CAPT. CHARLES KING, U.S.A.,
AUTHOR OF "THE COLONEL'S DAUGHTER," "MARION'S FAITH," "KITTY'S CONQUEST," ETC., ETC.
PHILADELPHIA: J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
Copyright, 1887, by J.B. LIPPINCOTT COMPANY.
Far up in the Northwest, along the banks of the broad, winding stream the Sioux call the Elk, a train of white-topped army-wagons is slowly crawling eastward. The October sun is hot at noon-day, and the dust from the loose soil rises like heavy smoke and powders every face and form in the guarding battalion so that features are wellnigh indistinguishable. Four companies of stalwart, sinewy infantry, with their brown rifles slung over the shoulder, are striding along in dispersed order, covering the exposed southern flank from sudden attack, while farther out along the ridge-line, and far to the front and rear, cavalry skirmishers and scouts are riding to and fro, searching every hollow and ravine, peering cautiously over every "divide," and signalling "halt" or "forward" as the indications warrant.
And yet not a hostile Indian has been seen; not one, even as distant vedette, has appeared in range of the binoculars, since the scouts rode in at daybreak to say that big bands were in the immediate neighborhood. It has been a long, hard summer's work for the troops, and the Indians have been, to all commands that boasted strength or swiftness, elusive as the Irishman's flea of tradition. Only to those whose numbers were weak or whose movements were hampered have they appeared in fighting-trim. But combinations have been too much for them, and at last they have been "herded" down to the Elk, have crossed, and are now seeking to make their way, with women, children, tepees, dogs, "travois," and the great pony herds, to the fastnesses of the Big Horn; and now comes the opportunity for which an old Indian-fighter has been anxiously waiting. In a big cantonment he has held the main body under his command, while keeping out constant scouting-parties to the east and north. He knows well that, true to their policy, the Indians will have scattered into small bands capable of reassembling anywhere that signal smokes may call them, and his orders are to watch all the crossings of the Elk and nab them as they come into his district. He watches, despite the fact that it is his profound conviction that the Indians will be no such idiots as to come just where they are wanted, and he is in no wise astonished when a courier comes in on jaded horse to tell him that they have "doubled" on the other column and are now two or three days' march away down stream, "making for the big bend." His own scouting-parties are still out to the eastward: he can pick them up as he goes. He sends the main body of his infantry, a regiment jocularly known as "The Riflers," to push for a landing some fifty miles down-stream, scouting the lower valley of the Sweet Root on the way. He sends his wagon-train, guarded by four companies of foot and two of horsemen, by the only practicable road to the bend, while he, with ten seasoned "troops" of his pet regiment, the ——th Cavalry, starts forthwith on a long detour in which he hopes to "round up" such bands as may have slipped away from the general rush. Even as "boots and saddles" is sounding, other couriers come riding in from Lieutenant Crane's party. He has struck the trail of a big band.
When the morning sun dawns on the picturesque valley in which the cantonment nestled but the day before, it illumines an almost deserted village, and brings no joy to the souls of some twoscore of embittered civilians who had arrived only the day previous, and whose unanimous verdict is that the army is a fraud and ought to be abolished. For four months or more some three regiments had been camping, scouting, roughing it thereabouts, with not a cent of pay. Then came the wildly exciting tidings that a boat was on the way up the Missouri with a satrap of the pay department, vast store of shekels, and a strong guard, and as a consequence there would be some two thousand men around the cantonment with pockets full of money and no one to help them spend it, and nothing suitable to spend it on. It was a duty all citizens owed to the Territory to hasten to the scene and gather in for local circulation all that was obtainable of that disbursement; otherwise the curse of the army might get ahead of them and the boys would gamble it away among themselves or spend it for vile whiskey manufactured for their sole benefit. Gallatin Valley was emptied of its prominent practitioners in the game of poker. The stream was black with "Mackinaw" boats and other craft. There was a rush for the cantonment that rivalled the multitudes of the mining days, but all too late. The command was already packing up when the first contingent arrived, and the commanding officer, recognizing the fraternity at a glance, warned them outside the limits of camp that night, declined their services as volunteers on the impending campaign, and treated them with such calmly courteous recognition of their true character that the Eastern press was speedily filled with sneering comment on the hopelessness of ever subduing the savage tribes of the Northwest when the government intrusts the duty to upstart officers of the regular service whose sole conception of their functions is to treat with insult and contempt the hardy frontiersman whose mere presence with the command would be of incalculable benefit. "We have it from indisputable authority," says The Miner's Light of Brandy Gap, "that when our esteemed fellow-citizen Hank Mulligan and twenty gallant shots and riders like himself went in a body to General—— at the cantonment and offered their services as volunteers against the Sioux now devastating the homesteads and settlements of the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone valleys, they were treated with haughty and contemptuous refusal by that bandbox caricature of a soldier and threatened with arrest if they did not quit the camp. When will the United States learn that its frontiers can never be purged of the Indian scourges of our civilization until the conduct of affairs in the field is intrusted to other hands than these martinets of the drill-ground? It is needless to remark in this connection that the expedition led by General—— has proved a complete failure, and that the Indians easily escaped his clumsily-led forces."
The gamblers, though baffled for the time being, of course "get square," and more too, with the unfortunate general in this sort of warfare, but they are a disgusted lot as they hang about the wagon-train as last of all it is being hitched-in to leave camp. Some victims, of course, they have secured, and there are no devices of commanding officers which can protect their men against those sharks of the prairies when the men themselves are bound to tempt Providence and play. There are two scowling faces in the cavalry escort that has been left back with the train, and Captain Hull, the commanding officer, has reprimanded Sergeants Clancy and Gower in stinging terms for their absence from the command during the night. There is little question where they spent it, and both have been "cleaned out." What makes it worse, both have lost money that belonged to other men in the command, and they are in bad odor accordingly.
The long day's march has tempered the joviality of the entire column. It is near sundown, and still they keep plodding onward, making for a grassy level on the river-bank a good mile farther.
"Old Hull seems bound to leave the sports as far behind as possible, if he has to march us until midnight," growls the battalion adjutant to his immediate commander. "By thunder! one would think he was afraid they would get in a lick at his own pile."
"How much did you say he was carrying?" asks Captain Rayner, checking his horse for a moment to look back over the valley at the long, dust-enveloped column.
"Nearly three thousand dollars in one wad."
"How does he happen to have such a sum?"
"Why, Crane left his pay-accounts with him. He drew all that was due his men who are off with Crane,—twenty of them,—for they had signed the rolls before going, and were expected back to-day. Then he has some six hundred dollars company fund; and the men of his troop asked him to take care of a good deal besides. The old man has been with them so many years they look upon him as a father and trust him as implicitly as they would a savings-bank."
"That's all very well," answers Rayner; "but I wouldn't want to carry any such sum with me."
"It's different with Hull's men, captain. They are ordered in through the posts and settlements. They have a three weeks' march ahead of them when they get through their scout, and they want their money on the way. It was only after they had drawn it that the news came of the Indians' crossing and of our having to jump for the warpath. Everybody thought yesterday morning that the campaign was about over so far as we are concerned. Halloo! here comes young Hayne. Now, what does he want?"
Riding a quick, nervous little bay troop horse, a slim-built officer, with boyish face, laughing blue eyes, and sunny hair, comes loping up the long prairie wave; he shouts cheery greeting to one or two brother subalterns who are plodding along beside their men, and exchanges some merry chaff with Lieutenant Ross, who is prone to growl at the luck which has kept him afoot and given to this favored youngster a "mount" and a temporary staff position. The boy's spirits and fun seem to jar on Rayner's nerves. He regards him blackly as he rides gracefully towards the battalion commander, and with decidedly nonchalant ease of manner and an "off-hand" salute that has an air about it of saying, "I do this sort of thing because one has to, but it doesn't really mean anything, you know," Mr. Hayne accosts his superior:
"Ah, good-evening, captain. I have just come back from the front, and Captain Hull directed me to give you his compliments and say that we would camp in the bend yonder, and he would like you to post strong pickets and have a double guard to-night."
"Have me post double guards! How the devil does he expect me to do that after marching all day?"
"I did not inquire, sir: he might have told me 'twas none of my business, don't you know?" And Mr. Hayne has the insufferable hardihood to wink at the battalion adjutant,—a youth of two years' longer service than his own.
"Well, Mr. Hayne, this is no matter for levity," says Rayner, angrily. "What does Captain Hull mean to do with his own men, if I'm to do the guard?"
