Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Molly McDonald - A Tale of the Old Frontier
Author: Parrish, Randall, 1858-1923
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Molly McDonald - A Tale of the Old Frontier" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Frontispiece: His fingers gripped the iron top rail, and he slowly
pulled his body up.]



Molly McDonald

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



COPYRIGHT

A. C. McCLURG & CO.

1912



Published April, 1912


Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

       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



ILLUSTRATIONS


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



MOLLY McDONALD


CHAPTER I

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 Fé 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 Fé 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 Fé 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?"

McDonald groaned.

"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."

"Under guard?"

"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.



CHAPTER II

"BRICK" HAMLIN

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?"

"Seventh Cavalry."

"Oh, yes, just organized; before that?"

"The Third."

"I see you are a non-com--corporal?"

"Sergeant, sir, since my transfer."

"Second enlistment?"

"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?"

"Hamlin, sir."

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 Fé.  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 Fé 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 débris of the stage
station.



CHAPTER III

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 Fé.  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 Fé 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 Fé; 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?"

"Colonel Carver."

"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.



CHAPTER IV

THE ATTACK

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 Fé 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 Cañon 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 Fé, 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 Fé 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."

"What tribe?"

"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, señor!" 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, señor," 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.



CHAPTER V

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."

"Señor, 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."

"'Brick' Hamlin?"

"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 Fé, 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 Cañon 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.



CHAPTER VI

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.



CHAPTER VII

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?"

"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.



CHAPTER VIII

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.

"That will hold them for a while," he said cheerfully.  "Two less out
there, I reckon, and the others won't get careless again right away.
Now is our time; are you ready?"

There was no response, the stillness so profound he could hear the
faint ticking of the girl's watch.  He reached out, almost alarmed, and
touched her dress.

"What is the trouble?" he questioned anxiously.  "Didn't you hear me
speak?"

He waited breathless, but there was no movement, no sound, and his
hand, trembling, in spite of his iron nerve, groped its way upward.
She was lying back against the opposite window, her head bent sideways.

"My God," he thought, "did those devils get her?"

He lifted her slight figure up on one arm, all else blotted out, all
other memory vanished through this instant dread.  His cheek stung
where flying splinters had struck him, but that was nothing.  She was
warm, her flesh was warm; then his searching fingers felt the moist
blood trickling down from the edge of her hair.  He let out his breath
slowly, the sudden relief almost choking him.  It was bad enough
surely, but not what he had first feared, not death.  She had been
struck hard--a flying splinter of wood, perhaps, or a deflected
bullet--her hair matted with blood, yet it was no more than a flesh
wound, although leaving her unconscious.  If he hesitated it was but
for an instant.  The entire situation recurred to him in a flash; he
must change his plans, but dare waste no time.  If they were to escape
it must be accomplished now, shadowed by darkness, while those savage
watchers were safely beyond sound.  His lean jaws set with fierce
determination, and he grimly hitched his belt forward, one sinewy hand
fingering the revolver.  He would have to trust to that weapon entirely
for defense; he could not carry both the rifle and the girl.

Moving slowly, cautiously, fearful lest some creaking of the old stage
might betray his motions to those keen ears below, he backed through
the open door.  Once feeling the ground firm beneath his feet, and
making sure that both canteen and haversack were secure, he reached
back into the darkness, grasping the form of the unconscious girl.  He
stood erect with her held securely in his arms, strands of hair blowing
against his cheek, listening intently, striving with keen eyes to
penetrate the black curtain.  The wind was fortunate, blowing steadily
across the flat from the river, and they were surely invisible against
the background of the overhanging bluff.  He did not even feel it
necessary to crouch low to avoid discovery.  He knew that peril would
confront them later, when they ventured out into the open.  How light
she seemed, as though he clasped a child.  Bearing her was going to be
easier than he had supposed; the excitement yielded him a new measure
of strength, yet he went forward very slowly, feeling along, inch by
inch, planting his feet with exceeding care.  The earth was hard-packed
and would leave little trail; there were no leaves, no dead grass to
rustle.  Beyond the protection afforded by the stage he felt the full
sweep of the wind and permitted her head to rest lower on one arm so
that he could look about more clearly.  She had not even moaned,
although he had felt her breath upon his face.  Once he stumbled
slightly over some fallen earth, and farther along a foot slipped on a
treacherous stone, but the slight noise died unnoticed in the night.
It was farther to the gully than he had supposed; his heart was in his
throat fearing he had missed it, half-believing the depression failed
to extend to the base of the bluff.  Then his foot, exploring blindly,
touched the edge of the bank.  Carefully he laid his burden down,
placing his battered campaign hat beneath her head.  He bent over her
again, assuring himself that she breathed regularly, and then crept
down alone into the shallow ravine.

His nerves were like steel now, his hand steady, his heart beating
without an accelerated throb.  He knew the work, and rejoiced in it.
This was why he was a soldier.  Silently, swiftly, he unbuckled his
belt, refastening it across the straps so as to hold canteen and
haversack noiseless, and then, revolver in hand, began creeping down
under cover of the low banks.  He must explore the path first before
attempting to bear her along in his arms; must be sure the passage was
unguarded.  After it swerved to the right there would be little danger,
but while it ran straight, some cautious savage might have chosen it to
skulk in.  To deal with such he needed to be alone, and free.

He must have crawled thus for thirty yards, hands and knees aching
horribly, his eyes ever peering over the edge of the bank, his ears
tingling to the slightest noise.  The tiny glow of the fire far away to
the left was alone visible in the intense blackness; the wind brought
to him no sound of movement.  The stillness was profound, almost
uncanny; as he paused and listened he could distinguish the throb of
his heart.  He was across the trail at last, for he had felt and traced
the ruts of wheels, and where the banks had been worked down almost to
a level with the prairie.  He crossed this opening like a snake, and
then arose to his knees beyond, where the gully deepened.  He remained
poised, motionless, scarcely daring to breathe.  Surely that was
something else--that shapeless blotch of shadow, barely topping the
line of bank!  Was it ten feet away?  Or five?  He could not tell.  He
stared; there was no movement, and yet his eyes began to discern dimly
the outlines--the head and shoulders of a man!  The Sergeant crept
forward--an inch, two inches, a foot.  The figure did not stir.  Now he
was sure the fellow's head was lying flat on the turf, oddly distorted
by a feathered war bonnet.  The strange posture, the utter lack of
movement, seemed proof that the tired warrior had fallen asleep on
watch.  Like a cat Hamlin crept up slowly toward him, poised for a
spring.

Some sense of the wild must have stirred the savage into
semi-consciousness.  Suddenly he sat up, gripping the gun in his hands.
Yet even as his opening eyes saw dimly the Sergeant's menacing shadow,
before he could scream his alarm, or spring upright, the revolver butt
struck with dull thud, and he went tumbling backward into the ditch,
his cry of alarm ending in a hoarse croak.  From somewhere, out of the
dense darkness in front a voice called, sharp and guttural, as if its
owner had been startled by the mysterious sound of the blow.  It was
the language of the Arapahoes, and out of his vague memory of the
tongue, spurred to recollection by the swift emergency, Hamlin growled
a hoarse answer, hanging breathlessly above the motionless body until
the "ugh!" of the fellow's response proved him without suspicion.  He
waited, counting the seconds, every muscle strained with expectancy,
listening.  He had a feeling that some one was crawling over the short
grass, wiggling along like a snake, but the faint sound, if sound it
was, grew less distinct.  Finally he lifted his head above the edge of
the bank, but saw nothing, not even a dim shadow.

"They are closing in, I reckon," he thought soberly, "and it is n't
likely there will be any more of these gentry as far back as this;
looks as though this gully turned west just beyond.  Anyhow I 've got
to risk it."

He returned more rapidly, knowing the passage, yet with no less
caution, finding the unconscious girl lying exactly as he had left her.
As he clasped her form in his arms, her lips uttered some incoherent
words, but otherwise she gave no sign of life.

"Yes, yes," he whispered close to her ear, hoping thus to hold her
silent.  "It is all right now; only keep still."

He could feel her breathing, and realized the danger of her return to
consciousness.  If she should be frightened and cry out, their fate
would be sealed.  Yet he must accept the chance, now that he knew the
way to be clear.  He held her tightly in both arms, his revolver thrust
back into its holster.  Bending as low as he could with his burden,
feeling carefully through the darkness before advancing a foot, he
moved steadily forward.  Where the gully deepened their heads were at
the edge of the bank, but much of the way was exposed, except for the
dark shadows of the slope.  Fortunately there were clouds to the west,
already obscuring that half of the sky, but to the east nothing was
visible against the faint luminousness of the sky-line.  Once, far over
there to the left, a gun was fired, the flame splitting the night
asunder, and against the distant reflection a black figure rose up
between, only to be instantly snuffed out again.  Hamlin put down his
uplifted foot, and waited, in tense, motionless silence, but nothing
happened, except the echo of a far-away voice.

A dozen feet farther, some four-footed animal suddenly leaped to the
edge of the bank, sniffed, and disappeared noiselessly.  So taut were
his nerves strung that the Sergeant sank upon his knees, releasing one
hand to grip his revolver, before he realized the cause of alarm--some
prowling prairie wolf.  Then, with teeth grimly locked, bending lower
and lower, he crept across the rutted trail, and past the dead body of
the Indian.  Not until then did he dare to breathe naturally or to
stand upright; but now, the gully, bending to the right, led away from
danger, every step gained adding to their safety.  He was confident
now, full of his old audacity, yet awake to every trick of plainscraft.
The girl's head rested against his shoulder, and he bent his cheek to
hers, feeling its warmth.  The touch of his unshaven beard pricked her
into semi-consciousness, and she spoke so loud that it gave him a
thrill of apprehension.  He dared not run in the darkness for fear of
stumbling, yet moved with greater swiftness, until the depression ended
at the river.  Here, under the protection of the bank, Hamlin put down
his burden and stood erect, stretching his strained muscles and staring
back into the dark.

What now?  Which way should they turn?  He had accomplished all he had
planned for himself back there in the coach, but now he became aware of
other problems awaiting solution.  In less than an hour it would be
daylight; he almost imagined it was lighter already over yonder in the
east.  With the first dawn those watchful Indians, creeping cautiously
closer, would discover the stage deserted, and would be on their trail.
And they had left a trail easily followed.  Perhaps the hard, dry
ground might confuse those savage trackers, but they would scour the
open country between bluff and river, and find the dead warrior in the
gully.  That would tell the story.  To go west, along the edge of the
river, wading in the water, would be useless precaution; such a trick
would be suspected at once, and there was no possibility of rescue from
that direction.  They might as well walk open-eyed into a trap.  There
was but one hope, one opportunity--to cross the stream before dawn came
and hide among those shifting sand-dunes of the opposite shore.  Hamlin
thoroughly understood the risk involved, the treacherous nature of the
Arkansas, the possibility that both might be sucked down by engulfing
quicksand, yet even such a lonely death was preferable to Indian
torture.

The girl at his feet stirred and moaned.  In another moment he had
filled his hat with water from the river, had lifted her head upon one
arm, and using the handkerchief from about his throat, was washing away
the blood that matted her hair.  Now that his fingers felt the wound,
he realized the force of the blow stunning her, although its outward
manifestation was slight.  Her figure trembled in his arms and her eyes
opened, gazing up wonderingly at the black outlines of his shadow.
Then she made an effort as though to draw away.

"Lie still a while yet, Miss McDonald," he said soothingly, "until you
regain your strength."

He heard the quick gasp of her breath, and felt the sudden relaxing of
her muscles.

"You!" she exclaimed in undisguised relief at recognition of the voice;
"is it really you?  Where are we?  What has happened?"

He told her rapidly, his face bent close, realizing that she was
clinging to him again as she had once before back in the stage.  As he
ended, she lifted one hand to her wound.

"And I am not really hurt--not seriously?" her voice bewildered.  "I--I
never realized I had been struck.  And--and you carried me all that
way--" she shuddered, looking about into the black silence.  "I--I can
hardly comprehend--yet.  Please explain again; they are back there
watching for us still, believing we are in the coach; they will follow
our trail as soon as it becomes daylight.  Why--why, the sky is
brighter over in the east already, is n't it?  What was it you said we
must do?"

"Get across the river; once hidden in those sand-dunes over there we
'll be safe enough."

"Across the river," she repeated the words dully, sitting up to stare
out toward the water.  Then her head sank into her hands.  "Can we--can
we ever do that?"

Hamlin bent forward on his knees, striving with keen eyes, sharpened by
his night's experience, to learn more of what lay before them.  The
movement, slight as it was, served to frighten her, and she grasped him
by the sleeve.

"Do not leave me; do not go away," she implored swiftly.  "Whatever you
say is best, I will do."



CHAPTER IX

ACROSS THE RIVER

He dropped his hand upon hers, clasping the clinging fingers tightly.

"Yes, we can make it," he answered confidently.  "Wait until I make
sure what is out there."

He had slight recollection of the stream at this point, although he had
crossed it often enough at the known fords, both above and below.  Yet
these crossings had always been accomplished with a horse under him,
and a knowledge of where the trail ran.  But he knew the stream, its
peculiarities and dangers.  It was not the volume of water, nor its
depth he feared, for wide as it appeared stretching from bank to bank,
he realized its shallow sluggishness.  The peril lay in quicksand, or
the plunging into some unseen hole, where the sudden swirl of water
might pull them under.  Alone he would have risked it recklessly, but
with her added weight in his arms, he realized how a single false step
would be fatal.  The farther shore was invisible; he could perceive
nothing but the slight gleam of water lapping the sand at his feet, as
it flowed slowly, noiselessly past, and beyond, the dim outline of a
narrow sand ridge.  Even this, however, was encouragement, proving the
shallowness of the stream.  He turned about, his face so close he could
see her eyes.

"We shall have to try it, Miss McDonald; you must permit me to carry
you."

"Yes."

"And whatever happens do not scream--just cling tight to me."

"Yes," a little catching in her throat.  "Tell me first, please, just
what it is you fear."

"Quicksand principally; it is in all these western rivers, and the two
of us together on one pair of feet will make it harder to pull out of
the suck.  If I tell you to get down, do so quickly."

"Yes."

"Then there may be holes out there in the bottom.  I don't mind those
so much, although these cavalry boots are no help in swimming."

"I can swim."

"Hardly in your clothes; but I am glad to know it, nevertheless.  You
could keep afloat at least, and the holes are never very large.  Are
you ready now?"

She gave him her hands and stood up.  The Sergeant drew in a long
breath and transferred the haversack to her shoulder.

"We 'll try and keep that from getting soaked, if we can," he
explained.  "There is no hotel over in those sand-hills.  Now hold on
tight."

He swung her easily to his broad shoulder, clasping her slender figure
closely with one arm.

"That's it!  Now get a firm grip.  I 'll carry you all right."

To the girl, that passage was never more than a dim memory.  Still
partially dazed from the severe blow on her head, she closed her eyes
as Hamlin stepped cautiously down into the stream and clung to him
desperately, expecting each moment to be flung forward into the water.
But the Sergeant's mind was upon his work, and every detail of the
struggle left its impress on his memory.  He saw the dark sweep of the
water, barely visible in the gleam of those few stars unobscured by
cloud, and felt the sluggish flow against his legs as he moved.  The
bottom was soft, yet his feet did not sink deeply, although it was
rather difficult wading.  However, the clay gave him more confidence
than sand underfoot, and there was less depth of water even than he had
anticipated.  He was wet only to the thighs when he toiled up on to the
low spit of sand, and put the girl down a moment to catch a fresh
breath and examine the broader stretch of water ahead.  They could see
both shores now, that which they had just left, a black, lumping, dim
outline.  Except for the lapping of the water at their feet, all was
deathly still.  Even the Indian fire had died out, and it was hard to
conceive that savages were hidden behind that black veil, and that they
two were actually fleeing for their lives.  To the girl it was like
some dreadful delirium of sleep, but the man felt the full struggle.
There was a star well down in the south he chose to guide by, but
beyond that he must trust to good fortune.  Without a word he lifted
her again to his shoulder, and pushed on.

The water ran deeper, shelving off rapidly, until it rose well above
his waist, and with sufficient current do that he was compelled to lean
against it to maintain balance, scarcely venturing forward a foot at a
time.  Once he stumbled over some obstruction, barely averting a fall;
he felt the swift clutch of her fingers at his throat, the quick
adjustment of her body, but her lips gave no utterance of alarm.  His
groping feet touched the edge of a hole, and he turned, facing the
current, tracing his way carefully until he found a passage on solid
bottom.  A bit of driftwood swirled down out of the night; a
water-soaked limb, striking against him before it was even seen,
bruised one arm, and then dodged past like a wild thing, leaving a
glitter of foam behind.  The sand-dunes grew darker, more distinct, the
water began to grow shallow, the bottom changing from mud to sand.  He
slipped and staggered in the uncertain footing, his breath coming in
quicker gasps, yet with no cessation of effort.  Once he felt the
dreaded suck about his ankles, and broke into a reckless run, splashing
straight forward, falling at the water's edge, yet not before the girl
was resting safely on the soft sand.

Strong as Hamlin was, his muscles trained by strenuous out-door life,
he lay there for a moment utterly helpless, more exhausted from the
nervous strain indeed, than the physical exertion.  He had realized
fully the desperate nature of that passage, expecting every step to be
engulfed, and the reaction, the knowledge that they had actually
attained the shore safely, left him weak as a child, hardly able to
comprehend the fact.  The girl was upon her feet first, alarmed and
solicitous, bending down to touch him with her hand.

"Sergeant, you are not hurt?" she questioned.  "Tell me you are not
hurt?"

"Oh, no," dragging himself up the bank, yet panting as he endeavored to
speak cheerfully.  "Only that was a rather hard pull, the last of it,
and I am short of breath.  I shall be all right in a moment."

There was a sand-dune just beyond, and he seated himself and leaned
against it.

"I am beginning to breathe easier already," he explained.  "Sit down
here, Miss McDonald.  We are safe enough now in this darkness."

"You are all wet, soaking wet."

"That is nothing; the sand is warm yet from yesterday's sun, and my
clothes will dry fast enough.  It is beginning to grow light in the
east."

The faces of both turned in that direction where appeared the first
twilight approach of dawn.  Already were visible the dark lines of the
opposite shore, across the gleam of water, and beyond appeared the dim
outlines of the higher bluffs.  The slope between river and hill,
however, remained in impenetrable darkness.  The minds of both
fugitives reverted to the same scene--the wrecked stage with its dead
passengers within, its savage watchers without.  She lifted her head,
and the soft light reflected on her face.

"I--I thank God we are not over there now," she said falteringly.

"Yes," he admitted.  "They will be creeping in closer; they will not
wait much longer.  Hard as I have worked, I can't realize yet that we
are out of those toils."

"You did not expect to succeed?"

"No; frankly I did not; all I could do was hope--take the one chance
left.  The slightest accident meant betrayal.  I am ashamed of being so
weak just now, but it was the strain.  You see," he explained
carefully, "I 've been scouting through hostile Indian country mostly
day and night for nearly a week, and then this thing happened.  No
matter how iron a man is his nerve goes back on him after a while."

"I know."

"It was n't myself," he went on doggedly, "but it was the knowledge of
having to take care of you.  That was what made me worry; that, and
knowing a single misstep, the slightest noise, would bring those devils
on us, where I could n't fight, where there was just one thing I could
do."

There was silence, her hands pressed to her face, her eyes fixed on
him.  Then she questioned him soberly.

"You mean, kill me?"

"Sure," he answered simply, without looking around; "I would have had
to do it--just as though you were a sister of mine."

Her hands reached out and clasped his, and he glanced aside at her
face, seeing it clearly.

"I--I thought you would," she said, her voice trembling.  "I--I was
going to ask you once before I was hurt, but--but I could n't, and
somehow I trusted you from the first, when you got in."  She hesitated,
and then asked, "How did you know I was Molly McDonald?  You never
asked."

The Sergeant's eyes smiled, turning away from her face to stare out
again across the river.

"Because I had seen your picture."

"My picture?  But you told us you were from Fort Union?"

"Yes; that is my station, only I had been sent to the cantonment on the
Cimarron with despatches.  Your father was in command there, and
worried half to death about you.  He could not leave the post, and the
only officer remaining there with him was a disabled cavalry captain.
Every man he could trust was out on scouting service.  He took a chance
on me.  Maybe he liked my looks, I don't know; more probably, he judged
I would n't be a sergeant and entrusted with those despatches I 'd just
brought in, if I was n't considered trustworthy.  Anyhow I had barely
fallen asleep when the orderly called me, and that was what was
wanted--that I ride north and head you off."

"But you were not obliged to go?"

"No; I was not under your father's orders.  I doubt if I would have
consented if I had n't been shown your picture.  I could n't very well
refuse then."

She sat with hands clasped together, her eyes shadowed by long lashes.

"I should have thought there would have been some soldiers there--his
own men."

"There were," dryly, "but the army just now is recruited out of pretty
tough material.  To be in the ranks is almost a confession of
good-for-nothingness.  You are an officer's daughter and understand
this to be true."

"Yes," she answered doubtfully.  "I have been brought up thinking so;
only, of course, there are exceptions."

"No doubt, and I hope I am already counted one."

"You know you are.  My father trusted you, and so do I."

"I have wondered some times," he said musingly, watching her face
barely visible in the dawn, "whether those of your class actually
considered us as being really human, as anything more valuable than
mere food for powder.  I came into the regular army at the close of the
war from the volunteer service.  I was accustomed to discipline and all
that, and knew my place.  But I never suspected then that a private
soldier was considered a dog.  Yet that was the first lesson I was
compelled to learn.  It has been pretty hard sometimes to hold in, for
there was a time when I had some social standing and could resent an
insult."

She was looking straight at him, surprised at the bitterness in his
voice.

"They carry it altogether too far," she said.  "I have often thought
that--mostly the young officers, the West Pointers--and yet you know
that the majority of enlisted men are--well, dragged from the slums.
My father says it has been impossible to recruit a good class since the
war closed, that the right kind had all the army they wanted."

"Which is true enough, but there are good men nevertheless, and every
commander knows it.  A little considerate treatment would make them
better still."

She shook her head questioningly.

"I do not know," she admitted.  "I suppose there are two viewpoints.
You were in the volunteers, you said.  Why did you enlist in the
regulars?"

"Largely because I liked soldiering, or thought I did.  I knew there
would be plenty of fighting out here, and, I believed, advancement."

"You mean to a commission?"

"Yes.  You see, I did not understand then the impossibility, the great
gulf fixed.  I dreamed that good fortune might give me something to do
worth while."

"And fate has been unkind?"

"In a way, yes," and he laughed rather grimly.  "I had my
chance--twice; honorable mention, and all that, but that ended it.
There is no bridge across the chasm.  An enlisted man is not held fit
for any higher position; if that was not sufficient to bar me, the fact
that I had fought for the South would."

"You were in the Confederate army?  You must have been very young."

"Oh, no; little more than a boy, of course, but so were the majority of
my comrades.  I was in my senior college year when the war broke out.
But, Miss McDonald, this will never do!  See how light it is growing.
There, they have begun firing already.  We must get back out of sight
behind the sand-dunes."



CHAPTER X

THE RIPENING OF ACQUAINTANCE

They needed to retire but a few steps to be entirely concealed, yet so
situated as to command a view across the muddy stream.  The sun had not
risen above the horizon, but the gray dawn gave misty revealment of the
sluggish-flowing river, the brown slope opposite, and the darker shadow
of bluffs beyond.  The popping of those distant guns had ceased by the
time they attained their new position, and they could distinguish the
Indians--mere black dots against the brown slope--advancing in a
semicircle toward the silent stage.  Evidently they were puzzled,
fearful of some trickery, for occasionally a gun would crack viciously,
the brown smoke plainly visible, the advancing savages halting to
observe the effect.  Then a bright colored blanket was waved aloft as
though in signal, and the entire body, converging toward the deserted
coach, leaped forward with a wild yell, which echoed faintly across the
water.

The girl hid her face in the sand, with a half-stifled sob, but the
Sergeant watched grimly, his eyes barely above the ridge.  What would
they do when they discovered the dead bodies?--when they realized that
others had eluded their vigilance during the night?  Would they be able
to trace them, or would his ruse succeed?  Of course their savage
cunning would track them as far as the river--there was no way in which
he could have successfully concealed the trail made down the gully, or
the marks left on the sandy bank.  But would they imagine he had dared
to cross the broad stream, burdened with the girl, confronting almost
certain death in the quicksand?  Would they not believe rather that he
had waded along the water's edge headed west, hoping thus to escape to
the bluffs, where some hiding-place might be found?  Even if they
suspected a crossing, would any warriors among them be reckless enough
to follow?  Would they not be more apt to believe that both fugitives
had been sucked down into the treacherous stream?  Almost breathless
Hamlin watched, these thoughts coursing through his mind, realizing the
deadly trap in which they were caught, if the Indians suspected the
truth and essayed the passage.  Behind them was sand, ridge after
ridge, as far as the eye could discern, and every step they took in
flight would leave its plain trail.  And now the test was at hand.

