fe stages still following the more northern trail), heard merely rumors of the prevailing condition through tarrying hunters, and possibly an occasional army courier, yet soon realized the gravity of the situation because of the almost total cessation of travel by way of the Cimarron and the growing insolence of the surrounding Comanches. Details from the small garrison were, under urgent orders from headquarters at Fort Wallace, kept constantly scouting as far south as the fork of the Red River, and then west to the mountains. Squads from the single cavalry company guarded the few caravans venturing still to cross the Cimarron Desert, or bore despatches to Fort Dodge. Thus the few soldiers remaining on duty at the home station became slowly aware that this outburst of savagery was no longer a mere tribal affair. Outrages were reported from the Solomon, the Republican, the Arkansas valleys. A settlement was raided on Smoky Fork; stages were attacked near the Caches, and one burned; a wagon train was ambushed in the Raton Pass, and only escaped after desperate fighting. Altogether the situation appeared extremely serious and the summer promised war in earnest.
McDonald was rather slow to appreciate the real facts. His knowledge of Indian tactics was exceedingly small, and the utter isolation of his post kept him ignorant. At first he was convinced that it was merely a local disturbance and would end as suddenly as begun. Then, when realization finally came, was already too late to stop the girl. She would be already on her long journey. What could he do? What immediate steps could he hope to take for her protection? Ordinarily he would not have hesitated, but now a decision was not so easily made. Of his command scarcely thirty men remained at Devere, a mere infantry guard, together with a small squad of cavalrymen, retained for courier service. His only remaining commissioned officer at the post was the partially disabled cavalry captain, acting temporarily as adjutant, because incapacitated for taking the field. He had waited until the last possible moment, trusting that a shift in conditions might bring back some available officer. Now he had to choose between his duty as commander and as father. Further delay was impossible.
Devere was a fort merely by courtesy. In reality it consisted only of a small stockade hastily built of cottonwood timber, surrounding in partial protection a half dozen shacks, and one fairly decent log house. The situation was upon a slight elevation overlooking the ford, some low bluffs, bare of timber but green with June grass to the northward, while in every other direction extended an interminable sand-desert, ever shifting beneath wind blasts, presenting as desolate a scene as eye could witness. The yellow flood of the river, still swollen by melting mountain snow, was a hundred feet from the stockade gate, and on its bank stood the log cavalry stables. Below, a scant half mile away, were the only trees visible, a scraggly grove of cottonwoods, while down the face of the bluff and across the flat ran the slender ribbon of trail. Monotonous, unchanging, it was a desolate picture to watch day after day in the hot summer.
In the gloom following an early supper the two officers sat together in the single room of the cabin, a candle sputtering on the table behind them, smoking silently or moodily discussing the situation. McDonald was florid and heavily built, his gray mustache hanging heavily over a firm mouth, while the Captain was of another type, tall, with dark eyes and hair. The latter by chance opened the important topic.
"By the way, Major," he said carelessly, "I guess it is just as well you stopped your daughter from coming out to this hole. Lord, but it would be an awful place for a woman."
"But I did n't," returned the other moodily. "I put it off too long."
"Put it off! Good heavens, man, did n't you write when you spoke about doing so? Do you actually mean the girl is coming—here?"
"That is exactly what I mean, Travers. Damme, I have n't thought of anything else for a week. Oh, I know now I was an old fool even to conceive of such a trip, but when I first wrote her I had no conception of what it was going to be like out here. There was not a rumor of Indian trouble a month ago, and when the tribes did break out it was too late for me to get word back East. The fact is, I am in the devil of a fix—without even an officer whom I can send to meet her, or turn her back. If I should go myself it would mean a court-martial."
Travers stared into the darkness through the open door, sucking at his pipe.
"By George, you are in a pickle," he acknowledged slowly. "I supposed she had been headed off long ago. Have n't heard you mention the matter since we first got here. Where do you suppose the lass is by now?"
"Near as I can tell she would leave Ripley the 18th."
"Humph! Then starting to-night, a good rider might intercept her at Fort Dodge. She would be in no danger travelling alone for that distance. The regular stages are running yet, I suppose?"
"Yes; so far as I know."
"Only from the Caches to Fort Union; there has been no trouble along the lower Arkansas yet. The troops from Dodge are scouting the country north, and we are supposed to keep things clear of hostiles down this way."
"Supposed to—yes; but we can't patrol five hundred miles of desert with a hundred men, most of them dough-boys. The devils can break through any time they get ready—you know that. At this minute there is n't a mile of safe country between Dodge and Union. If she was my daughter—"
"You 'd do what?" broke in McDonald, jumping to his feet. "I 'd give my life to know what to do!"
"Why, I'd send somebody to meet her—to turn her back if that was possible. Peyton would look after her there at Ripley until you could arrange."
"That's easy enough to say, Travers, but tell me who is there to send? Do you chance to know an enlisted man out yonder who would do—whom you would trust to take care of a young girl alone?"
The Captain bent his head on one hand, silent for some minutes.
"They are a tough lot, Major; that's a fact, when you stop to call the roll. Those recruits we got at Leavenworth were mostly rough-necks—seven of them in the guard-house to-night. Our best men are all out," with a wave of his hand to the south. "It's only the riff-raff we 've got left, at Devere."
"You can't go?"
The Captain rubbed his lame leg regretfully.
"No; I 'd risk it if I could only ride, but I could n't sit a saddle."
"And my duty is here; it would cost me my commission."
There was a long thoughtful silence, both men moodily staring out through the door. Away in the darkness unseen sentinels called the hour. Then Travers dropped one hand on the other's knee.
"Dan," he said swiftly, "how about that fellow who came in with despatches from Union just before dark? He looked like a real man."
"I did n't see him. I was down river with the wood-cutters all day."
Travers got up and paced the floor.
"I remember now. What do you say? Let's have him in, anyhow. They never would have trusted him for that ride if he had n't been the right sort." He strode over to the door, without waiting an answer. "Here, Carter," he called, "do you know where that cavalryman is who rode in from Fort Union this afternoon?"
A face appeared in the glow of light, and a gloved hand rose to salute.
"He's asleep in 'B's' shack, sir," the orderly replied. "Said he 'd been on the trail two nights and a day."
"Reckon he had, and some riding at that. Rout him out, will you; tell him the Major wants to see him here at once."
The man wheeled as if on a pivot, and disappeared.
"If Carter could only ride," began McDonald, but Travers interrupted impatiently.
"If! But we all know he can't. Worst I ever saw, must have originally been a sailor." He slowly refilled his pipe. "Now, see here, Dan, it's your daughter that's to be looked after, and therefore I want you to size this man up for yourself. I don't pretend to know anything about him, only he looks like a soldier, and they must think well of him at Union."
McDonald nodded, but without enthusiasm; then dropped his head into his hands. In the silence a coyote howled mournfully not far away; then a shadow appeared on the log step, the light of the candle flashing on a row of buttons.
"This is the man, sir," said the orderly, and stood aside to permit the other to enter.
The two officers looked up with some eagerness, McDonald straightening in his chair, and returning the cavalryman's salute instinctively, his eyes expressing surprise. He was a straight-limbed fellow, slenderly built, and appearing taller than he really was by reason of his erect, soldierly carriage; thin of waist, broad of chest, dressed in rough service uniform, without jacket, just as he had rolled out of the saddle, rough shirt open at the throat, patched, discolored trousers, with broad yellow stripe down the seam, stuck into service riding boots, a revolver dangling at his left hip, and a soft hat, faded sadly, crushed in one hand.
The Major saw all this, yet it was at the man's uncovered face he gazed most intently. He looked upon a countenance browned by sun and alkali, intelligent, sober, heavily browed, with eyes of dark gray rather deeply set; firm lips, a chin somewhat prominent, and a broad forehead, the light colored hair above closely trimmed; the cheeks were darkened by two days' growth of beard. McDonald unclosed, then clenched his hand.
"You are from Fort Union, Captain Travers tells me?"
"Yes, sir," the reply slow, deliberate, as though the speaker had no desire to waste words. "I brought despatches; they were delivered to Captain Travers."
"Yes, I know; but I may require you for other service. What were your orders?"
"To return at convenience."
"Good. I know Hawley, and do not think he would object. What is your regiment?"
"Oh, yes, just organized; before that?"
"I see you are a non-com—corporal?"
"Sergeant, sir, since my transfer."
"No, first in the regulars—the Seventh was picked from other commands."
"I understand. You say first in the regulars. Does that mean you saw volunteer service?"