"That is another point, Captain Rayner, which I had not the requisite effrontery to inquire into. Now, you might ask him, but I couldn't, don't you know?" responds Hayne, smiling amiably the while into the wrathful face of his superior. It serves only to make the indignant captain more wrathful; and no wonder. There has been no love lost between the two since Hayne joined the Riflers early the previous year. He came in from civil life, a city-bred boy, fresh from college, full of spirits, pranks, fun of every kind; a wonderfully keen hand with the billiard-cue; a knowing one at cards and such games of chance as college boys excel at; a musician of no mean pretensions, and an irrepressible leader in all the frolics and frivolities of his comrades. He had leaped to popularity from the start. He was full of courtesy and gentleness to women, and became a pet in social circles. He was frank, free, off-handed with his associates, spending lavishly, "treating" with boyish ostentation on all occasions, living quite en grand seigneur, for he seemed to have a little money outside his pay,—"a windfall from a good old duffer of an uncle," as he had explained it. His father, a scholarly man who had been summoned to an important under-office in the State Department during the War of the Rebellion, had lived out his honored life in Washington and died poor, as such men must ever die. It was his wish that his handsome, spirited, brave-hearted boy should enter the army, and long after the sod had hardened over the father's peaceful grave the young fellow donned his first uniform and went out to join "The Riflers." High-spirited, joyous, full of laughing fun, he was "Pet" Hayne before he had been among them six months. But within the year he had made one or two enemies. It could not be said of him that he showed that deference to rank and station which was expected of a junior officer; and among the seniors were several whom he speedily designated "unconscionable old duffers" and treated with as little semblance of respect as a second lieutenant could exhibit and be permitted to live. Rayner prophesied of him that, as he had no balance and was burning his candle at both ends, he would come to grief in short order. Hayne retorted that the only balance that Rayner had any respect for was one at the banker's, and that it was notorious in Washington that the captain's father had made most of his money in government contracts, and that the captain's original commission in the regulars was secured through well-paid Congressional influence. The fact that Rayner had developed into a good officer did not wipe out the recollection of these facts; and he could have throttled Hayne for reviving them. It was "a game of give and take," said the youngster; and he "behaved himself" to those who were at all decent in their manner to him.
It was a thorn in Rayner's flesh, therefore, when Hayne joined from leave of absence, after experiences not every officer would care to encounter in getting back to his regiment, that Captain Hull should have induced the general to detail him in place of the invalided field quartermaster when the command was divided. Hayne would have been a junior subaltern in Rayner's little battalion but for that detail, and it annoyed the captain more seriously than he would confess.
"It is all an outrage and a blunder to pick out a boy like that," he growls between his set teeth as Hayne canters blithely away. "Here he's been away from the regiment all summer long, having a big time and getting head over ears in debt, I hear, and the moment he rejoins they put him in charge of the wagon-train as field quartermaster. It's putting a premium on being young and cheeky,—besides absenteeism," he continues, growing blacker every minute.
"Well, captain," answers his adjutant, injudiciously, "I think you don't give Hayne credit for coming back on the jump the moment we were ordered out. It was no fault of his he could not reach us. He took chances I wouldn't take."
"Oh, yes! you kids all swear by Hayne because he's a good fellow and sings a jolly song and plays the piano—and poker. One of these days he'll swamp you all, sure as shooting. He's in debt now, and it'll fetch him before you know it. What he needs is to be under a captain who could discipline him a little. By Jove, I'd do it!" And Rayner's teeth emphasize the assertion.
The young adjutant thinks it advisable to say nothing that may provoke further vehemence. All the same, he remembers Rayner's bitterness of manner, and has abundant cause to.
When the next morning breaks, chill and pallid, a change has come in the aspect of affairs. During the earliest hour of the dawn the red light of a light-draught river-boat startled the outlying pickets down-stream, and the Far West, answering the muffled hail from shore, responded, through the medium of a mate's stentorian tones, "News that'll rout you fellows out." The sun is hardly peeping over the jagged outline of the eastern hills when, with Rayner's entire battalion aboard, she is steaming again down-stream, with orders to land at the mouth of the Sweet Root. There the four companies will disembark in readiness to join the rest of the regiment.
All day long again the wagon-train twists and wriggles through an ashen section of Les Mauvaises Terres. It is a tedious, trying march for Hull's little command of troopers,—all that is now left to guard the train. The captain is constantly out on the exposed flank, eagerly scanning the rough country to the south, and expectant any moment of an attack from that direction. He and his men, as well as the horses, mules, and teamsters, are fairly tired out when at nightfall they park the wagons in a big semicircle, with the broad river forming a shining chord to the arc of white canvas. All the live-stock are safely herded within the enclosure; a few reliable soldiers are posted well out to the south and east, to guard against surprise, and the veteran Sergeant Clancy is put in command of the sentries. The captain gives strict injunctions as to the importance of these duties; for he is far from easy in his mind over the situation. The Riflers, he knows, are over in the valley of the Sweet Root. The steamer with Rayner's men is tied up at the bank some five miles below, around the bend. The ——th are far off to the northward across the Elk, as ordered, and must be expecting on the morrow to make for the old Indian "ferry" opposite Battle Butte. The main body of the Sioux are reported farther down stream, but he feels it in his bones that there are numbers of them within signal, and he wishes with all his heart the ——th were here. Still, the general was sure he would stir up war-parties on the other shore. Individually, he has had very little luck in scouting during the summer, and he cannot help wishing he were with the rest of the crowd instead of here, train-guarding.
Presently Mr. Hayne appears, elastic and debonair as though he had not been working like a horse all day. His voice sounds so full of cheer and life that Hull looks up smilingly:
"Well, youngster, you seem to love this frontier life."
"Every bit of it, captain. I was cut out for the army, as father thought."
"We used to talk it over a good deal in the old days when I was stationed around Washington," answers Hull. "Your father was the warmest friend I had in civil circles, and he made it very pleasant for me. How little we thought it would be my luck to have you for quartermaster!"
"The fellows seemed struck all of a heap in the Riflers at the idea of your applying for me, captain. I was ready to swear it was all on father's account, and would have told them so, only Rayner happened to be the first man to tackle me on the subject, and he was so crusty about it I kept the whole thing to myself rather than give him any satisfaction."
"Larry, my boy, I'm no preacher, but I want to be the friend to you your father was to me. You are full of enthusiasm and life and spirits, and you love the army ways and have made yourself very popular with the youngsters, but I'm afraid you are too careless and independent where the seniors are concerned. Rayner is a good soldier; and you show him very scant respect, I'm told."
"Well, he's such an interfering fellow. They will all tell you I'm respectful enough to—to the captains I like—"
"That's just it, Lawrence. So long as you like a man your manner is what it should be. What a young soldier ought to learn is to be courteous and respectful to senior officers whether he likes them or not. It costs an effort sometimes, but it tells. You never know what trouble you are laying up for yourself in the army by bucking against men you don't like. They may not be in position to resent it at the time, but the time is mighty apt to come when they will be, and then you are helpless."
"Why, Captain Hull, I don't see it that way at all. It seems to me that so long as an officer attends to his duty, minds his own business, and behaves like a gentleman, no one can harm him; especially when all the good fellows of the regiment are his friends, as they are mine, I think, in the Riflers."
"Ah, Hayne, it is a hard thing to teach a youngster that—that there are men who find it very easy to make their juniors' lives a burden to them, and without overstepping a regulation. It is harder yet to say that friends in the army are a good deal like friends out of it: one only has to get into serious trouble to find how few they are. God grant you may never have to learn it, my boy, as many another has had to, by sharp experience! Now we must get a good night's rest. You sleep like a log, I see, and I can only take cat-naps. Confound this money! How I wish I could get rid of it!"
"Where do you keep it to-night?"
"Right here in my saddle-bags under my head. Nobody can touch them that I do not wake; and my revolver is here under the blanket. Hold on! Let's take a look and see if everything is all right." He holds a little camp-lantern over the bags, opens the flap, and peers in. "Yes,—all serene. I got a big hunk of green sealing-wax from the paymaster and sealed it all up in one package with the memorandum-list inside. It's all safe so far,—even to the hunk of sealing-wax.—What is it, sergeant?"
A tall, soldierly, dark-eyed trooper appears at the door-way of the little tent, and raises his gauntleted hand in salute. His language, though couched in the phraseology of the soldier, tells both in choice of words and in the intonation of every phrase that he is a man whose antecedents have been far different from those of the majority of the rank and file:
"Will the captain permit me to take my horse and those of three or four more men outside the corral? Sergeant Clancy says he has no authority to allow it. We have found a patch of excellent grass, sir, and there is hardly any left inside. I will sleep by my picket-pin, and one of us will keep awake all the time, if the captain will permit."