He saw them crowd about the coach, leaping and yelling with fury;
watched them jerk open the door, and drag forth the two dead bodies,
dancing about them, like so many demons, brandishing their guns.  A
moment they were bunched thus, their wild yelling shrill with triumph;
then some among them broke away, bending low as they circled in against
the bluff.  They knew already that there had been others in the stage,
others who had escaped.  They were seeking the trail.  Suddenly one
straightened up gesticulating, and the others rushed toward him--they
had found the "sign"!  They were silent now, those main trailers, two
of them on hands and knees.  Only back where the bodies lay some
remained yelling and dancing furiously.  Then they also, in response to
a shout and the wave of a blanketed arm, scattered, running west toward
the gully.  There was no hesitancy now; some savage instinct seemed to
tell them where the fugitives had gone.  They dragged the dead warrior
from the ditch, screaming savagely at the discovery.  A dozen scrambled
for the river bank, others ran for the pony herd, while one or two
remained beside the dead warrior.  Even at that distance Hamlin could
distinguish Roman Nose, and tell what were his orders by every gesture
of his arm.  The Sergeant grasped the girl's hand, his own eyes barely
above the sand ridge, his lips whispering back.

"No, don't move; I'll tell you everything.  The stage has been gutted
and set on fire.  Now they are coming with the ponies.  Most of them
are directly opposite studying the marks we left on the sand of the
bank.  Yes, they look across here, but the chief is sure we have gone
the other way; he is waving his hand up the river now, and talking.
Now he is getting on his horse; there are ten or twelve of them.  One
fellow is pointing across here, but no one agrees with him.  Now Roman
Nose is giving orders.  Hear that yell!  They 're off now, riding up
stream, lashing their ponies into a run.  All of them?  No; quite a
bunch are going back to the coach.  I don't believe they are going to
hang around here long though, for they are driving in all their ponies."

[Illustration: "No, don't move!  The stage has been gutted and set on
fire."]

"But won't those others come back when they discover we have not gone
up the river?"

"I wish I could answer that," he replied earnestly.  "But it all
depends on what those devils know of the whereabouts of troops.  They
are Northern Indians, and must have broken through the scouting details
sent out from Wallace and Dodge.  Some of the boys are bound to be
after them, and there is more chance for them to get back safely along
the mountains than in the other direction.  I don't suppose an Indian
in the bunch was ever south of the Arkansas.  Wait!  Those fellows are
going to move now; going for good, too--they are taking the dead
Indians with them."

They were little more than black dots at that distance, yet the sun was
up by this time and his keen vision could distinguish every movement.

"Creep up here, and you can see also," he said quietly.  "They are far
enough away now so that it is safe."

There was a moment of breathless quiet, the two fugitives peering
cautiously over the sand ridge.  To the girl it was a confusion of
figures rushing back and forth about the smoking ruins of the stage;
occasionally a faint yell echoed across the river, and she could
distinguish a savage on his pony gesticulating as he rode back and
forth.  But the Sergeant comprehended the scene.  His eyes met hers and
read her bewilderment.

"They are going all right, and in a hurry.  It's plain enough they are
afraid to stay there any longer.  See, they are lashing bodies on to
the ponies.  Ah, that is what I wanted to be sure about--that fellow is
heading west on the trail; now the others are moving."

"Then you are sure Roman Nose will not return?  That--that we are safe?"

"Yes; I would n't hesitate to go back as soon as the last of them
disappear over the ridge," pointing up the river.  "They knew they had
to go that way; Roman Nose and his band hoped we 'd taken that
direction, and hurried on ahead to catch us if he could.  They are
afraid to stay about here any longer.  Look how they are lashing those
ponies; there, the last of them are leaving."

They lay there in the sand, already becoming warm, under the rays of
the sun, trying to assure themselves that all danger of discovery had
vanished.  There was no movement on the opposite shore, only the blue
spiral of smoke curling up against the bluff, marking where the stage
had stood.  About this, outlined upon the brown grass, appeared darker
patches representing dead ponies and the bodies of Moylan and Gonzales
where they had been tumbled, scalped and otherwise mutilated.  Down by
the river a wounded pony tried to follow the disappearing cavalcade,
but fell, giving vent to one scream of agony.  Then all was silent,
motionless, the last straggler clubbing his horse pitilessly as he
vanished over the ridge.

Hamlin sat up, his eyes smiling.

"We are the lucky ones, Miss McDonald," he said, his manner
unconsciously more formal now that the danger had passed and a swift
realization of who his companion was recurring to his mind.  "Something
must have frightened them."  He shaded his eyes, staring at the bluffs
opposite, "But there is nothing in sight from here.  Well, the best
thing we can do is to eat breakfast.  May I have the haversack, and see
what it is stocked with?"

"Certainly not.  There is so little I can do, I do not propose yielding
any prerogative."  And she drew her head through the strap, letting the
leather bag fall to the sand.  "I am afraid there is no cloth here.
Would you dare light a fire?"

"Hardly, even if we had fuel," he answered, watching her with interest.
She glanced up into his face, her cheeks reddening.

"Why don't you want me to do this?"

"How do you know I object?  Indeed, it is quite pleasant to be waited
upon.  Only, you see, it is very unusual for an officer's daughter to
take such good care of an enlisted man."

"But I am not thinking of that at all.  You--this is different."

"For the moment, perhaps," just a slight bitterness in his tone, "and I
should enjoy it while I can."

She stopped in her work, sitting straight before him.  Her eyes were
indignant, yet she stifled the first words that leaped to her lips.
His soft hat lay on the sand and the sun revealed his tanned face,
bringing out its strength.

"You--should n't say that," she faltered.  "Surely you do not believe I
will ever become ungrateful."

"No; and yet gratitude is not altogether satisfactory."  He hesitated.
"It is hard to explain just what I mean to you, for you do not realize
the life we lead out here--the loneliness of it.  Even a man in the
ranks may possess the desires of a human being.  I--well, I 'm hungry
for the companionship of a good woman.  Don't misunderstand, Miss
McDonald.  I am not presuming, nor taking advantage of the accident
which has placed us in this peculiar position, but I have been a
trooper out here now a long while, stationed at little isolated
frontier posts, riding the great plains, doing the little routine
duties of soldiering.  I have n't spoken to a decent woman on terms of
social equality for two years; I 've looked at a few from a distance
and taken orders from them.  But they have glanced through me as though
I were something inanimate instead of a man.  I saved an officer's life
once down there," and he pointed into the southeast, "and his wife
thanked me as though it were a disagreeable duty.  I reckon you don't
understand, but I don't like the word gratitude."

"But I do understand," and she stretched out her hand to him across the
opened haversack.  "I 'm not so dull, and it must be awful to feel
alone like that, I told you I--I liked you, and--I do.  Now remember
that, please, and be good.  From now on I am not Major McDonald's
daughter, not even Miss McDonald--I 'm just Molly McDonald."

The gray eyes laughed.

"You are assuming a great risk."

"I don't believe it," her forehead wrinkling a little, but her eyes
bright.  "You and I can be friends--can't we?"

"We 'll try, out here, at least.  Even if the dream does n't last long,
it will be pleasant to remember."

"You do not think it will last, then?"

He shook his head.

"I would be a fool to hope; I have been in the army too long."

They were still for a minute, the girl's fingers toying with the flap
of the haversack, her eyes gazing across the river.  He thought they
were misty.

"I am sorry you are so prejudiced," she said at last slowly, "for I am
not like that at all.  I am not going to be ashamed of a friend because
he--he is in the ranks.  I shall be only the more proud.  What is your
full name?"

He passed his hand over his hair, and laughed.

"They call me 'Brick' Hamlin--a subtle reference to this crown of
glory."

"But it is n't red," she insisted swiftly.  "Only it shows a little
bright with the sun on it, and I am not going to call you that.  I
don't like nicknames.  What did they call you before you went into the
army?  When--when you did know good women?"

The Sergeant bent his head, and then lifted his gray eyes to the girl's
face.

"I had almost forgotten," he confessed, "but I'll tell you--David
Carter Hamlin; there, you have all of it--my mother called me
Dave--could you, once?"

"Could I?" laughingly.  "Why, of course; now, Dave, we will have
breakfast."

"And I am quite ready for it--Molly."

The girl's cheeks reddened, but their eyes met, and both laughed.



CHAPTER XI

A REMEMBRANCE OF THE PAST

Moylan must have had Miss McDonald in mind when he had stocked up with
food at Fort Dodge, and had therefore chosen all the delicacies to be
found at that frontier post.  These were not extensive, consisting
largely of canned goods, which, nevertheless, made a brave show, and
were clearly enough not the ordinary fare of the border.  Hamlin had to
smile at the array, but Molly handled each article almost with
reverence, tears dimming her eyes in memory.

"He--he bought these for me," she said softly, and looking across
reproachfully at the Sergeant.  "It was the best he could do."

"I was not laughing at poor Moylan; only, I fear, he had a wrong
conception of a girl's needs on the trail.  But I reckon our combined
appetites are equal to it."

"I do not feel as though I could swallow a mouthful."

"Under orders you will try.  We have a hard day before us, young lady,
and some tramping to do afoot.  I wish I knew where that horse I turned
loose last night has drifted to; into the bluffs, probably, where the
grass is green.  He would be of some help just now.  Try this, Miss
McDonald, for lack of something better.  I yearn for ham and coffee,
but hardly dare build a fire yet.  The smoke would be seen for miles
away."

"If we were across the river we could use the stage fire."

"Yes, but there is a wide river flowing between.  Don't be afraid of
that trip," noting the expression of her face.  "It will be easy enough
to cross back by daylight, now that I know where the danger spots are."

"I was not so terribly afraid last night; I hardly had time to realize
what was being done, did you?"

"Well, yes; it was risky business.  Awfully treacherous bottom and I
was trusting to good luck."

The Sergeant ate heartily, speaking occasionally so as to divert her
mind, but for the most part, busily thinking and endeavoring to decide
his next move.  He sat facing the river, continually lifting his head
to scan the opposite shore.  There was probably a scouting detail
somewhere near at hand, either approaching from the east, alarmed by
the report of the fleeing stage crew, or else a detachment tracking
Roman Nose's warriors across those plains extending into the north.
The latter contingency was the more probable, judging from the Indians'
flight, and his own knowledge of the small reserve force left at Dodge.
Besides, ride as they might those two fleeing cowards of yesterday
could hardly have yet reached that shelter of safety and might not
confess the truth of their desertion even when they did arrive.  A
pursuing force was the only real hope for escaping the necessity of a
hard tramp back over the trail.  Well, the girl looked fit, and he
glanced toward her appreciatively.

In spite of the sad experiences of the past night she was a pleasant
spectacle, her eyes bright with excitement, her cheeks flushed under
the morning sun which flecked her dark, disordered hair with odd color.
Hers was a winsome face, with smiling lips, and frank good nature in
its contour.  He was surprised to note how fresh and well she looked.

"Are you tired?"

"Not very.  It seems more as though I had dreamed all this than
actually passed through the experience.  Perhaps when I do realize, the
reaction will set in.  But now I am strong, and--and not at all
frightened."

"Nor hungry?"

"It is hard to eat, but I am often that way."  Her hand strayed to the
emptied haversack, and she turned it carelessly over, where it lay
beside her on the sand.  "Why, this is an old Confederate sack, isn't
it?  I hadn't noticed before; see, the 'C. S. A.' is on the flap."

"So it is; perhaps Moylan served in the South."

"I think not.  I am sure this was never his, for he bought it at Dodge.
I remember he told me he would have to find something to carry our
lunch in."  She pushed the flap farther back, then held it up to the
sunlight.  "There are some other letters, but they are hardly
decipherable.  I cannot read the first line at all, but the second is
somewhat plainer--'Fourth Texas Infantry.'"

Hamlin reached out his hand swiftly, and grasped the haversack,
forgetting everything else in suddenly aroused interest.  The girl,
surprised, stared up into his face, as he closely studied the faded
inscription, his face expressing unconcealed amazement.

"Good God!" he ejaculated breathlessly.  "It was Gene's.  What can this
mean?"

"You--you knew the soldier?"

"Knew him?  Yes," speaking almost unconsciously, his incredulous eyes
still on the inscription, as though fearful it might vanish.  "That man
was either my best friend, or my worst enemy; under heaven, I know not
which.  Why, it is like a miracle, the finding of this bag out here in
the desert.  It is the clue I have been searching after for nearly five
years."  He seemed to pull himself together with an effort, realizing
her presence.  "Excuse me, Miss McDonald, but this thing knocked me
silly.  I hardly knew what I was saying."

"It means much to you?  To your life?"

"Everything, if I can only trace it back, and thus discover the present
whereabouts of the original owner."

"Was that your regiment, then--the Fourth Texas Infantry?"

He bowed his head, now looking frankly at her.

"Would you mind telling me your rank?"

"I became Captain of 'B' Company after the fight at Chancellorsville;
we served in Virginia under Massa Robert, and lost every commissioned
officer in that affair."  He hesitated to go on, but she prompted him
by a question:

"And then what?  What was it that happened?  Don't be afraid to tell
me."

His gray eyes met hers, and then turned away, his lips pressed together.

"Nothing until the day we fought at Fisher's Hill," he said slowly.
"Then I was dismissed from the service--for cowardice."

"Cowardice!" repeating the word in quick protest.  "Why, how could that
be?  Surely your courage had been sufficiently tested before?"

"Cowardice, and disobedience of orders," he repeated dully, "after I
had been under fire almost night and day for three years; after I had
risen from the ranks and commanded the regiment."

"And you had no defence?"

"No; at least, none I could use; this man might have saved me, but he
did not, and I never knew why."

"Who was he?"

"My senior captain, detailed on Early's staff; he brought me the orders
verbally I was afterwards accused of disobeying.  I was temporarily in
command of the regiment that day with rank as major.  There was a
mistake somewhere, and we were horribly cut up, and a number taken
prisoners.  It was my word against his, and--and he lied."

She took the haversack from him, studying the scarcely legible
inscription.

"'E. L. F.'  Are those the letters?"

"Yes; they stand for Eugene Le Fevre; he was of French descent, his
home in New Orleans."

"You knew him well?"

"I thought so; we were at school together and afterwards in the army."

She looked across at him again, touched by the tender echo of his
voice; then leaned forward and placed one hand upon his.

"You have not spoken about this for a long while, have you?"

"No," his eyes lighting up pleasantly, "hardly thought of it, except
sometimes alone at night.  The memory made me savage, and all my
efforts to ascertain the truth have proven useless."

"That is why you enlisted?"

"Largely; there is no better place to hide one's past than in the ranks
out here on the plains.  I--I could not remain at home with that
disgrace hanging over me."

"You must tell me all about it."

Her head lifted suddenly as she gazed out across the river, shading her
eyes.  "Why, what are those?" she exclaimed eagerly, "there, moving on
the bluffs opposite?"

His glance swept to the northward, and he was as instantly the soldier
again.  Far away on the upper plateau, clearly outlined against the
blue of the distant sky, appeared a number of dark figures.  For a
moment he believed them buffaloes, but in another instant decided
instead they were horsemen riding two by two.

"Get down lower, Miss McDonald," he commanded.  "Now we can see, and
not be seen.  They must be cavalrymen, the way they ride, but we can
take no chances."

They watched the black specks pass east to where the bluff circled in
toward the river.  It was from there those distant riders first
observed the dim spiral of smoke still curling up from the burning
stage, for they halted, bunching together, and then disappeared slowly
down a gash in the side of the hill.  Emerging on the lower flat they
turned in the direction of the fire, spurring their horses into a swift
trot.  There was no longer any doubt of their being troopers, and
Hamlin stood upright on the sand hummock waving his hat.  They were
gathered about the fire, a few dismounted beside the dead bodies,
before his signal was observed.  Then a field glass flashed in the
sunlight, and three or four of the party rode down to the bank of the
river.  One of these, the glasses still held in his hand, his horse's
hoofs in the water, shouted across the stream.

"Who are you over there?"

"White people," answered Hamlin, using his hands for a trumpet.  "We
escaped from the stage last night.  I am a sergeant, Seventh Cavalry,
and the lady with me is the daughter of Major McDonald at Fort Devere."

"How did you get across?"

"Waded in the dark; there is good bottom.  Send a man over with a
couple of horses."

The officer turned and spoke to the others grouped beside him; then
raised his voice again.

"Are you sure there is no quicksand?"

"None to hurt; come straight over the end of that sand spit, and then
swerve about a dozen feet to the right to keep out of a hole.  The
water won't go to a horse's belly.  Try it, Wasson, you ought to know
me."

"You 're 'Brick' Hamlin, ain't you?"

"A good guess, Sam; come on."

Two troopers left their saddles, and the third man, the one answering
the last hail, gathered the reins in one hand, and spurred his horse
confidently into the brown water.  Following the Sergeant's shouted
directions, the three animals plunged forward and came dripping up the
low sand bank.  The rider, a sallow-faced man clad in rough corduroy,
patched and colorless, leaned over and held out his hand.

"Dern yer o' skin," he said solemnly, but with a twinkle in his eyes,
"ye 're sure got the luck of it.  Ain't seen ye afore fer two years."

"That 's right, Sam; down on the Cowskin, wasn't it?  Who 's over
there?"

"Leftenant Gaskins, an' some o' the Fourth Cavalry, scoutin' out o'
Dodge; been plum to ther mountings, an' goin' home ag'in.  Whut the
hell (beggin' yer pardin, mam) has happened yere?"

"I 'll explain when we get across," and Hamlin swung the haversack to
his shoulder, and turned to the girl.  "This is Sam Wasson, Miss
McDonald, a scout I have been out with before; let me help you into the
saddle."



CHAPTER XII

THE PARTING

They recrossed the stream carefully, the horses restless and hard to
control in the current, the men riding on either side, grasping the bit
of the girl's mount.  Others had joined the little squad of troopers on
the bank, and welcomed them with a cheer.  The Lieutenant dismounted.
At sight of the girl's face he whipped off his hat, and came forward.

"Miss McDonald," he said, pleasantly greeting her, "I am Lieutenant
Gaskins, and I have met your father--of the Sixth Infantry, is he not?
So glad to be of service, you know.  You were in the stage, I
understand; a most remarkable escape."

"I owe it all to Sergeant Hamlin," she replied, turning to glance
toward the latter.  "He bore me away unconscious in his arms.  Indeed,
I scarcely realized what happened.  Do you know anything regarding my
father?"

"Oh, yes, I can put your mind at ease so far as he is concerned.  I
presume you were endeavoring to reach his post when this unfortunate
affair occurred."

"Yes."

"Sheridan has ordered Devere abandoned for the present, and the Major's
troops are to return to Dodge.  No doubt we shall be in the field
within a week or two.  But we can cultivate acquaintance later; now I
must straighten out this affair."  He bowed again, and turned stiffly
toward Hamlin, who had dismounted, his manner instantly changing.  He
was a short, heavily built man, cleanly shaven, with dark, arrogant
eyes, and prominent chin.

"You are a sergeant of the Seventh, you said," he began brusquely.
"What were you doing here?"

"My troop is stationed at Fort Union," was the quiet response.  "I
carried despatches to Devere, and while there was requested by Major
McDonald to intercept his daughter and turn her back."

"Were you subject to Major McDonald's orders?"

"It was not an order, but a request."

"Oh, indeed; a mere pleasure excursion."

"It has hardly turned out that way, sir, and conditions seemed to
justify my action."

"That is for others to determine.  When was the attack made?"

"Just before sundown last evening.  The driver and guard escaped on the
lead horses, and the wheelers ran away, wrecking the coach."

"There were four passengers?"

"Yes; we fought them off until after dark, although the Mexican was
killed by the first fire.  I don't know when the other man got his."

"Who were they?"

"Gonzales ran a high-ball game at Santa Fé; the other, Moylan, was
post-sutler at Fort Marcy."

"How many Indians?  Who were they?"

"About thirty; we must have killed five or six.  It was hardly more
than daylight when they left, and I could not tell just how many bodies
they strapped on the ponies.  They were a mixed bunch of young bucks,
principally Arapahoes, led by Roman Nose."

"Went west, hey?"

"Yes, sir."

The Lieutenant turned his gaze up the river, and then looked at Wasson,
who remained seated in the saddle.

"Must be the same lot Maxwell told us about up on Pawnee Fork, Sam," he
said at last.  "He will be likely to cut their trail some time to-day.
We knew a bunch had headed south, but did n't suppose they had got as
far as this already.  Better leave Maxwell to run them in, I suppose?
Our orders are to return to Dodge."

"They have n't three hours the start," ventured Hamlin in surprise,
"and cannot travel fast with so many of their ponies doubly loaded."

"That is for me to decide," staring insolently, "and I understand my
duty without any advice.  Is there any damage done west of here?"

"The station at the crossing is burned; two dead men there; I don't
know what became of the third."

"Then it is just as I thought; those fellows will turn north before
they get that far, and will run straight into Maxwell.  What do you
say, Sam?"

The scout lolled carelessly in the saddle, his eyes on the river, his
lean, brown face expressionless.

"I reckon as how it don't make no great difference what I say," he
answered soberly.  "Yer ain't taken no advice frum me yit, fur as I
remember.  But if yer really want ter know, this time, my notion is
them bucks will most likely hide in the bluffs till night, an' then
sneak past Maxwell after it gits good an' dark.  If this yere wus my
outfit now, I 'd just naturally light on to the trail fast, orders er
no orders.  I reckon it's Injuns we cum out after, an' I don't suppose
the War Department would find any fault if we found a few."

The blood surged into the Lieutenant's face, but opposition only served
to increase his obstinacy.

"I prefer to rely on my own judgment," he said tartly.  "From what this
man reports they are in stronger force than we are.  Besides my
instructions were not to provoke hostilities."

Wasson grinned, revealing his yellow teeth.

"Sure not; they are so damned peaceable themselves."

"I prefer leaving Captain Maxwell to deal with the situation," Gaskins
went on pompously, ignoring the sneer, "as he outranks me, and I am
under strict instructions to return at once to the fort.  Two of our
horses are disabled already, and Smiley is too sick to be left alone.
There are only sixteen men fit for duty, and three of those would have
to be detailed to look after him.  I 'll not risk it.  Well," he broke
off suddenly, and addressing a corporal who had just ridden up and
saluted, "have you buried the bodies?"

"Yes, sir; found these papers on them."

The Lieutenant thrust these into his jacket pocket.

"Very well, Hough.  Form the men into column.  Miss McDonald, you will
retain the horse you have, and I should be very glad to have you ride
with me.  Oh, Corporal, was everything in the coach destroyed?  Nothing
saved belonging to this lady?"

"Only the ironwork is left, sir."

"So I thought; exceedingly sorry, Miss McDonald.  The ladies at Dodge
will have to fit you out when we get in.  I am a bachelor, you know,"
he added, glancing aside into her face, "but can promise every
attention."

Her eyes sought Hamlin where he stood straight and motionless,
respectfully waiting an opportunity to speak.

"Is--is this what I ought to do?" she questioned, leaning toward him.
"I am so confused I hardly know what is best."

"Why, of course," broke in the Lieutenant hastily.  "You may trust me
to advise."

"But my question was addressed to Sergeant Hamlin," she interposed,
never glancing aside.  "He understands the situation better than you."

The Sergeant held his hat in his hand, his eyes meeting her own
frankly, but with a new light in them.  She had not forgotten now the
danger was over; she meant him to realize her friendship.

"It seems to me the only safe course for you to take, Miss McDonald,"
he said slowly, endeavoring to keep the note of triumph out of his
voice.  "Your father is perfectly safe, and will join you within a few
days.  I would not dare attempt your protection farther west."

"You are not going with us then?" she questioned in surprise.

"Not if Lieutenant Gaskins will furnish me with horse and rifle.  I
must report at Union, and, on the way, tell your father where you are."

"But the danger! oh, you mustn't attempt such a ride alone!"

"That is nothing; the valley is swept clean, and I shall do most of my
riding at night.  Any plainsman could do the trick--hey, Sam?"

Wasson nodded, chewing solemnly on the tobacco in his cheek.

"He 'll make the trip all right, miss," he drawled lazily.  "Wish I was
goin' long.  I 'm sure tired o' this sorter scoutin', I am.  Down below
the Cimarron is the only place ye 'll have ter watch out close,
'Brick.'  Them Comanches an' Apaches are the worst lot."

"I know--night riders themselves, but I know the trail.  Can you outfit
me, Lieutenant?"

Gaskins smiled grimly, but with no trace of humor.  His eyes were upon
the girl, still leaning over her pommel.

"I 'll outfit you all right," he said brusquely, "and with no great
regret, either.  And I shall report finding you here in disobedience to
orders."

"Very well, sir."

Molly's brown eyes swept to the Lieutenant's face, her form
straightening in the saddle, her lips pressed tightly together.
Gaskins fronted the Sergeant, stung into anger by the man's quiet
response.

"I shall prefer charges, you understand," almost savagely.  "Helm, give
this fellow that extra rifle, and ammunition belt.  McMasters, you will
let him have your horse."

Wasson rolled out of his saddle, muttering something indistinctly,
which might have been an oath.

"I ain't goin' ter stand fer that, Leftenant," he said defiantly.
"Bein' as I ain't no enlisted man, an' this yere is my hoss, 'Brick'
Hamlin don't start on no such ride on that lame brute o' McMasters'.
Here, you 'Brick,' take this critter.  Oh, shut up!  I'll git to Dodge
all right.  Won't hurt me none to walk."

The eyes of the two men met understandingly, and Hamlin took the rein
in his hand.  Gaskins started to speak, but thought better of it.  A
moment he stood, irresolute, and then swung up into saddle, his glance
ignoring the Sergeant.

"Attention! company," he commanded sharply.  "By column four--march!"

The girl spurred her horse forward, and held out her hand.

"Good-bye," she said, falteringly, "you--will be careful."

"Of course," and he smiled up into her eyes.  "Don't worry about me--I
am an old hand."