"Three years, sir."
"Ah!" his eyes brightening instantly. "Then how does it happen you failed to try for a commission after the war? You appear to be intelligent, educated?"
The Sergeant smiled.
"Unfortunately my previous service had been performed in the wrong uniform, sir," he said quietly. "I was in a Texas regiment."
There was a moment's silence, during which Travers smoked, and the Major seemed to hesitate. Finally the latter asked:
"What is your name, Sergeant?"
The pipe came out of Travers' mouth, and he half arose to his feet.
"By all the gods!" he exclaimed. "That's it! Now I 've got you placed—you 're—you 're 'Brick' Hamlin!"
The man unconsciously put one hand to his hair, his eyes laughing.
"Some of the boys call me that—yes," he confessed apologetically.
Travers was on his feet now, gesticulating with his pipe.
"Damn! I knew I'd seen your face somewhere. It was two years ago at Washita. Say, Dan, this is the right man for you; better than any fledgling West Pointer. Why, he is the same lad who brought in Dugan—you heard about that!"
The Major shook his head.
"No! Oh, of course not. Nothing that goes on out here ever drifts east of the Missouri. Lord! We might as well be serving in a foreign country. Well, listen: I was at Washita then, and had the story first-hand. Dugan was a Lieutenant in 'D' Troop, out with his first independent command scouting along the Canadian. He knew as much about Indians as a cow does of music. One morning the young idiot left camp with only one trooper along—Hamlin here—and he was a 'rookie,' to follow up what looked like a fresh trail. Two hours later they rode slap into a war party, and the fracas was on. Dugan got a ball through the body at the first fire that paralyzed him. He was conscious, but could n't move. The rest was up to Hamlin. You ought to have heard Dugan tell it when he got so he could speak. Hamlin dragged the boy down into a buffalo wallow, shot both horses, and got behind them. It was all done in the jerk of a lamb's tall. They had two Henry rifles, and the 'rookie' kept them both hot. He got some of the bucks, too, but of course, we never knew how many. There were twenty in the party, and they charged twice, riding their ponies almost to the edge of the wallow, but Hamlin had fourteen shots without reloading, and they could n't quite make it. Dugan said there were nine dead ponies within a radius of thirty feet. Anyhow it was five hours before 'D' troop came up, and that's what they found when they got there—Dugan laid out, as good as dead, and Hamlin shot twice, and only ten cartridges left. Hell," he added disgustedly, "and you never even heard of it east of the Missouri."
There was a flush of color on the Sergeant's cheeks, but he never moved.
"There was nothing else to do but what I did," he explained simply. "Any of the fellows would have done the same if they had been up against it the way I was. May I ask," his eyes first upon one and then the other inquiringly, "what it was you wanted of me?"
McDonald drew a long breath.
"Certainly, Sergeant, sit down—yes, take that chair."
He described the situation in a few words, and the trooper listened quietly until he was done. Travers interrupted once, his voice emerging from a cloud of smoke. As the Major concluded, Hamlin asked a question or two gravely.
"How old is your daughter, sir?"
"In her twentieth year."
"Have you a picture of the young lady?"
The Major crossed over to his fatigue coat hanging on the wall, and extracted a small photograph from an inside pocket.
"This was taken a year ago," he explained, "and was considered a good likeness then."
Hamlin took the card in his hands, studied the face a moment, and then placed it upon the table.
"You figure she ought to leave Ripley on the 18th," he said slowly. "Then I shall need to start at once to make Dodge in time."
"You mean to go then? Of course, you realize I have no authority to order you on such private service."
"That's true. I 'm a volunteer, but I 'll ask you for a written order just the same in case my Troop commander should ever object, and I 'll need a fresh horse; I rode mine pretty hard coming up here."
"You shall have the pick of the stables, Sergeant," interjected the cavalry captain, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "Anything else? Have you had rest enough?"
"Four hours," and the Sergeant stood up again. "All I require will be two days' rations, and a few more revolver cartridges. The sooner I 'm off the better."
If he heard Travers' attempt at conversation as the two stumbled together down the dark hill, he paid small attention. At the stables, aided by a smoky lantern, he picked out a tough-looking buckskin mustang, with an evil eye; and, using his own saddle and bridle, he finally led the half-broken animal outside.
"That buckskin's the devil's own," protested Travers, careful to keep well to one side.
"I 'll take it out of him before morning," was the reply. "Come on, boy! easy now—easy! How about the rations, Captain?"
"Carter will have them for you at the gate of the stockade. Do you know the trail?"
"Well enough to follow—yes."
McDonald was waiting with Carter, and the dim gleam of the lantern revealed his face.
"Remember, Sergeant, you are to make her turn back if you can. Tell her I wish her to do so—yes, this letter will explain everything, but she is a pretty high-spirited girl, and may take the bit in her teeth—imagine she 'd rather be here with me, and all that. If she does I suppose you 'll have to let her have her own way—the Lord knows her mother always did. Anyhow you 'll stay with her till she 's safe."
"I sure will," returned the Sergeant, gathering up his reins. "Good-bye to you."
"Good-bye and good luck," and McDonald put out his hand, which the other took hesitatingly. The next instant he was in the saddle, and with a wild leap the startled mustang rounded the edge of the bluff, flying into the night.
All had occurred so quickly that Hamlin's mind had not yet fully adjusted itself to all the details. He was naturally a man of few words, deciding on a course of action quietly, yet not apt to deviate from any conclusion finally reached. But he had been hurried, pressed into this adventure, and now welcomed an opportunity to think it all out coolly. At first, for a half mile or more, the plunging buckskin kept him busy, bucking viciously, rearing, leaping madly from side to side, practising every known equine trick to dislodge the grim rider in the saddle. The man fought out the battle silently, immovable as a rock, and apparently as indifferent. Twice his spurs brought blood, and once he struck the rearing head with clenched fist. The light of the stars revealed the faint lines of the trail, and he was content to permit the maddened brute to race forward, until, finally mastered, the animal settled down into a swift gallop, but with ears laid back in ugly defiance. The rider's gray eyes smiled pleasantly as he settled more comfortably into the saddle, peering out from beneath the stiff brim of his scouting hat; then they hardened, and the man swore softly under his breath.
The peculiar nature of this mission which he had taken upon himself had been recalled. He was always doing something like that—permitting himself to become involved in the affairs of others. Now why should he be here, riding alone through the dark to prevent this unknown girl from reaching Devere? She was nothing to him—even that glimpse of her pictured face had not impressed him greatly; rather interesting, to be sure, but nothing extraordinary; besides he was not a woman's man, and, through years of isolation, had grown to avoid contact with the sex—and he was under no possible obligation to either McDonald or Travers. Yet here he was, fully committed, drawn into the vortex, by a hasty ill-considered decision. He was tired still from his swift journey across the desert from Fort Union, and now faced another three days' ride. Then what? A headstrong girl to be convinced of danger, and controlled. The longer he thought about it all, the more intensely disagreeable the task appeared, yet the clearer did he appreciate its necessity. He chafed at the knowledge that it had become his work—that he had permitted himself to be ensnared—yet he dug his spurs into the mustang and rode steadily, grimly, forward.
The real truth was that Hamlin comprehended much more fully than did the men at Devere the danger menacing travellers along the main trail to Santa Fe. News reached Fort Union much quicker than it did that isolated post up on the Cimarron. He knew of the fight in Raton Pass, and that two stages within ten days had been attacked, one several miles east of Bent's Fort. This must mean that a desperate party of raiders had succeeded in slipping past those scattered army details scouting into the Northwest. Whether or not these warriors were in any considerable force he could not determine—the reports of their depredations were but rumors at Union when he left—yet, whether in large body or small, they would have a clear run in the Arkansas Valley before any troops could be gathered together to drive them out. Perhaps even now, the stages had been withdrawn, communication with Santa Fe abandoned. This had been spoken of as possible at Union the night he left, for it was well known there that there was no cavalry force left at Dodge which could be utilized as guards. The wide map of the surrounding region spread out before him in memory; he felt its brooding desolation, its awful loneliness. Nevertheless he must go on—perhaps at the stage station near the ford of the Arkansas he could learn the truth. So he bent lower over the buckskin's neck and rode straight through the black, silent night.