"How far away is it, sergeant?"
"Not seventy-five yards, sir,—close to the river-bank east of us."
"Very well. Send Sergeant Clancy here, and I'll give the necessary orders."
The soldier quietly salutes, and disappears in the gathering darkness.
"That's what I like about that man Gower," says the captain, after a moment's silence. "He is always looking out for his horse. If he were not such a gambler and rake he would make a splendid first-sergeant. Fine-looking fellow, isn't he?"
"Yes, sir. That is a face that one couldn't well forget. Who was the other sergeant you overhauled for getting fleeced by those sharps at the cantonment?"
"Clancy? He's on guard to-night. A very different character."
"I don't know him by sight as yet. Well, good-night, sir. I'll take myself off and go to my own tent."
* * * * *
Daybreak again, and far to the east the sky is all ablaze. The mist is creeping from the silent shallows under the banks, but all is life and vim along the shore. With cracking whip, tugging trace, sonorous blasphemy, and ringing shout, the long train is whirling ahead almost at the run. All is athrill with excitement, and bearded faces have a strange, set look about the jaws, and eyes gleam with eager light and peer searchingly from every rise far over to the southeast, where stands a tumbling heap of hills against the lightening sky. "Off there, are they?" says a burly trooper, dismounting hastily to tighten up the "cinch" of his weather-beaten saddle. "We can make it quick enough, 's soon as we get rid of these blasted wagons." And, swinging into saddle again, he goes cantering down the slope, his charger snorting with exhilaration in the keen morning air.
Before dawn a courier has galloped into camp, bearing a despatch from the commanding officer of the Riflers. It says but few words, but they are full of meaning: "We have found a big party of hostiles. They are in strong position, and have us at disadvantage. Rayner with his four companies is hurrying to us. Leave all wagons with the boat under guard, and come with every horse and man you can bring."
Before seven o'clock the wagons are parked close along the bank beside the Far West, and Hull, with all the men he can muster,—some fifty,—is trotting ahead on the trail of Rayner's battalion. With him rides Mr. Hayne, eager and enthusiastic. Before ten o'clock, far up along the slopes they see the blue line of skirmishers, and the knots of reserves farther down, all at a stand. In ten minutes they ride with foaming reins in behind a low ridge on which, flat on their faces and cautiously peering over the crest, some hundred infantrymen are disposed. Others, officers and file-closers, are moving to and fro in rear. They are of Rayner's battalion. Farther back, down in a ravine a dozen forms are outstretched upon the turf, and others are bending over them, ministering to the needs of those who are not past help already. Several officers crowd around the leading horsemen, and Hull orders, "Halt, dismount, and loosen girths." The grave faces show that the infantry has had poor luck, and the situation is summarized in few words. The Indians are in force occupying the ravines and ridges opposite them and confronting the six companies farther over to the west. Two attacks have been made, but the Indian fire swept every approach, and both were unsuccessful. Several soldiers were shot dead, others severely wounded. Lieutenant Warren's leg is shattered below the knee; Captain Blount is killed.
"Where's Rayner?" asks Hull, with grave face.
"Just gone off with the chief to look at things over on the other front. The colonel is hopping. He is bound to have those Indians out of there or drop a-trying. They'll be back in a minute. The general had a rousing fight with Dull Knife's people down the river last evening. You missed it again, Hull: all the ——th were there but F and K,—and of course old Firewater wants to make as big a hit here."
"The ——th fighting down the river last night?" asks Hull, in amaze.
"Yes,—swept clean round them and ran 'em into the stream, they say. I wish we had them where we could see 'em at all. You don't get the glimpse of a head, even; but all those rocks are lined with the beggars. Damn them!" says the adjutant, feelingly.
"We'll get our chance here, then," replies Hull, reflectively. "I'll creep up and take a look at it. Take my horse, orderly."
He is back in two minutes, graver than before, but his bearing is spirited and firm. Hayne watches him with kindling eye.
"You'll take me in with you when you charge?" he asks.
"It is no place to charge there. The ground is all cut up with ravines and gullies, and they've got a cross-fire that sweeps it clean. We'll probably go in on the other flank; it's more open there. Here comes the chief now."
Two officers come riding hastily around a projecting point of the slope and spur at rapid gait towards the spot where the cavalry have dismounted and are breathing their horses. There is hardly time for salutations. A gray-headed, keen-eyed, florid-faced old soldier is the colonel, and he is snapping with electricity, apparently.
"This way, Hull. Come right here, and I'll show you what you are to do." And, followed by Rayner, Hull, and Hayne, the chief rides sharply over to the extreme left of the position and points to the frowning ridge across the intervening swale.
"There, Hull: there are twenty or thirty of the rascals in there who get a flank fire on us when we attack on our side. What I want you to do is to mount your men, let them draw pistol and be all ready. Rayner, here, will line the ridge to keep them down in front. I'll go back to the right and order the attack at once. The moment we begin and you hear our shots, you give a yell, and charge full tilt across there, so as to drive out those fellows in that ravine. We can do the rest. Do you understand?"
"I understand, colonel; but—is it your order that I attempt to charge mounted across that ground?"
"Why, certainly! It isn't the best in the world, but you can make it. They can't do very much damage to your men before you reach them. It's got to be done; it's the only way."
"Very good, sir: that ends it!" is the calm, soldierly reply; and the colonel goes bounding away.
A moment later the troop is in saddle, eager, wiry, bronzed fellows every one, and the revolvers are in hand and being carefully examined. Then Captain Hull signals to Hayne, while Rayner and three or four soldiers sit in silence, watching the man who is to lead the charge. He dismounts at a little knoll a few feet away, tosses his reins to the trumpeter, and steps to his saddle-bags. Hayne, too, dismounts.
Taking his watch and chain from the pocket of his hunting-shirt, he opens the saddle-bag on the near side and takes therefrom two packets,—one heavily sealed,—which he hands to Hayne.
"In case I—don't come back, you know what to do with these,—as I told you last night."
Hayne only looks imploringly at him: "You are not going to leave me here, captain?"
"Yes, Hayne. You can't go with us. Hark! There they go at the right. Are the packages all right?"
Hayne, with stunned faculties, thinking only of the charge he longs to make,—not of the one he has to keep,—replies he knows not what. There is a ringing bugle-call far off among the rocks to the westward; a rousing cheer; a rattling volley. Rayner springs off to his men on the hill-side. Hull spurs in front of his eager troop, holding high his pistol-hand:
"Now, men, follow till I drop; and then keep ahead! Come on!"
There is a furious sputter of hoofs, a rush of excited steeds up the gentle slope, a glad outburst of cheers as they sweep across the ridge and out of sight, then the clamor and yell of frantic battle; and when at last it dies away, the Riflers are panting over the hard-won position and shaking hands with some few silent cavalrymen. They have carried the ridge, captured the migrating village, squaws, ponies, travois, and pappooses; their "long Toms" have sent many a stalwart warrior to the mythical hunting-grounds, and the peppery colonel's triumph is complete.
But Lawrence Hayne, with all the light gone from his brave young face, stands mutely looking down, upon the stiffening frame of his father's old friend, and his, who lies shot through the heart.
In the Pullman car of the westward-bound express, half-way across the continent, two passengers were gazing listlessly out over the wintry landscape. It was a bitter morning in February. North and south the treeless prairie rolled away in successive ridge and depression. The snow lay deep in the dry ravines and streaked the sea-like surface with jagged lines of foam between which lay broad spaces clean-swept by the gale. Heavy masses of cloud, dark and forbidding, draped the sky from zenith to horizon, and the air was thick with spiteful gusts and spits of snow, crackling against the window-panes, making fierce dashes every time a car door was hurriedly opened, and driving about the platforms like a myriad swarm of fleecy and aggressive gnats raging for battle. Every now and then, responsive to some wilder blast, a blinding white cloud came whirling from the depths of the nearest gully and breaking like spray over the snow fence along the line. Not a sign of life was visible. The tiny mounds in the villages of the prairie-dogs seemed blocked and frozen; even the trusty sentinel had "deserted post" and huddled with his fellows for warmth and shelter in the bowels of the earth. Fluttering owl and skulking coyote, too, had vanished from the face of nature. Timid antelope—fleetest coursers of the prairie—and stolid horned cattle had gone, none knew whither, nor cared to know until the "blizzard" had subsided. Two heavy engines fought their way, panting, into the very teeth of the gale and slowly wound the long train after them up-grade among the foot-hills of the great plateau of the Rockies. Once in a while, when stopping for a moment at some group of brown-painted sheds and earth-battened shanties, the wind moaned and howled among the iron braces and brake-chains beneath the car and made such mournful noise that it was a relief to start once more and lose sound of its wailing in the general rumble. As for the scenery, only as a picture of shiver-provoking monotony and desolation would one care to take a second look.