"And I am to see you again?"

"I shall never run away, surely, and I hope for the best--"

"Miss McDonald," broke in Gaskins impatiently, "the men are already
moving."

"Yes," her eyes still upon the Sergeant's uncovered face, "I am coming.
Don't imagine I shall ever forget," she murmured hastily, "or that I
will not be glad to meet you anywhere."

"Some time I may put you to the test," he answered soberly.  "If any
trouble comes, trust Wasson--he is a real man."

He stood there, one arm thrown over the neck of the horse, watching
them ride away up the trail.  The Lieutenant and the girl were together
at the rear of the short column, and he seemed to be talking earnestly.
Hamlin never moved, or took his eyes from her until they disappeared
over the ridge.  Just as they dipped down out of sight she turned and
waved one hand.  Then the man's gaze swept over the débris of the
burned stage, and the two mounds of earth.  Even these mute evidences
of tragedy scarcely sufficed to make him realize all that had occurred
in this lonely spot.  He could not seem to separate his thought from
the cavalcade which had just departed, leaving behind the memory of
that farewell wave of the hand.  To him it marked the end of a dream,
the return to a life distasteful and lonely.

Mechanically the Sergeant loaded his rifle, and strapped the old
Confederate haversack to his saddle pommel, staring again, half
unbelieving, at the faded inscription underneath the flap.  Yet the
sight of those letters awoke him, bringing to his bronzed face a new
look of determination.  He swung into the saddle, and, rifle across his
knees, his eyes studying the desolate distance, rode westward along the
deserted trail.



CHAPTER XIII

BACK AT FORT DODGE

The swiftly speeding weeks of that war-summer on the plains had brought
many changes to the hard-worked troops engaged in the campaign or
garrisoning the widely scattered posts south of the Platte.  Scouting
details, although constantly in the saddle, failed to prevent continued
Indian depredations on exposed settlements.  Stage routes were
deserted, and the toiling wagons of the freighters vanished from the
trails.  Reports of outrages were continuous, and it became more and
more evident that the various tribes were at length united in a
desperate effort to halt the white advance.  War parties broke through
the wide-strung lines of guard, and got safely away again, leaving
behind death and destruction.  Only occasionally did these Indian
raiders and the pursuing troops come into actual contact.  The former
came and went in swift forays, now appearing on the Pawnee, again on
the Saline, followed by a wild ride down the valley of the Arkansas.
Scattered in small bands, well mounted and armed, no one could guess
where the next attack might occur.  Every day brought its fresh report
of horror.  From north and south, east and west, news of outrages came
into Sheridan's headquarters at Fort Wallace.

Denver, at the base of the mountains, was practically in state of
siege, provisioned only by wagon trains sent through under strong
guard; the fringe of settlement along the water ways was deserted, men
and women fleeing to the nearest government posts for protection and
food.  The troops, few in number and widely scattered in small
detachments, many being utilized as scouts and guards, were unequal to
the gigantic task of protecting so wide a frontier.  Skirmishes were
frequent, but the Indians were wary and resourceful, and only once
during the entire summer were they brought into real decisive battle.
The last of August, Major Forsythe, temporarily commanding a company of
volunteer scouts, was suddenly attacked by over a thousand warriors
under command of Roman Nose.  A four days' fight resulted, with heavy
loss on both sides, the Indians being finally driven from the field by
the opportune arrival of fresh troops.

The general condition of affairs is well shown by the reports reaching
Fort Wallace in September.  Governor Hunt wrote from Denver: "Just
returned.  Fearful condition of things here.  Nine persons murdered by
Indians yesterday, within radius of nine miles."  A few days later,
acting Governor Hall reported: "The Indians have again attacked our
settlements in strong force, obtaining possession of the country to
within twelve miles of Denver.  They are more bold, fierce, and
desperate in their assaults than ever before.  It is impossible to
drive them out and protect the families at the same time, for they are
better armed, mounted, disciplined, and better officered than our men.
Each hour brings intelligence of fresh barbarities, and more extensive
robberies."  This same month Governor Crawford, of Kansas, telegraphed,
"Have just received a despatch from Hays, stating that Indians
attacked, captured, and burned a train at Pawnee Fork; killed, scalped,
and burned sixteen men; also attacked another train at Cimarron
Crossing, which was defended until ammunition was exhausted, when the
men abandoned the train, saving what stock they could.  Similar attacks
are of almost daily occurrence."

South of the Cimarron all was desolation, and war raged unchecked from
the Platte to the Pecos.  Sheridan determined upon a winter campaign,
although he understood well the sufferings entailed upon the troops by
exposure on the open plains at that season.  Yet he knew the habits of
Indians; that they would expect immunity from attack and would gather
in villages, subject to surprise.  He, therefore, decided that the
result would justify the necessary hardships involved.  To this end
smaller posts were abandoned, and the widely scattered soldiers ordered
to central points in preparation for the contemplated movement.  Devere
had been deserted earlier, and Major McDonald had marched his men to
Dodge, where Molly awaited his coming.  Retained there on garrison
duty, the two occupied a one-story, yellow stone structure fronting the
parade ground.  In October, orders to march reached "M" troop, Seventh
Cavalry, at Fort Union, and the ragged, bronzed troopers, who all
summer long had been scouting the New Mexican plains, turned their
horses' heads to the northeast in hopefulness of action.  With them up
the deserted Santa Fé trail, past burned stations and wrecks of wagon
trains, rode Sergeant Hamlin, silent and efficient, the old Confederate
haversack fastened to his saddle, and his mind, in spite of all effort,
recurring constantly to the girl who had gone to Dodge early in the
summer.  Was she still there?  If so, how would she greet him now after
these months of absence?  The little cavalry column, dust-covered and
weary, seemed fairly to creep along, as day by day he reviewed every
word, every glance, which had passed between them; and at night, under
the stars, he lay with head on his saddle, endeavoring to determine his
course of action, both as to their possible meeting, and with regard to
the following of the clue offered by the haversack.  The time he had
hoped for was at hand, but he could not decide the best course of
action.  He could only wait, and permit Fate to interfere.

Certain facts were, however, sufficiently clear, and the Sergeant faced
them manfully.  Not merely the fact that he was in the ranks, great as
that handicap was, could have prevented an attempt at retaining the
friendship of Molly McDonald.  But he was in the ranks because of
disgrace--hiding away from his own people, keeping aloof from his
proper station in life, out of bitter shame.  If he had felt thus
before, he now felt it a thousand times more acutely in memory of the
comradeship of her whose words had brought him a new gleam of hope.
Never before had loneliness seemed so complete, and never before had he
realized how wide was the chasm between the old and the new life.  This
constantly recurrent memory embittered him, and made him restless.  Yet
out of it all, there grew a firmer determination to win back his old
position in the world, to stamp out the lie through which that
Confederate court-martial had condemned him.  If Le Fevre were alive,
he meant now to find him, face him, and compel him to speak the truth.
The discovery of that haversack gave a point from which to start, and
his mind centred there with a fixed purpose which obscured all else.

It was after dark when "M" troop, wearied by their long day's march
across the brown grass, rode slowly up the face of the bluff, and into
the parade ground at Fort Dodge.  The lights of the guard-house
revealed the troopers' faces, while all about them gleamed the yellow
lamps, as the garrison came forth to welcome their arrival.  Guided by
a corporal of the guard the men led their horses to the stables, and,
as they passed the row of officers' houses Hamlin caught a furtive
glimpse in a radius of light that gave his pulses a sudden throb.  She
was here then--here!  He had hardly dared hope for this.  They would
meet again; that could scarcely be avoided in such narrow quarters.
But how?  On what terms?  He ventured the one swift glimpse at her--a
slender, white-robed figure, one among a group of both men and women
before an open door, through which the light streamed--heard her ask,
"Who are they?  What cavalry troop is that?" caught the response in a
man's voice, "'M' of the Seventh, from Fort Union," and then passed by,
his eyes looking straight ahead, his hand gripping his horse's bit.

Thirty minutes later in the great barn-like barracks, he hung his
accoutrements over the bed assigned him in the far corner, and,
revolver belt still buckled about his waist, stood at the open window,
striving to determine which of those winking lights shone from the
house where he had seen her.  There had been something in the eagerness
of her voice which he could not forget, nor escape from.  She had
seemed to care, to feel an interest deeper than mere curiosity.  The
Sergeant's heart beat rapidly, even while he sternly told himself he
was a fool.  A hand touched his shoulder, and he wheeled about to grip
Wasson's hand.

"Well, 'Brick,' old boy," said the scout genially, although his thin
face was as solemn as ever; "so you fellows have come back to be in the
shindy?"

"We 've been in it all summer, Sam," was the reply.  "It's been lively
enough south of the Cimarron, the Lord knows.  I 've been riding patrol
for months now.  But what's up?  No one seems to know why we were
ordered in."

"It's all guess-work here," and Wasson sat down on the narrow bed and
lit his pipe.  "But the 'old man' is getting something under way,
consolidating troops.  Your regiment is going to be used, that's
certain.  I 've been carryin' orders between here an' Wallace for three
weeks now, an' I 've heard Sheridan explode once or twice.  He 's tired
of this guerilla business, an' wants to have one good fight."

"It is getting late."

"That's the way he figures it out, accordin' to my notion.  We 've
always let those fellows alone during the bad weather, an' they 've got
so they expect it.  The 'old man' figures he 'll give 'em a surprise."

"A winter campaign?"

"Why not?  We can stand it if they can.  O' course, I 'm just guessin';
there 's no leak at headquarters.  But Custer 's up there," with a wave
of the hand to the north, "and they 've got the maps out."

"What maps?"

"I only got a glimpse of them out of the tail of my eye, but I reckon
they was of the kintry south of the Arkansas, along the Canadian."

Hamlin sat down beside him, staring across the big room.

"Then it's Black Kettle; his band is down on the Washita," he
announced.  "I hope it's true."

"They 're arrangin' supply depots, anyhow; six companies of infantry
are on Monument Creek, and five troops of cavalry on the North Canadian
a'ready.  Wagon trains have been haulin' supplies.  There 's some stiff
work ahead when the snow flies, or I miss my guess."

Hamlin sat silent, thinking, and the scout smoked quietly, occasionally
glancing toward his companion.  Finally he spoke again, his voice
barely audible.

"That little girl you sent in with us is here yet."

The Sergeant was conscious that his cheeks flamed, but he never looked
up.

"Yes, I saw her as we came in."

"She 's asked me about you once or twice; don't seem to forget what you
did for her."

"Sorry to hear that."

"No, yer not; could n't no man be sorry to have a girl like that take
an interest in him.  'T ain't in human nature.  What did yer tell her
about me?"

"Tell her!" surprised.  "Why, I only advised her to hang close to you
if anything happened.  I didn't exactly like the style of the
Lieutenant."

"Thet's wat I thought.  Well, she's done it, though thet has n't pried
her loose from Gaskins.  He 's hauntin' her like a shadow.  It 's
garrison talk they 're engaged, but I ain't so sure 'bout thet.  She
an' I hev got to be pretty good friends, though, o' course, it's
strictly on the quiet.  I ain't got no invite to officers' row yit.
She 's asked me a lot 'bout you."

"Interesting topic."

"Well, I reckon as how she thinks it is, enyhow.  Yesterday she asked
me 'bout thet scrimmage yer hed down on the Canadian.  She 'd heerd
'bout it somehow, an' wanted the story straight.  So I told her all I
knowed, an' yer oughter seed her eyes shine while I wus sorter paintin'
it up."

"Oh, hell; let's drop it," disgustedly.  "The Lieutenant here yet?"

"Sure; his company is down on Monument, but he got special detail.  He
's got a pull, Gaskins has."

"How is that?"

"His old man is Senator, or something, an' they say, has scads o'
money.  Enyway, the kid finds the army a soft snap.  First scoutin'
detail he ever had when you met him.  Did n't hunt no danger then, so
fur as I could see.  Nice little dude, with a swelled head, but popular
with the ladies.  I reckon McDonald ain't objectin' none to his chasin'
after Miss Molly; thet's why he 's let her stay in this God-forsaken
place so long.  Well, 'Brick,' I reckon I 've told all the news, and
hed better move 'long."

"Hold on a minute, Sam," and Hamlin, suddenly recalled to earth,
reached for the haversack hanging on the iron bedpost.  "Moylan, the
fellow who was killed in the coach with us, had this bag.  According to
Miss McDonald, he bought it here just before starting on the trip.  See
this inscription; those are the initials of an old acquaintance of mine
I 'd like to trace.  Any idea where Moylan found it?"

Wasson held the bag to the light studying the letters.

"Fourth Texas--hey?  That your regiment?"

The Sergeant nodded, his lips tightly pressed together.

"Must hev come from Dutch Charlie's outfit," the scout went on slowly.
"He picks up all that sorter truck."

"Where is that?"

"In town thar, under the bluff.  We 'll look it up to-morrow."



CHAPTER XIV

UNDER ARREST

One by one the barrack lights went out as the tired troopers sought
their beds.  Hamlin extinguished his also, and only one remained
burning, left for emergency near the door, which flung a faint glow
over the big room.  But the Sergeant's reflections kept him awake, as
he sat on the foot of his bed, and stared out of the open window into
the darkness.  There was little upon which to focus his eyes, a few
yellow gleams along officers' row, where callers still lingered, and
the glow of a fire in front of the distant guard-house, revealing
occasionally the black silhouette of a passing sentinel.  Few noises
broke the silence, except the strains of some distant musical
instrument, and a voice far away saying good-night.  Once he awoke from
revery to listen to the call of the guards, as it echoed from post to
post, ceasing with "All well, Number Nine," far out beyond the stables.

The familiar sound served to recall him to the reality of his position.
What was the use?  What business had he to dream?  For months now he
had kept that girl's face before him, in memory of a few hours of
happiness when he had looked into her dark eyes and heard her pleasant
speech.  Yet from the first he had known the foolishness of it all.  He
was nothing to her, and could never become anything.  Even if he
cleared his past record and stepped out of the ranks into his old
social position, the chances were she would never overlook what he had
been.  Her gratitude meant little, nor her passing interest in his army
career.  All that was the natural result of his having saved her life.
He possessed no egotism which permitted him to think otherwise.  Years
of discipline had drilled into him a consciousness of the impassable
gulf between the private and the officer's daughter.  The latter might
be courteous, kindly disposed, even grateful for services rendered, but
it must end there.  The Major would see that it did, would resent
bitterly any presumption.  No, there was nothing else possible.  If
they met--as meet they must in that contracted post--it would be most
formal, a mere exchange of reminiscence, gratitude expressed by a smile
and pleasant word.  He could expect no more; might esteem himself
fortunate, indeed, to receive even that recognition.  Meanwhile he
would endeavor to strike Le Fevre's trail.  There were other interests
in the world to consider besides Molly McDonald, and his memory drifted
away to a home he had not visited in years.  But thought would not
concentrate there, and there arose before him, as he lay there, the
face of Lieutenant Gaskins, wearing the same expression of insolent
superiority as when they had parted out yonder on the Santa Fé trail.

"The cowardly little fool," he muttered bitterly under his breath,
gripping the window frame.  "It will require more than his money to
bring her happiness, and I 'll never stand for that.  Lord!  She 's too
sensible ever to love him.  Good God--what's that!"

It leaped out of the black night---three flashes, followed instantly by
the sharp reports.  Then a fourth--this time unmistakably a
musket--barked from behind officers' row.  In the flare, Hamlin thought
he saw two black shadows running.  A voice yelled excitedly, "Post Six!
Post Six!"  With a single leap the Sergeant was across the sill, and
dropped silently to the ground.  Still blinded by the light he ran
forward, jerking his revolver from the belt.  As he passed the corner
of the barracks the sentry fired again, the red flash cleaving the
night in an instant's ghastly vividness.  It revealed a woman shrinking
against the yellow stone wall, lighted up her face, then plunged her
again into obscurity.

The Sergeant caught the glimpse, half believing the vision a phantasy
of the brain; he had seen her face, white, frightened, agonized, yet it
could not have been real.  He tripped over the stone wall and half
fell, but ran on, his mind in a turmoil, but certain some one was
racing before him down the dark ravine.  There had been a woman there!
He could not quite blot that out--but not she; not Molly McDonald.
If--if it were she; if he had really seen her face in the flare, if it
was no dream, then what?  Why, he must screen her from discovery, give
her opportunity to slip away.  This was the one vague, dim thought
which took possession of the man.  It obscured all else; it sent him
blindly crashing over the edge of the ravine.  He heard the sentry at
his right cry hoarsely, he heard excited shouts from the open windows
of the barracks; then his feet struck a man's body, and he went down
headlong.

Almost at the instant the sentry was upon him, a gun-muzzle pressing
him back as he attempted to rise.

"Be still, ye hell hound," was the gruff order, "or I 'll blow yer to
kingdom come!  Sergeant of the guard, quick here!  Post Number Six!"

Hamlin lay still, half stunned by the shock of his fall, yet conscious
that the delay, this mistake of the sentry, would afford her ample
chance for escape.  He could hear men running toward them, and his eyes
caught the yellow, bobbing light of a lantern.  His hand reached out
and touched the body over which he had fallen, feeling a military
button, and the clasp of a belt--it was a soldier then who had been
shot.  Could she have done it?  Or did she know who did?  Whatever the
truth might be, he would hold his tongue; let them suppose him guilty
for the time being; he could establish innocence easily enough when it
came to trial.  These thoughts flashed through his mind swiftly; then
the light of the lantern gleamed in his eyes, and he saw the faces
clustered about.

"All right, Mapes," commanded the man with the light.  "Let the fellow
up until I get a look at him.  Who the hell are you?"

"Sergeant Hamlin, Seventh Cavalry."

"Darned if it ain't.  Say, what does all this mean, anyhow?  Who's
shot?  Turn the body over, somebody!  By God!  It's Lieutenant Gaskins!"

Hamlin's heart seemed to leap into his throat and choke him; for an
instant he felt faint, dazed, staring down into the still face ghastly
under the rays of the lantern.  Gaskins!  Then she was concerned in the
affair; he really had seen her hiding there against the wall.  And the
man's eyes were open, were staring in bewilderment at the faces.  The
Sergeant of the guard thrust the lantern closer.

"Lift his head, some o' yer, the man's alive.  Copley, get some water,
an' two of yer run fer the stretcher--leg it now.  We 'll have yer out
o' here in a minute, Lieutenant.  What happened, sir?  Who shot yer?"

Gaskins' dulled eyes strayed from the speaker's face, until he saw
Hamlin, still firmly gripped by the sentry.  His lips drew back
revealing his teeth, his eyes narrowing.

"That's the one," he said faintly.  "You 've got him!"

One hand went to his side in a spasm of pain, and he fainted.  The
Sergeant laid him back limp on the grass, and stood up.

"Where is your gun, Hamlin?"

"I dropped it when I fell over the Lieutenant's body.  It must be back
of you."

Some one picked the weapon up, and held it to the light, turning the
chambers.

"Two shots gone, Sergeant."

"We heard three; likely the Lieutenant got in one of them.  Sentry,
what do you know about this?"

Mapes scratched his head, the fingers of his other hand gripping the
prisoner's shoulder.

"Not so awful much," he replied haltingly, "now I come ter think 'bout
it.  'T was a mighty dark night, an' I never saw, ner heard, nuthin'
till the shootin' begun.  I wus back o' officers' row, an' them pistols
popped up yere, by the corner o' the barracks.  I jumped an' yelled;
thought I heerd somebody runnin' an' let drive.  Then just as I got up
yere, this feller come tearin' 'long, an' I naturally grabbed him.
That's the whole of it."

"What have you got to say, Hamlin?"

"Nothing."

"Well, yer better.  Yer in a mighty bad box, let me tell yer," angered
by the other's indifference.  "What was the row about?"

The cavalryman stood straight, his face showing white in the glow of
the lantern.

"I told you before I had nothing to say.  I will talk to-morrow," he
returned quietly.  "I submit to arrest."

"I reckon yer will talk to-morrow, and be damn glad o' the chance.
Corporal, take this fellow to the guard-house, an' stay there with him.
Here comes the stretcher, an' the doctor."

Hamlin marched off silently through the black night, surrounded by a
detail of the guard.  It had all occurred so suddenly that he was
bewildered yet, merely retaining sufficient consciousness of the
circumstances to keep still.  If they were assured he was guilty, then
no effort would be made to trace any others connected with the affair.
Why Gaskins should have identified him as the assassin was a
mystery--probably it was merely the delirium of a sorely wounded man,
although the fellow may have disliked him sufficiently for that kind of
revenge, or have mistaken him for another in the poor light.  At any
rate the unexpected identification helped him to play his part, and, if
the Lieutenant lived, he would later acknowledge his mistake.  There
was no occasion to worry; he could clear himself of the charge whenever
the time came; half his company would know he was in barracks when the
firing began.  There were women out on the walk, their skirts
fluttering as they waited anxiously to learn the news, but he could not
determine if she was among them.  Voices asked questions, but the
corporal hurried him along, without making any reply.  Then he was
thrust roughly into a stone-lined cell, and left alone.  Outside in the
corridor two guards were stationed.  Hamlin sat down on the iron bed,
dazed by the silence, endeavoring to collect his thoughts.  The nearest
guard, leaning on his gun, watched carefully.

Voices reached him from outside, echoing in through the high,
iron-barred window, but they were distant, the words indistinguishable.
As his brain cleared he gave no further thought to his own predicament,
only considering how he could best divert suspicion from her.  It was
all a confused maze, into the mystery of which he was unable to
penetrate.  That it was Molly McDonald shrinking there in the dark
corner of the barracks wall he had no doubt.  She might not have
recognized him, or imagined that he saw her, but that spear of light
had certainly revealed a face not to be mistaken.  White as it was,
haggard with terror, half concealed by straggling hair, the
identification was nevertheless complete.  The very piteousness of
expression appealed to him.  She was not a girl easily frightened; no
mere promiscuous shooting, however startling, would have brought that
look to her face.  He had seen her in danger before, had tested her
coolness under fire.  This meant something altogether different.  What?
Could it be that Gaskins had wronged the girl, had insulted her, and
that she, in response, had shot him down?  In the darkness of
conjecture there seemed no other adequate explanation.  The two were
intimate; the rumor of an engagement was already circulating about the
garrison.  And the stricken man had endeavored to shift the blame on
him.  Hamlin could not believe this was done through any desire to
injure; the Lieutenant had no cause for personal dislike which would
account for such an accusation.  They had only met once, and then
briefly.  There was no rivalry between them, no animosity.  To be sure,
Gaskins had been domineering, threatening to report a small breach of
discipline, but in this his words and actions had been no more
offensive than was common among young officers of his quality.  The
Sergeant had passed all memory of that long ago.  It never occurred to
him now as of the slightest importance.  Far more probable did it
appear that Gaskins' only motive was to shield the girl from possible
suspicion.  When he had realized that Hamlin was a prisoner, that for
some reason he had been seized for the crime, he had grasped the
opportunity to point him out as the assassin, and thus delay pursuit.
The chances were the wounded man did not even recognize who the victim
was--he had blindly grasped at the first straw.

But suppose he had been mistaken?  Suppose that woman hiding there was
some one else?  Suppose he had imagined a resemblance in that sudden
flash of revealment?  What then?  Would she care enough to come to him
when she learned of the arrest?  He laughed at the thought, yet it was
a bitter laugh, for it brought back a new realization of the chasm
between them.  Major McDonald's daughter interesting herself in a
guard-house prisoner!  More than likely she would promptly forget that
she had ever before heard his name.  He must be growing crazy to
presume that she permitted him to remain on her list of friendship.

He got up and paced the cell, noting as he did so how closely he was
watched by the guard.

"Have you heard how badly the Lieutenant was hurt?" he asked,
approaching the door.

The sentry glanced down the corridor.

"He 'll pull out, all right," he replied confidentially, his lips close
to the door.  "Nothin' vital punctured.  You better go to bed, an'
forget it till mornin'."

"All right, pardner," and Hamlin returned to the cot.  "Turn the light
down a little, will you?  There, that's better.  My conscience won't
trouble me, but that glare did."

With his face to the stone wall he fell asleep.



CHAPTER XV

AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE

It was late in the forenoon when the heavily armed guard marched Hamlin
across to the commandant's office.  He had been surprised at the delay,
but had enjoyed ample opportunity to plan a course of action, and
decide how best to meet the questions which would be asked.  He could
clear himself without involving her, without even a mention of her
presence, and this knowledge left him confident and at ease.

There were half a dozen officers gathered in the small room, the
gray-bearded Colonel in command, sitting behind a table, with Major
McDonald at his right, and the others wherever they could find standing
room.  Hamlin saluted, and stood at attention, his gray eyes on the
face of the man who surveyed him across the table.

"Sergeant," the Colonel said rather brusquely, "you came in last night
with 'M' troop, did you not?"

"Yes, sir."

"Had you ever met Lieutenant Gaskins before?"

"Once; he pulled me out of a bad scrape with a bunch of Indians out on
the trail a few months ago."

"The same affair I spoke to you about," commented McDonald quietly.
"The attack on the stage."

The Colonel nodded, without removing his eyes from the Sergeant's face.

"Yes, I know about that," he said.  "And that was the only occasion of
your meeting?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, Sergeant Hamlin, I purpose being perfectly frank with you.
There are two or three matters not easily explained about this affair.
I am satisfied of your innocence; that you were not directly concerned
in the shooting of Lieutenant Gaskins.  Men of your troop state that
you were in barracks when the shots were fired, and the wound was not
made by a service revolver, but by a much smaller weapon.  Yet there
are circumstances which puzzle us, but which, no doubt, you can
explain.  Two shots had been fired from your revolver," and he pushed
the weapon across the table.