It was a waterless desert stretching between the Cimarron and the Arkansas, consisting of almost a dead level of alkali and sand, although toward the northern extremity the sand had been driven by the ceaseless wind into grotesque hummocks. The trail, cut deep by traders' wagons earlier in the spring, was still easily traceable for a greater part of the distance, and Hamlin as yet felt no need of caution—this was a country the Indians would avoid, the only danger being from some raiding party from the south. At early dawn he came trotting down into the Arkansas Valley, and gazed across at the greenness of the opposite bank. There, plainly in view, were the deep ruts of the main trail running close in against the bluff. His tired eyes caught no symbol of life either up or down the stream, except a thin spiral of blue smoke that slowly wound its way upward. An instant he stared, believing it to be the fire of some emigrant's camp; then realized that he looked upon the smouldering debris of the stage station.
THE NEWS AT RIPLEY
Miss Molly McDonald had departed for the West—carefully treasuring her father's detailed letter of instruction—filled with interest and enthusiasm. She was an army girl, full of confidence in herself and delighted at the prospect of an unusual summer. Moreover, her natural spirit of adventure had been considerably stimulated by the envious comments of her schoolmates, who apparently believed her wondrously daring to venture such a trip, the apprehensive advice of her teachers, and much reading, not very judiciously chosen, relative to pioneer life on the plains. The possible hardships of the long journey alone did not appall her in the least. She had made similar trips before and had always found pleasant and attentive companionship. Being a wholesome, pleasant-faced girl, with eyes decidedly beautiful, and an attractive personality, the making or new friendships was never difficult. Of course the stage ride would be an entirely fresh and precarious experience, but then her father would doubtless meet her before that, or send some officer to act as escort. Altogether the prospect appeared most delightful and alluring.
The illness of the principal of Sunnycrest had resulted in the closing of the school some few days earlier than had been anticipated, and it was so lonely there after the others had departed that Miss Molly hastened her packing and promptly joined the exodus. Why not? She could wait the proper date at Kansas City or Fort Ripley just as well, enjoying herself meanwhile amid a new environment, and no doubt she would encounter some of her father's army friends who would help entertain her pleasantly. Miss McDonald was somewhat impulsive, and, her interest once aroused, impatient of restraint.
As a result of this earlier departure she reached Ripley some two days in advance of the prearranged schedule, and in spite of her young strength and enthusiasm, most thoroughly tired out by the strain of continuous travel. Her one remaining desire upon arrival was for a bed, and actuated by this necessity, when she learned that the army post was fully two miles from the town, she accepted proffered guidance to the famous Gilsey House and promptly fell asleep. The light of a new day gave her a first real glimpse of the surrounding dreariness as she stood looking out through the grimy glass of her single window, depressed and heartsick. The low, rolling hills, bare and desolate, stretched to the horizon, the grass already burned brown by the sun. The town itself consisted of but one short, crooked street, flanked by rough, ramshackle frame structures, two-thirds of these apparently saloons, with dirty, flapping tents sandwiched between, and huge piles of tin cans and other rubbish stored away behind. The street was rutted and dusty, and the ceaseless wind swirled the dirt about in continuous, suffocating clouds. The hotel itself, a little, squatty, two-storied affair, groaned to the blast, threatening to collapse. Nothing moved except a wagon down the long ribbon of road, and a dog digging for a bone behind a near-by tent. It was so squalid and ugly she turned away in speechless disgust.
The interior, however, offered even smaller comfort. A rude bedstead, one leg considerably short and propped up by a half brick, stood against the board wall; a single wooden chair was opposite, and a fly-specked mirror hung over a tin basin and pitcher. The floor sagged fearfully and the side walls lacked several inches of reaching the ceiling. Even in the dim candle light of the evening before, the bed coverings had looked so forbidding that Molly had compromised, lying down, half-dressed on the outside; now, in the garish glare of returning day they appeared positively filthy. And this was the best to be had; she realized that, her courage failing at the thought of remaining alone amid such surroundings. As she washed, using a towel of her own after a single glance at the hotel article, and did up her rebellious hair, she came to a prompt decision. She would go directly on—would take the first stage. Perhaps her father, or whomever he sent, would be met with along the route. The coaches had regular meeting stations, so there was small danger of their missing each other. Even if she was compelled to wait over at Fort Dodge, the environment there could certainly be no more disagreeable than this.
The question of possible danger was dismissed almost without serious thought. She had seen no papers since leaving St. Louis, and the news before that contained nothing more definite than rumors of uneasiness among the Plains Indians. Army officers interviewed rather made light of the affair, as being merely the regular outbreak of young warriors, easily suppressed. On the train she had met with no one who treated the situation as really serious, and, if it was, then surely her father would send some message of restraint. Satisfied upon this point, and fully determined upon departing at the earliest opportunity, she ventured down the narrow, creaking stairs in search of breakfast.
The dining-room was discovered at the foot of the steps, a square box of a place, the two narrow windows looking forth on the desolate prairie. There were three long tables, but only one was in use, and, with no waiter to guide her, the girl advanced hesitatingly and took a seat opposite the two men already present. They glanced up, curiously interested, staring at her a moment, and then resumed their interrupted meal. Miss McDonald's critical eyes surveyed the unsavory-looking food, her lips slightly curving, and then glanced inquiringly toward the men. The one directly opposite was large and burly, with iron-gray hair and beard, about sixty years of age, but with red cheeks and bright eyes, and a face expressive of hearty good nature. His clothing was roughly serviceable, but he looked clean and wholesome. The other was an army lieutenant, but Molly promptly quelched her first inclination to address him, as she noted his red, inflamed face and dissipated appearance. As she nibbled, half-heartedly, at the miserable food brought by a slovenly waiter, the two men exchanged barely a dozen words, the lieutenant growling out monosyllabic answers, finally pushing back his chair, and striding out. Again the girl glanced across at the older man, mustering courage to address him. At the same moment he looked up, with eyes full of good humor and kindly interest.
"Looks rather tough, I reckon, miss," waving a big hand over the table. "But you 'll have ter git used to it in this kentry."
"Oh, I do not believe I ever could," disconsolately. "I can scarcely choke down a mouthful."
"So I was noticin'; from the East, I reckon?"
"Yes; I—I came last night, and—and really I am afraid I am actually homesick already. It—it is even more—more primitive than I supposed. Do—do you live here—at Ripley?"
"Good Lord, no!" heartily, "though I reckon yer might not think my home wuz much better. I 'm the post-trader down at Fort Marcy, jist out o' Santa Fe. I 'll be blame glad ter git back thar too, I 'm a tellin' yer."
"That—that is what I wished to ask you about," she stammered. "The Santa Fe stage; when does it leave here? and—and where do I arrange for passage?"
He dropped knife and fork, staring at her across the table.
"Good Lord, miss," he exclaimed swiftly. "Do yer mean to say ye 're goin' to make that trip alone?"
"Oh, not to Santa Fe; only as far as the stage station at the Arkansas crossing," she exclaimed hastily. "I am going to join my father; he—he commands a post on the Cimarron—Major McDonald."
"Well, I 'll be damned," said the man slowly, so surprised that he forgot himself. "Babes in the wilderness; what, in Heaven's name, ever induced yer dad to let yer come on such a fool trip? Is n't thar no one to meet yer here, or at Dodge?"
"I—I don't know," she confessed. "Father was going to come, or else send one of his officers, but I have seen no one. I am here two days earlier than was expected, and—and I haven't heard from my father since last month. See, this is his last letter; won't you read it, please, and tell me what I ought to do?"
The man took the letter, and read the three pages carefully, and then turned back to note the date, before handing the sheets across the table.
"The Major sure made his instructions plain enough," he said slowly. "And yer have n't heard from him since, or seen any one he sent to meet yer?"
The girl shook her head slowly.
"Well, that ain't to be wondered at, either," he went on. "Things has changed some out yere since that letter was wrote. I reckon yer know we 're havin' a bit o' Injun trouble, an' yer dad is shore to be pretty busy out thar on the Cimarron."
"I—I do not think I do. I have seen no papers since leaving St. Louis. Is the situation really serious? Is it unsafe for me to go farther?"
The man rubbed his chin, as though undecided what was best to say. But the girl's face was full of character, and he answered frankly.
"It's serious 'nough, I reckon, an' I certainly wish I wus safe through to Fort Marcy, but I don't know no reason now why you could n't finish up your trip all right. I wus out to the fort last evenin' gettin' the latest news, an' thar hasn't been no trouble to speak of east of old Bent's Fort. Between thar and Union, thar's a bunch o' Mescalo Apaches raisin' thunder. One lot got as far as the Caches, an' burned a wagon train, but were run back into the mount'ns. Troops are out along both sides the Valley, an' thar ain't been no stage held up, nor station attacked along the Arkansas. I reckon yer pa 'll have an escort waitin' at the crossin'?"