And yet, some miles ahead, striving hard to reach the railway in time to intercept this very train, a small battalion of cavalry was struggling through the blasts, officers and men afoot and dragging their own benumbed limbs and half-benumbed chargers through the drifts that lay deep at the bottom of every "coulee." Some few soldiers remained in saddle: they were too frozen to walk at all. Some few fell behind, and would have thrown themselves flat upon the prairie in the lethargy that is but premonition of death by freezing. Like men half deadened by morphine, their rescue depended on heroic measures, humane in their seeming brutality. Officers who at other times were all gentleness now fell upon the hapless stragglers with kicks and blows. As the train drew up at the platform of a station in mid-prairie, a horseman enveloped in fur and frost and steam from his panting steed reined up beside the leading engine and shouted to the occupants of the cab,—
"For God's sake hold on a few minutes. We've got a dozen frozen men with us we must send on to Fort Warrener." And the train was held.
Meantime, those far to the rear in the sleeper knew nothing of what was going on ahead. The car was warm and comfortable, and most of its occupants were apparently appreciative of its shelter and coseyness in contrast with the cheerless scene without. A motherly-looking woman had produced her knitting, and was blithely clicking away at her needles, while her enterprising son, a youth of four summers and undaunted confidence in human nature, tacked up and down the aisle and made impetuous incursions on the various sections by turns, receiving such modified welcome as could be accorded features streaked with mingled candy and cinders, and fingers whose propensity to cling to whatsoever they touched was due no more to instincts of a predatory nature than to the adhesive properties of the glucose which formed so large a constituent of the confections he had been industriously consuming since early morning. Four men playing whist in the rearmost section, two or three commercial travellers, whose intimacy with the porter and airs of easy proprietorship told of an apparent controlling interest in the road, a young man of reserved manners, reading in a section all by himself, a baby sleeping quietly upon the seat opposite the two passengers first mentioned, and a Maltese kitten curled up in the lap of one of them, completed the list of occupants.
The proximity of the baby and the kitten furnishes strong presumptive evidence of the sex and general condition of the two passengers referred to, and renders detail superfluous. A baby rarely travels without a woman, or a kitten with a woman already encumbered with a baby. The baby belonged to the elder passenger, the kitten to the younger. The one was a buxom matron, the other a slender maid. In their ages there must have been a difference of fifteen years; in feature there was still wider disparity. The elder was a fine-looking woman, and one who prided herself upon the Junoesque proportions which she occasionally exhibited in a stroll for exercise up and down the aisle. Yet no one would call her a beauty. Her eyes were of a somewhat fishy and uncertain blue; the lids were tinged with an unornamental pink that told of irritation of the adjacent interior surface and of possible irritability of temper. Her complexion was of that mottled type which is so sore a trial to its possessor and yet so inestimable a comfort to social rivals; but her features were handsome, her teeth fine, her dress, bearing, and demeanor those of a woman of birth and breeding, and yet one who might have resented the intimation that she was not strikingly handsome. She looked like a woman with a will of her own; her head was high, her step was firm; it was of just such a walk as hers that Virgil wrote his "vera incessu patuit dea," and she made the young man in the section by himself think of that very passage as he glanced at her from under his heavy, bushy eyebrows. She looked, moreover, like a woman with a capacity for influencing people contrary to their will and judgment, and with a decided fondness for the exercise of that unpopular function. There was the air of grande dame about her, despite the simplicity of her dress, which, though of rich material, was severely plain. She wore no jewelry. Her hands were snugly gloved, and undisfigured by the distortions of any ring except the marriage circlet. Her manner attested her a person of consequence in her social circle and one who realized the fact. She had repelled, though without rudeness or discourtesy, the garrulous efforts of the motherly knitter to be sociable. She had promptly inspired the small, candy-crusted explorer with such awe that he had refrained from further visits after his first confiding attempt to poke a sticky finger through the baby's velvety cheek. She had spared little scorn in her rejection of the bourgeois advances of the commercial traveller with the languishing eyes of Israel: he confided to his comrades, in relating the incident, that she was smart enough to see that it wasn't her he was hankering to know, but the pretty sister by her side; and when challenged to prove that they were sisters,—a statement which aroused the scepticism of his shrewd associates,—he had replied, substantially,—
"How do I know? 'Cause I saw their pass before you was up this morning, cully. It's for Mrs. Captain Rayner and sister, and they're going out here to Fort Warrener. That's how I know." And the porter of the car had confirmed the statement in the sanctity of the smoking-room.
And yet—such is the uncertainty of feminine temperament—Mrs. Rayner was no more incensed at the commercial "gent" because he had obtruded his attentions than she was at the young man reading in his own section because he had refrained. Nearly twenty-four hours had elapsed since they crossed the Missouri, and in all that time not once had she detected in him a glance that betrayed the faintest interest in her, or—still more remarkable—in the unquestionably lovely girl at her side. Intrusiveness she might resent, but indifference she would and did. Who was this youth, she wondered, who not once had so much as stolen a look at the sweet, bonny face of her maiden sister? Surely 'twas a face any man would love to gaze upon,—so fair, so exquisite in contour and feature, so pearly in complexion, so lovely in the deep, dark brown of its shaded eyes.
The bold glances of the four card-players she had defiantly returned, and vanquished. Those men, like the travelling gents, were creatures of coarser mould; but her experienced eye told her the solitary occupant of the opposite section was a gentleman. The clear cut of his pale features, the white, slender hand and shapely foot, the style and finish of his quiet travelling-dress, the soft modulation and refined tone of his voice on the one occasion when she heard him reply to some importunity of the train-boy with his endless round of equally questionable figs and fiction, the book he was reading,—a volume of Emerson,—all combined to speak of a culture and position equal to her own. She had been over the trans-continental railways often enough to know that it was permissible for gentlemen to render their fellow-passengers some slight attention which would lead to mutual introductions if desirable; and this man refused to see that the opportunity was open to him.
True, when first she took her survey of those who were to be her fellow-travellers at the "transfer" on the Missouri, she decided that here was one against whom it would be necessary to guard the approaches. She had good and sufficient reasons for wanting no young man as attractive in appearance as this one making himself interesting to pretty Nellie on their journey. She had already decided what Nellie's future was to be. Never, indeed, would she have taken her to the gay frontier station whither she was now en route, had not that future been already settled to her satisfaction. Nellie Travers, barely out of school, was betrothed, and willingly so, to the man she, her devoted elder sister, had especially chosen. Rare and most unlikely of conditions! she had apparently fallen in love with the man picked out for her by somebody else. She was engaged to Mrs. Rayner's fascinating friend Mr. Steven Van Antwerp, a scion of an old and esteemed and wealthy family; and Mr. Van Antwerp, who had been educated abroad, and had a Heidelberg scar on his left cheek, and dark, lustrous eyes, and wavy hair,—almost raven,—was a devoted lover, though fully fifteen years Miss Nellie's senior.
Full of bliss and comfort was Mrs. Rayner's soul as she journeyed westward to rejoin her husband at the distant frontier post she had not seen since the early spring. Army woman as she was, born and bred under the shadow of the flag, a soldier's daughter, a soldier's wife, she had other ambitions for her beautiful Nell. Worldly to the core, she herself would never have married in the army but for the unusual circumstance of a wealthy subaltern among the officers of her father's regiment. Tradition had it that Mr. Rayner was not among the number of those who sighed for Kate Travers's guarded smiles. Her earlier victims were kept a-dangling until Rayner, too, succumbed, and then were sent adrift. She meant that no penniless subaltern should carry off her "baby sister,"—they had long been motherless,—and a season at the sea-shore had done her work well. Steven Van Antwerp, with genuine distress and loneliness, went back to his duties in Wall Street after seeing them safely on their way to the West. "Guard her well for me," he whispered to Mrs. Rayner. "I dread those fellows in buttons." And he shivered unaccountably as he spoke.
Nellie was pledged, therefore, and this youth in the Pullman was not one of "those fellows in buttons," so far as Mrs. Rayner knew, but she was ready to warn him off, and meant to do so, until, to her surprise, she saw that he gave no symptom of a desire to approach. By noon of the second day she was as determined to extract from him some sign of interest as she had been determined to resent it. I can in no wise explain or account for this. The fact is stated without remark.
"What on earth can we be stopping so long here for?" was Mrs. Rayner's somewhat petulant inquiry, addressed to no one in particular. There was no reply. Miss Travers was busily twitching the ears of the kitten at the moment and sparring with upraised finger at the threatening paw.