"I rode ahead of the troop in march yesterday," Hamlin explained, "and
fired twice at a jack-rabbit.  I must have neglected to replace the
cartridges.  Private Stone was with me."

"Why did you submit to arrest so easily, without any attempt to clear
yourself?"

The Sergeant's gray eyes smiled, but his response was quietly
respectful.

"I was condemned before I really knew what had occurred, sir.  The
sentry, the Sergeant of the guard, and the Lieutenant all insisted that
I was guilty.  They permitted me no opportunity to explain.  I thought
it just as well to remain quiet, and let the affair straighten itself
out."

"Yet your action threw us completely off the trail," broke in McDonald
impatiently.  "It permitted the really guilty parties to escape.  Did
you see any one?"

"Black smudges merely, Major, apparently running toward the ravine.  My
eyes were blinded, leaping from a lighted room."

McDonald leaned forward eagerly, one hand tapping the table.

"Was one of them a woman?" he questioned sharply.

Hamlin's heart leaped into his throat, but he held himself motionless.

"They were indistinguishable, sir; mere shadows.  Have you reason to
suspect there may have been a woman involved?"

The Major leaned back in his chair, but the commandant, after a glance
at his officer, answered:

"The pistol used was a small one, such as a woman might carry, and
there are marks of a woman's shoe plainly visible at the edge of the
ravine.  Lieutenant Gaskins was alone when he left the officers' club
five minutes before the firing began.  You are sure you have never had
any controversy with this officer?"

"Perfectly sure, sir.  We have never met except on the one occasion
already referred to, and then scarcely a dozen words were exchanged."

"How then, Sergeant," and the Colonel spoke very soberly, "do you
account for his denouncing you as his assassin?"

"I presumed he was influenced by my arrest, sir; that the shock had
affected his brain."

"That supposition will hardly answer.  The Lieutenant is not severely
wounded, and this morning appears to be perfectly rational.  Yet he
insists you committed the assault; even refers to you by name."

The accused man pressed one hand to his forehead in bewilderment.

"He still insists I shot him?"

"Yes; to be frank, he 's rather bitter about it, and no facts we have
brought to bear have any apparent weight.  He swears he recognized your
face in the flare of the first discharge."

The Sergeant stood silent, motionless, his gaze on the Colonel's face.

"I do not know what to say, sir," he answered finally.  "I was not
there, and you all know it from the men of my troop.  There has been no
trouble between Lieutenant Gaskins and myself, and I can conceive of no
reason why he should desire to involve me in this affair--unless," he
paused doubtfully; "unless, sir, he really knows who shot him, and is
anxious to shift the blame elsewhere to divert suspicion."

"You mean he may be seeking to shield the real culprit?"

"That is the only explanation that occurs to me, sir."

The Colonel stroked his beard nervously, his glance wandering to the
faces of the other officers.

"That might be possible," he acknowledged regretfully, "although I
should dislike to believe any officer of my command would be
deliberately guilty of so despicable an act.  However, all we can do
now is endeavor to uncover the truth.  You are discharged from arrest,
Sergeant Hamlin, and will return to your troop."

Hamlin passed out the door into the sunshine, dimly conscious that his
guarded answers had not been entirely satisfactory to those left
behind.  Yet he had said all he could say, all he dared say.  More and
more firmly there had been implanted in his mind a belief that Molly
McDonald was somehow involved in this unfortunate affair, and that her
name must be protected at all hazard.  This theory alone would seem to
account for Gaskins' efforts to turn suspicion, and when this was
connected with the already known presence of a woman on the scene, and
the smallness of the weapon used, the evidence seemed conclusive.

As far as his own duty was concerned, the Sergeant felt no doubt.
Whatever might be the cause, there was no question in his mind but that
she was fully justified in her action.  Disliking the Lieutenant from
the first, and as strongly attracted by the girl, his sympathies were
now entirely with her.  If she had shot him, then it was for some
insult, some outrage, and he was ready to protect her with his life.
He stopped, glancing back at the closed door, tempted to return and ask
permission to interview Gaskins personally.  Then the uselessness of
such procedure recurred to him; the fact that nothing could result from
their meeting but disappointment and recrimination.  The man evidently
disliked him, and would resent any interference; he had something to
conceal, something at stake for which he would battle strenuously.  It
would be better to let him alone at present, and try to uncover a clue
elsewhere.  Later, with more facts in his possession, he could face the
Lieutenant and compel his acknowledgment.  These considerations caused
him to turn sharply and walk straight toward the ravine.  Yet his
investigations there brought few results.  On the upper bank were the
marks of a woman's shoe, a slender footprint clearly defined, but the
lower portion of the ravine was rocky, and the trail soon lost.  He
passed down beyond the stables, realizing how easily the fugitives,
under cover of darkness, could have escaped.  The stable guard could
have seen nothing from his station, and just below was the hard-packed
road leading to the river and the straggling town.  There was nothing
to trace, and Hamlin climbed back up the bluff completely baffled but
desperately resolved to unlock the mystery.  The harder the solution
appeared, the more determined he became to solve it.  As he came out,
opposite the barrack entrance, a carriage drove in past the
guard-house, the guard presenting arms, and circled the parade in the
direction of officers' row.  It contained a soldier driver and two
ladies, and the Sergeant's face blushed under its tan as he recognized
Miss McDonald.  Would she notice him--speak to him?  The man could not
forbear lifting his eyes to her face as the carriage swept by.  He saw
her glance toward him, smile, with a little gesture of recognition, and
stood there bareheaded, his heart throbbing wildly.  With that look,
that smile, he instantly realized two facts of importance--she was
willing to meet him on terms of friendship, and she had not recognized
him the evening previous as he ran past her in the dark.

Hamlin, his thoughts entirely centred upon Miss McDonald, had scarcely
noted her companion, yet as he lingered while the carriage drew up
before the Major's quarters, he seemed to remember vaguely that she was
a strikingly beautiful blonde, with face shadowed by a broad hat.
Although larger, and with light fluffy hair and blue eyes, the lady's
features were strangely like those of her slightly younger companion.
The memory of these grew clearer before the Sergeant--the whiteness of
the face, the sudden lowering of the head; then he knew her; across the
chasm of years her identity smote him as a blow; his breath came
quickly and his fingers clenched.

"My God!" he muttered, unconsciously.  "That was Vera!  She has
changed, wonderfully changed, but--but she knew me.  What, in Heaven's
name, can she be doing here, and--with Molly?"

With straining eyes he stared after them until they both disappeared
together within the house.  Miss McDonald glanced back toward him once
almost shyly, but the other never turned her head.  The carriage drove
away toward the stables.  Feeling as though he had looked upon a ghost,
Hamlin turned to enter the barracks.  An infantry soldier leaned
negligently in the doorway smoking.

"You 're the sergeant who saved that girl down the trail, ain't yer?"
he asked indolently.  "Thought so; I was one o' Gaskins' men."

Hamlin accepted the hand thrust forth, but with mind elsewhere.

"Do you happen to know who that was with Miss McDonald?" he asked.

"Did n't see 'em, only their backs as they went in--nice lookin'
blonde?"

"Yes, rather tall, with very light hair."

"Oh, that's Mrs. Dupont."

"Mrs. Dupont?" the name evidently a surprise; "wife of one of the
officers?"

"No, she 's no army dame.  Husband's a cattleman.  Got a range on the
Cowskin, south o' here, but I reckon the missus don't like that sorter
thing much.  Lives in St. Louis mostly, but has been stoppin' with the
McDonalds fer a month er two now.  Heerd she wus a niece o' the
Major's, an' reckon she must be, er thar 'd been a flare up long ago.
She 's a high flyer, she is, an' she 's got the Leftenant goin' all
right."

"Gaskins?"

"Sure; he's a lady-killer, but thet 's 'bout all the kind o' killer he
is, fer as I ever noticed--one o' yer he-flirts.  Thar ain't hardly an
officer in this garrison thet ain't just achin' fer ter kick that
squirt, but ther women--oh, Lord; they think he's a little tin god on
wheels.  Beats hell, don't it, what money will do fer a damn fool."

Hamlin stood a moment silent, half inclined to ask another question,
but crushing back the inclination.  Then he walked down the hall to the
quarters assigned "M" Troop, and across to his own bed in the far
corner.  There were only a few of the men present, most of whom were
busily engaged at a game of cards, and he sat down where he could gaze
out the window and think.  Here was a new complication, a fresh puzzle
to be unravelled.  He had never expected this woman to come into his
life again; she had become a blurred, unpleasant memory, a bit of his
past which he had supposed was blotted out forever.  Mrs. Dupont--then
she had not married Le Fevre after all.  He dully wondered why, yet was
not altogether surprised. Even as he turned this fact over and over in
his mind, speculating upon it, he became aware of a man leaving the
rear door of McDonald's quarters, and advancing back of officers' row
toward the barracks.  As the fellow drew near, Hamlin recognized the
soldier who had been driving the carriage.  A moment later the man
entered the room, spoke to the group of card players, and then came
straight across toward him.

"Sergeant Hamlin?"

"Yes."

"I was asked to hand you this note; there is no answer."

Hamlin held it unopened until the fellow disappeared, hesitating
between hope and dread.  Which of the two women had ventured to write
him?  What could be the unexpected message?  At last his eyes scanned
the three short lines:

"You recognized me, and we must understand each other.  At ten to-night
ask the Clerk of the Occidental--V."



CHAPTER XVI

THE MEETING

Hamlin's first impulse was to ignore the note, trusting his position in
the ranks would be sufficient barrier to prevent any chance meeting,
and believing his stay at that garrison would be only a brief one.
Sheridan was evidently preparing for an early offensive campaign, and
it was rumored on all sides that the Seventh Cavalry had been selected
for active field service.  Indeed, the urgent orders for the
consolidation of the regiment from scattered posts must mean this.  Any
day might bring orders, and he could easily avoid this Mrs. Dupont
until then.  Except for a faint curiosity, the Sergeant felt no
inclination to meet the woman.  Whatever influence she might have once
exercised over him had been thoroughly overcome by years and absence.
Even the unexpected sight of her again--seemingly as beautiful as
ever--had failed to awaken the spell of the past.  It was almost with a
thrill of delight that Hamlin realized this--that he was in truth
utterly free of her influence.  There had been times when he had
anticipated such a possible meeting with dread; when he had doubted his
own heart, the strength of his will to resist.  But now he knew he
stood absolutely independent and could laugh at her wiles.  She who had
once been all--trusted, loved, worshipped with all the mad fervor of
youth--had become only a dead memory.  Between them stretched a chasm
never to be bridged.

What could the woman possibly want of him?  To explain the past?  To
justify herself?  He knew enough already, and desired to know no more.
Could she hope--natural coquette that she was--to regain her hold upon
him?  The man smiled grimly, confident of his own strength.  Yet why
should she care for such a conquest, the winning of a common soldier?
There must be some better reason, some more subtle purpose.  Could it
be that she feared him, that she was afraid that he might speak to her
injury?  This was by far the most likely supposition.  Molly
McDonald--the woman was aware of their acquaintance, and was already
alarmed at its possible result.

Hamlin stood up resolved.  He would meet the woman, not from any desire
of his own, but to learn her purpose, and protect the girl.  The
meeting could not injure him, not even bring a swifter beating of the
heart, but might give him opportunity to serve the other.  And Le
Fevre--surely she could tell him something of Le Fevre.

Leave was easily obtained, and the Sergeant, rejoicing in a freshly
issued uniform, dressed with all the care possible, his interest
reviving at this new point of view.  It was not far down the bluff road
to the squalid little village which had naturally developed in close
proximity to the fort--near enough for protection, yet far enough
removed to be lawless--a rough frontier outpost town, of shacks and
tents, most of these dispensing vile liquors.  Among these, more
enterprising spirits--hopeful of future development--had erected larger
buildings, usually barn-like, with false fronts facing the single main
street, filled with miscellaneous stocks of goods or used for purposes
not so legitimate.  One of these housed the "Poodle Dog" saloon, with
gambling rooms above, while a few doors below was a great dance hall,
easily converted into a theatre if occasion arose,--a grotesque,
one-storied monstrosity.  Below these was the stage office, built
against the three-storied wooden hotel, which boasted of a wide porch
on two sides, and was a picture of ugliness.

By daylight all was squalor and dirt, dingy tents flapping in the
ceaseless wind, unpainted shacks, wooden houses with boards warping
under the hot sun, the single street deep in yellow dust, the
surrounding prairie littered with tin cans, and all manner of débris.
But with the coming of night much of this roughness departed.  Soldiers
from the garrison on pass, idle plainsmen, bull-whackers, adventurers
of all kinds stranded here because of Indian activity, stray cowboys
from the nearby valleys, thronged the numerous dives, seeking
excitement.  Women, gaudy of dress, shrill of voice, flitted from door
to door through the jostling crowds.  Lamps blazed over the motley
assembly, loud-voiced barkers yelled, and a band added its discords to
the din.  The "Poodle Dog" glared in light, resounded with noise; lamps
gleamed from the hotel windows, and the huge dance hall stood wide
open.  Out from the shacks and tents crept the day's sleepers for a
night of revelry; along the trails rode others eager for excitement; it
was the harvest-time of those birds of prey in saloon and gambling hell.

Hamlin saw all this, but gave the surroundings little thought.  He was
of the West, of the frontier, and beheld nothing unique in the scene.
Moreover, the purpose for which he was there overshadowed all else,
left him indifferent to the noise, the jostling, drunken crowd.  Some
he met who knew him and called his name, but he passed them with a
word, and pressed his way forward.  At the hotel he mounted the steps
and entered.  The office was in one corner of the bar-room.  The
proprietor himself, a bald-headed Irishman, sat with feet cocked up on
the counter, smoking, and barely glancing up as the Sergeant asked for
Mrs. Dupont.

"Who are yer?" he asked.

"My name is Hamlin; I am here on the lady's invitation."

"Sure; thet 's ther name all right, me bhoy.  Yer ter go out on the
east porch there, an' wait a bit whoile I sind her worrd yer here.  Oi
'm imaginin' she hed sum doubts about yer comin', the way she spoke."

"How do I get there?"

"Through the winder of the parlur over thar--sure, it 's a noice quiet
spot fer a tate-a-tate."  He got up, and peered through his glasses
across the room.  "Here, Moike; damn thet slapy head.  Will one o' yer
gents wake the lad--that's it.  Now come here, Moike.  You run over to
the Palace an' tell Mrs. Dupont the fellar is here waitin'.  Hold on
now, not so fast; wait till Oi 'm done tellin' yer.  Say thet to her
alone--do yer moind thet, ye sap-head; nobody else is to hear whut yer
say; stay there till yer git a chance ter whisper it to her.  Now skip."

Hamlin hesitated, watching the boy disappear.

"At the Palace--the dance hall across the street?" he asked
incredulously.

"Sure," indifferently, relighting his pipe.  "Officers' ball; couldn't
break in with a can-opener unless you had a invite.  Guards at both
ends, sergeant taking tickets, an' Third Regiment Band makin' music.
Hell of a swell affair; got guests here from Leavenworth, Wallace, and
all around.  Every room I got is full an' runnin' over--say, there are
fellars over thar in them fool swaller-tail coats; damned if there
ain't.  If the b'ys ever git sight of 'em on the street there 'll be a
hot time.  Say, ain' that the limit?  Injuns out thar thick as fleas on
a dog, an' them swells dancin' here in swaller-tails like this yere was
Boston."

He was still talking when Hamlin crossed the narrow hall and entered
the dimly-lighted, unoccupied parlor.  The side window was open, a
slight breeze rustled the heavy curtain, and the Sergeant stepped
outside on to the dark porch.  There was a bench close to the rail and
he sat down to wait.  A gleam of light from the Palace fell across the
western end, but the remainder of the porch lay in shadow, although he
could look up the street, and see the people jostling back and forth in
front of the Poodle Dog.  The sound of mingled voices was continuous,
occasionally punctuated by laughter, or an unrestrained outburst of
profanity.  Once shots echoed from out the din, but created no apparent
excitement, and a little later a dozen horsemen spurred recklessly
through the street, scattering the crowd, their revolvers sputtering.
Some altercation arose opposite and a voice called loudly for the
guard, but the trouble soon ceased with the clump of hoofs, dying away
in the distance, the regimental band noisily blaring out a waltz.
Hamlin, immersed in his own thoughts, scarcely observed the turmoil,
but leaned, arms on railing, gazing out into the darkness.  Something
mysterious from out the past had gripped him; he was wondering how he
should greet her when she came; speculating on her purpose in sending
for him.

It seemed as though he waited a long time before the curtain at the
window was thrust aside and the lady emerged, the slight rustling of
her dress apprising him of her presence.  The curtain still held
slightly back by her hand permitted the light from within to reflect
over her figure, revealing in softened outline the beauty of her
features, the flossy brightness of her hair.  She was in evening dress,
a light shawl draping her shoulders.  An instant she paused in
uncertainty, striving to distinguish his face; then stepped impulsively
forward, and held out her hands.

"I have kept you waiting, but you must forgive that, as I came as soon
as I could manufacture an excuse.  Won't you even shake hands with me?"

"Is it necessary?" he asked, almost wearily.  "You have come to me for
some purpose surely, but it can hardly be friendship."

"Why should you say that?" reproachfully.  "I have deserted a rather
brilliant party to meet you here."

"That, perhaps, is why I say it, Mrs. Dupont.  If my memory serves, you
would not be inclined to leave such friends as you have yonder to
rendezvous with a common soldier, unless you had some special object in
view.  If you will inform me what it is, we can very quickly terminate
the interview."

She laughed, a little touch of nervousness in the voice, but drew her
skirts aside, and sat down on the bench.

"Do you think you can deceive me by such play-acting?" she asked
eagerly.  "You are no man of wood.  Tell me, is there nothing you care
to ask me, after--after all these years?"

Hamlin lifted his eyes and looked at her, stirred into sudden interest
by the almost caressing sound of the soft voice.

"Yes," he said slowly, "there are some things I should like to know, if
I thought you would answer frankly."

"Try me and see."

"Then why are you Mrs. Dupont, instead of Mrs. Le Fevre?"

"Then my guess is true, and you are not so devoid of curiosity," she
laughed.  "My answer?  Why, it is simplicity itself--because I was
never Mrs. Le Fevre, but am rightfully Mrs. Dupont."

"Do you mean you were never married to Le Fevre?"

"What else could I mean?"

"Then he lied."

She shrugged her white shoulders.

"That would not surprise me in the least.  'T was a characteristic of
the man you had ample reason to know.  How came you to believe so
easily?"

"Believe?  What else could I believe?  Everything served to
substantiate his boast.  I was in disgrace, practically drummed out of
camp.  There was nothing left for me to live for, or strive after.  I
was practically dead.  Then your letter confessing came--"

"Wait," she interrupted, "that letter was untrue, false; it was penned
under compulsion.  I wrote you again, later, but you had gone,
disappeared utterly.  I wanted to explain, but your own people even did
not know where you were--do not know yet."

He leaned his body against the rail, and looked at her in the dim
light.  Her face retained much of its girlish attractiveness, yet its
undoubted charms no longer held the man captive.  He smiled coldly.

"The explanation comes somewhat late," he replied deliberately.  "When
it might have served me it was not offered--indeed, you had
conveniently disappeared.  But I am not here to criticise; that is all
over with, practically forgotten.  I came at your request, and presume
you had a reason.  May I again ask what it was?"



CHAPTER XVII

AT CROSS-PURPOSES

She sat for a moment silent, gazing up the street, but breathing
heavily.  This was not the reception she had anticipated, and it was
difficult to determine swiftly what course she had best pursue.
Realizing the hold she had once had upon this man, it had never
occurred to her mind that her influence had altogether departed.  Her
beauty had never failed before to win such victory, and she had trusted
now in reviving the old smouldering passion into sudden flame.  Yet
already she comprehended the utter uselessness of such an
expectation--there was no smouldering passion to be fanned; his
indifference was not assumed.  The discovery angered her, but long
experience had brought control; it required only a moment to readjust
her faculties, to keep the bitterness out of her voice.  When she again
faced him it was to speak quietly, with convincing earnestness.

"Yes, I realize it is too late for explanations," she acknowledged, "so
I will attempt none.  I wished you to know, however, that I did not
desert you for that man.  This was my principal purpose in sending for
you."

"Do you know where he is?"

She hesitated ever so slightly, yet he, watching her closely, noted it.

"No; at the close of the war he came home, commanding the regiment
which should have been yours.  Within three months he had converted all
the family property into cash and departed.  There was a rumor that he
was engaged in the cattle business."

"You actually expect me to believe all this--that you knew nothing of
his plans--were not, indeed, a part of them?"

"I am indifferent as to what you believe," she replied coldly.  "But
you are ungentlemanly to express yourself so freely.  Why should you
say that?"

"Because I chance to know more than you suppose.  Never mind how the
information reached me; had it been less authentic you might find me
now more susceptible to your presence, more choice in my language.  A
carefully conceived plot drove me from the Confederate service, in
which you were as deeply involved as Le Fevre.  Its double object was
to advance him in rank and get me out of the way.  The plan worked
perfectly; I could have met and fought either object alone, but the two
combined broke me utterly.  I had no spirit of resistance left.  Yet
even then--in spite of that miserable letter--I retained faith in you.
I returned home to learn the truth from your own lips, only to discover
you had already gone.  I was a month learning the facts; then I
discovered you had married Le Fevre in Richmond; I procured the
affidavit of the officiating clergyman.  Will you deny now?"

"No," changing her manner instantly--"what is the use?  I married the
man, but I was deceived, misled.  There was no conspiracy in which I
was concerned.  I did not know where you were; from then until this
afternoon I never saw or heard of you.  Molly told me of her rescue by
a soldier named Hamlin, but I never suspected the truth until we drove
by the barracks.  Then I yielded to my first mad impulse and sent that
note.  If you felt toward me with such bitterness, why did you come
here?  Why consent to meet me again?"

"My yielding was to a second impulse.  At first I decided to ignore
your note; then came the second consideration--Miss McDonald."

"Oh," and she laughed, "at last I read the riddle.  Not satisfied with
saving that young lady from savages, you would also preserve her
youthful innocence from the contamination of my influence.  Quite noble
of you, surely.  Are you aware of our relationship?"

"I have heard it referred to--garrison rumor."

"Quite true, in spite of your source of information, which accounts, in
a measure, for my presence here as well as my intimacy in the McDonald
household.  And you propose interfering, plan to drive me forth from
this pleasant bird's nest.  Really you amuse me, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin."

"But I have not proposed anything of that nature," the man said
quietly, rising to his feet.  "It is, of course, nothing to me, except
that Miss McDonald has been very kind and seems a very nice girl.  As I
knew something of you and your past, I thought perhaps you might
realize how much better it would be to retire gracefully."

"You mean that as a threat?  You intend to tell her?"

"Not unless it becomes necessary; I am not proud of the story myself."

Their eyes met, and there was no shadow of softness in either face.
The woman's lips curled sarcastically.

"Really, you take yourself quite seriously, do you not?  One might
think you still Major of the Fourth Texas, and heir to the old estate
on the Brazos.  You talked that way to me once before, only to discover
that I had claws with which to scratch.  Don't make that mistake again,
Mr. Sergeant Hamlin, or there will be something more serious than
scratching done.  I have learned how to fight in the past few
years--Heaven knows I have had opportunity--and rather enjoy the
excitement.  How far would your word go with Molly, do you think?  Or
with the Major?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Does it?  Oh, I understand.  You must still consider yourself quite
the lady-killer.  Well, let me tell you something--she is engaged to
Lieutenant Gaskins."

His hand-grip tightened on the rail, but there was no change in the
expression of his face.

"So I had heard.  I presume that hardly would have been permitted to
happen but for the existence of a Mr. Dupont.  By the way, which one of
you ladies shot the Lieutenant?"

It was a chance fire, and Hamlin was not sure of its effect, although
she drew a quick breath, and her voice faltered.

"Shot--Lieutenant Gaskins?"

"Certainly; you must be aware of that?"

"Oh, I knew he had some altercation, and was wounded; he accused you,
did he not?  But why bring us into the affair?"

"Because some woman was directly concerned in it.  Whoever she may be,
the officers of the fort are convinced that she probably fired the
shot; that the Lieutenant knows her identity, and is endeavoring to
shield her from discovery."

"Why do they think that?  What reason can they have for such a
conclusion?  Was she seen?"

"Her footprints were plainly visible, and the revolver used was a small
one--a '36'--such as a woman alone would carry in this country.  I have
said so to no one else, but I saw her, crouching in the shadow of the
barrack wall."

"You--you saw her?  Recognized her?"

"Yes."

"And made no attempt at arrest?  Have not even mentioned the fact to
others?  You must have a reason?"

"I have, Mrs. Dupont, but we will not discuss it now.  I merely wish
you to comprehend that if it is to be war between us, I am in
possession of weapons."

She had not lost control of herself, yet there was that about her
hesitancy of speech, her quick breathing, which evidenced her surprise
at this discovery.  It told him that he had played a good hand, had
found a point of weakness in her armor.  The mystery of it remained
unsolved, but this woman knew who had shot Gaskins; knew, and had every
reason to guard the secret.  He felt her eyes anxiously searching his
face, and laughed a little bitterly.