"Of course he will; what I am most afraid of is that I might miss him or his messenger on the route."
"Not likely; there's only two stages a week each way, an' they have regular meeting points."
She sat quiet, eyes lowered to the table, thinking. She liked the man, and trusted him; he seemed kindly deferential. Finally she looked up.
"When do you go?"
"To-day. I was goin' to wait 'bout yere a week longer, but am gitting skeered they might quit runnin' their coaches. To tell the truth, miss, it looks some to me like thar wus a big Injun war comin', and I 'd like ter git home whar I belong afore it breaks loose."
"Will—will you take me with you?"
He moistened his lips, his hands clasping and unclasping on the table.
"Sure, if yer bound ter go. I 'll do the best I kin fer yer, an' I reckon ther sooner yer start the better chance ye 'll have o' gittin' through safe." He hesitated. "If we should git bad news at Dodge, is there anybody thar, at the fort, you could stop with?"
"He 's not thar now; been transferred to Wallace, but, I reckon, any o' those army people would look after yer. Ye 've really made up yer mind to try it, then?"
"Yes, yes; I positively cannot stay here. I shall go as far as Dodge at least. If—if we are going to travel together, I ought to know your name."
"Sure yer had," with a laugh. "I fergot all 'bout that—it's Moylan, miss; William Moylan; 'Sutler Bill' they call me mostly, west o' the river. Let's go out an' see 'bout thet stage."
As he rounded the table, Molly rose to her feet, and held out her hand.
"I am so glad I spoke to you, Mr. Moylan," she said simply. "I am not at all afraid now. If you will wait until I get my hat, I 'll be down in a minute."
"Sutler Bill" stood in the narrow hall watching her run swiftly upstairs, twirling his hat in his hands, his good-natured face flushed. Once he glanced in the direction of the bar-room, wiping his lips with his cuff, and his feet shuffled. But he resisted the temptation, and was still there when Miss McDonald came down.
Slightly more than sixty miles, as the route ran, stretched between old Fort Dodge and the ford crossing the Arkansas leading down to the Cimarron; another sixty miles distant, across a desert of alkali and sand, lay Devere. The main Santa Fe trail, broad and deeply rutted by the innumerable wheels of early spring caravans, followed the general course of the river, occasionally touching the higher level plains, but mostly keeping close beneath the protection of the northern bluffs, or else skirting the edge of the water. Night or day the route was easily followed, and, in other years, the traveller was seldom for long out of sight of toiling wagons. Now scarcely a wheel turned in all that lonely distance.
The west-bound stage left the station at Deer Creek at four o'clock in the afternoon with no intimation of danger ahead. Its occupants had eaten dinner in company with those of the east-bound coach, eighteen miles down the river at Canon Bluff, and the in-coming driver had reported an open road, and no unusual trouble. No Indian signs had been observed, not even signal fires during the night, and the conductor, who had come straight from Santa Fe, reported that troops from Fort Union had driven the only known bunch of raiders back from the neighborhood of the trail, and had them already safely corralled In the mountains. This report, seemingly authentic and official, served to relax the nerves, and the west-bound driver sang to himself as he guided the four horses forward, while the conductor, a sawed-off gun planted between his knees, nodded drowsily. Inside there were but three passengers, jerking back and forth, as the wheels struck the deep ruts of the trail, occasionally exchanging a word or two, but usually staring gloomily forth at the monotonous scene. Miss McDonald and Moylan occupied the back seat, some baggage wedged tightly between to keep them more secure on the slippery cushion, while facing them, and clinging to his support with both hands, was a pock-marked Mexican, with rather villainous face and ornate dress, and excessively polite manners. He had joined the little party at Dodge, smiling happily at sight of Miss Molly's face when she unveiled, although his small knowledge of English prevented any extended effort at conversation. Moylan, however, after careful scrutiny, engaged him shortly in Spanish, and later explained to the girl, in low tones, that the man was a Santa Fe gambler known as Gonzales, with a reputation to be hinted at but not openly discussed.
They were some six miles to the west of Deer Creek, the horses still moving with spirit, the driver's foot on the brake, when the stage took a sudden plunge down a sloping bank where the valley perceptibly narrowed. To the left, beyond a flat expanse of brown, sun-scorched grass, flowed the widely-spreading waters of the Arkansas, barely covering the treacherous sandy bottom, and from the other side came the more distant gleam of alkali plains; to the right arose the bluffs, here both steep and rugged, completely shutting off the view, barren of vegetation except for a few scattered patches of grass. Suddenly a man rode out of a rift in the bank, directly in front, and held up his hand. Surprised, startled, the driver instantaneously clamped on his brake, and brought his horses to a quick stop; the conductor, nearly flung from his seat, yanked his gun forward.
"None of that now," called out the man in saddle quickly, both hands uplifted to show their emptiness. "This is no hold-up. I 've got news."
He spurred his pony forward slowly, the animal seemingly barely able to move, and swung out of the saddle beside the front wheel, staggering a bit as though his limbs were cramped as his feet felt the ground.
"I 'm from Fort Union," he said, "Seventh Cavalry, sent through by way of Cimarron Springs. There is hell to pay west of here; the stations at Arkansas Crossing and Low Water were burned last night."
"The devil you say," burst out the driver hoarsely, his startled eyes sweeping the horizon. "Injuns?"
"Sure, plenty of signs, but I have n't seen any bucks myself. As soon as I discovered what had happened at the Crossing I struck out on to the plateau, and came around that way to warn those fellows at Low Water. But when I got sight of that station from off the bluffs yonder it had been wiped out. Then I thought about this stage going west to-day, and came on to meet you. Must have ridden a hundred an' twenty miles since yesterday; the mustang is all in."
Moylan stuck his head out the nearest window.
"Look like they had much of a fight at the Crossing?" he asked.
"Not much; more like a night raid; two whites killed, and scalped. The third man either was taken away, or his body got burnt in the building. Horses all gone."
"Arapahoes, from the way they scalped; that's what made it so serious—if those Northern Indians have broken loose there is going to be war this time for sure."
The men on the box looked at each other questioningly.
"I don't see no use tryin' to go on, Jake, do you?" asked the driver soberly. "Even if we do git through, thar ain't no hosses to be had."
The other shook his head, rubbing his gun-stock.
"Most likely those same red devils are layin' for us now somewhar between yere an' Low Water; whar the trail runs in between them two big rocks, most probable," he concluded. "Not havin' no ha'r to lose, I 'm fer goin' back."
With an oath of relief, the driver released his brake, and skilfully swung the leaders around, the coach groaning as it took the sharp turn. The man on the ground caught a swiftly passing glimpse of the young woman's face within, and strode hurriedly forward as the coach started.
"Hold on there, pardner," he commanded sternly. "This poor bronc' won't travel another mile. There 's plenty of room for me inside, and I 'll turn the tired devil loose. Hold on, I say!"
The driver once again slapped on the brake, growling and reluctant, his anxious eyes searching the trail in both directions. Hamlin quietly uncinched his saddle, flinging it to the coach roof; the bridle followed, and then, with a slap on the haunch of the released animal, he strode to the stage door, thrust his Henry rifle within, and took the vacant seat beside Gonzales. With a sudden crack of the driver's whip the four horses leaped forward, and the coach careened on the slope of the trail, causing the passengers to clutch wildly to keep from being precipitated into a mass on the floor. As the traces straightened, Miss Molly, clinging desperately to a strap, caught her first fair glance at the newcomer. His hat was tilted back, the light revealing lines of weariness and a coating of the gray, powdery dust of the alkali desert, but beneath it appeared the brown, sun-scorched skin, while the gray eyes looking straight at her, were resolute and smiling. His rough shirt, open at the throat, might have been the product of any sutler's counter; he wore no jacket, and the broad yellow stripe down the leg of the faded blue trousers alone proclaimed him a soldier. He smiled across at her, and she lowered her eyes, while his glance wandered on toward the others.
"Don't seem to be very crowded to-day," he began, genially addressing Moylan. "Not an extremely popular route at present, I reckon. Mining, pardner?"
"No; post-trader at Fort Marcy."
"Oh, that's it," his eyebrows lifting slightly. "This Indian business is a bad job for you then." His eyes fell on his seatmate. "Well, if this is n't little Gonzales!—You 've got a good ways from home."
"Si, senor!" returned the Mexican brokenly. "I tink I not remem."