"Do look out of the window, Nell, and see."
"There is nothing to see, Kate,—nothing but whirling drifts and a big water-tank all covered with ice. Br-r-r-r! how cold it looks!" she answered, after vainly flattening her face against the inner pane.
"There must be something the matter, though," persisted Mrs. Rayner. "We have been here full five minutes, and we are behind time now. At this rate we'll never get to Warrener to-night. I do wish the porter would stay here where he belongs."
The young man quietly laid down his book and arose. "I will inquire, madame," he said, with grave courtesy. "You shall know in a moment."
"How very kind of you!" said the lady. "Indeed I must not trouble you. I'm sure the porter will be here after a while."
And even as she spoke, and as he was pulling on an overcoat, the train rumbled off again. Then came an exclamation, this time from the younger:
"Why, Kate! Look! see all these men,—and horses! Why, they are soldiers,—cavalry! Oh, how I love to see them again! But, oh, how cold they look!—frozen!"
"Who can they be?" said Mrs. Rayner, all vehement interest now, and gazing eagerly from the window at the lowered heads of the horses and the muffled figures in blue and fur. "What can they be doing in the field in such awful weather? I cannot recognize one of them, or tell officers from men. Surely that must be Captain Wayne,—and Major Stannard. Oh, what can it mean?"
The young man had suddenly leaped to the window behind them, and was gazing out with an eagerness and interest little less apparent than her own, but in a moment the train had whisked them out of sight of the storm-beaten troopers. Then he hurried to the rear window of the car, and Mrs. Rayner as hastily followed.
"Do you know them?" she asked.
"Yes. That was Major Stannard. It is his battalion of the ——th Cavalry, and they have been out scouting after renegade Cheyennes. Pardon me, madame, I must go forward and see who have boarded the train."
He stopped at his section, and again she followed him, her eyes full of anxiety. He was busy tugging at a flask in his travelling-bag.
"You know them! Do you know—have you heard of any infantry being out? Pardon me for detaining you, but I am very anxious. My husband is Captain Rayner, of Fort Warrener."
"No infantry have been sent, madame, I—have reason to know; at least, none from Warrener."
And with that he hurriedly bowed and left her. The next moment, flask in hand, he was crossing the storm-swept platform and making his way to the head of the train.
"I believe he is an officer," said Mrs. Rayner to her sister. "Who else would be apt to know about the movement of the troops? Did you notice how gentle his manner was?—and he never smiled: he has such a sad face. Yet he can't be an officer, or he would have made himself known to us long ago."
"Is there no name on the satchel?" asked Miss Travers, with pardonable curiosity. "He has an interesting face,—not handsome." And a dreamy look came into her deep eyes. She was thinking, no doubt, of a dark, oval, distingue face with raven hair and moustache. The youth in the travelling-suit was not tall, like Steven,—not singularly, romantically handsome, like Steven. Indeed, he was of less interest to her than to her married sister.
Mrs. Rayner could see no name on the satchel,—only two initials; and they revealed very little.
"I have half a mind to peep at the fly-leaf of that book," she said. "He walked just like a soldier: but there isn't anything there to indicate what he is," she continued, with a doubtful glance at the items scattered about the now vacant section. "Why isn't that porter here? He ought to know who people are."
As though to answer her request, in came the porter, dishevelled and breathless. He made straight for the satchel they had been scrutinizing, and opened it without ceremony. Both ladies regarded this proceeding with natural astonishment, and Mrs. Rayner was about to interfere and question his right to search the luggage of passengers, when the man turned hurriedly towards them, exhibiting a little bundle of handkerchiefs, his broad Ethiopian face clouded with anxiety and concern:
"The gentleman told me to take all his handkerchiefs. We'se got a dozen frozen soldiers in the baggage-car,—some of 'em mighty bad,—and they'se tryin' to make 'em comfortable until they get to the fort."
"Soldiers frozen! Why do you take them in the baggage-car?—such a barn of a place! Why weren't they brought here, where we could make them warm and care for them?" exclaimed Mrs. Rayner, in impulsive indignation.
"Laws, ma'am! never do in the world to bring frozen people into a hot car! Sure to make their ears an' noses drop off, that would! Got to keep 'em in the cold and pile snow around 'em. That gentleman sittin' here,—he knows," he continued: "he's an officer, and him and the doctor's workin' with 'em now."
And Mrs. Rayner, vanquished by a statement of facts well known to her yet forgotten in the first impetuosity of her criticism, relapsed into the silence of temporary defeat.
"He is an officer, then," said Miss Travers, presently. "I wonder what he belongs to."
"Not to our regiment, I'm sure. Probably to the cavalry. He knew Major Stannard and other officers whom we passed there."
"Did he speak to them?"
"No: there was no time. We were beyond hearing-distance when he ran to the back door of the car; and there was no time before that. But it's very odd!"
"What's very odd?"
"Why, his conduct. It is so strange that he has not made himself known to us, if he's an officer."
"Probably he doesn't know you—or we—are connected with the army, Kate."
"Oh, yes, he does. The porter knows perfectly well, and I told him just before he left."
"Yes, but he didn't know before that time, did he?"
"He ought to have known," said Mrs. Rayner, uncompromisingly. "At least, he should if he had taken the faintest interest. I mentioned Captain Rayner so that he could not help hearing."
This statement being one that Miss Travers could in no wise contradict,—as it was one, indeed, that Mrs. Rayner could have dispensed with as unnecessary,—the younger lady again betook herself to silence and pulling the kitten's ears.
"Even if he didn't know before," continued her sister, after a pause in which she had apparently been brooding over the indifference of the young man in question, "he ought to have made himself known after I told him who I was." Another pause. "That's what I did it for," she wound up, conclusively.
"And that's what I thought," said Miss Travers, with a quiet smile. "However, he had no time then: he was hurrying off to see whether any of the soldiers had come on board. He took his flask with him, and apparently was in haste to offer someone a drink. I'm sure that is what papa used to do," she added, as she saw a frown gathering on her sister's face.
"What papa did just after the war—a time when everybody drank—is not at all the proper thing now. Captain Rayner never touches it; and I don't allow it in the house."
"Still, I should think it a very useful article when a lot of frozen and exhausted men are on one's hands," said Miss Travers. "That was but a small flask he had, and I'm sure they will need more."
There came a rush of cold air from the front, and the swinging door blew open ahead of the porter, who was heard banging shut the outer portal. Then he hurried in.
"Can some of you gentlemen oblige me with some whiskey or brandy?" he asked. "We've got some frozen soldiers aboard. Two of 'em are pretty nearly gone."
Two of the card-players dropped their hands and started for their section at once. Before they could rummage in their bags for the required article, Mrs. Rayner's voice was heard: "Take this, porter." And she held forth a little silver flask. "I have more in my trunk if it is needed," she added, while a blush mounted to her forehead as she saw the quizzical smile on her sister's face. "You know I always carry it in travelling, Nellie,—in case of accident or illness; and I'm most thankful I have it now."
"Ever so much obliged, ma'am," said the porter, "but this would be only a thimbleful, and I can get a quart bottle of this gentleman."
"Where are they?" said the person thus referred to, as he came down the aisle with a big brown bottle in his hand. "Come, Jim, let's go and see what we can do. One of you gentlemen take my place in the game," he continued, indicating the commercial gents, two of whom, nothing loath, dropped into the vacated seats, while the others pushed on to the front of the train. The porter hesitated one moment.
"Yes, take my flask: I shouldn't feel satisfied without doing something. And please say to the officer that I'm Mrs. Rayner,—Mrs. Captain Rayner, of the infantry,—and ask if there isn't something I can do to help."
"Yes, ma'am; I will, ma'am. Oh, he knows who you are: I done told him last night. He's goin' to Fort Warrener, too." And, touching his cap, away went the porter.
"There! He did know all along," said Mrs. Rayner, triumphantly. "It is most extraordinary!"
"Well, is it the proper thing for people in the army to introduce themselves when travelling? How are they to know it will be agreeable?"
"Agreeable! Why, Nellie, it's always done,—especially when ladies are travelling without escort, as we are. The commonest civility should prompt it; and officers always send their cards by the porter the moment they find army ladies are on the train. I don't understand this one at all,—especially—" But here she broke off abruptly.
"Especially what?" asked Miss Nell, with an inspiration of maidenly curiosity.
"Especially nothing. Never mind now." And here the baby began to fidget, and stir about, and stretch forth his chubby hands, and thrust his knuckles in his eyes, and pucker up his face in alarming contortions preparatory to a wail, and, after one or two soothing and tentative sounds of "sh—sh—sh—sh" from the maternal lips, the matron abandoned the attempt to induce a second nap, and picked him up in her arms, where he presently began to take gracious notice of his pretty aunt and the kitten.