"You perceive, madam," he went on, encouraged by her silence, "I am not
now exactly the same unsuspecting youth with whom you played so easily
years ago.  I have learned some of life's lessons since; among them how
to fight fire with fire.  It is a trick of the plains.  Do you still
consider it necessary for your happiness to remain the guest of the
McDonalds?"

She straightened up, turning her eyes away.

"Probably not for long, but it is no threat of yours which influences
me.  It does not even interest me to know who shot Lieutenant Gaskins.
He is a vulgar little prig, only made possible by the possession of
money.  However, when I decide to depart, I shall probably do so
without consulting your pleasure."  She hesitated, her voice softening
as though in change of mood.  "Yet I should prefer parting with you in
friendship.  In asking you to meet me to-night I had no intention of
quarrelling; merely yielded to an impulse of regret for the past--"

The heavy curtain draping the window was drawn aside, permitting the
light from within to flash upon them, revealing the figure of a man in
uniform.

"Pardon my interruption," he explained, bowing, "but you were gone so
long, Mrs. Dupont, I feared some accident."

She laughed lightly.

"You are very excusable.  No doubt I have been here longer than I
supposed."

The officer's eyes surveyed the soldier standing erect, his hand lifted
in salute.  The situation puzzled him.

"Sergeant Hamlin, how are you here?  On leave?"

"Yes, sir."

"Of course this is rather unusual, Captain Barrett," said the lady
hastily, tapping the astonished officer lightly with her fan, "but I
was once quite well acquainted with Sergeant Hamlin when he was a major
of the Fourth Texas Infantry during the late war.  He and my husband
were intimates.  Naturally I was delighted to meet with him again."

The Captain stared at the man's rigid figure.

"Good Lord, I never knew that, Hamlin," he exclaimed.  "Glad to know
it, my man.  You see," he explained lamely, "we get all kinds of
fellows in the ranks, and are not interested in their past history.  I
've had Hamlin under my command for two years now, and hanged if I knew
anything about him, except that he was a good soldier.  Were you ready
to go, Mrs. Dupont?"

"Oh, yes; we have exhausted all our reminiscences.  Good-bye, Sergeant;
so glad to have met you again."

She extended her ungloved hand, a single diamond glittering in the
light.  He accepted it silently, aware of the slight pressure of her
fingers.  Then the Captain assisted her through the window, and the
falling curtain veiled them from view.



CHAPTER XVIII

ANOTHER MESSAGE

Hamlin sank back on the bench and leaned his head on his hand.  Had
anything been accomplished by this interview?  One thing, at least--he
had thoroughly demonstrated that the charm once exercised over his
imagination by this beautiful woman had completely vanished.  He saw
her now as she was--heartless, selfish, using her spell of beauty for
her own sordid ends.  If there had been left a shred of romance in his
memory of her, it was now completely shattered.  Her coolness, her
adroit changing of moods, convinced him she was playing a game.  What
game?  Nothing in her words had revealed its nature, yet the man
instinctively felt that it must involve Molly McDonald.  Laboriously he
reviewed, word by word, each sentence exchanged, striving to find some
clue.  He had pricked her in the Gaskins affair, there was no doubt of
that; she knew, or at least suspected, the party firing the shot.  She
denied at first having been married to Le Fevre, and yet later had been
compelled to acknowledge that marriage.  There then was a deliberate
falsehood, which must have been told for a purpose.  What purpose?  Did
she imagine it would make any difference with him, or did she seek to
shield Le Fevre from discovery?  The latter reason appeared the more
probable, for the man must have been in the neighborhood lately, else
where did that haversack come from?

So engrossed was Hamlin with these thoughts that he hardly realized
that some one had lifted the window curtain cautiously.  The beam of
light flashed across him, disappearing before he could lift his head to
ascertain the cause.  Then a voice spoke, and he leaned back to listen.

"Not there; gone back to the dance likely, while we were at the bar."

"Nobody out there?" this fellow growled his words.

"Some soldier asleep with his head on the rail; drunk, I reckon.  Who
was she with this time?"

"Barrett."

"Who?  Oh, yes, the fellow who brought in that troop of the Seventh.
Lord, the old girl is getting her hooks into him early.  Well, as long
as Gaskins is laid up, she may as well amuse herself somewhere else.
Barrett is rather a good looker, isn't he?  Do you know anything about
the man?  Has he got any stuff?"

"Don't know," answered the gruff voice.  "He 's a West Pointer.  Vera
likes to amuse herself once in a while; that's the woman of it.  Heard
from Gaskins to-night?"

"Oh, he 's all right," the man laughed.  "That little prick frightened
him though.  Shut up like a clam."

"So I heard.  He 'll pay to keep the story quiet, all right.  As soon
as he is well enough to come down here, we 'll tap his bundle.  Swore
he was shot by a cavalry sergeant, did n't he?"

"And sticks to it like a mule.  Must have it in for that fellow.  Well,
it helped our get-a-way."

"Yes, we 're safe enough, unless Gaskins talks, and he 's so in love
with the McDonald girl he 'll spiel out big rather than have any
scandal now.  Wish I could get a word with Vera to-night; she ought to
see him to-morrow--compassion, womanly sympathy, and all that rot, you
know, helps the game.  Let's drift over toward the Palace, Dan, and
maybe I can give her the sign."

Hamlin caught a glimpse of their backs as they passed out--one in
infantry fatigue, the other, a heavier built man, fairly well dressed
in citizen's clothes.  Inspired by a desire to see their features the
Sergeant swung himself over the rail, and dropped lightly to the
ground.  In another moment he was out on the street, in front of the
hotel, watching the open door.  The two passed within a few feet of
him, clearly revealed in the light streaming from the dance hall.  The
soldier lagged somewhat behind, an insignificant, rat-faced fellow, but
the larger man walked straight, with squared shoulders.  He wore a
broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, and a black beard concealed
the lower portion of his face.  Hamlin followed as the two pushed their
way up among the idle crowd congregated on the wooden steps, and peered
in through the wide doorway.  Satisfied that he would recognize both
worthies when they met again, and realizing now something of the plot
being operated, Hamlin edged in closer toward the sergeant who was
guarding the entrance.  The latter recognized him with a nod.

"Pretty busy, Masters?"

"Have been, but there will be a lull now; when they come back from
supper there 'll be another rush likely.  Would you mind taking my job
a minute while I go outside?"

"Not in the least; take your time.  Let me see what the tickets look
like.  That 's all right--say, Masters, before you go, do you know that
big duffer with a black beard in the front line?"

The other gave a quick glance down the faces.

"I've seen him before; dealt faro at the Poodle Dog a while; said to be
a gun-man.  Never heard his name.  Oh, yes, come to think about it,
they called him 'Reb'--Confed soldier, I reckon.  Ain't seen him before
for a month.  Got into some kind off a shootin' scrap up at Mike
Kelly's and skipped out ahead of the marshal.  Why?"

"Nothing particular--looks familiar, that 's all.  Who 's the soldier
behind him--the thin-faced runt?"

"Connors.  Some river-rat the recruiting officers picked up in New
York; in the guard-house most of the time; driver for Major McDonald
when he happens to be sober enough."

"That is where I saw him then, driving the ladies.  Knew I had seen
that mug before."

Left alone, except for the infantry man at the other side of the
entrance, and with nothing to do beyond keeping back the little crowd
of curious watchers thronging the steps, Hamlin interested himself in
the assembly, although keenly conscious of those two men who continued
to linger, staring into the brilliantly lighted room.  That the two
were closely involved with Mrs. Dupont in some money-making scheme,
closely verging on crime, was already sufficiently clear to the
Sergeant's mind.  He had overheard enough to grasp this fact, yet the
full nature of the scheme was not apparent.  Without doubt it involved
Gaskins as a victim; possibly Barrett also, but Hamlin was not inclined
to interfere personally for the protection of either of these officers.
They could look after themselves, and, if they succumbed to the charms
of the lady, and it cost something, why, that was none of his affair.
But somehow the suspicion had come to him that he had accidentally
stumbled upon a more complicated plot than mere blackmail.  Mrs.
Dupont's intimacy with Molly, and the use she was making of her distant
relationship with the Major to further her ends, made him eager to
delve deeper into her real purpose.  At least these two, apparently
ignorant of their guest's true character, should be warned, or, if that
was impossible, protected from imposture.  Their open friendliness and
social endorsement were the woman's stock in trade at Dodge, and
whatever the final _dénouement_ might be, McDonald and his daughter
would inevitably share in the ensuing disgrace of discovery.  Even if
they were not also victimized, they would be held largely responsible
for the losses of others.  Had Hamlin been a commissioned officer he
would have known what to do--his plain duty as a friend would have
taken form in a frankly spoken warning.  But, as it was, the chains of
discipline, of social rank, made it seemingly impossible for him to
approach either the Major or his daughter openly.  He did not actually
know enough to venture such an interview, and mere suspicion, even
though coupled with his former intimacy with the woman, was not
sufficient excuse for his interference.  The Major would treat the
revelation with indifference, even disbelief, and Miss Molly might even
resent his meddling in the affair.  Besides he was not altogether
convinced that the girl had not been actually present at, and in some
manner connected with, the attack on Gaskins.  The memory of that face,
shrinking behind the corner of the barrack wall, remained clear in his
mind.  He might be mistaken, but perhaps it would be best to go slow.

It was a huge, bare hall, although the walls were concealed by flags,
while other draperies were festooned along the rafters.  The band was
stationed upon a raised platform at the rear, and a hundred couples
occupied the floor.  The men present were largely officers attired in
dress-uniforms, although there was a considerable sprinkling of
civilians, a few conspicuous in garments of the latest cut and style.
Evidently invitations had been widely spread, and, considering time and
place, liberally responded to.  Among the women present the Sergeant
saw very few he recognized, yet it was comparatively easy to classify
the majority--officers' wives; the frontier helpmates of the more
prominent merchants of the town; women from the surrounding ranches,
who had deserted their homes until the Indian scare ceased; a scattered
few from pretentious small cities to the eastward, and, here and there,
younger faces, representing ranchmen's daughters, with a school-teacher
or two.  Altogether they made rather a brave show, occasionally
exhibiting toilets worthy of admiring glances, never lacking ardent
partners, and entering with unalloyed enthusiasm into the evening's
pleasure.  The big room presented a scene of brilliant color, of
ceaselessly moving figures; the air was resonant with laughter and
trembling to the dashing strains of the band.  Primitive as it was in
many respects, to Hamlin, long isolated in small frontier posts, the
scene was strangely attractive, his imagination responding to the glow
of color, the merry chime of voices, the tripping of feet.  The smiling
faces flashed past, his ears caught whispered words, his eyes followed
the flying figures.  For the moment the man forgot himself in this new
environment of thoughtless pleasure.

From among that merry throng of strangers, his eyes soon distinguished
that one in whom he felt special interest--Mrs. Dupont, dancing now
with McDonald, the rather corpulent Major exhibiting almost youthful
agility under the inspiration of music.  The lady talked with
animation, as they circled among the others on the floor, her red lips
close to her partner's ear, but Hamlin, suspicious and watchful, noted
that her eyes were busy elsewhere, scanning the faces.  They swept over
him apparently unseeing, but as the two circled swiftly by, the hand
resting lightly on the Major's shoulder was uplifted suddenly in a
peculiar, suggestive movement.  He stared after them until they were
lost in the crowd, feeling confident that the motion of those
white-gloved fingers was meant as a signal of warning.  To whom was it
conveyed?  He glanced aside at the jam of figures in the doorway.  Both
the black-whiskered man and Connors had disappeared.  It _was_ a signal
then, instantly understood and obeyed.

The Sergeant had scarcely grasped this fact when his attention was
diverted by the appearance of Miss McDonald.  She was dancing with a
civilian, an immaculately dressed individual with ruddy, boyish face.
His intense admiration of his partner was plainly evident, and the
girl, simply dressed in white, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes bright
with enjoyment, set Hamlin's cool nerves throbbing.  He could not
resist gazing at her, and, as their eyes met, she bowed, the full red
lips parting in a smile of recognition.  There was no reservation, no
restraint in that quick greeting, as she whirled by; he could not fail
to comprehend its full significance--she had not forgotten, had no
desire to forget.   What he imagined he read in her face swept all else
from his mind instantly, and, with eager eyes, he followed her slight,
girlish figure as they circled the hall.  The music ceased, and he
still watched as the lad led her to a seat, himself sinking into a
chair beside her.  Then the passing out of several men, who desired
return checks, claimed his attention.  When the last of these had
disappeared, he glanced again in her direction.  She was alone, and her
young partner was walking toward him across the deserted floor.  The
lad came to the door, which by now contained few loiterers, and stood
there a moment gazing out into the street.

"Are you Sergeant Hamlin?" he asked quietly.

"Yes."

"Miss McDonald requested me to hand you this note unobserved.  I have
no knowledge of its contents."

Hamlin felt the flutter of the paper in his palm, and stood silent,
clinging to it, as the other carelessly recrossed the room.  She was
looking toward him, but he made no motion to unfold the missive, until
his eyes, searching the chairs, had located Mrs. Dupont.  The very
secret of delivery made him cautious, made him suspect it had to do
with that woman.  She was beside the band-stand, still conversing with
the Major, apparently oblivious to any other presence, her face turned
aside.  Assured of this, he opened the paper, and glanced at the few
hastily scribbled lines.

"I trust you, and you must believe I do not do this without cause.
During the intermission be in the hotel parlor."



CHAPTER XIX

A FULL CONFESSION

There were two more dances scheduled on the program.  The last of these
had begun before the infantry sergeant returned, and, apologizing for his
long absence, resumed his duties at the door.  Across the room, Hamlin's
eyes met those of Miss McDonald, where she danced with an unknown
officer; then he turned and elbowed his way to the street.  The hotel
opposite was all bustle and confusion, the bar-room crowded with the
thirsty emergency waiters who had rushed about the hall completing final
preparations.  The Sergeant, intent on his purpose, and aware that the
band had ceased playing, dodged past these and entered the parlor.  It
was already occupied by four men, who were playing cards at a small,
round table and smoking vigorously, entirely engrossed in their game.
None of them so much as glanced up, and the intruder hesitated an
instant, quickly determining his course of action.  There was little
choice left.  The girl would never make an appointment with him except
through necessity, and it was manifestly his duty to protect her from
observation.  Two of the men sitting there were strangers; the others he
knew merely by sight, a tin-horn gambler called Charlie, and a sutler's
clerk.  His decision was swift, and characteristic.

"Gents," he said, stepping up, and tapping the table sharply, "you 'll
have to vamoose from here."

"What the hell--" the gambler looked up into the gray eyes, and stopped.

"That's all right, Charlie," went on Hamlin coolly, one hand at his belt.
"Those are my orders, and they go.  Hire a room upstairs if you want to
keep on with the game.  Pick up the stuff, you fellows."

"But see here," the speaker was upon his feet protesting.  "The old man
told us we could come in here."

"The old man's word don't go for this floor to-night, partner.  It's
rented by the post officers.  Now mosey right along, and don't come back
unless you are looking for trouble--you too, Fatty."

Right or wrong there was plainly no use continuing the argument, for
Hamlin's fingers were upon the butt of his revolver, and his eyes
hardened at the delay.  The gambler's inclination was to oppose this
summary dismissal, but a glance at his crowd convinced him he would have
to play the hand alone, so he yielded reluctantly, swept the chips into
the side pocket of his coat and departed, leaving behind a trail of
profanity.  The Sergeant smiled, but remained motionless until they
disappeared.

"The bluff works," he thought serenely, "unless they make a kick at the
office; some peeved, Charlie was."

He stepped over to the window, and held back the curtain.  A burly figure
occupied the bench, with feet upon the rail.  Even in that outside
dimness could be distinguished a black beard.  The very man, and the
Sergeant chuckled grimly with a swiftly born hope that the fellow might
create a row.  Nothing at that moment could have pleased him more.  He
blew out the parlor light, partially closed the door, and stepped forth
on to the porch.

"Say, you," he said gruffly, dropping one hand heavily on the other's
shoulder.  "Did you hear what I said to those fellows inside?  Well, it
goes out here the same.  Pack up, and clear the deck."

"Reb" dropped his feet to the floor and stood up, his bearded lips
growling profanity, but Hamlin gripped his wrist, and the man stopped,
with mouth still open, staring into the Sergeant's face.  All bravado
seemed to desert him instantly.

"Who--who says so?" and he stepped back farther into the shadow.

"I do, if you need to know," pleasantly enough.  "Sergeant Hamlin,
Seventh Cavalry."

"Oh!" the exclamation came from between clenched teeth.  "Hell, man, you
startled me."

"So I see; nervous disposition, I reckon.  Well, are you going quietly,
or shall I hoist you over the rail?"

"I had an appointment here."

"Can't help that, partner.  This porch is going to be vacant inside of
one minute, or there is a declaration of war.  Your easiest way out is
through that window, but you can go by rail if you prefer."

The black beard wasted half his allowed time in an effort at bluster;
then, to Hamlin's utter disgust, slunk through the open window and across
the darkened parlor.

"The pusillanimous cuss," the latter muttered, "he 's worse than a cur
dog.  Blamed if he was n't actually afraid of me.  A gun-fighter--pugh!"
He lifted his voice, as "Reb" paused in the light of the hall beyond and
glanced back, a fist doubled and uplifted.  "Oh, go on!  Sure, you 'll
get me?  You are the brave boy, now," and Hamlin strode toward the door
threateningly.  "Lope along, son, and don't turn around again until you
face the bar."

He drew the door partially to again, and sat down facing the opening,
where a stray beam of light fell across the floor.  Thus far the
adventure had scarcely proven interesting.  The last encounter had been a
distinct disappointment.  The dispersal of the card-players was, as
anticipated, easily managed, but the reputation of "Reb" as killer and
bad man had given him hope of resistance.  But instead he had proven a
perfect lamb.  Hamlin crossed his legs and waited, his mind divided in
wonder between what Miss McDonald might want, and the cowardice of the
fellow just driven out.  The man was actually afraid--afraid to start a
row.  Yet he had got to his feet with that intention; it was only after
he had looked into Hamlin's face and asked his name, that he began to
hedge and draw back.  Could he have recognized him?  Could Mrs. Dupont
have warned him of danger in his direction?  That would seem impossible,
for the woman had not been with him for even a minute since their
conversation.  She had given him a swift signal at the door of the dance
hall, but that could scarcely account for his present desire to avoid
trouble.  An engagement?  Probably with Mrs. Dupont.  But what was the
use of speculating?  Perhaps when the girl came she would have some light
to throw on these matters.  Surely her sudden determination to see him
privately must have connection with this affair.

These thoughts came swiftly, for his period of waiting proved to be but a
short one.  He heard the laughter and talk as the merry-makers came into
the hotel from the dance hall, crowding the passage, and thronging in to
where the tables were set.  Then a rattle of dishes, and the steady
shuffling of waiters rushing back and forth.  Occasionally he could
distinguish a shadow out in the hall, but never changed his motionless
posture, or removed his eyes from the aperture, until she slipped
noiselessly through and stood there panting slightly, her hand clasping
the knob of the door.  Apparently in the semi-darkness of the room she
was uncertain of his presence, while her white dress touched by the
outside reflection made her clearly visible.

"It is all right, Miss McDonald," he murmured hastily, arising.  "There
is nothing to fear."

"You are here--alone?"

"Yes," smiling in memory.  "There were occupants when I first arrived,
but they were persuaded to depart.  I had a suspicion you might prefer it
that way."

"Yes," puzzled by his manner, yet softly pushing the door back so as to
exclude the light.  "I can see better now.  Are--are you sure no one can
overhear?  I have something to tell you--something important."

"There is no one else here, yet some one might stumble into this room.
It is not private, you know.  We shall be safer on the porch outside.
Will you take my hand, and let me guide you?"

She did so unhesitatingly, but her fingers were cold, and he could feel
the twitching of her nerves.

"You are frightened--not of me, surely?"

"Oh, no!" a slight catch in her voice, "but I am running such a risk
venturing here.  I--I had to pretend a sick-headache to get away.  You
must not condemn me until you hear why I came."

"I condemn?  Hardly, Miss McDonald.  I am merely a soldier receiving
orders; 'mine not to question why.'  Here is the window; now sit down on
this bench.  I 'll keep guard, and listen."  His voice sank lower, a
little touch of tenderness in it impossible to disguise.  "Are you in
trouble?  Is it something I can aid you to overcome?"

She did not answer at once but rested her chin in one hand, and turned
her eyes away.  Her breath came swiftly, as though she had not yet
recovered from fright, and her face in the dim light looked white and
drawn.

"Yes, you can," she began slowly, "I am sure you can.  I--I came to you
because there was no one else in whom I felt the same confidence.  I know
that sounds strange, but I cannot explain--only it seems natural to trust
some people even when you do not know them very well.  I do not suppose I
know you very well; just those few hours we were together, but--somehow I
think you are true."

"I certainly hope so," he put in earnestly.  "I couldn't very well help
being--with you."

"I believe that," and she lifted her eyes to his face.

"Yet I do not wish you to think me bold, or--or indiscreet.  You do not
think so, do you?"

"That idea has never once occurred to me, Miss McDonald.  I am only too
glad to be of service."

"It is good of you to say that; you see, there was no one else."

"Your father?" he suggested.

"But that is the very trouble," she insisted, rejoicing that he had thus
unconsciously opened the way to her confession.  "It is because my father
is involved, is completely in her toils, that I am compelled to appeal to
you.  He will not listen to a word against her."

"Her?  You refer to Mrs. Dupont?"

"Of course; why, I hadn't mentioned her name!  How did you guess?"

"Because I am not entirely ignorant of conditions," he answered soberly.
"Although I have only been at the post a short time, I have managed to
see and hear a good deal.  You know I chanced to become involved in the
shooting of Lieutenant Gaskins, and then I saw you riding with Mrs.
Dupont, and recognized her."

"Recognized?" in surprise.  "Do you actually mean you knew her before?"

"Not as Mrs. Dupont, but as Vera Carson, years ago.  She knew me at once,
and sent your driver over to the barracks with a note."

"Why, how strange.  She asked me so many questions, I wondered at the
interest shown.  Do you mind telling me what the note was about?"

"Not in the least.  She referred to the past, and asked me to meet her."

"Were you--very intimate?  Great friends?"

"We were engaged to be married," he acknowledged frankly, his eyes upon
her face.  "That was at the breaking out of the war, and I was in my
senior college year.  We met at school, and I was supposed to be the heir
to a large property.  She is a beautiful woman now, and she was a
beautiful girl then.  I thought her as good and true as she was charming.
Since then I have learned her selfishness and deceit, that it was my
money which attracted her, and that she really loved another man, a
classmate."

She glanced up at him as he paused, but he resumed the story without
being interrupted.

"The war came, and I enlisted at once, and received a commission.  Almost
our entire class went, and the man she really loved was next below me in
rank."

"Eugene Le Fevre?"

"Yes; how did you know?  Oh, I told you of him out there in the
sand-hills.  Well, I urged her to marry me before I went to the front,
but she made excuses.  Later, I understood the reason--she was uncertain
as to my inheriting the property of an uncle.  We were ordered to the
Army of Northern Virginia.  Once I went home on furlough, severely
wounded.  We were to be married then, but I had not sufficiently
recovered when I was suddenly ordered back to the front.  I did suspect
then, for the first time, that she was glad of the respite.  I afterwards
discovered that during all this time she was in correspondence with Le
Fevre, who had been detailed on Early's staff.  It was his influence
which brought about my sudden, unexpected recall to duty.  A few months
later I was promoted major, and, at Fisher's Hill, found myself
commanding the regiment.  Early in the action Le Fevre brought me an
order; it was delivered verbally, the only other party present a corporal
named Shultz, a German knowing little English.  Early's exact words were:
'Advance at once across the creek, and engage the enemy fiercely; a
supporting column will move immediately.'  Desperate as the duty involved
appeared, there was nothing in the order as given to arouse suspicion.
In obedience I flung my command forward, leading them on foot.  We
charged into a trap, and were nearly annihilated, and Shultz was either
killed, or made prisoner.  Two days later I was arrested under charges,
was tried by court-martial, and dismissed from the service in disgrace.
Early produced a copy of his written order; it read 'cautiously feel the
enemy's position,' and Le Fevre went on the stand, and swore the original
had been delivered to me.  I had no witnesses."

She watched him with wide-open eyes, her lips parted.

"And she--this Vera Carson?"

The man laughed bitterly.

"Wrote him a letter, which the man actually had the nerve to show me when
I was helpless, proving her falsity.  I would not believe, and went back
seeking her.  But she had departed--no one knew where--but had first
convinced herself that my name had been erased from my uncle's will.  Two
months later I heard that she married Le Fevre in Richmond."

"And she--that woman--actually asked you to meet her again to-night?"

"Yes."

"Did you?"

"I must plead guilty."

"Where?"

"Here; just where we are now; we were together half an hour."

She half arose to her feet, her hand grasping the rail.

"But I cannot understand.  Why should you?  Do you--"

"No; wait," he interrupted, venturing to touch her arm.  "I came, not
because of any interest in her, Miss Molly--but for you."



CHAPTER XX

MOLLY TELLS HER STORY

Her breath came in a little sob, and she sank back on the bench.

"For me?  How do you mean?"

"Surely I had every reason to distrust her, to question her character,
and I could not believe you realized the sort of woman she is.  I felt
it my duty to discover her purpose here, and to warn you if possible."