"No, I reckon not. I'm not one of your class; cards and I never did agree. I shut up your game once down at Union; night Hassinger was killed. Remember now, don't you?"
"Si, senor," spreading his hands. "It was mos' unfortunate."
"Would have been more so, if the boys had got hold of you—Saint Anne! but that fellow on the box is driving some."
The thud of the horses' feet under the lash, coupled with the reckless lurching of the coach, ended all further attempt at conversation, and the four passengers held on grimly, and stared out of the windows, as if expecting every instant that some accident would hurl them headlong. The frightened driver was apparently sparing neither whip nor tongue, the galloping teams jerking the stage after them in a mad race up the trail. Hamlin thrust his head out of the nearest window, but a sudden lurch hurled him back, the coach taking a sharp curve on two wheels, and coming down level once again with a bump which brought the whole four together. The little Mexican started to scream out a Spanish oath, but Hamlin gripped his throat before it was half uttered, while Moylan pressed the girl back into her seat, bracing himself to hold her firm.
"What the devil—" he began angrily, and then the careening coach stopped as suddenly as though it had struck the bank, again tearing loose their handhold on the seats and flinging them headlong. They heard the creaking clamp of the brakes, the dancing of frightened horses, a perfect volley of oaths, the crunch of feet as men leaped from the top to the ground; then, all at once, the stage lurched forward, swerving sharply to the left, and struck out across the flat directly toward the bluff.
Hamlin struggled to the nearest window, and, grasping the sill to hold himself upright, leaned out. He caught a momentary glimpse of two men riding swiftly up the trail; the box above was empty, the wheelers alone remained in harness, and they were running uncontrolled.
"By God!" he muttered. "Those two damn cowards have cut loose and left us!"
Even as the unrestrained words leaped from his lips, he realized the only hope—the reins still dangled, caught securely in the brake lever. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he wiggled out; Moylan, comprehending, caught his legs, holding him steady against the mad pitching. His fingers gripped the iron top rail, and, exerting all his strength, he slowly pulled his body up, until he fell forward into the driver's seat. Swift as he had been, the action was not quickly enough conceived to avert disaster. He had the reins in his grip when the swinging pole struck the steep side of the bluff, snapping off with a sharp crack, and flinging down the frightened animals, the wheels, crashing against them, as the coach came to a sudden halt. Hamlin hung on grimly, flung forward to the footrail by the force of the shock, his body bruised and aching. One horse lay motionless, head under, apparently instantly killed; his mate struggled to his feet, tore frantically loose from the traces, and went flying madly down the slope, the broken harness dangling at its heels. The Sergeant sat up and stared about, sweeping the blood from a slight gash out of his eyes. Then he came to himself with a gasp—understanding instantly what it all meant, why those men had cut loose the horses and ridden away, why the wheelers had plunged forward in that mad run-away race—between the bluffs and the river a swarm of Indians were lashing their ponies, spreading out like the sticks of a fan.
THE DEFENCE OF THE STAGE
There were times when Hamlin's mental processes seemed slow, almost sluggish, but this was never true in moments of emergency and peril. Then he became swift, impetuous, seemingly borne forward by some inspiring instinct. It was for such experiences as this that he remained in the service—his whole nature responding almost joyously to the bugle-call of action, of imminent danger, his nerves steadying into rock. These were the characteristics which had won him his chevrons in the unrewarded service of the frontier, and, when scarcely more than a boy, had put a captain's bars on the gray collar of his Confederate uniform.
Now, as he struggled to his knees, gripping the iron foot-rail with one hand, a single glance gave him a distinct impression of their desperate situation. With that knowledge, there likewise flashed over his mind the only possible means of defence. The Indians, numbering at least thirty, had ridden recklessly out from under the protection of the river bank, spreading to right and left, as their ponies' hoofs struck the turf, and were now charging down upon the disabled coach, yelling madly and brandishing their guns. The very reckless abandon of their advance expressed the conception they had of the situation—they had witnessed the flight of the two fugitives, the runaway of the wheelers, and believed the remaining passengers would be helpless victims. They came on, savage and confident, not anticipating a fight, but a massacre—shrieking prisoners, and a glut of revenge.
With one swing of his body, Hamlin was upon the ground, and had jerked open the inside door of the coach, forcing it back against the dirt of the bluff which towered in protection above. His eyes were quick to perceive the peculiar advantage of position; that their assailants would be compelled to advance from only one direction. The three within were barely struggling to their feet, dazed, bewildered, failing as yet to comprehend fully those distant yells, when he sprang into their midst, uttering his swift orders, and unceremoniously jerking the men into position for defence.
"Here, quick now! Don't waste time! It's a matter of seconds, I tell you! They're coming—a horde of them. Here, Moylan, take this rifle barrel and knock a hole through the back there big enough to sight out of. Hit it hard, damn you, it's a case of life or death! What have you got, Gonzales? A revolver? Into that window there, and blaze away; you 've got the reputation of a gun-man; now let's see you prove it. Get back in the corner, miss, so I can slip past—no, lie down below the fire line!"
"But—but I will not!" and she faced him, her face white, but her eyes shining. "I can shoot! See!" and she flashed a pearl-handled revolver defiantly. The Sergeant thrust her unceremoniously aside and plunged across to the opposite window, gripping his Henry rifle.
"Do as I say," he growled. "This is our fight. Get down! Now, you terriers, let them have it!"
There was a wild skurrying of mounted figures almost at the coach wheels, hair streaming, feathers waving, lean, red arms thrown up, the air vocal with shrill outcries—then the dull bark of a Henry, the boom of a Winchester, the sharp spitting of a Colt. The smoke rolled out in a cloud, pungent, concealing, nervous fingers pressing the triggers again and again. They could see reeling horses, men gripping their ponies' manes to keep erect, staring, frightened eyes, animals flung back on their haunches, rearing madly in the air. The fierce yell of exultation changed into a savage scream, bullets crashed into the thin sides of the coach; it rocked with the contact of a half-naked body flung forward by a plunging horse; the Mexican swore wildly in Spanish, and then—the smoke blew aside and they saw the field; the dead and dying ponies, three motionless bodies huddled on the grass, a few dismounted stragglers racing on foot for the river bank, and a squad of riders circling beyond the trail. Hamlin swept the mingled sweat and blood out of his eyes, smiled grimly, and glanced back into the coach, instinctively slipping fresh cartridges into his hot rifle.
"That's one time those fellows ran into a hornet's nest," he commented quietly, all trace of excitement vanished. "Better load up, boys, for we 're not through yet—they 'll only be more careful next time. Anybody hurt?"
"Somethin' creased my back," replied Moylan, complainingly, and trying vainly to put a hand on the spot. "Felt like a streak o' fire." The Sergeant reached across, fingering the torn shirt curiously.
"Seared the flesh, pardner, but no blood worth mentioning. They 've got some heavy artillery out there from the sound—old army muskets likely. It is our repeating rifles that will win out—those red devils don't understand them yet."
"Senor, you tink we win out den?" and Gonzales peered up blinking into the other's face. "Sacre! dey vil fight deeferent de nex' time. Ze Americaine muskeet, eet carry so far—ess eet not so?"
Hamlin patted his brown barrel affectionately as if it were an old friend, and smiled across into the questioning eyes of the girl.
"I 'm willing to back this weapon against the best of them for distance," he replied easily, "and it's accurate besides. How about it, Moylan?"
"I 'd about as soon be in front as behind one of them cannon," answered the sutler soberly. "I toted one four years. But say, pardner, what's yer name? Yer a cavalryman, ain't yer?"
"Sergeant—forgot I was n't properly introduced," and he bent his head slightly, glancing again toward the girl. "Hamlin is the rest of it."
"Sometimes—delicate reference to my hair, miss," and he took off his hat, his gray eyes laughing. "Born that way, but does n't seem to interfere with me much, since I was a kid. You 've heard of me then, Moylan? So has our little friend, Gonzales, here."
The sober-faced sutler merely nodded, evidently in no mood for pleasantry.
"Oh, ye're all right," he said finally. "I've heard 'em say you was a fighter down round Santa Fe, an' I know it myself now. But what the hell are we goin' to do? This yere stagecoach ain't much of a fort to keep off a bunch o' redskins once they git their mad up. Them musket bullets go through like the sides was paper, an' I reckon we ain't got no over-supply o' ammunition—I know I ain't fer this Winchester. How long do yer reckon we kin hold out?"
Hamlin's face became grave, his eyes also, turning toward the river. The sun was already sinking low in the west, and the Indians, gathered in council out of rifle-shot, were like shadows against the glimmering water beyond.