Two hours later, just as the porter had notified them that Warrener Station would be in sight in five minutes, the young man of the opposite section returned to the car. He looked tired, very anxious, and his face was paler and the sad expression more pronounced than before. The train-conductor stopped him to speak of some telegrams that had been sent, and both ladies noted the respect which the railway official threw into the tone in which he spoke. The card-players stopped their game and went up to ask after the frozen men. It was not until the whistle was sounding for the station that he stood before them and with a grave and courteous bow held forth Mrs. Rayner's silver flask.
"It was a blessing to one poor fellow at least, and I thank you for him, madame," he said.
"I have been so anxious. I wanted to do something. Did you not get my message, Mr.——?" she asked, with intentional pause that he might supply the missing name.
"Indeed there was nothing we could ask of you," he answered, totally ignoring the evident invitation. "I am greatly obliged to you for your kindness, but we had abundant help, and you really could not have reached the car in the face of this gale. Good-morning, madame." And with that he raised his fur travelling-cap and quickly turned to his section and busied himself strapping up his various belongings.
"The man must be a woman-hater," she whispered to Miss Travers, "He's going to get out here, too. Who can he be?"
There was still a moment before the train would stop at the platform, and she was not to be beaten so easily. Bending partly across the aisle, she spoke again:
"You have been so kind to those poor fellows that I feel sure you must be of the army. I think I told you I am Mrs. Rayner, of Fort Warrener. May we not hope to see you there?"
A deep flush rose to his forehead, suffusing his cheeks, and passed as quickly away. His mouth twitched and trembled. Gazing at him in surprise and trouble, Nellie Travers saw that his face was full of pain and was turning white again. He half choked before he could reply: he spoke low, and yet distinctly, and the words were full of sadness:
"It—it is not probable that we shall meet at all."
And with that he turned away.
Even in the excitement attendant upon their reception at the station neither Mrs. Rayner nor her sister could entirely recover from the surprise and pain which the stranger's singular words had caused. So far from feeling in the least rebuffed, Mrs. Rayner well understood from his manner that not the faintest discourtesy was intended. There was not a symptom of rudeness, not a vestige of irritation or haste, in his tone. Deep embarrassment, inexpressible sadness even, she read in the brief glimpse she had of his paling face. It was all a mystery to her and to the girl seated in silence by her side. Both followed him with their eyes as he hurried away to the rear of the car, and then, with joyous shouts, three or four burly, fur-enveloped men came bursting in the front door, and the two ladies, the baby, and the kitten were pounced upon and surrounded by a group that grew larger every minute. Released finally from the welcoming embrace of her stalwart husband, Mrs. Rayner found time to present the other and younger officers to her sister. As many as half a dozen had followed the captain in his wild rush upon the car, and, while he and his baby boy were resuming acquaintanceship after a separation of many long months, Miss Travers found herself the centre of a circle of young officers who had braved the wintry blizzard in their eagerness to do her proper homage. Her cheeks were aflame with excitement and pleasure, her eyes dancing, and despite the fatigue of her long journey she was looking dangerously pretty, as Captain Rayner glanced for a moment from the baby's wondering eyes, took in the picture like an instantaneous photograph, and then looked again into Mrs. Rayner's smiling face.
"You were wise in providing against possibilities as you did, Kate," he said, with a significant nod of the head. "There are as many as a dozen of them,—or at least there will be when the ——th gets back from the field. Stannard is out yet with his battalion."
"Oh, yes: we saw them at a station east of here. They looked frozen to death; and there are ever so many of the soldiers frozen. The baggage-car is full of them. Didn't you know it?"
"Not a word of it. We have been here for three mortal hours waiting at the station, and any telegrams must have been sent right out to the fort. The colonel is there, and he would have all arrangements made. Here, Graham! Foster! Mrs. Rayner says there are a lot of frozen cavalrymen forward in the baggage-car. Run ahead and see what is necessary, will you? I'll be there in a minute, as soon as we've got these ladies off the train."
Two of the young gentlemen who had been hovering around Miss Travers took themselves off without a moment's delay. The others remained to help their senior officer. Out into the whirling eddies of snow, bundling them up in the big, warm capes of their regulation overcoats, the officers half led, half carried their precious charges. The captain bore his son and heir; Lieutenant Ross escorted Mrs. Rayner; two others devoted themselves exclusively to Miss Travers; a fourth picked up the Maltese kitten. Two or three smart, trim-looking infantry soldiers cleared the section of bags and bundles of shawls, and the entire party was soon within the door-way of the waiting-room, where a red-hot coal-stove glowed fierce welcome. Here the ladies were left for a moment, while all the officers again bustled out into the storm and fought their way against the northwest gale until they reached the little crowd gathered about the door-way of the freight-sheds. A stout, short, burly man in beaver overcoat and cap pushed through the knot of half-numbed spectators and approached their leader:
"We have only two ambulances, captain,—that is all there was at the post when the despatch came,—and there are a dozen of these men, besides Dr. Grimes, all more or less crippled, and Grimes has both hands frozen. We must get them out at once. Can we take your wagon?"
"Certainly, doctor. Take anything we have. If the storm holds, tell the driver not to try to come back for us. We can make the ladies comfortable here at the hotel for the night. Some of the officers have to get back for duties this evening. The rest will have to stay. How did they happen to get caught in such a freeze?"
"They couldn't help it. Stannard had chased the Cheyennes across the range, and was ordered to get back to the railway. It was twenty below when they started, and they made three days' chase in that weather; but no one seemed to care so long as they were on the trail. Then came the change of wind, and a driving snow-storm, in which they lost the trail as a matter of course; and then this blizzard struck them on the back-track. Grimes is so exhausted that he could barely hold out until he got here. He says he never could have brought them through from Bluff Siding but for Mr. Hayne: he did everything."
"Mr. Hayne! Was he with them?"
"He was on the train, and came in at once to offer his services. Grimes says he was invaluable."
"But Mr. Hayne was East on leave: I know he was. He was promoted to my company last month,—confound the luck!—and was to have six months' leave before joining. I wish it was six years. Where is he now?" And the captain peered excitedly around from under his shaggy cap. Oddly, too, his face was paling.
"He left as soon as I took charge. I don't know where he's gone; but it's God's mercy he was with these poor fellows. His skill and care have done everything for them. Where did he get his knowledge?"
"I've no idea," said Captain Rayner, gruffly, and in evident ill humor. "He is the last man I expected to see this day or for days to come. Is there anything else I can do, doctor?"
"Nothing, thank you, captain." And the little surgeon hastened back to his charges, followed by some of the younger officers, eager to be of assistance in caring for their disabled comrades. Rayner himself hesitated a moment, then turned about and trudged heavily back along the wind-swept platform. The train had pulled away, and was out of sight in the whirl of snow over the Western prairies. He went to his own substantial wagon, and shouted to the driver, who sat muffled in buffalo fur on the box,—
"Get around there to the freight-house and report to the doctor. There are a lot of frozen cavalrymen to be taken out to the hospital. Don't try to come back for us to-night: we'll stay here in town. Send the quartermaster's team in for the trunks as soon as the storm is over and the road clear. That's all."
Then he rejoined the party at the waiting-room of the station, and Mrs. Rayner noted instantly that all the cheeriness had gone and that a cloud had settled on his face. She was a shrewd observer, and she knew him well. Something more serious than a mishap to a squad of soldiers had brought about the sudden change. He was all gladness, all rejoicing and delight, when he clasped her and his baby boy in his arms but ten minutes before, and now—something had occurred to bring him serious discomfort. She rested her hand on his arm and looked questioningly in his face. He avoided her glance, and quickly began to talk. She saw that he desired to answer no questions just then, and wisely refrained.
Meantime, Miss Travers was chatting blithely with two young gallants who had returned to her side, and who had thrown off their heavy furs and now stood revealed in their becoming undress uniforms. Mr. Ross had gone to look over the rooms which the host of the railway hotel had offered for the use of the party; the baby was yielding to the inevitable and gradually condescending to notice the efforts of Mr. Foster to scrape acquaintance; the kitten, with dainty step, and ears and tail erect, was making a leisurely inspection of the premises, sniffing about the few benches and chairs with which the bare room was burdened, and reconnoitring the door leading to the hall-way with evident desire to extend her researches in that direction. Presently that very door opened, and in came two or three bundles of fur in masculine shape, and with them two shaggy deer-hounds, who darted straight at the kitten. There was a sudden flurry and scatter, a fury of spits and scratching, a yelp of pain from one brute with lacerated nose, a sudden recoil of both hounds, and then a fiery rush through the open door-way in pursuit of puss. After the first gallant instinct of battle her nerve had given out, and she had sought safety in flight.