"And you have succeeded?  You learned her purpose in your interview?"

"Not exactly," with regret.  "My suspicion was merely stimulated.  To
tell the truth, we rather drifted into a renewal of our old quarrel.
However, between what she said, and parts of another conversation
overheard, I know there is a blackmailing conspiracy on foot in which
you are involved.  May I speak very frankly?"

"I certainly desire it," proudly.  "I am not aware that I have anything
to conceal."

"Apparently the scheme these people have on foot originated about
Lieutenant Gaskins.  He is wealthy, I understand?"

"I have been told so; yes, I know he is."

"This knowledge, coupled with the fact of your engagement--"

"My what?"

"Your engagement.  I had heard it rumored before, and Mrs. Dupont
assured me it was true."

"But it is not true, Sergeant Hamlin"--indignantly.  "I cannot imagine
how such a report ever started.  Lieutenant Gaskins has been very
friendly; has--" her voice breaking slightly, "even asked me to marry
him, but--but I told him that was impossible.  He has been just as kind
to me since, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing between us.  I
have never spoken about this before to any one."

If Hamlin's heart leaped wildly at this swift denial, there was no
evidence of it in his quiet voice.

"The point is, Miss Molly, that Mrs. Dupont, and those connected with
her, think otherwise.  They are presuming on Gaskins' being in love
with you.  Mrs. Dupont can be very seductive.  Little by little she has
drawn the Lieutenant into her net.  Believing him engaged to you, they
have him now where he must either pay money for silence or be exposed.
Just how it was worked, I do not know.  The shooting last night was
done to convince him they were serious.  The fact that Gaskins later
denied knowing who his assailants were--even endeavored to accuse
me--is abundant proof of their success."  He hesitated, wondering at
her silence.  "What puzzles me most is why you were present."

"Present?  Where?"

"At this quarrel with Gaskins last evening.  As I ran by toward the
scene of the shooting I passed you hiding at the angle or the barrack
wall.  Of course, I have mentioned the fact to no one.  That was why I
made no attempt to defend myself when arrested."

She gasped for breath, scarcely able to articulate.

"You believe that?  You think that of me?"

"I may have been deceived; I hope so; there was but little light, and I
got merely a glimpse," he explained hastily.

"You were deceived," impetuously.  "I was not out of the house that
evening.  I was in the parlor with my father when those shots were
fired.  You are sure you saw a woman there--hiding?"

"There is no doubt of that; her foot-prints were plainly to be seen in
the morning.  This discovery, together with the size of the weapon
used, resulted in my immediate release.  I saw her, and imagined her to
be you.  I cannot account for the mistake, unless you were in my mind,
and--and possibly what I had heard of your connection with Gaskins.
Then it must have been Mrs. Dupont.  That looks reasonable.  But she
stays at your home, does she not?"

"She makes our house her headquarters, but is absent occasionally.
Last night she was here at this hotel.  Well, we are getting this
straightened out a little--that is, if you believe me."

"Of course."

"Then I am going to question you.  You spoke of overhearing a
conversation?"

"Yes; it was after Mrs. Dupont had left.  Captain Barrett came, and
took her away.  I was sitting here thinking when two men came into the
parlor."

"Who were they?  Do you know?"

"One was the soldier who drives you about--Connors; the other a
black-bearded, burly fellow called 'Reb.'"

"Mr. Dupont."

"What?  Is that Dupont?  Lord!  No wonder she 's gone bad.  Why, I
thought her husband was a ranchman down South somewhere!  This fellow
is a tin-horn."

"He did run cattle once, years ago.  I think he was quite well off, but
drank and gambled it away.  Papa told me all about it, but I found out
he was the man by accident.  He--is the one I am really afraid of."

She stopped, her eyes deserting his face, and stared out into the
darkness.  He waited, feeling vaguely that he had not heard all she
intended to say.

"What more do you know?" he asked.  "What was it you expected of me?"

She turned again, aroused by the question.

"Yes, I must tell you as quickly as I can, before I am missed.  I did
not know about Mrs. Dupont and Lieutenant Gaskins.  I realized there
was something between them--a--a--slight flirtation, but scarcely gave
that a thought.  What brought me here was a much more serious matter,
yet this new information helps me to comprehend the other--the motives,
I mean.  Mrs. Dupont's maiden name was Vera Carson?"

"Certainly; I knew her family well."

"She came here, and was received into our family as a daughter of my
father's sister.  If true, her maiden name would have been Sarah
Counts.  Papa had no reason to suspect the deceit.  He does not now,
and I doubt if even your word would convince him, for he seems
thoroughly under her influence.  There has been such a change in him
since she came; not all at once, you know, but gradual, until now he
scarcely seems like the same man.  I--I do not dislike Lieutenant
Gaskins; he has been pleasant and attentive, but I do not care for him
in any other way.  Yet papa insists that I marry the man.  Lately he
has been very unkind about it, and--and I am sure she is urging him on.
What can I do?  It is all so unpleasant."

Hamlin shook his head, but without reply.

"You will not tell me!  Then I will tell you I shall say no! no! no!
In spite of them; I shall refuse to be sold.  But how does that woman
control my father?" she leaned closer in her earnestness, lowering her
voice.  "She has not won him by charms; he is afraid of her."

"Afraid?  Are you certain of that?"

"Yes.  I cannot tell you how I know; perhaps it is all womanly
instinct, but I do know that he is terrorized; that he dare not oppose
her wish.  I have read the truth in his eyes, and I am sure he is harsh
to me only because he is driven by some threat.  What can it be?"

"You have never spoken to him of your suspicions?  Asked him?"

"Yes and no.  I tried once, and shall never forget the expression of
his face.  Then he turned on me in a perfect paroxysm of anger.  I
never even dared hint at the matter again."

The Sergeant stared out into the street, not knowing what to say, or
how to advise.  Almost unconscious of the action his hand stole along
the rail until it touched hers.

"If the woman has not ensnared him by her usual methods," he said
soberly, "and I think myself you are right about that, for I watched
them together in the dance hall--I did not comprehend what it meant
then, but it seemed to me he actually disliked being in her
company--then she has uncovered something in his past of which he is
afraid, something unknown to you, which he does not desire you ever to
know."

"Yes," softly, "that must be true."

"No; it may not be true; it may all be a lie, concocted for a purpose.
A clever woman might so manipulate circumstances as to convince him she
held his fate in her hands.  We must find that out in this case."

"But how, Sergeant Hamlin?  He will not tell me."

"Perhaps she will tell me if I can reach her alone," he said grimly,
"or else that husband of hers--Dupont.  He 'll know the whole story.
It would give me pleasure to choke it out of him--real pleasure.  Then
there 's Connors, just the sort of sneaking rat if he can be caught
with the goods; only it is not likely he knows much.  I shall have to
think it all out, Miss Molly," he smiled at her confidently.  "You see,
I am a bit slow figuring puzzles, but I generally get them in time.
You 've told me all you know?"

"Everything.  It almost seems silly when I try to explain what I feel
to another."

"Not to me.  I knew enough before to understand.  But, perhaps, you had
better go--hush, some one is entering the parlor."

She got to her feet in spite of his restraining hand, startled and
unnerved.

"Oh, I must not be seen here.  Is there no other way?"

"No; be still for a moment; step back there in the shadow, and let me
go in alone."

He stepped forward, his grasp already on the curtain, when a woman's
voice spoke within:

"Yes, that was what I meant; he does not know you--yet.  But you must
keep away."



CHAPTER XXI

MOLLY DISAPPEARS

The speaker was Mrs. Dupont, but Hamlin's one thought was to prevent
any discovery of Miss McDonald.  Without an instant's hesitation he
drew aside the curtain, and stepped into the room.

"Pardon me," he said quietly, as the two started back at his rather
abrupt entrance, "but I did not care to overhear your conversation.  No
doubt it was intended to be private."

[Illustration: The two started back at his rather abrupt entrance.]

The woman stepped somewhat in advance of her companion, as though to
shield him from observation, instantly mastering her surprise.

"Nothing at all serious, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin," she retorted scornfully.
"Don't be melodramatic, please; it gets on the nerves.  If you must
know, I was merely giving our ranch foreman a few final instructions,
as he leaves to-morrow.  Have you objections?"

"Assuredly not--your ranch foreman, you say?  Met him before, I think.
You are the fellow I ordered out of this room, are n't you?"

The man growled something unintelligible, but Mrs. Dupont prevented any
direct reply.

"That's all right, John," she broke in impatiently.  "You understand
what I want now, and need not remain any longer.  I have a word to say
myself to this man."

She waited an instant while he left the room; then her eyes defiantly
met Hamlin's.

"I was told you had driven every one out of here," she said coldly.
"What was the game?"

"This room was reserved--"

"Pish! keep that explanation for some one else.  You wanted the room
for some purpose.  Who have you got out there?" she pointed at the
window.

"Whether there be any one or not," he answered, leaning against the
window frame, and thus barring the passage, "I fail to see wherein you
are concerned."

She laughed.

"Which remark is equivalent to a confession.  Dave," suddenly changing,
"why should we quarrel, and misjudge each other?  You cannot suppose I
have forgotten the past, or am indifferent.  Cannot you forgive the
mistake of a thoughtless girl?  Is there any reason why we should not
be, at least, friendly?"

There was an appeal in her voice, but the man's face did not respond.

"I cannot say that I feel any bitterness over the past," he answered
lightly.  "I am willing enough to blot that out.  What I am interested
in is the present.  I should like to understand your purpose here at
Dodge."

"Surely that is sufficiently clear.  I am merely an exile from home, on
account of Indian depredations.  What more natural than that I should
take refuge in my uncle's house."

"You mean Major McDonald?"

"Certainly--he was my mother's only brother."

"I think I have heard somewhere that the Major's only sister married a
man named Counts."

She drew in her breath sharply.

"Yes, of course--her first husband."

"You were a daughter then of her first marriage?"

"Of course."

"But assumed the name of Carson when she married again?"

"That was when you met me."

"The change was natural enough," he went on.

"But why did you also become Vera in place of Sarah?"

"Oh, is that it?  Well, never attempt to account for the vagaries of a
girl," she returned lightly, as though dismissing the subject.  "I
presume I took a fancy to the prettier name.  But how did you know?"

"Garrison rumor picks up nearly everything, and it is not very kind to
you, Mrs. Dupont.  I hope I am doing you a favor in saying this.  Your
rather open flirtation with Lieutenant Gaskins is common talk, even
among enlisted men, and I have heard that your relations with Major
McDonald are peculiar."

"Indeed!" with a rising inflection of the voice.  "How kind of you, and
so delicately expressed."  She laughed.  "And poor Major McDonald!
Really, that is ridiculous.  Could you imagine my flirting with him?"

"I have no recollection of using that term in this connection.  But you
have strange influence over him.  For some reason the man is apparently
afraid of you."

"Afraid of me?  Oh, no!  Some one has been fooling you, Dave.  I am
merely Major McDonald's guest.  I wonder who told you that?  Shall I
guess?"

Before he could realize her purpose the woman took a hasty step
forward, and swept aside the curtain, thrusting her head past to where
she could gain a view outside.  Hamlin pressed her back with one hand,
planting himself squarely before the window.  She met his eyes
spitefully.

"I was mistaken this time," she acknowledged, drawing away, "but I 'd
like to know why you were so anxious to prevent my looking out.  Do you
know whom I thought you had there?"

"As you please," rejoicing that the girl had escaped notice.

"That little snip of a Molly.  You made a hit with her all right, and
she certainly don't like me.  Well, delightful as it is to meet you
again, I must be going."  She turned away, and then paused to add over
her shoulder.  "Don't you think it would be just as safe for you to
attend to your own business, Sergeant Hamlin?"

"And let you alone?"

"Exactly; and let me alone.  I am hardly the sort of woman it is safe
to play with.  It will be worth your while to remember that."

He waited, motionless, until assured that she had passed down the hall
as far as the door of the dining-room.  The sound of shuffling chairs
evidenced the breaking up of the party, in preparation to return to the
ballroom.  If Miss McDonald's absence were to escape observation, she
would have to slip out now and rejoin the others as they left the
house.  He again turned down the light, and held back the curtain.

"The way is clear now, Miss Molly."

There was no response, no movement.  He stepped outside, thinking the
girl must have failed to hear him.  The porch was empty.  He stepped
from one end to the other, making sure she was not crouching in the
darkness, scarcely able to grasp the fact of her actual disappearance.
This, then, was why Mrs. Dupont had failed to see any one when she
glanced out.  But where could the girl have gone?  How gotten away?  He
had heard no sound behind him; not even the rustle of a skirt to betray
movement.  It was not far to the ground, five or six feet, perhaps; it
would be perfectly safe for one to lower the body over the rail and
drop.  The matted prairie grass under foot would render the act
noiseless.  No doubt that was exactly the way the escape had been
accomplished.  Alarmed by the presence of those others, suspecting that
the woman within would insist on learning whom Hamlin was attempting to
conceal, possibly overhearing enough of their conversation to become
frightened at the final outcome, Miss McDonald, in sudden desperation,
had surmounted the rail, and dropped to the ground.  The rest would be
easy--to hasten around the side of the house, and slip in through the
front door.

Assured that this must be the full explanation, the Sergeant's
cheerfulness returned.  The company of officers and guests had already
filed out through the hall; he could hear voices laughing and talking
in the street, and the band tuning up their instruments across in the
dance hall.  He would go over and make certain of her presence, then
his mind would be at ease.  He passed out through the deserted hallway,
and glanced in at the dining-room, where a number of men were gathering
up the dishes.  Beyond this the barroom was crowded, a riffraff lined
up before the sloppy bar, among these a number in uniform--unattached
officers who had loitered behind to quench their thirst.  Hamlin drank
little, but lingered a moment just inside the doorway, to observe who
was present.  Unconsciously he was searching for Dupont, half inclined
to pick a quarrel deliberately with the fellow or with Connors,
determined if he found the little rat alone to frighten whatever
knowledge he possessed out of him.  But neither worthy appeared.
Having assured himself of their absence, Hamlin turned to depart, but
found himself facing a little man with long hair, roughly dressed, who
occupied the doorway.  The hooked nose, and bright eyes, peering forth
from a mass of untrimmed gray whiskers, were familiar.

"You keep the junk shop down by the express office, don't you?"

"Yep," briskly, scenting business in the question.  "I 'm Kaplan; vot
could I do for you--hey?"

"Answer a question if you will, friend.  Do you recall selling a
haversack to a traveller on the last stage out for Santa Fé in June?"

"Vel, I do' no; vas he a big fellow?  Maybe de von vat vas killed--hey?"

"Yes; his name was Moylan, post-sutler at Fort Marcy."

"Maybe dot vos it.  Why you vant to know--hey?"

"No harm to you, Kaplan," the Sergeant explained.  "Only I picked it up
out there after Moylan was killed, and discovered by some writing on
the flap that it originally belonged to a friend of mine.  I was
curious to learn how it got into your hands."

The trader shrugged his shoulders.

"Vud it be worth a drink?" he asked cannily.

"Of course.  Frank, give Kaplan whatever he wants.  Now, fire away."

"Vel," and the fellow filled his glass deliberately, "It vas sold me
six months before by a fellow vat had a black beard--"

"Dupont?"

"Dat vos de name ov de fellar, yes.  Now I know it.  I saw him here
again soon.  You know him?"

"By sight only; he is not the original owner, nor the man I am trying
to trace.  You know nothing of where he got the bag, I presume?"

"I know notting more as I tell you alreatty," rather disconsolately, as
he realized that one drink was all he was going to receive.

Hamlin elbowed his way out to the street.  He had learned something,
but not much that was of any value.  Undoubtedly the haversack had come
into Dupont's possession through his wife, but this knowledge yielded
no information as to the present whereabouts of Le Fevre.  When the
latter had separated from the woman, this old army bag was left behind,
and, needing money, Dupont had disposed of it, along with other truck,
seemingly of little value.

The Sergeant reached this conclusion quickly, and, satisfied that any
further investigation along this line would be worthless, reverted to
his earlier quest--the safety of Miss McDonald.  Merely to satisfy
himself of her presence, he crossed the street and glanced in at the
whirling dancers.  There were few loiterers at the doorway and he stood
for a moment beside the guard, where he was able to survey the entire
room.  Mrs. Dupont was upon the floor, and swept past twice, without
lifting her eyes in recognition, but neither among the dancers, nor
seated, could he discover Miss Molly.

Startled at not finding her present, Hamlin searched anxiously for the
Major, only to assure himself of his absence also.  Could they have
returned to the fort as early as this?  If so, how did it happen their
guest was still present, happily enjoying herself?  Of course she might
be there under escort of some one else--Captain Barrett, possibly.  He
would ask the infantryman.

"Have you seen Miss McDonald since supper?"

The soldier hesitated an instant, as though endeavoring to remember.

"No, I ain't, now you speak of it.  She went out with that kid over
there, and he came back alone.  Don't believe he 's danced any since.
The Major was here, though; Connors brought him a note a few minutes
ago, and he got his hat and went out."

Hamlin drew a breath of relief.  "Girl must have sent for him to take
her home," he said.  "Well, it 's time for me to turn in--good-night,
old man."

He tramped along the brightly illumined street, and out upon the dark
road leading up the bluff to the fort, his mind occupied with the
events of the evening, and those other incidents leading up to them.
There was no doubt that Miss McDonald and her father had returned to
their home.  But what could he do to assist her?  The very knowledge
that she had voluntarily appealed to him, that she had come to him
secretly with her trouble, brought strange happiness.  Moreover his
former acquaintance with Mrs. Dupont gave him a clue to the mystery.
Yet how was he going to unravel the threads, discover the motive, find
out the various conspirators?  What were they really after?  Money
probably, but possibly revenge.  What did the woman know which enabled
her to wield such influence over McDonald?  What was the trap they
proposed springing?  The Sergeant felt that he could solve these
problems if given an opportunity, but he was handicapped by his
position; he could not leave his troop, could not meet or mingle with
the suspected parties; was tied, hand and foot, by army discipline.  He
could not even absent himself from the post without gaining special
permission.  He swore to himself over the hopelessness of the
situation, as he tramped through the blackness toward the guard-house.
The sentinel glanced at his pass, scrutinizing it by the light of a
fire, and thrust the paper into his pocket.  Hamlin advanced, and at
the corner saluted the officer of the day, who had just stepped out of
the guard-house door.

"Good evening, Sergeant," the latter said genially.  "Just in from
town?  I expect they are having some dance down there to-night."

"Yes, sir," hesitatingly, and then venturing the inquiry.  "May I ask
if Major McDonald has returned to the post?"

"McDonald?  No," he glanced at his watch.  "He had orders to go east to
Ripley on the stage.  That was due out about an hour ago."

"To Ripley?  By stage?" the Sergeant repeated the words, dazed.
"Why--why, what has become of Miss McDonald?"

The officer smiled, shaking his head.

"I 'm sure I don't know, my man," he returned carelessly.  "Come back
with Barrett and his lady-love, likely.  Why?" suddenly interested by
the expression on the other's face.  "What's happened?  Is there
anything wrong?"



CHAPTER XXII

A DEEPENING MYSTERY

Startled and bewildered as Hamlin was by this sudden revealment, he at
once comprehended the embarrassment of his own position.  He could not
confess all he knew, certainly not the fact that the girl had met him
secretly and had vanished while he was endeavoring to turn aside Mrs.
Dupont.  He must protect her at all hazards.  To gain time, and
self-control, he replied with a question:

"Did not Connors drive them down, sir?"

"Yes, the four of them."

"And Major McDonald knew then that he was ordered East?"

"No, the order came by telegram later.  An orderly was sent down about
ten o'clock.  But, see here, Sergeant, I am no Bureau of Information.
If you have anything to report, make it brief."

Hamlin glanced at the face of the other.  He knew little about him,
except that he had the reputation of being a capable officer.

"I will, sir," he responded quickly; "you may never have heard of the
affair, but I was with Miss McDonald during a little Indian trouble out
on the trail a few months ago."

The officer nodded.

"I heard about that; Gaskins brought her in."

"Well, ever since she has seemed grateful and friendly.  You know how
some women are; well, she is that kind.  To-night she came to me,
because she did n't seem to know whom else to go to, and told me of
some trouble she was having.  I realize, Captain Kane, that it may seem
a bit strange to you that a young lady like Miss McDonald, an officer's
daughter, would turn for help to an enlisted man, but I am telling you
only the truth, sir.  You see, she got it into her head somehow that I
was square, and--and, well, that I cared enough to help her."

"Wait a minute, Sergeant," broke in Kane, kindly, realizing the other's
embarrassment, and resting one hand on his sleeve.  "You do not need to
apologize for Miss McDonald.  I know something of what is going on at
this post, although, damn me if I 've ever got on to the straight
facts.  You mean that Dupont woman?"

"Yes, she 's concerned in the matter, but there are others also."

"Why could n't the girl tell her father?"

"That is where the main trouble lies, Captain.  Major McDonald seems to
be completely under the control of Mrs. Dupont.  He is apparently
afraid of her for some reason.  That is what Miss Molly spoke to me
about.  We were on the side porch at the hotel talking while the
dancers were at supper--it was the only opportunity the girl had to get
away--and Mrs. Dupont and her husband came into the parlor--"

"Her husband?  Good Lord, I thought her husband was dead."

"He is n't.  He 's a tin-horn gambler, known in the saloons as 'Reb,' a
big duffer, wearing a black beard."

"All right, go on; I don't know him."

"Well, I stepped into the room to keep the two apart, leaving the girl
alone outside.  We had a bit of talk before I got the room cleared, and
when I went back to the porch, Miss Molly had gone."

"Dropped over the railing to the ground."

"That's what I thought at the time, sir, but what happened to her after
that?  She did n't return to the hotel; she was not at the dance hall,
and has n't come back to the post."

"The hell you say!  Are you sure?"

"I am; I searched for her high and low before I left, and she could not
get in here without passing the guard-house."

Kane stared into the Sergeant's race a moment, and then out across the
parade ground.  A yellow light winked in the Colonel's office,
occasionally blotted out by the passing figure of a sentry.  The
officer came to a prompt decision.

"The 'old man' is over there yet, grubbing at some papers.  Come on
over, and tell him what you have told me.  I believe the lass will turn
up all right, but it does look rather queer."

The Colonel and the Post Adjutant were in the little office, busy over
a pile of papers.  Both officers glanced up, resenting the
interruption, as Kane entered, Hamlin following.  The former explained
the situation briefly, while the commandant leaned back in his chair,
his keen eyes studying the younger man.

"Very well, Captain Kane," he said shortly, as the officer's story
ended.  "We shall have to examine into this, of course, but will
probably discover the whole affair a false alarm.  There is, at
present, no necessity for alarming any others.  Sergeant, kindly
explain to me why Miss McDonald should have come to you in her
distress?"

Hamlin stepped forward, and told the story again in detail, answering
the Colonel's questions frankly.

"This, then, was the only time you have met since your arrival?"

"Yes, sir."

"And this Mrs. Dupont?  You have had a previous acquaintance with her?"

"Some years ago."

"You consider her a dangerous woman?"

"I know her to be utterly unscrupulous, sir.  I am prepared to state
that she is here under false pretences, claiming to be a niece of Major
McDonald's.  I do not know her real purpose, but am convinced it is an
evil one."

The Colonel shook his head doubtfully, glancing at the silent adjutant.

"That remains to be proven, Sergeant.  I have, of course, met the lady,
and found her pleasant and agreeable as a companion.  Deuced pretty
too; hey, Benson?  Why do you say she masquerades as McDonald's niece?"

"Because her maiden name was Carson and the Major's sister married a
man named Counts."

"There might have been another marriage.  Surely McDonald must know."

"Miss Molly says not, Colonel.  He has known nothing of his sister for
over twenty years, and accepted this woman on her word."

"Well, well!  Interesting situation; hey, Benson?  Like to get to the
bottom myself.  Damme if it don't sound like a novel.  However, the
thing before us right now is to discover what has become of Miss
McDonald."  He straightened up in his chair, then leaned across the
table.  "Captain Kane, make a thorough examination of McDonald's
quarters first.  If the girl is not found there, detail two men to
accompany Sergeant Hamlin on a search of the town."

"Very well, sir; come on, Sergeant."

"Just a moment--if we find the trail leads beyond the town are we
authorized to continue?"

"Certainly, yes.  Adjutant, write out the order.  Anything more?"

"I should prefer two men of my own troop, sir, mounted."

"Very well; see to it, Captain."

The two men walked down past the dark row of officers' houses, the
Sergeant a step to the rear on the narrow cinder path.  McDonald's
quarters were as black as the others, and there was no response from
within when Kane rapped at the door.  They tried the rear entrance with
the same result--the place was plainly unoccupied.

"Pick out your men, Hamlin," the Captain said sternly, "and I 'll call
the stable guard."

Ten minutes later, fully equipped for field service, the three troopers
circled the guard-house and rode rapidly down the dark road toward the
yellow lights of the town.  The Sergeant explained briefly the cause of
the expedition, and the two troopers, experienced soldiers, asked no
unnecessary questions.  Side by side the three men rode silently into
the town, and Hamlin swung down from his saddle at the door of the
dance hall.  With a word to the guard he crossed the floor to intercept
Mrs. Dupont.  The latter regarded his approach with astonishment, her
hand on Captain Barrett's blue sleeve.

"Certainly not," she replied rather sharply to his first question.  "I
am not in charge of Miss McDonald.  She is no doubt amusing herself
somewhere; possibly lying down over at the hotel; she complained of a
headache earlier in the evening.  Why do you come to me?"