"They 'll try us again just before dark," he affirmed slowly, "but more cautiously. If that attack fails, then they 'll endeavor to creep in, and take us by surprise. It's going to be a clear night, and there is small chance for even an Indian to hide in that buffalo-grass with the stars shining. They have got to come up from below, for no buck could climb down this bluff without making a noise. I don't see why, with decent luck, we can't hold out as we are until help gets here; those fellows who rode away will report at Canon Bluff and send a rider on to Dodge for help. There ought to be soldiers out here by noon to-morrow. What troops are at Dodge now?"
"Only a single company—infantry," replied Moylan gloomily. "All the rest are out scouting 'long the Solomon. Damned if I believe they 'll send us a man. Those two cowards will likely report us all dead—otherwise they would n't have any excuse for runnin' away—and the commander will satisfy himself by sendin' a courier to the fellers in the field."
"Well, then," commented the Sergeant, his eyes gleaming, "we 've simply got to fight it out alone, I reckon, and hang on to our last shots. What do you make of those reds?"
The three men stared for some time at the distant group over their rifles, in silence.
"They ain't all Arapahoes, that 's certain," said Moylan at last. "Some of 'em are Cheyennes. I 've seen that chief before—it's Roman Nose."
"The big buck humped up on the roan?"
"That's the one, and he is a bad actor; saw him once over at Fort Kearney two years ago. Had a council there. Say!" in surprise, "ain't that an Ogalla Sioux war bonnet bobbin' there to the right, Sergeant?"
Hamlin studied the distant feathered head-dress indicated, shading his eyes with one hand.
"I reckon maybe it is, Moylan," he acknowledged at last gravely. "Those fellows have evidently got together; we're going to have the biggest scrap this summer the old army has had yet. Looks as though it was going to begin right here—and now. See there! The dance is on, boys; there they come; they will try it on foot this time."
He tested his rifle, resting one knee on the seat; Moylan pushed the barrel of his Winchester out through the ragged hole in the back of the coach, and the little Mexican lay flat, his eyes on the level with the window-casing. The girl alone remained motionless, crouched on the floor, her white face uplifted.
The entire field stretching to the river was clear to the view, the short, dry buffalo-grass offering no concealment. To the right of the coach, some fifty feet away, was the only depression, a shallow gully leading down from the bluff, but this slight advantage was unavailable. The sun had already dropped from view, and the gathering twilight distorted the figures, making them almost grotesque in their savagery. Yet they could be clearly distinguished, stealing silently forward, guns in hand, spreading out in a wide half-circle, obedient to the gestures of Roman Nose, who, still mounted upon his pony, was traversing the river bank, his every motion outlined against the dull gleam of water behind him. From the black depths of the coach the three men watched in almost breathless silence, gripping their weapons, fascinated, determined not to waste a shot. Gonzales, under the strain, uttered a fierce Spanish curse, but Hamlin crushed his arm between iron fingers.
"Keep still, you fool!" he muttered, never glancing around. "Let your gun talk!"
The assailants came creeping on, snakes rather than men, appearing less and less human in the increasing shadows. Twice the Sergeant lifted his Henry, sighting along the brown barrel, lowering the weapon again in doubt of the distance. He was conscious of exultation, of a swifter pulse of the heart, yet his nerves were like steel, his grip steady. Only a dim fleeting memory of the girl, half hidden in the darkness behind, gave him uneasiness—he could not turn and look into her eyes. Roman Nose was advancing now at the centre of that creeping half circle, a hulking figure perched on his pony's back, yet well out of rifle range. He spread his hands apart, clasping a blanket, looking like a great bird flapping its wings, and the ground in front flamed, the red flare splitting the gray gloom. The speeding bullets crashed through the leather of the coach, splintering the wood; the Mexican rolled to the floor, uttering one inhuman cry, and lay motionless; a great volume of black smoke wavered in the still air.
"Walt! Wait until they get to their feet!" Hamlin cried eagerly. "Ah! there they come—now unlimber."
He saw only those black, indistinct figures, leaping out of the smoke, converging on the coach, their naked arms uplifted, their voices mingling in savage yells. Like lightning he worked his rifle, heart throbbing to the excitement, oblivious to all else; almost without realization he heard the deeper bellow of Moylan's Winchester, the sharp bark of a revolver at his very ear. Gonzales was all right, then! Good! He never thought of the girl, never saw her grip the pistol from the Mexican's dead hand, and crawl white-faced, over his body, to that front seat. All he really knew was that those devils were coming, leaping, crowding through the smoke wreathes; he saw them stumble, and rise again; he saw one leap into the air, and then crash face down; he saw them break, circling to right and left, crouching as they ran. Two reached the stage—only two! One pitched forward, a revolver bullet between his eyes, his head wedged in the spokes of the wheel; the other Hamlin struck with emptied rifle-barrel as his red hand gripped the door, sending him sprawling back into the dirt. It was all the work of a minute, an awful minute, intense, breathless—then silence, the smoke drifting away, the dark night hiding the skulking runners.
THE CONDITION IN THE COACH
Mechanically—scarcely conscious of the action—the Sergeant slipped fresh cartridges into the hot rifle chamber, swept the tumbled hair out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, and stared into the night. He could hardly comprehend yet that the affair was ended, the second attack repulsed. It was like a delirium of fever; he almost expected to see those motionless bodies outstretched on the grass spring up, yelling defiance. Then he gripped himself firmly, realizing the truth—it was over with for the present; away off there in the haze obscuring the river bank those indistinct black smudges were fleeing savages, their voices wailing through the night. Just in front, formless, huddled where they had fallen, were the bodies of dead and dying, smitten ponies and half-naked men. He drew a deep breath through clinched teeth, endeavoring to distinguish his comrades.
The interior of the coach was black, and soundless, except for some one's swift, excited breathing. As he extended his cramped leg to the floor he touched a motionless body. Not until then had he realized the possibility of death also within. He felt downward with one hand, his nerves suddenly throbbing, and his finger touched a cold face—the Mexican. It must have been that last volley, for he could distinctly recall the sharp bark of Gonzales' revolver between his own shots.
"The little devil," he muttered soberly. "It was a squarer death than he deserved. He was a game little cock."
Then he thought of Moylan, wondering why the man did not move, or speak. That was not like Moylan. He bent forward, half afraid in the stillness, endeavoring to discover space on the floor for both his feet. He could perceive now a distant star showing clear through the ragged opening jabbed in the back of the coach, but no outline of the sutler's burly shoulders.
"Moylan!" he called, hardly above a whisper. "What is the trouble? Have you been hit, man?"
There was no answer, no responding sound, and he stood up, reaching kindly over across the seat. Then he knew, and felt a shudder run through him from head to foot. Bent double over the iron back of the middle seat, with hands still gripping his hot rifle, the man hung, limp and lifeless. Almost without realizing the act, Hamlin lifted the heavy body, laid it down upon the cushion, and unclasped the dead fingers gripping the Winchester stock.
"Every shot gone," he whispered to himself dazedly, "every shot gone! Ain't that hell!"
Then it came to him in a sudden flash of intelligence—he was alone; alone except for the girl. They were out there yet, skulking in the night, planning revenge, those savage foemen—Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Ogallas. They had been beaten back, defeated, smitten with death, but they were Indians still. They would come back for the bodies of their slain, and then—what? They could not know who were living, who dead, in the coach; yet must have discovered long since that it had only contained three defenders. They would guess that ammunition would be limited. His knowledge of the fighting tactics of the Plains tribes gave clear vision of what would probably occur. They would wait, scattered out in a wide circle from bluff to bluff, lying snake-like in the grass. Some of the bolder might creep in to drag away the bodies of dead warriors, risking a chance shot, but there would be no open attack in the dark. That would be averse to all Indian strategy, all precedent. Even now the mournful wailing had ceased; Roman Nose had rallied his warriors, instilled into them his own unconquerable savagery, and set them on watch. With the first gray dawn they would come again, leaping to the coach's wheels, yelling, triumphant, mad with new ferocity—and he was alone, except for the girl.
And where was she? He felt for her on the floor, but only touched the Mexican's feet. He had to lean across the seat where Moylan's body lay, shrouded in darkness, before his groping fingers came in contact with the skirt of her dress. She was on the front seat, close to the window; against the lightness of the outer sky, her head seemed lying upon the wooden frame. She did not move, he could not even tell that she breathed, and for an instant his dry lips failed him utterly, his blood seemed to stop. Good God! Had she been killed also? How, in Heaven's name, did she ever get there? Then suddenly she lifted her head slightly, brushing back her hair with one arm; the faint starlight gleamed on a short steel barrel. The Sergeant expelled his breath swiftly, wetting his dry lips.