"Oh, don't let them hurt her!" cried Miss Travers, as she darted into the hall and gazed despairingly up the stairway to the second story, whither the dogs had vanished like a flash. Two of the young officers sped to the rescue and turned the wrong way. Mrs. Rayner and the captain followed her into the hall. A rush of canine feet and an excited chorus of barks and yelps were heard aloft; then a stern voice ordering, "Down, you brutes!" a sudden howl as though in response to a vigorous kick, and an instant later, bearing the kitten, ruffled, terrified, and wildly excited, yet unharmed, there came springing lightly down the steps the young man in civilian dress who was their fellow-traveller on the Pullman. Without a word he gave his prize into the dainty hands outstretched to receive it, and, never stopping an instant, never listening to the eager words of thanks from her pretty lips, he darted back as quickly as he came, leaving Miss Travers suddenly stricken dumb.
Captain Rayner turned sharply on his heel and stepped back into the waiting-room. Mr. Ross nudged a brother lieutenant and whispered, "By gad! that's awkward for Midas!" The two subalterns who had taken the wrong turn at the top of the stairs reappeared there just as the rescuer shot past them on his way back, and stood staring, first after his disappearing form, and then at each other. Miss Travers, with wonder and relief curiously mingled in her sweet face, clung to her restored kitten and gazed vacantly up the stairs.
Mrs. Rayner looked confusedly from one to the other, quickly noting the constraint in the manner of every officer present and the sudden disappearance of her husband. There was an odd silence for a moment: then she spoke:
"Mr. Ross, do you know that gentleman?"
"I know who he is. Yes."
"Who is he, then?"
"He is your husband's new first lieutenant, Mrs. Rayner. That is Mr. Hayne."
"That!—Mr. Hayne?" she exclaimed, growing suddenly pale.
"Certainly, madame. Had you never seen him before?"
"Never; and I expected—I didn't expect to see such a—" And she broke short off, confused and plainly distressed, turned abruptly, and left the hall as had her husband.
The officers of Fort Warrener were assembled, as was the daily morning custom, in the presence of the colonel commanding. It had long been the practice of that veteran soldier to require all his commissioned subordinates to put in an appearance at his office immediately after the ceremony of guard-mounting. He might have nothing to say to them, or he might have a good deal; and he was a man capable of saying a good deal in very few words, and meaning exactly what he said. It was his custom to look up from his writing as each officer entered and respond to the respectful salutation tendered him with an equally punctilious "Good-morning, Captain Gregg," or "Good-morning, Mr. Blake,"—never omitting the mention of the name, unless, as was sometimes tried, a squad of them came in together and made their obeisance as a body. In this event the colonel simply looked each man in the face, as though taking mental note of the individual constituents of the group, and contented himself with a "Good-morning, gentlemen."
When in addition to six troops of his own regiment of cavalry there were sent to the post a major and four companies of infantry, some of the junior officers of the latter organization had suggested to their comrades of the yellow stripes that as the colonel had no roll-call it might be a matter of no great risk to "cut the matinee" on some of the fiendishly cold mornings that soon set in; but the experiment was never designedly tried, thanks, possibly, to the frank exposition of his personal views as expressed by Lieutenant Blake, of the cavalry, who said, "Try it if you are stagnating for want of a sensation, my genial plodder, but not if you value the advice of one who has been there, so to speak. The chief will spot you quicker than he can a missing shoe,—a missing horseshoe, Johnny, let me elaborate for your comprehension,—and the next question will be, 'Mr. Bluestrap, did you intentionally absent yourself?' and then how will you get out of it?"
The matinees, so called, were by no means unpopular features of the daily routine. The officers were permitted to bring their pipes or cigars and take their after-breakfast smoke in the big, roomy office of the commander, just as they were permitted to enjoy the post-prandial whiff when at evening recitation in the same office they sat around the room, chatting in low tones, for half an hour, while the colonel received the reports of his adjutant, the surgeon, and the old and the new officer of the day. Then any matters affecting the discipline or instruction or general interests of the command were brought up; both sides of the question were presented, if question arose; the decision was rendered then and there, and the officers were dismissed for the day with the customary "That's all, gentlemen." They left the office well knowing that only in the event of some sudden emergency would they be called thither again or disturbed in their daily vocations until the same hour on the following morning. Meantime, they must be about their work: drills, if weather permitted; stable-duty, no matter what the weather; garrison courts, boards of survey, the big general court that was perennially dispensing justice at the post, and the long list of minor but none the less exacting demands on the time and attention of the subalterns and company commanders. The colonel was a strict, even severe, disciplinarian, but he was cool, deliberate, and just. He "worked" his officers, and thereby incurred the criticism of a few, but held the respect of all. He had been a splendid cavalry-commander in the field of all others where his sterling qualities were sure to find responsive appreciation in his officers and men,—on active and stirring campaigns against the Indians,—and among his own regiment he knew that deep in their hearts the ——th respected and believed in him, even when they growled at garrison exactions which seemed uncalled for. The infantry officers knew less of him as a sterling campaigner, and were not so well pleased with his discipline. It was all right for him to "rout out" every mother's son in the cavalry at reveille, because all the cavalry officers had to go to stables soon afterwards,—that was all they were fit for,—but what on earth was the use of getting them—the infantry—out of their warm beds before sunrise on a wintry morning and having no end of roll-calls and such things through the day, "just to keep them busy"? The real objection—the main objection—to the colonel's system was that it kept a large number of officers, most of whom were educated gentlemen, hammering all day long at an endless routine of trivial duties, allowing actually no time in which they could read, study, or improve their minds; but, as ill luck would have it, the three young gentlemen who decided to present to the colonel this view of the case had been devoting what spare time they could find to a lively game of poker down at "the store," and their petition for "more time to themselves" brought down a reply from the oracular lips of the commander that became immortal on the frontier and made the petitioners nearly frantic. For a week the trio was the butt of all the wits at Fort Warrener. And yet the entire commissioned force felt that they were being kept at the grindstone because of the frivolity of these few youngsters, and they did not like it. All the same the cavalrymen stuck up for their colonel, and the infantrymen respected him, and the matinees were business-like and profitable. They were rarely unpleasant in any feature; but this particular morning—two days after the arrival of Mrs. Rayner and her sister—there had been a scene of somewhat dramatic interest, and the groups of officers in breaking up and going away could discuss nothing else. The colonel had requested one of their number to remain, as he wished to speak to him further; and that man was Lieutenant Hayne.
Seven years had that young gentleman been a second lieutenant of the regiment of infantry a detachment of which was now stationed at Warrener. Only this very winter had promotion come to him; and, of all companies in the regiment, he was gazetted to the first-lieutenancy of Captain Rayner's. For a while the regiment when by itself could talk of little else. Mr. Hayne had spent three or four years in the exile of a little "two-company post" far up in the mountains. Except the officers there stationed, none of his comrades had seen him during that time. No one of them would like to admit that he would care to see him. And yet, when once in a while they got to talking among themselves about him, and the question was sometimes confidentially asked of comrades who came down on leave from that isolated station, "How is Hayne doing?" or, "What is Hayne doing?" the language in which he was referred to grew by degrees far less truculent and confident than it had been when he first went thither. Officers of other regiments rarely spoke to the "Riflers" of Mr. Hayne. Unlike one or two others of their arm of the service, this particular regiment of foot held the affairs of its officers as regimental property in which outsiders had no concern. If they had disagreements, they were kept to themselves; and even in a case which in its day had attracted wide-spread attention the Riflers had long since learned to shun all talk outside. It was evident to other commands that the Hayne affair was a sore point and one on which they preferred silence. And yet it was getting to be whispered around that the Riflers were by no means so unanimous as they had been in their opinion of this very officer. They were becoming divided among themselves; and what complicated matters was the fact that those who felt their views undergoing a reconstruction were compelled to admit that just in proportion as the case of Mr. Hayne rose in their estimation the reputation of another officer was bound to suffer; and that officer was Captain Rayner.
Between these two men not a word had been exchanged for five years,—not a single word since the day when, with ashen face and broken accents, but with stern purpose in every syllable, Lieutenant Hayne, standing in the presence of nearly all the officers of his regiment, had hurled this prophecy in his adversary's teeth: "Though it take me years, I will live it down despite you; and you will wish to God you had bitten out your perjured tongue before ever you told the lie that wrecked me."