"Yes," broke in the Captain, "that is what I wish to know, Hamlin.  By
what authority are you here?"

"The orders of the Colonel commanding, sir," respectfully, yet not
permitting his glance to leave the woman's face.  "You insist then,
madam, that you know nothing of the girl's disappearance?"

"No!" defiantly, her cheeks red.

"Nor of what has become of Connors, or your ranch manager?"

She shrugged her shoulders, endeavoring to smile.

"The parties mentioned are of very small interest to me."

"And Major McDonald," he insisted, utterly ignoring the increasing
anger of the officer beside her.  "Possibly you were aware of his
departure?"

"Yes," more deliberately; "he told me of his orders, and bade me
good-bye later.  So far as Connors is concerned, he was to have the
carriage here for us at two o'clock.  Is that all, Mr. Sergeant
Hamlin?"'

"You better make it all," threatened the Captain belligerently, "before
I lose my temper at this infernal impertinence."

Hamlin surveyed the two calmly, confident that the woman knew more than
she would tell, and utterly indifferent as to the other.

"Very well," he said quietly, "I will learn what I desire elsewhere.  I
shall find Miss McDonald, and discover what has actually occurred."

"My best wishes, I am sure," and the lady patted the Captain's arm
gently.  "We are losing this waltz."

There was but one course for Hamlin to pursue.  He had no trail to
follow, only a vague suspicion that these plotters were in some way
concerned in the mysterious disappearance.  Thus far, however, they had
left behind no clue to their participation.  Moreover he was seriously
handicapped by ignorance of any motive.  Why should they desire to gain
possession of the girl?  It could not be money, or the hope of ransom.
What then?  Was it some accident which had involved her in the toils
prepared for another?  If so, were those unexpected orders for Major
McDonald a part of the conspiracy, or had their receipt complicated the
affair?  The Sergeant was a soldier, not a detective, and could only
follow a straight road in his investigation.  He must circle widely
until he found some trail to follow as patiently as an Indian.  There
would be tracks left somewhere, if he could only discover them.  If
this was a hasty occurrence, in any way an accident, something was sure
to be left uncovered, some slip reveal the method.  He would trace the
movements of the father first, and then search the saloons and gambling
dens for the two men.  Though unsuccessful with Mrs. Dupont, he knew
how to deal with such as they.

The stage agent was routed out of bed and came to the door, revolver in
hand, startled and angry.

"Who?" he repeated.  "Major McDonald?  How the hell should I know?
Some officer went out--yes; heavy set man with a mustache.  I did n't
pay any attention to him; had government transportation.  There were
two other passengers, both men, ranchers, I reckon; none in the station
at all.  What's that, Jane?"

A woman's voice spoke from out the darkness behind.

"Was the soldier asking if Major McDonald went East on the coach, Sam?"

"Sure; what do you know about it?"

"Why, I was outside when they started," she explained, "and the man in
uniform was n't the Major.  I know him by sight, for he 's been down
here a dozen times when I was at the desk.  This fellow was about his
size, but dark and stoop-shouldered."

"And the others?" asked Hamlin eagerly.

"I did n't know either of them, only I noticed one had a black beard."

"A very large, burly fellow?"

"No, I don't think so.  I did n't pay special attention to any of them,
only to wonder who the officer was, 'cause I never remembered seein'
him here before at Dodge, but, as I recollect, the fellow with a beard
was rather undersized; had a shaggy buffalo-skin cap on."

Plainly enough the man was not Dupont, and McDonald had not departed on
the stage, while some other, pretending to be he, possibly wearing his
clothes to further the deceit, had taken the seat reserved in the
coach.  Baffled, bewildered by this unexpected discovery, the Sergeant
swung back into his saddle, not knowing which way to turn.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE DEAD BODY

That both McDonald and his daughter were involved in this strange
puzzle was already clear.  The disappearance of the one was as
mysterious as that of the other.  Whether the original conspiracy had
centred about the Major, and Miss Molly had merely been drawn into the
net through accident, or whether both were destined as victims from the
first, could not be determined by theory.  Indeed the Sergeant could
evolve no theory, could discover no purpose in the outrage.  Convinced
that Dupont and his wife were the moving spirits, he yet possessed no
satisfactory reason for charging them with the crime, for which there
was no apparent object.

Nothing remained to be done but search the town, a blind search in the
hope of uncovering some trail.  That crime had been committed--either
murder or abduction--was evident; the two had not dropped thus suddenly
out of sight without cause.  Nor did it seem possible they could have
been whisked away without leaving some trace behind.  The town was
accustomed to murder and sudden death; the echo of a revolver shot
would create no panic, awaken no alarm, and yet the place was small,
and there was little likelihood that any deed of violence would pass
long unnoticed.  With a few words of instruction, and hasty
descriptions of both Dupont and Connors, Hamlin sent his men down the
straggling street to drag out the occupants of shack and tent, riding
himself to the blazing front of the "Poodle Dog."

Late as the hour was, the saloon and the gambling rooms above were all
crowded.  Hamlin plunged into the mass of men, pressing passage back
and forth, his eyes searching the faces, while he eagerly questioned
those with whom he had any acquaintance.  Few among these could recall
to mind either "Reb" or his boon companion, and even those who did
retained no recollection of having seen the two lately.  The bartenders
asserted that neither man had been there that night, and the dealers
above were equally positive.  The city marshal, encountered outside,
remembered Dupont, and had seen him at the hotel three hours before,
but was positive the fellow had not been on the streets since.  Connors
he did not know, but if the man was Major McDonald's driver, then he
was missing all right, for Captain Barrett had had to employ a
livery-man to drive Mrs. Dupont back to the fort.  No, there was no
other lady with her; he was sure, for he had watched them get into the
carriage.

The two troopers were no more fortunate in their results, but had
succeeded in stirring up greater excitement during their exploration,
several irate individuals, roughly aroused from sleep, exhibiting
fighting propensities, which had cost one a blackened eye, and the
other the loss of a tooth.  Both, however, had enjoyed the occasion,
and appeared anxious for more.  Having exhausted the possibilities of
the town, the soldiers procured lanterns, and, leaving the horses
behind, began exploring the prairie.  In this labor they were assisted
by the marshal, and a few aroused citizens hastily impressed into a
posse.  The search was a thorough one, but the ground nearby was so cut
up by hoofs and wheels as to yield no definite results.  Hamlin,
obsessed with the belief that whatever had occurred had been engineered
by Dupont, and recalling the fact that the man was once a ranchman
somewhere to the southward, jumped to the conclusion that the fellow
would naturally head in that direction, seeking familiar country in
which to hide.  With the two troopers he pushed on toward the river,
choosing the upper ford as being the most likely choice of the
fugitives.  The trampled mud of the north bank exhibited fresh tracks,
but none he could positively identify.  However, a party on horseback
had crossed within a few hours, and, without hesitation, he waded out
into the stream.

The gray of dawn was in the sky as the three troopers, soaked to the
waist, crept up the south bank and studied the trail.  Behind them the
yellow lanterns still bobbed about between the river and town, but
there was already sufficient light to make visible the signs underfoot.
Horsemen had climbed the bank, the hoof marks yet damp where water had
drained from dripping fetlocks, and had instantly broken into a lope.
A moment's glance proved this to Hamlin as he crept back and forth,
scrutinizing each hoof mark intently.

"Five in the party," he said soberly.  "Three mustangs and two American
horses, cavalry shod.  About three hours ahead of us."  He straightened
up, his glance peering into the gray mists.  "I reckon it's likely our
outfit, but we 'll never catch them on foot.  They 'll be behind the
sand-dunes before this.  Before we go back, boys, we 'll see if they
left the trail where it turns west."

The three ran forward, paying little heed until they reached the edge
of the ravine.  Here the beaten trail swerved sharply to the right.
Fifty feet beyond, the marks of horses' hoofs appeared on the sloping
bank, and Hamlin sprang down to where the marks disappeared around the
edge of a large bowlder.  His hand on the stone, he stopped suddenly
with quick indrawing of breath, staring down at a motionless figure
lying almost at his feet.  The man, roughly dressed, lay on his face, a
bullet wound showing above one ear, the back of his neck caked with
blood.  The Sergeant, mastering his first sense of horror, turned him
over and gazed upon the ghastly face of Major McDonald.

"My God, they've murdered him here!" he exclaimed.  "Shot him down from
behind.  Look, men.  No; stand back, and don't muss up the tracks.
There are foot-prints here--Indians, by heaven!  Three of them Indians!"

"Some plainsmen wear moccasins."

"They don't walk that way--toes in; and see this hair in McDonald's
fingers--that's Indian, sure.  Here is where a horse fell, and slid
down the bank.  Is n't that a bit of broken feather caught in the bush,
Carroll?  Bring it over here."

The three bent over the object.

"Well, what do you say?  You men are both plainsmen."

"Cheyenne," returned Carroll promptly.  "But what the hell are they
doing here?"

Hamlin shook his head.

"It will require more than guessing to determine that," he said
sternly.  "And there is only one way to find out.  That fellow was a
Cheyenne all right, and there were three of them and two whites in the
party--see here; the prints of five horses ridden, and one animal led.
That will be the one McDonald had.  They went straight up the opposite
bank of the ravine.  If they leave a trail like that we can ride after
them full speed."

Carroll had been bending over the dead officer and now glanced up.

"There's sand just below, Sergeant," he said.  "That's why they are so
darn reckless here."

"Of course; they'll hide in the dunes, and the sooner we 're after them
the better.  Wade, you remain with the body; Carroll and I will return
to the fort and report.  We 'll have to have more men--Wasson if I can
get him--and equipment for a hard ride.  Come on, Jack."

They waded the river, and ran through the town, shouting their
discovery to the marshal and his posse as they passed.  Twenty minutes
later Hamlin stood before the Colonel, hastily telling the story.  The
latter listened intently, gripping the arms of his chair.

"Shot from behind, hey?" he ejaculated, "and his clothing stolen.
Looks like a carefully planned affair, Sergeant; sending that fellow
through to Ripley was expected to throw us off the track.  That 's why
they were so careless covering their trail; expected to have several
days' start.  It is my notion they never intended to kill him; had a
row of some kind, or else Mac tried to get away.  Any trace of the
girl?"

"No; but she must have been there."

"So I think; got mixed up in the affair some way, and they have been
compelled to carry her off to save themselves.  Do you know why they
were after Mac?"

"No, sir."

"Well, I do; he carried thirty thousand dollars."

"What?"

"He was acting paymaster.  The money came in from Wallace last evening,
and he was ordered to take it to Ripley at once."

Hamlin drew in his breath quickly in surprise.

"Who knew about that, sir?"

"No one but the Adjutant, and Major McDonald--not even the orderly."

The eyes of officer and soldier met.

"Do you suppose he could have told _her_?" the former asked in sudden
suspicion.

"That would be my theory, sir.  But it is useless to speculate.  We
have no proof, no means of forcing her to confess.  The only thing for
us to do is to trail those fugitives.  I need another man--a
scout--Wasson, if he can be spared--and rations for three days."

The Colonel hesitated an instant, and then rose, placing a hand on
Hamlin's arm.

"I 'll do it for Miss McDonald, but not for the money," he said slowly.
"I expect orders every hour for your troop, and Wasson is detailed for
special service.  But damn it, I 'll take the responsibility--go on,
and run those devils down."

Hamlin turned to the door; then wheeled about.

"You know this man Dupont, Colonel?"

"Only by sight."

"Any idea where he used to run cattle?"

"Wait a minute until I think.  I heard McDonald telling about him one
night at the club, something Mrs. Dupont had let slip, but I did n't
pay much attention at the time.  Seems to me, though, it was down on
the Canadian.  No, I have it now--Buffalo Creek; runs into the
Canadian.  Know such a stream?"

"I 've heard of it; in west of the North Fork somewhere."

"You think it was Dupont, then?"

"I have n't a doubt that he is in the affair, and that the outfit is
headed for that section.  I don't know, sir, where those Indians came
from, or how they happened to be up here, but I believe they belong to
Black Kettle's band of Cheyennes.  His bunch is down below the
Canadian, is it not, sir?"

"Yes."

"Dupont must be friendly with them, and this coup has been planned for
some time.  Last night was the chance they have been waiting for.  The
only mistake in their plans has been the early discovery because of
Miss Molly's disappearance.  They have gone away careless, expecting
two or three days' start, and they will only have a few hours.  We 'll
run them down, with good luck, before they cross the Cimarron.  You
have no further instructions, sir?"

"No, nothing, Sergeant.  You 're an old hand, and know your business,
and there is no better scout on the plains than Sam Wasson.  Good-bye,
and good luck."



CHAPTER XXIV

IN PURSUIT

The four men, heavily armed, and equipped for winter service, rode up
the bank of the ravine to the irregularity of plain beyond.  The trail,
leading directly south into the solitudes, was easily followed, and
Wasson, slightly in advance of the others, made no attempt to check his
horse, content to lean forward, his keen eyes marking every sign.
Scarcely a word was exchanged, since Hamlin had explained what had
occurred as they crossed the river.  Hardly less interested than the
Sergeant, the sober-faced scout concentrated every energy on the
pursuit, both men realizing the necessity of haste.  Not only would the
trail be difficult to follow after they attained the sand belt, but, if
snow fell, would be utterly blotted out.  And the dull, murky sky
threatened snow, the sharp wind having already veered to the northwest.
All about stretched a dull, dead picture of desolation, a dun-colored
plain, unrelieved by vegetation, matching the skies above, extending in
every direction through weary leagues of dismal loneliness.  The
searching eye caught no relief from desolate sameness, drear monotony.
Nowhere was there movement, or, any semblance of life.  Behind, the
land was broken by ravines, but in every other direction it stretched
level to the horizon, except that far off southward arose irregular
ridges of sand, barren, ugly blotches, colorless, and forever changing
formation under the beating of a ceaseless wind.  It was desert, across
which not even a snake crawled, and no wing of migrating bird beat the
leaden sky above.

The marks of their horses' hoofs cutting sharply into the soil, told
accurately the fugitives' rate of progress, and the pursuers swept
forward with caution, anxious to spare their mounts and to keep out of
vision themselves until nightfall.  Their success depended largely on
surprise, and the confidence of those ahead that they were unpursued.
Wasson expressed the situation exactly, as the four halted a moment at
an unexpectedly-discovered water-hole.

"I 'd think this yere plain trail was some Injun trick, boys, if I did
n't know the reason fur it.  'T ain't Injun nature, but thar 's a white
man ahead o' that outfit, an' he 's cock-sure that nobody 's chasin'
him yet.  He 's figurin' on two or three days' get-a-way, and so don't
care a tinker's dam 'bout these yere marks.  Once in the sand, an' thar
won't be no trail anyhow.  It's some kintry out thar, an' it would be
like huntin' a needle in a haystack to try an' find them fellars after
ter-night.  This is my idea--we'll just mosey along slow, savin' the
hosses an' keeping back out o' sight till dark.  Them fellars ain't
many hours ahead, an' are likely ter make camp furst part o' ther night
anyhow.  They 'll feel safe onct hid in them sand-hills, an' if they
don't git no sight of us, most likely they won't even post no guard.
Thet 's when we want ter dig in the spurs.  Ain't that about the right
program, Sergeant?"

Burning with impatience as Hamlin was, fearful that every additional
moment of delay might increase the girl's danger, he was yet soldier
and plainsman enough to realize the wisdom of the old scout.  There
were at least four men in the party pursued, two of them Indian
warriors, the two whites, desperate characters.  Without doubt they
would put up a fierce fight, or, if warned in time, could easily
scatter and disappear.

"Of course you are right, Sam," he replied promptly.  "Only I am so
afraid of what may happen to Miss Molly."

"Forget it.  Thar's nuthin' goin' ter happen to her while the bunch is
on the move.  If that outfit was all Injun, or all white, maybe thar
might.  But the way it is they'll never agree on nuthin', 'cept how to
git away.  'T ain't likely they ever meant ter kill the Major, 'er take
the girl erlong.  Them things just naturally happened, an' now they 're
scared stiff.  It 'll take a day er two for 'em to make up their minds
what to do."

"What do you imagine they will decide, Sam?"

"Wall, thet 's all guesswork.  But I reckon I know what I 'd do if I
was in thet sort o' fix an' bein' chased fer murder an' robbery.  I 'd
take the easy way; make fer the nearest Injun village, an' leave the
girl thar."

"You mean Black Kettle's camp?"

"I reckon; he 's down thar on the Canadian somewhar.  You kin bet those
fellars know whar, an' thet's whut they 're aimin' for, unless this
yere Dupont has some hidin' out scheme of his own.  Whar did you say he
ranched?"

"Buffalo Creek."

"Thet's the same neighborhood; must've been in cahoots with those red
devils to have ever run cattle in thar.  We 've got to head 'em off
afore they git down into that kintry, er we won't have no scalps to go
back home with.  Let's mosey erlong, boys."

The day grew dark and murky as they moved steadily forward, the wind
blew cold from out the northwest, the heavy canopy of cloud settled
lower in a frosty fog, which gradually obscured the landscape.  This
mist became so thick that the men could scarcely see a hundred yards in
any direction, and Hamlin placed a pocket compass on his saddle-pommel.
The trail was less distinct as they traversed a wide streak of alkali,
but what few signs remained convinced Wasson that the fugitives were
still together, and riding southward.  Under concealment of the fog his
previous caution relaxed, and he led the way at a steady trot, only
occasionally drawing rein to make certain there was no division of the
party ahead.  The alkali powdered them from head to foot, clinging to
the horses' hides, reddening and blinding the eyes, poisoning the lips
dry and parched with thirst.  The two troopers swore grimly, but the
Sergeant and scout rode in silence, bent low over their pommels, eyes
strained into the mist ahead.  It was not yet dark when they rode in
between the first sand-dunes, and Wasson, pulling his horse up short,
checked the others with uplifted hand.

"Thar 'll be a camp here soon," he said, swinging down from the saddle,
and studying the ground.  "The wind has 'bout blotted it all out, but
you kin see yere back o' this ridge whar they turned in, an' they was
walkin' their horses.  Gittin' pretty tired, I reckon.  We might as
well stop yere too, Sergeant, an' eat some cold grub.  You two men
spread her out, an' rub down the hosses, while Hamlin an' I poke about
a bit.  Better find out all we kin, 'Brick,' 'fore it gits dark."

He started forward on the faint trail, his rifle in the hollow of his
arm, and the Sergeant ranged up beside him.  The sand was to their
ankles, and off the ridge summit the wind whirled the sharp grit into
their faces.

"What's comin', Sam; a storm?"

"Snow," answered the scout shortly, "a blizzard of it, er I lose my
guess.  'Fore midnight yer won't be able ter see yer hand afore yer
face.  I 've ben out yere in them things a fore, an' they're sure hell.
If we don't git sight o' thet outfit mighty soon, 't ain't likely we
ever will.  I 've been expectin' that wind to shift nor'east all
day--then we'll get it."  He got down on his knees, endeavoring to
decipher some faint marks on the sand.  "Two of 'em dismounted yere, an
Injun an' a white--a big feller by his hoof prints--an' they went on
leadin' their hosses.  Goin' into camp, I reckon--sure, here's the spot
now.  Well, I 'll be damned!"

Both men stood staring--under protection of a sand ridge was a little
blackened space where some mesquite chips had been burned, and all
about it freshly trampled sand, and slight impressions where men had
outstretched themselves.  Almost at Wasson's feet fluttered a pink
ribbon, and beyond the fire circle lay the body of a man, face up to
the sky.  It was Connors, a ghastly bullet hole between his eyes, one
cheek caked black with blood.  The Sergeant sprang across, and bent
over the motionless form.

"Pockets turned inside out," he said, glancing back.  "The poor devil!"

"Had quite a row here," returned the scout.  "That stain over thar is
blood, an' it never come from him, fer he died whar he fell.  Most
likely he shot furst, er used a knife.  The girl's with 'em anyhow; I
reckon this yere was her ribbon; that footprint is sure."

He stirred up the scattered ashes, and then passed over and looked at
the dead man.

"What do yer think, Sergeant?"

"They stopped here to eat, maybe five hours ago," pushing the ashes
about with his toe.  "The fire has been out that long.  Then they got
into a quarrel--Connors and Dupont--for he was shot with a Colt '45';
no Indian ever did that.  Then they struck out again with two led
horses.  I should say they were three or four hours ahead, travelling
slow."

"Good enough," and Wasson patted his arm.  "You 're a plainsman all
right, 'Brick.'  You kin sure read signs.  Thet 's just 'bout the whole
story, as I make it.  Nuthin' fer us to do but snatch a bite an' go on.
Our hosses 're fresher 'n theirs.  No sense our stoppin' to bury
Connors; he ain't worth it, an' the birds 'll take care o' him.  The
outfit was still a headin' south--see!"

There could be no doubt of this, as the shelter of the sand ridge had
preserved a plain trail, although a few yards beyond, the sweeping wind
had already almost obliterated every sign of passage.  The four men ate
heartily of their cold provender, discussing the situation in a few
brief sentences.  Wasson argued that Dupont was heading for some Indian
winter encampment, thinking to shift responsibility for the crime upon
the savages, thus permitting him to return once more to civilization,
but Hamlin clung to his original theory of a hide-out upon Dupont's old
cattle-range, and that a purpose other than the mere robbery of
McDonald was in view.  All alike, however, were convinced that the
fugitives were seeking the wild bluffs of the Canadian River for
concealment.

It was not yet dark when they again picked up the trail, rode around
the dead body of Connors, and pushed forward into the maze of sand.
For an hour the advance was without incident, the scout in the lead not
even dismounting, his keen eyes picking up the faint "sign" unerringly.
Then darkness shut down, the lowering bank of clouds completely
blotting the stars, although the white glisten of the sand under foot
yielded a slight guidance.  Up to this time there had been no deviation
in direction, and now when the trail could be no longer distinguished,
the little party decided on riding straight southward until they struck
the Cimarron.  An hour or two later the moon arose, hardly visible and
yet brightening the cloud canopy, so that the riders could see each
other and proceed more rapidly.  Suddenly Wasson lifted his hand, and
turned his face up to the sky.

"Snow," he announced soberly.  "Thought I felt it afore, and the wind
's changed."

Hamlin turned in the saddle, feeling already the sharp sting of snow
pellets on his face.  Before he could even answer the air was full of
whiteness, a fierce gust of wind hurling the flying particles against
them.  In another instant they were in the very heart of the storm,
almost hurled forward by the force of the wind, and blinded by the icy
deluge.  The pelting of the hail startled the horses, and in spite of
every effort of the riders, they drifted to the right, tails to the
storm.  The swift change was magical.  The sharp particles of icy snow
seemed to swirl upon them from every direction, sucking their very
breath, bewildering them, robbing them of all sense of direction.
Within two minutes the men found it impossible to penetrate the wintry
shroud except for a few feet ahead of them.

The Sergeant knew what it meant, for he had had experience of these
plains storms before.

"Halt!" he cried, his voice barely audible in the blast.  "Close up,
men; come here to me--lively now?  That you, Wade?  Wasson; oh, all
right, Sam.  Here, pass that lariat back; now get a grip on it, every
one of you, and hold to it for your lives.  Let me take the lead, Sam;
we 'll have to run by compass.  Now then, are you ready?"

The lariat rope, tied to Hamlin's pommel, straightened out and was
grasped desperately by the gloved hands of the men behind.  The
Sergeant, shading his eyes, half smothered in the blast, could see
merely ill-defined shadows.

"All caught?"

The answers were inaudible.

"For the Lord's sake, speak up; answer now--Wasson."

"Here."

"Wade."

"Here."

"Carroll."

"Here."

"Good; now come on after me."

He drove his horse forward, head bent low over the compass, one arm
flung up across his mouth to prevent inhaling the icy air.  He felt the
tug of the line; heard the labored breathing of the next horse behind,
but saw nothing except that wall of swirling snow pellets hurled
against him by a pitiless wind, fairly lacerating the flesh.  It was
freezing cold; already he felt numb, exhausted, heavy-eyed.  The air
seemed to penetrate his clothing, and prick the skin as with a thousand
needles.  The thought came that if he remained in the saddle he would
freeze stiff.  Again he turned, and sent the voice of command down the
struggling line:

"Dismount; wind the rope around your pommels.  Sam.  How far is it to
the Cimarron?"

"More 'n twenty miles."

"All right!  We 've got to make it, boys," forcing a note of
cheerfulness into his voice.  "Hang on to the bit even if you drop.  I
may drift to the west, but that won't lose us much.  Come on, now."

"Hamlin, let me break trail."

"We 'll take it turn about, Sam.  It 'll be worse in an hour than it is
now.  All ready, boys."

Blinded by the sleet, staggering to the fierce pummelling of the wind,
yet clinging desperately to his horse's bit, the Sergeant struggled
forward in the swirl of the storm.



CHAPTER XXV

IN THE BLIZZARD

There was no cessation, no abatement.  Across a thousand miles of plain
the ice-laden wind swept down upon them with the relentless fury of a
hurricane, driving the snow crystals into their faces, buffeting them
mercilessly, numbing their bodies, and blinding their eyes.  In that
awful grip they looked upon Death, but struggled on, as real men must
until they fall.  Breathing was agony; every step became a torture;
fingers grasping the horses' bits grew stiff and deadened by frost;
they reeled like drunken men, sightless in the mad swirl, deafened by
the pounding of the blast against their ears.  All consciousness left
them; only dumb instinct kept them battling for life, staggering
forward, foot by foot, odd phantasies of imagination beginning to
beckon.  In their weakness, delirium gripped their half-mad brains,
yielding new strength to fight the snow fiend.  Aching in every joint,
trembling from fatigue, they dare not rest an instant.  The wind,
veering more to the east, lashed their faces like a whip.  They
crouched behind the horses to keep out of the sting of it, crunching
the snow, now in deep drifts, under their half-frozen feet.