"Are you hurt?" he questioned anxiously. "Lord, but you gave me a scare!"
She seemed to hear his voice, yet scarcely to understand, like one aroused suddenly from sleep.
"What! you spoke—then—then—there are others? I—I am not here all alone?"
"Not if you count me," he said, a trace of recklessness in the answer. "I have n't even a scratch so far as I know. Did they touch you?"
"No; that is, I am not quite sure; it—it was all so horrible I cannot remember. Who are you? Are you the—the soldier?"
"Yes—I 'm Hamlin. Would you mind telling me how you ever got over there?"
She straightened up, seemed to notice the heavy revolver in her fingers, and let it fall to the floor.
"Oh, it is like a dream—an awful dream. I could n't help myself. When the Mexican rolled off on to the floor, I knew he was dead, and—and there was his revolver held right out to me in his hand. Before I realized I had it, and was up here—I—I killed one—he—he fell in the wheel; I—I can never forget that!"
"Don't try," broke in Hamlin earnestly. "You 're all right," he added, admiration in his voice. "And so it was you there with the small gun. I heard it bark, but never knew Gonzales was hit. When did it happen?"
"When—when they fired first. It—it was all smoke out there when I got to the window; they—they looked like—like wild beasts, and it did n't seem to me I was myself at all."
The man laughed lightly.
"You did the right thing, that 's all," he consoled, anxious to control her excitement. "Now you and I must decide what to do next—we are all alone."
"Alone! Has Mr. Moylan been hit also?"
"Yes," he answered, feeling it was better to tell her frankly. "He was shot, and is beyond our help. But come," and he reached over and took her hand, "you must not give up now."
She offered no resistance, but sat motionless, her face turned away. Yet she knew she trembled from head to foot, the reaction mastering her. A red tongue of flame seemed to slit the outside blackness; there was a single sharp report, echoing back from the bluff, but no sound of the striking bullet. Just an instant he caught a glimpse of her face, as she drew back, startled.
"Oh, they are coming again! What shall we do?"
"No," he insisted, still retaining her hand, confident in his judgment. "Those fellows will not attempt to rush us again to-night. You must keep cool, for we shall need all our wits to get away. An Indian never risks a night assault, unless it is a surprise. He wants to see what he is up against. Those bucks have got all they want of this outfit; they have no reason to suppose any of us were hit. They are as much afraid as we are, but when it gets daylight, and they can see the shape we 're in, then they 'll come yelling."
"But they can lie out there in the dark and shoot," she protested. "That shot was aimed at us, was n't it?"
"I reckon it was, but it never got here. Don't let that worry you; if an Indian ever hits anything with a gun it 's going to be by pure accident." He stared out of the window. "They 're liable to bang away occasionally, and I suppose it is up to us to make some response just to tell them we 're awake and ready. But they ain't firing expecting to do damage—only to attract attention while they haul off their dead. There 's a red snake yonder now creeping along in the grass—see!"
"No," hysterically, "it is just black to me."
"You have n't got the plainsman's eyes yet. Watch, now; I 'm going to stir the fellow up."
He leaned forward, the stock of the Henry held to his shoulder, and she clutched the window-casing. An instant the muzzle of the rifle wavered slightly, then steadied into position.
"Have to guess the distance," he muttered in explanation, and pulled the trigger.
There was a lightning flash, a sharp ringing report, a yell in the distance, followed by the sound of scrambling. Hamlin laughed, as he lowered his gun.
"Made him hump, anyway," he commented cheerfully. "Now what comes next?"
"I—I do not know," she answered, as though the question had been asked her, "do you?"
Somehow she was not as frightened as she had been. The calm steady coolness of the man was having its natural effect, was helping to control her own nerves. She felt his strength, his confidence, and was beginning to lean upon him—he seemed to know exactly what he was about.
"Well, no, honestly I don't; not yet," he returned, hesitating slightly. "There is no use denying we are in a mighty bad hole. If Moylan had n't got shot we might have held out till help arrived; I 've got about twenty cartridges left; but you and I alone never could do it. I 've got to think it out, I reckon; this has been a blind fight so far; nothing to it but blazing away as fast as I could pull trigger. Now, maybe, I can use my brains a bit."
She could not see him, but some instinct led her to put out her hand and touch the rough sleeve of his shirt. It made her sure of his presence, his protection. The man felt the movement, and understood its meaning, his heart throbbing strangely.
"You are going to trust me?"
"Of—of course; how could you doubt that?"
"Well," still half questioning, "you see I 'm only an enlisted man, and sometimes officers' ladies think we are mostly pretty poor stuff, just food for powder."
She tightened her grip on his sleeve, drawing a quick breath of surprise.
"Oh, but I am not like that; truly I am not. I—I saw your face this afternoon, and—and I liked you then. I will do whatever you say."
"Thank you," he said simply. "To know that makes everything so much easier for me. We shall have to work together from now on. You keep sharp watch at the window there, while I think a bit—there 's ordinarily a chance somewhere, you know, if one is only bright enough to uncover it."
How still the night was, and dark; although the sky was cloudless, the stars shone clearly away up in the black vault. Not even the howl of a distant coyote broke the silence. To the left, seemingly a full half-mile distant, was the red flicker of a fire, barely visible behind a projection of bank. But in front not even the keen eyes of the Sergeant could distinguish any sign of movement. Apparently the Indians had abandoned their attempt to recover the bodies of their dead.
PLANS FOR ESCAPE
Desperate as he certainly felt their situation to be, for a moment or two Hamlin was unable to cast aside the influence of the girl, or concentrate his thoughts on some plan for escape. It may have been the gentle pressure of her hand upon his sleeve, but her voice continued to ring in his ears. He had never been a woman's man, nor was he specially interested in this woman beside him. He had seen her fairly, with his first appreciative glance, when he had climbed into the stage on the preceding day. He had realized there fully the charm of her face, the dark roguish eyes, the clear skin, the wealth of dark hair. Yet all this was impersonal; however pretty she might be, the fact was nothing to him and never could be. Knowing who she was, he comprehended instantly the social gulf stretching unbridged between them. An educated man himself, with family connections he had long ago ceased to discuss, he realized his present position more keenly than he otherwise might. He had enlisted in the army with no misunderstanding as to what a private's uniform meant. He had never heretofore supposed he regretted any loss in this respect, his nature apparently satisfied with the excitement of active frontier service, yet he vaguely knew there had been times when he longed for companionship with women of the class to which he had once belonged. Fortunately his border stations offered little temptation in this respect, and he had grown to believe that he had actually forgotten. That afternoon even—sweetly fair as Miss McDonald undoubtedly appeared—he had looked upon her without the throb of a pulse, as he might upon a picture. She was not for him even to admire—she was Major McDonald's daughter, whom he had been sent to guard. That was all then.
Yet he knew that somehow it was different now—the personal element had entered unwelcomed, into the equation. Sitting there in the dark, Gonzales' body crumpled on the floor at his feet, and Moylan lying stiff and cold along the back seat, with this girl grasping his sleeve in trust, she remained no longer merely the Major's daughter—she had become herself. And she did not seem to care and did not seem to realize that there were barriers of rank, which under other circumstances must so utterly separate them. She liked him, and frankly told him so, not as she would dismiss an inferior with kindness, but as though he was an equal, as though he was a gentleman. Somehow the very tone of her voice, the clinging touch of her hand, sent the blood pumping through his veins. Something besides duty inspired him; he was no longer merely a soldier, but had suddenly become transformed into a man. Years of repression, of iron discipline, were blotted out, and he became even as his birthright made him. "Molly McDonald," "Molly McDonald," he whispered the name unconsciously to himself. Then his eyes caught the distant flicker of Indian fire, and his teeth locked savagely.