No wonder there was talk, and lots of it, in the "Riflers" and all through the garrison when Rayner's first lieutenant suddenly threw up his commission and retired to the mines he had located in Montana, and Hayne, the "senior second," was promoted to the vacancy. Speculation as to what would be the result was given a temporary rest by the news that War Department orders had granted the subaltern six months' leave,—the first he had sought in as many years. It was known that he had gone East; but hardly had he been away a fortnight when there came the trouble with the Cheyennes at the reservation,—a leap for liberty by some fifty of the band, and an immediate rush of the cavalry in pursuit. There were some bloody atrocities, as there always are. All the troops in the department were ordered to be in readiness for instant service, while the officials eagerly watched the reports to see which way the desperate band would turn; and the next heard of Mr. Hayne was the news that he had thrown up his leave and had hurried out to join his company the moment the Eastern papers told of the trouble. It was all practically settled by the time he reached the department; but the spirit and intent of his action could not be doubted. And now here he was at Warrener. That very morning during the matinee he had entered the office unannounced, walked up to the desk of the commander, and, while every voice but his in the room was stilled, he quietly spoke:
"Permit me to introduce myself, colonel,—Mr. Hayne. I desire to relinquish my leave of absence and report for duty."
The colonel quickly arose and extended his hand:
"Mr. Hayne, I am especially glad to see you and to thank you here for all your care and kindness to our men. The doctor tells me that many of them would have had to suffer the loss of noses and ears, even of hands and feet in some cases, but for your attention. Major Stannard will add his thanks to mine when he returns. Take a seat, sir, for the present. You are acquainted with the officers of your own regiment, doubtless. Mr. Billings, introduce Mr. Hayne to ours."
Whereat the adjutant courteously greeted the new-comer, presented a small party of yellow-strapped shoulders, and then drew him into earnest talk about the adventure of the train. It was noticed that Mr. Hayne neither by word nor glance gave the slightest recognition of the presence of the officers of his own regiment, and that they as studiously avoided him. One or two of their number had, indeed, risen and stepped forward, as though to offer him the civil greeting due to one of their own cloth; but it was with evident doubt of the result. They reddened when he met their tentative—which was that of a gentleman—with a cold look of utter repudiation. He did not choose to see them, and, of course, that ended it.
Nor was his greeting hearty among the cavalrymen. There were only a few present, as most of the ——th were still out in the field and marching slowly homeward. The introductions were courteous and formal, there was even constraint among some two or three, but there was civility and an evident desire to refer to his services in behalf of their men. All such attempts, however, Mr. Hayne waved aside by an immediate change of the subject. It was plain that to them too, he had the manner of a man who was at odds with the world and desired to make no friends.
The colonel quickly noted the general silence and constraint, and resolved to shorten it as much as possible. Dropping his pen, he wheeled around in his chair with determined cheerfulness:
"Mr. Hayne, you will need a day or two to look about before you select quarters and get ready for work, I presume."
"Thank you, colonel. No, sir. I shall move in this afternoon and be on duty to-morrow morning," was the calm reply.
There was an awkward pause for a moment. The officers looked blankly from one to another, and then began craning their necks to search for the post quartermaster, who sat an absorbed listener. Then the colonel spoke again:
"I appreciate your promptness, Mr. Hayne; but have you considered that in choosing quarters according to your rank you will necessarily move somebody out? We are crowded now, and many of your juniors are married, and the ladies will want time to pack."
An anxious silence again. Captain Rayner was gazing at his boot-toes and trying to appear utterly indifferent; others leaned forward, as though eager to hear the answer. A faint smile crossed Mr. Hayne's features: he seemed rather to enjoy the situation:
"I have considered, colonel. I shall turn nobody out, and nobody need be incommoded in the least."
"Oh! then you will share quarters with some of the bachelors?" asked the colonel, with evident relief.
"No, sir;" and the answer was stern in tone, though perfectly respectful: "I shall live as I have lived for years,—utterly alone."
One could have heard a pin drop in the office,—even on the matted floor. The colonel half rose:
"Why, Mr. Hayne, there is not a vacant set of quarters in the garrison. You will have to move some one out if you decide to live alone."
"There may be no quarters in the post, sir, but, if you will permit me, I can live near my company and yet in officers' quarters."
"How so, sir?"
"In the house out there on the edge of the garrison, facing the prairie. It is within stone's-throw of the barracks of Company B, and is exactly like those built for the officers in here along the parade."
"Why, Mr. Hayne, no officers ever lived there. It is utterly out of the way and isolated. I believe it was built for the sutler years ago, but was bought in by the government afterwards.—Who lives there now, Mr. Quartermaster?"
"No one, sir. It is being used as a tailors' shop; half a dozen of the company tailors work there; but I can send them back to their own barracks. The house is in good repair, and, as Mr. Hayne says, exactly like those built for officers' use."
"And you mean you want to live there, alone, Mr. Hayne?"
"I do, sir,—exactly."
The colonel turned sharply to his desk once more. The strained silence continued a moment. Then he faced his officers:
"Mr. Hayne, will you remain a few moments? I wish to speak with you.—Gentlemen, that is all this morning." And so the meeting adjourned.
While many of the cavalry officers strolled into the neighboring club-and reading-room, it was noticed that their comrades of the infantry lost no time at intermediate points, but took the shortest road to the row of brown cottages known as the officers' quarters. The feeling of constraint that had settled upon all was still apparent in the group that entered the club-room, and for a moment no one spoke. There was a general settling into easy-chairs and picking up of newspapers without reference to age or date. No one seemed to want to say anything, and yet every one felt it necessary to have some apparent excuse for becoming absorbed in other matters. This was so evident to Lieutenant Blake that he speedily burst into a laugh,—the first that had been heard,—and when two or three heads popped out from behind their printed screens to inquire into the cause of his mirth, that light-hearted gentleman was seen sprawling his long legs apart and gazing out of the window after the groups of infantrymen.
"What do you see that's so intensely funny?" growled one of the elders among the dragoons.
"Nothing, old mole,—nothing," said Blake, turning suddenly about. "It looks too much like a funeral procession for fun. What I'm chuckling at is the absurdity of our coming in here like so many mutes in weepers. It's none of our funeral."
"Strikes me the situation is damned awkward," growled "the mole" again. "Here's a fellow comes in who's cut by his regiment and has placed ours under lasting obligation before he gets inside the post."
"Well, does any man here know the rights and wrongs of the case, anyhow?" said a tall, bearded captain as he threw aside the paper which he had not been reading, and rose impatiently to his feet. "It seems to me, from the little I've heard of Mr. Hayne and the little I've seen, that there is a broad variation between facts and appearances. He looks like a gentleman."
"No one does know anything more of the matter than was known at the time of the court-martial five years ago," answered "the mole." "Of course you have heard all about that; and my experience is that when a body of officers and gentlemen find, after due deliberation on the evidence, that another has been guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, the chances are a hundred to one he has been doing something disreputable, to say the least."
"Then why wasn't he dismissed?" queried a young lieutenant. "The law says he must be."
"That's right, Dolly: pull your Ives and Benet on 'em, and show you know all about military law and courts-martial," said the captain, crushingly. "It's one thing for a court to sentence, and another for the President to approve. Hayne was dismissed, so far as a court could do it, but the President remitted the whole thing."
"There was more to it than that, though, and you know it, Buxton," said Blake. "Neither the department commander nor General Sherman thought the evidence conclusive, and they said so,—especially old Gray Fox. And you ask any of these fellows here now whether they believe Hayne was really guilty, and I'll bet you that eight out of ten will flunk at the question."
"And yet they all cut him dead. That's prima facie evidence of what they think."
"Cut be blowed! By gad, if any man asked me to testify on oath as to where the cut lay, I should say he had cut them. Did you see how he ignored Foster and Graham this morning?"
"I did; and I thought it damned ungentlemanly in him. Those fellows did the proper thing, and he ought to have acknowledged it," broke in a third officer.
"I'm not defending that point; the Lord knows he has done nothing to encourage civility with his own people; but there are two sides to every story, and I asked their adjutant last fall, when there was some talk of his company's being sent here, what Hayne's status was, and he told me. There isn't a squarer man or sounder soldier in the army than the adjutant of the Riflers; and he said that it was Hayne's stubborn pride that more than anything else stood in the way of his restoration to social standing. He had made it a rule that every one who was not for him was against him, and refused to admit any man to his society who would not first come to him of his own volition and say he believed him utterly innocent. As that involved the necessity of their looking upon Rayner as either perjured or grossly and persistently mistaken, no one felt called upon to do it. Guilty or innocent, he has lived the life of a Pariah ever since."