There was something else to do besides dream. Because the girl had spoken pleasantly was no reason why he should act the fool. Angry at himself, he gripped his faculties, and faced the situation, aroused, intent. He must save himself—and her! But how? What plan promised any possibility of success? He had their surroundings in a map before his eyes. His training had taught him to note and remember what others would as naturally neglect. He was a soldier of experience, a plainsman by long training, and even in the fierceness of the Indians' attack on the stage his quick glance had completely visualized their surroundings. He had not appreciated this at the time, but now the topography of the immediate region was unrolled before him in detail; yard by yard it reappeared as though photographed. He saw the widely rutted trail, rounding the bluff at the right a hundred yards away, curving sharply down the slope and then disappearing over the low hill to the left, a slight stream trickling along its base. Below, the short buffalo-grass, sunburned and brittle, ran to the sandy edge of the river, which flowed silently in a broad, shallow, yellow flood beneath the star gleam. Under the protection of that bank, but somewhat to the left, where a handful of stunted cottonwood trees had found precarious foothold in the sand, gleamed the solitary Indian fire. About its embers, no doubt, squatted the chiefs and older warriors, feasting and taking council, while the younger bucks lay, rifles in hand, along the night-enshrouded slope, their cruel, vengeful eyes seeking to distinguish the outlines of the coach against the black curtain of the bluff.
This had proven thus far their salvation—that steep uplift of earth against which the stage had crashed in its mad dash—for its precipitant front had compelled the savages to attack from one direction only, a slight overhang, not unlike a roof, making it impossible even to shoot down from above. But this same sharp incline was now likewise a preventive of escape. Hamlin shook his head as he recalled to mind its steep ascent, without root or shrub to cling to. No, it would never do to attempt that; not with her. Perhaps alone he might scramble up somehow, but with her the feat would be impossible. He dismissed this as hopeless, his memory of their surroundings drifting from point to point aimlessly. He saw the whole barren vista as it last stood revealed under the glow of the sun—the desolate plateau above, stretching away into the dim north, the brown level of the plains, broken only by sharp fissures In the surface, treeless, extending for unnumbered leagues. To east and west the valley, now scarcely more green than those upper plains, bounded by its verdureless bluffs, ran crookedly, following the river course, its only sign of white dominion the rutted trail. Beyond the stream there extended miles of white sand-dunes, fantastically shapen by the wind, gradually changing into barren plains of alkali. Between crouched the vigilant Indian sentinels, alert and revengeful.
Certain facts were clear—to remain meant death, torture for him if they were taken alive, and worse than death for her. Perspiration burst out upon his face at the thought. No! Great God! not that; he would kill her himself first. Yet this was the truth, the truth to be faced. The nearest available troops were at Dodge, a company of infantry. If they started at once they could never arrive in time to prevent an attack at daybreak. The Indians undoubtedly knew this, realized the utter helplessness of their victims, and were acting accordingly. Otherwise they would never have lighted that fire nor remained on guard. Moreover if the two of them should succeed in stealing forth from the shelter of the coach, should skulk unseen amid the dense blackness of the overhanging bluff, eluding the watchers, what would it profit in the end? Their trail would be clear; with the first gray of dawn those savage trackers would be at work, and they would be trapped in the open, on foot, utterly helpless even to fight.
The man's hands clenched and unclenched about his rifle-barrel in an agony of indecision, his eyes perceiving the silhouette of the girl against the lighter arc of sky. No, not that—not that! They must hide their trail, leave behind no faintest trace of passage for these hounds to follow. Yet how could the miracle be accomplished? Out from the mists of tortured memory came, as a faint hope, a dim recollection of that narrow gully cutting straight down across the trail, over which the runaway had crashed in full gallop. That surely could not be far back, and was of sufficient depth to hide them in the darkness. He was uncertain how far it extended, but at some time it had been a water-course and must have reached the river. And the river would hide their trail! A new hope sprang into his eyes. He felt the sudden straightening up of his body.
"What—what is it?" she questioned, startled. "Do you see anything? Are they coming?"
"No, no," almost impatiently. "It is still as death out there, but I almost believe I have discovered a means of escape. Do you remember a gully we ran over while I was on top of the stage?"
"I am not sure; was it when that awful jolt came?"
"Yes, it flung me to the foot-board just when I had untangled the lines. We could not have travelled a dozen yards farther before we struck this bluff—could we?"
"I hardly think so," yet evidently bewildered by his rapid questioning. "Only I was so confused and frightened I can scarcely remember. Why are you so anxious to know?"
"Because," he returned earnestly, bending toward her, "I believe that gash in the earth is going to get us out of here. Anyhow it is the only chance I can figure. If we can creep through to the river, undiscovered, I 'll agree to leave Mister Indian guessing as to where we 've gone."
The new note of animation in the man's voice aroused her, but she grasped his arm tighter.
"But—but, oh, can we? Won't they be hiding there too?"
"It's a chance, that's all—but better than waiting here for a certainty. See here, Miss McDonald," and he caught her hand in his own, forgetful of all save his own purpose and the necessity of strengthening her to play out the game, "the trend of that gulf is to the west; except up here close to the bluff it runs too far away for a guard line. The Indians will be lying out here on the open prairie; they will creep as close in as they dare under cover of darkness. I 'll bet there are twenty red snakes now within a hundred feet of us—oh, don't shiver and lose your nerve! They 'll not try to close that gap yet; it's too dangerous with us on guard and only one side of the coach exposed. That fellow was trying us out a while ago, and they 've kept quiet ever since I let drive at him. They know the limits of the safety zone, and will keep there until just before daylight. That is when they 'll try to creep up upon us. Have you got the time?"
She opened her watch, feeling for the hands with her fingers, wondering vaguely at her own calmness. The cool resourcefulness of Hamlin was like a tonic.
"It—it is a little after one o'clock," she said slowly, "although I am not sure my watch is exactly right."
"Near enough; there are signs of daylight at four—three hours left; that ought to be sufficient, but with no darkness to spare. Will you go with me? Will you do exactly as I say?"
She drew a swift breath, holding her hand to her side.
"Oh, yes," her voice catching, "what—what else can I do? I cannot stay here with those dead men!"
"But I want you to go because—well, because you trust me," he urged, a new trace of tenderness in his lowered voice. "Because you know I would give my life to defend you."
He was not sure, but he thought her face was suddenly uplifted, her eyes seeking to see him in the darkness.
"I do," she answered gravely, "you must believe I do; but I have never been in such peril before, in such a situation of horror, and I am all unnerved. There doesn't seem to be anything left me but—to trust you."
"That is good; all I can ask. I know you are all right, but I want you to keep your nerve. We are going to take a big chance; we 've got to do it—a single misplay, a slip of the foot, an incautious breath may cost our lives."
"Are you going to try to get away? To elude the Indians?"
"Yes, and there is but one possibility of success—to creep the length of the gully there, and so reach the river. Here is Gonzales' belt. Don't be afraid of it; it is not dead men who are going to hurt us. Swing the strap over your shoulder this way, and slip the revolver into the holster. That's right; we'll carry as little as we can, and leave our hands free." He hesitated, staring about in the darkness, swiftly deciding what to take. "Do you happen to know if either of the passengers carried any grub?"
"Plains' term for food," impatiently, "rations; something for lunch en route."
"Oh, yes, Mr. Moylan did; said he never took chances on having to go hungry. It was in a flat leather pouch."
"Haversack. I have it. That will be enough to carry, with the canteen. Now there is only one thing more before we leave. We must impress those fellows with the notion that we are wide-awake, and on guard yet. See any movement out there?"
"I—I am not sure," she answered doubtfully. "There is a black smudge beyond that dead pony; lean forward here and you can see what I mean—on the ground. I—I imagined it moved just then." She pointed into the darkness. "It is the merest shadow, but seemed to wiggle along, and then stop; it's still now."
Hamlin focussed his keen eyes on the spot indicated, shading them with one hand.
"Slide back further on the seat," he whispered softly, "and let me in next the window."
There was a moment's silence, the only sound the wind. The girl gripped the back of the seat nervously with both hands, holding her breath; the Sergeant, the outline of his face silhouetted against the sky, stared motionless into the night without. Suddenly, not making a sound, he lifted the rifle to his shoulder.
A WAY TO THE RIVER
She waited in agony as he sighted carefully, striving to gauge the distance. It seemed an interminable time before his finger pressed the trigger. Then came the report, a flash of flame, and the powder smoke blown back in her face. Half-blinded by the discharge, she yet saw that black smudge leap upright; again the Henry blazed, and the dim figure went down. There was a cry—a mad yell of rage—in which scattered voices joined; spits of fire cleaving the darkness, the barking of guns of different calibre. A bit of flying lead tore through the leather back of the coach with an odd rip; another struck the casing of the door, sending the wooden splinters flying like arrows. Hawk-eyed, Hamlin fired twice more, aiming at the sparks, grimly certain that a responding howl from the left evidenced a hit. Then, as quickly, all was still, intensely black once more. The Sergeant drew back from the window, leaning his gun against the casing.