Wade, a young fellow not overly strong, fell twice.  They placed him in
the centre, with Carroll bringing up the rear.  Again he went down,
face buried in the snow, crying like a babe.  Desperately the others
lashed him into his saddle, binding a blanket about him, and went
grimly staggering on, his limp figure rocking above them.  Hour
succeeded hour in ceaseless struggle; no one knew where they were, only
the leader staggered on, his eyes upon the compass.  Wasson and Hamlin
took their turns tramping a trail, the snow often to their knees.  They
had stopped speaking, stopped thinking even.  All their movements
became automatic, instinctive, the result of iron discipline.  They
realized the only hope--attainment of the Cimarron bluffs.  There was
no shelter there in the open, to either man or horse; the sole choice
left was to struggle on, or lie down and die.  The last was likely to
be the end of it, but while a drop of blood ran red and warm in their
veins they would keep their feet and fight.

Carroll's horse stumbled and rolled, catching the numbed trooper under
his weight.  The jerk on the lariat flung Wade out of the saddle,
dangling head downward.  With stiffened fingers, scarcely comprehending
what they were about, the Sergeant and Wasson came to the rescue,
helped the frightened horse struggle to its feet, and, totally blinded
by the fury of the storm which now beat fairly in their eyes, grasped
the dangling body, swaying back and forth as the startled animal
plunged in terror.  It was a corpse they gripped, already stiff with
cold, the eyes wide-open and staring.  Carroll, bruised and limping,
came to their help, groaning with pain, and the three men together
managed to lift the dead weight to the horse's back, and to bind it
safely with the turn of a rope.  Then, breathless from exhaustion,
crouching behind the animals, bunched helplessly together, the howl of
the wind like the scream of lost souls, the three men looked into each
other's faces.

"I reckon Jim died without ever knowin' it," said the scout, breaking
again the film of ice over his eyes, and thrashing his arms.  "I allers
heard tell it was an easy way o' goin'.  Looks to me he was better off
than we are just now.  Hurt much, Carroll?"

"Crunched my leg mighty bad; can't bear no weight on it.  'T was darn
near froze stiff before; thet 's why I could n't get out o' the way
quick."

"Sure; well, ye 'll have ter ride, then.  We 'll take the blanket off
Jim; he won't need it no more.  'Brick' an' I kin hoof it yet
awhile--hey, 'Brick'?"

Hamlin lifted his head from the shelter of his horse's mane.

"I reckon I can make my feet move," he asserted doubtfully, "but they
don't feel as though there was any life left in them."  He stamped on
the snow.  "How long do these blizzards generally last, Sam?"

"Blow themselves out in about three days."

"Three days?  God!  We can never live it out here."

His eyes ranged over the dim outline of Wade stretched across the
saddle, powdered with snow, rested an instant upon Carroll who had sunk
back upon the ground, nursing his injured limb, and then sought the
face of Wasson.

"What the hell can we do?"

"Go on; thet's all of it; go on till we drop, lad.  Come, 'Brick,' my
boy," and the scout gripped the Sergeant's shoulder, "you 're not the
kind to lie down.  We 've been in worse boxes than this and pulled out.
It 's up to you and me to make good.  Let's crunch some hard-tack and
go on, afore the whole three of us freeze stiff."

The Sergeant thrust out his hand.

"That isn't what's taken the nerve out of me, Sam," he said soberly.
"It's thinking of the girl out in all this with those devils."

"Likely as not she ain't," returned the other, tramping the snow under
his feet.  "I 've been thinkin' 'bout thet too.  Thet outfit must hev
had six hours the start o' us, didn't they?"

Hamlin nodded.

"Well, then, they could n't a ben far from the Cimarron when the storm
come.  They 'd be safe enough under the bluffs; have wood fer a fire,
and lay thar mighty comfortable.  That's whar them bucks are, all
right.  Why, damn it, man, we 've got to get through.  'T ain't just
our fool lives that's at stake.  Brace up!"

"How far have we come?"

"A good ten miles, an' the compass has kep' us straight."

They drew in closer together, and munched a hard cracker apiece,
occasionally exchanging a muttered word or two, thrashing their limbs
about to keep up circulation, and dampening their lips with snow.  They
were but dim, spectral shapes in the darkness, the air filled with
crystal pellets, swept about by a merciless wind, the horses standing
tails to the storm and heads drooping.  In spite of the light
refraction of the snow the eyes could scarcely see two yards away
through the smother.  Above, about, the ceaseless wind howled, its icy
breath chilling to the bone.  Carroll clambered stiffly into his
saddle, crying and swearing from weakness and pain.  The others,
stumbling about in the deep snow, which had drifted around them during
the brief halt, stripped the blanket from Wade's dead body, and tucked
it in about Carroll as best they could.

"Now keep kicking and thrashing around, George," ordered the Sergeant
sternly.  "For God's sake, don't go to sleep, or you 'll be where Jim
is.  We 'll haul you out of this, old man.  Sam, you take the rear, and
hit Carroll a whack every few minutes; I'll break trail.  Forward! now."

They plunged into it, ploughing a way through the drifts, the reluctant
horses dragging back at first, and drifting before the fierce sweep of
the wind, in spite of every effort at guidance.  It was an awful
journey, every step torture, but Hamlin bent to it, clinging grimly to
the bit of his animal, his other arm protecting his eyes from the sting
of the wind.  Behind, Wasson wielded a quirt, careless whether its lash
struck the horse's flank or Carroll.  And across a thousand miles of
snow-covered plain, the storm howled down upon them in redoubled fury,
blinding their eyes, making them stagger helplessly before its blasts.

They were still moving, now like snails, when the pale sickly dawn
came, revealing inch by inch the dread desolation, stretching white and
ghastly in a slowly widening circle.  The exhausted, struggling men,
more nearly dead than alive from their ceaseless toil, had to break the
film of ice from their eyes to perceive their surroundings.  Even then
they saw nothing but the bare, snow-draped plain, the air full of
swirling flakes.  There was nothing to guide them, no mark of
identification; merely lorn barrenness in the midst of which they
wandered, dragging their half-frozen horses.  The dead body of Wade had
stiffened into grotesque shape, head and feet dangling, shrouded in
clinging snow,  Carroll had fallen forward across his saddle pommel,
too weak to sit erect, but held by the taut blanket, and gripping his
horse's ice-covered mane.  Wasson was ahead now, doggedly crunching a
path with his feet, and Hamlin staggered along behind.

Suddenly some awakened instinct in the numbed brain of the scout told
him of a change in their surroundings.  He felt rather than saw the
difference.  They had crossed the sand belt, and the contour of the
prairie was rising.  Then the Cimarron was near!  Even as the
conviction took shape, the ghostly outline of a small elevation loomed
through the murk.  He stared at it scarce believing, imagining a
delusion, and then sent his cracked voice back in a shout on the wind.

"We 're thar, 'Brick'!  My God, lad, here 's the Cimarron!"

He wheeled about, shading his mouth, so as to make the words carry
through the storm.

"Do you hear?  We're within a half mile o' the river.  Stir Carroll up!
Beat the life inter him!  There 's shelter and fire comin'!"

As though startled by some electric shock, Hamlin sprang forward, his
limbs strengthening in response to fresh hope, ploughed through the
snow to Carroll's side, and shook and slapped the fellow into
semi-consciousness.

"We 're at the river, George!" he cried, jerking up the dangling head.
"Wake up, man!  Wake up!  Do you hear?  We 'll have a fire in ten
minutes!"

The man made a desperate effort, bracing his hands on the horse's neck
and staring at his tormentor with dull, unseeing eyes.

"Oh, go to hell!" he muttered, and went down again.

Hamlin struck him twice, his chilled hand tingling to the blow, but the
inert figure never moved.

"No use, Sam.  We 've got to get on, and thaw him out.  Get up there,
you pony!"

The ghostly shape of the hill was to their right, and they circled its
base almost waist-deep in drift.  This brought the wind directly into
their faces, and the horses balked, dragging back and compelling both
men to beat them into submission.  Wasson was jerking at the bit, his
back turned so that he could see nothing ahead, but Hamlin, lashing the
rear animal with his quirt, still faced the mound, a mere dim shadow
through the mists of snow.  He saw the flash of yellow flame that
leaped from its summit, heard the sharp report of a gun, and saw Wasson
crumble up, and go down, still clinging to his horse's rein.  It came
so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that the single living man left scarcely
realized what had happened.  Yet dazed as he was, some swift impulse
flung him, headlong, into the snow behind his pony, and even as he
fell, his numbed fingers gripped for the revolver at his hip.  The
hidden marksman shot twice, evidently discerning only dim outlines at
which to aim; the red flame of discharge cut the gloom like a knife.
One ball hurtled past Hamlin's head; the other found billet in Wade's
horse, and the stricken creature toppled over, bearing its dead burden
with him.  The Sergeant ripped off his glove, found the trigger with
his half-frozen fingers, and fired twice.  Then, with an oath, he
leaped madly to his feet, and dashed straight at the silent hill.



CHAPTER XXVI

UNSEEN DANGER

Once he paused, blinded by the snow, flung up his arm, and fired,
imagining he saw the dim shape of a man on the ridge summit.  There was
no return shot, no visible movement.  Reckless, mad with rage, he
sprang up the wind-swept side, and reached the crest.  It was deserted,
except for tracks already nearly obliterated by the fierce wind.
Helpless, baffled, the Sergeant stared about him into the driving
flakes, his ungloved, stiffening hand gripping the cold butt of his
Colt, ready for any emergency.  Nothing but vacancy and silence
encompassed him.  At his feet the snow was still trampled; he could see
where the man had kneeled to fire; where he had run down the opposite
side of the hill.  There had been only one--a white man from the
imprint--and he had fled south, vanishing in the smother.

It required an effort for the Sergeant to recover, to realize his true
position, and the meaning of this mysterious attack.  He was no longer
numb with cold or staggering from weakness.  The excitement had sent
the hot blood pulsing through his veins; had brought back to his heart
the fighting instinct.  Every desire urged him forward, clamoring for
revenge, but the aroused sense of a plainsman held him motionless,
staring about, listening for any sound.  Behind him, down there in the
hollow, were huddled the horses of his outfit, scarcely distinguishable
from where he stood.  If he should venture farther off, he might never
be able to find a way back again.  Even in the gray light of dawn he
could see nothing distinctly a dozen yards distant.  And Wasson had the
compass.  This was the thought which brought him tramping back through
the drifts--Wasson!  Wade was dead, Carroll little better, but the
scout might have been only slightly wounded.  He waded through the snow
to where the man lay, face downward, his hand still gripping the rein.
Before Hamlin turned him over, he saw the jagged wound and knew death
had been instantaneous.  He stared down at the white face, already
powdered with snow; then glared about into the murky distances,
revolver ready for action, every nerve throbbing.  God!  If he ever met
the murderer!  Then swift reaction came, and he buried his eyes on the
neck of the nearest horse, and his body shook with half-suppressed
sobs.  The whole horror of it gripped him in that instant, broke his
iron will, and left him weak as a child.

But the mood did not last.  Little by little he gained control, stood
up again in the snow, and began to think.  He was a man, and must do a
man's work.  With an oath he forced himself to act; reloaded his
revolver, thrust it back into the holster at his hip, and, with one
parting glance at poor Sam, ploughed across through the drifts to
Carroll.  He realized now his duty, the thing he must strive to
accomplish.  Wade and Wasson were gone; no human effort could aid them,
but Carroll lived, and might be saved.  And it was for him alone now to
serve Molly.  The sudden comprehension of all this stung like the lash
of a whip, transformed him again into a fighter, a soldier of the sort
who refuses to acknowledge defeat.  His eyes darkened, his lips pressed
together in a straight line.

Carroll lay helpless, inert, his head hanging down against the neck of
his horse.  The Sergeant jerked him erect, roughly beating him into
consciousness; nor did he desist until the fellow's eyes opened in a
dull stare.

"I 'll pound the life out of you unless you brace up, George," he
muttered.  "That 's right--get mad if you want to.  It will do you
good.  Wait until I get that quirt; that will set your blood moving.
No!  Wake up!  Die, nothing!  See here, man, there 's the river just
ahead."

He picked up his glove, undid the reins from Wasson's stiffened
fingers, and urged the horses forward.  Carroll lurched drunkenly in
the saddle, yet retained sufficient life to cling to the pommel, and
thus the outfit plunged blindly forward into the storm, leaving the
dead men where they lay.  There was nothing else to do; Hamlin's heart
choked him as he ploughed his way past, but he had no strength to lift
those heavy bodies.  Every ounce of power must be conserved for the
preservation of life.  Little as he could see through the snow blasts
there was but one means of passage, that along the narrow rift between
the ridges.  The snow lay deep here, but they floundered ahead, barely
able to surmount the drifts, until suddenly they emerged upon an open
space, sheltered somewhat by the low hills and swept clean by the wind.
Directly beneath, down a wide cleft in the bank, dimly visible,
appeared the welcome waters of the Cimarron.  The stream was but partly
frozen over, the dark current flowing in odd contrast between the banks
of ice and snow.

The Sergeant halted, examining his surroundings cautiously, expecting
every instant to be fired upon by some unseen foe.  The violence of the
storm prevented his seeing beyond a few yards, and the whirling snow
crystals blinded him as he faced the fury of the wind sweeping down the
valley.  Nothing met his gaze; no sound reached his ears; about him was
desolation, unbroken whiteness.  Apparently they were alone in all that
intense dreariness of snow.  The solemn loneliness of it--the dark,
silently flowing river, the dun sky, the wide, white expanse of plain,
the mad violence of the storm beating against him--brought to him a
feeling of helplessness.  He was a mere atom, struggling alone against
Nature's wild mood.  Then the feeling clutched him that he was not
alone; that from somewhere amid those barren wastes hostile eyes
watched, skulking murderers sought his life.  Yet there was no sign of
any presence.  He could not stand there and die, nor permit Carroll to
freeze in his saddle.  It would be better to take a chance; perhaps the
assassins had fled, believing their work accomplished; perhaps they had
become confused by the storm.

Foot by foot, feeling his passage, he advanced down the gully, fairly
dragging his own horse after him.  Behind, held by the straining
lariat, lurched the others, the soldier swaying on the back of the
last, swearing and laughing in delirium, clutching at snowflakes with
his hands.  At the end of the ravine, under shelter of the bank, Hamlin
trampled back the snow, herding the animals close, so as to gain the
warmth of their bodies.  Here they were well protected from the cruel
lash of the wind and the shower of snow which blew over them and
drifted higher and higher in the open space beyond.  Working
feverishly, the blood again circulating freely through his veins, the
Sergeant hastily dragged blankets from the pack, and spread them on the
ground, depositing Carroll upon them.  Then he set about vigorously
rubbing the soldier's exposed flesh with snow.  The smart of it,
together with the roughness of handling, aroused the latter from
lethargy, but Hamlin, ignoring his resentment, gripped the fellow with
hands of iron, never ceasing his violent ministrations until his
swearing ended in silence.  Then he wrapped him tightly in the
blankets, and stood himself erect, glowing from the exercise.  Carroll
glared up at him angrily out of red-rimmed eyes.

"I 'll get you for that, you big boob!" he shouted, striving to release
his arms from the clinging blankets.  "You wait!  I 'll get you!"

"Hush up, George, and go to sleep," the other retorted, poking the
shapeless body with his foot, his thoughts already elsewhere.  "Don't
be a fool.  I 'll get a fire if I can, and something hot into you.
Within an hour you 'll be a man again.  Now see here--stop that!  Do
you hear?  You lie still right where you are, Carroll, until I come
back, or I 'll kick your ribs in!"  He bent down menacingly, scowling
into the upturned face.  "Will you mind, or shall I have to hand you
one?"

Carroll shrank back like a whipped child, his lips muttering something
indistinguishable.  The Sergeant, satisfied, turned and floundered
through the drifts to the bank of the stream.  He was alert and
fearful, yet determined.  No matter what danger of discovery might
threaten, he must build a fire to save Carroll's life.  The raging
storm was not over with; there was no apparent cessation of violence in
the blasts of the icy wind, and the snow swept about him in blinding
sheets.  It would continue all day, all another night, perhaps, and
they could never live through without food and warmth.  He realized the
risk fully, his gloved hand gripping the butt of his revolver, as he
stared up and down the snow-draped bluffs.  He wished he had picked up
Wasson's rifle.  Who was it that had shot them up, anyhow?  The very
mystery added to the dread.  Could it have been Dupont?  There was no
other conception possible, yet it seemed like a miracle that they could
have kept so close on the fellow's trail all night long through the
storm.  Yet who else would open fire at sight?  Who else, indeed, would
be in this God-forsaken country?  And whoever it was, where had he
gone?  How had he disappeared so suddenly and completely?  He could not
be far away, that was a certainty.  No plainsman would attempt to ford
that icy stream, nor desert the shelter of these bluffs in face of the
storm.  It would be suicidal.  And if Dupont and his Indians were close
at hand, Miss McDonald would be with them.  He had had no time in which
to reason this out before, but now the swift realization of the close
proximity of the girl came to him like an electric shock.  Whatever the
immediate danger he must thaw out Carroll, and thus be free himself.

He could look back to where the weary horses huddled beneath the bank,
grouped about the man so helplessly swaddled in blankets on the ground.
They were dim, pitiable objects, barely discernible through the flying
scud, yet Hamlin was quick to perceive the advantage of their
position--the overhanging bluff was complete protection from any attack
except along the open bank of the river.  Two armed men could defend
the spot against odds.  And below, a hundred yards away, perhaps--it
was hard to judge through that smother--the bare limbs of several
stunted cottonwoods waved dismally against the gray sky.  Hesitating,
his eyes searching the barrenness above to where the stream bent
northward and disappeared, he turned at last and tramped downward along
the edge of the stream.  Across stretched the level, white prairie,
beaten and obscured by the storm, while to his left arose the steep,
bare bluff, swept clear by the wind, revealing its ugliness through the
haze of snow.  Not in all the expanse was there visible a moving object
nor track of any kind.  He was alone, in the midst of indescribable
desolation--a cold, dead, dreary landscape.

He came to the little patch of forest growth, a dozen gaunt, naked
trees at the river's edge, stunted, two of them already toppling over
the bank, apparently undermined by the water, threatening to fall
before each blast that smote them.  Hoping to discover some splinters
for a fire, Hamlin kicked a clear space in the snow, yet kept his face
always toward the bluff, his eyes vigilantly searching for any skulking
figure.  Silent as those desert surroundings appeared, the Sergeant
knew he was not alone.  He had a feeling that he was being watched,
spied upon; that somewhere near at hand, crouching in that solitude,
the eyes of murder followed his every movement.  Suddenly he
straightened up, staring at the bluff nearly opposite where he stood.
Was it a dream, an illusion, or was that actually the front of a cabin
at the base of the bank?  He could not believe it possible, nor could
he be sure.  If so, then it consisted merely of a room excavated in the
side of the hill, the opening closed in by cottonwood logs.  It in no
way extended outward beyond the contour of the bank, and was so
plastered with snow as to be almost indistinguishable a dozen steps
away.  Yet those were logs, regularly laid, beyond a doubt; he was
certain he detected now the dim outlines of a door, and a smooth wooden
shutter, to which the snow refused to cling, the size and shape of a
small window.  His heart throbbing with excitement, the Sergeant
slipped in against the bluff for protection, moving cautiously closer
until he convinced himself of the reality of his strange discovery by
feeling the rough bark of the logs.  It was a form of habitation of
some kind beyond question; apparently unoccupied, for there were no
tracks in the snow without, and no smoke of a fire visible anywhere.



CHAPTER XXVII

HUGHES' STORY

Hamlin thrust his glove into his belt, drew forth his revolver, and
gripped its stock with bare hand.  This odd, hidden dwelling might be
deserted, a mere empty shack, but he could not disconnect it in his
mind from that murderous attack made upon their little party two hours
before.  Why was it here in the heart of this desert?  Why built with
such evident intent of concealment?  But for what had occurred on the
plateau above, his suspicions would never have been aroused.  This was
already becoming a cattle country; adventurous Texans, seeking free
range and abundant water, had advanced along all these prominent
streams with their grazing herds of long-horns.  Little by little they
had gained precarious foothold on the Indian domains, slowly forcing
the savages westward.  The struggle had been continuous for years, and
the final result inevitable.  Yet this year the story had been a
different one, for the united tribes had swept the invading stockmen
back, had butchered their cattle, and once again roamed these plains as
masters.  Hamlin knew this; he had met and talked with those driven
out, and he was aware that even now Black Kettle's winter camp of
hostiles was not far away.  This hut might, of course, be the deserted
site of some old cow camp, some outrider's shack, but--the fellow who
fired on them!  He was a reality--a dangerous reality--and he was
hiding somewhere close at hand.

The Sergeant stole along the front to the door, listening intently for
any warning sound from either without or within.  Every nerve was on
edge; all else forgotten except the intensity of the moment.  He could
perceive nothing to alarm him, no evidence of any presence inside.
Slowly, noiselessly, his Colt poised for instant action, he lifted the
wooden latch, and permitted the door to swing slightly ajar, yielding a
glimpse within.  There was light from above, flittering dimly through
some crevice in the bluff, and the darker shadows were reddened by the
cheery glow of a fireplace directly opposite, although where the smoke
disappeared was not at first evident.  Hamlin perceived these features
at a glance, standing motionless.  His quick eyes visioned the whole
interior--a rude table and bench, a rifle leaning in one corner, a
saddle and trappings hanging against the wall; a broad-brimmed hat on
the floor, a pile of skins beyond.  There was an appearance of neatness
also, the floor swept, the table unlittered.  Yet he scarcely realized
these details at the time so closely was his whole attention centred on
the figure of a man.  The fellow occupied a stool before the fireplace,
and was bending slightly forward, staring down at the red embers,
unconscious of the intruder.  He was a thin-chested, unkempt individual
with long hair, and shaggy whiskers, both iron gray.  The side of his
face and neck had a sallow look, while his nose was prominent.  The
Sergeant surveyed him a moment, his cocked revolver covering the
motionless figure, his lips set grimly.  Then he stepped within, and
closed the door.

[Illustration: His Colt poised for instant action, he lifted the wooden
latch.]

At the slight sound the other leaped to his feet, overturning the
stool, and whirled about swiftly, his right hand dropping to his belt.

"That will do, friend!" Hamlin's voice rang stern.

"Stand as you are--your gun is lying on the bench yonder.  Rather
careless of you in this country.  No, I would n't risk it if I was you;
this is a hair trigger."

The fellow stared helpless into the Sergeant's gray eyes.

"Who--who the hell are you?" he managed to articulate hoarsely, "a--a
soldier?"

Hamlin nodded, willing enough to let the other talk.

"You 're--you 're not one o' Le Fevre's outfit?"

"Whose?"

"Gene Le Fevre--the damn skunk; you know him?"

Startled as he was, the Sergeant held himself firm, and laughed.

"I reckon there is n't any one by that name a friend o' mine," he said
coolly.  "So you 're free to relieve your feelings as far as I 'm
concerned.  Were you expecting that gent along this trail?"

"Yes, I was, an' 'twa'n't no pleasant little reception I 'lowed to give
him neither.  Say!  Would n't yer just as soon lower thet shootin'
iron?  We ain't got no call to quarrel so fur as I kin see."

"Maybe not, stranger," and Hamlin leaned back against the table,
lowering his weapon slightly, as he glanced watchfully about the room,
"but I 'll keep the gun handy just the same until we understand each
other.  Anybody else in this neighborhood?"

"Not unless it's Le Fevre, an' his outfit."

"Then I reckon you did the shooting, out there a bit ago?"

The man shuffled uneasily, but the Sergeant's right hand came to a
level.

"Did you?"

"I s'pose thar ain't no use o' denyin' it," reluctantly, eyeing the gun
in the corner, "but I did n't mean to shoot up no outfit but Le
Fevre's.  So help me, I did n't!  The danged snow was so thick I could
n't see nohow, and I never s'posed any one was on the trail 'cept him.
Thar ain't been no white man 'long yere in three months.  Didn't hit
none of yer, did I?"

"Yes, you did," returned Hamlin slowly, striving to hold himself in
check.  "You killed one of the best fellows that ever rode these
plains, you sneaking coward, you.  Shot him dead, with his back to you.
Now, see here, it's a throw of the dice with me whether I fill you full
of lead, or let you go.  I came in here intending to kill you, if you
were the cur who shot us up.  But I 'm willing to listen to what you
have got to say.  I 'm some on the fight, but plain murder don't just
appeal to me.  How is it?  Are you ready to talk?  Spit it out, man!"

"I 'll tell yer jest how it was."

"Do it my way then; answer straight what I ask you.  Who are you?  What
are you doing here?"

"Kin I sit down?"

"Yes; make it short now; all I want is facts."

The man choked a bit, turned and twisted on the stool, but was helpless
to escape.

"Wal, my name is Hughes--Jed Hughes; I uster hang out round San Antone,
an' hev been mostly in the cow business.  The last five years Le Fevre
an' I hev been grazin' cattle in between yere an' Buffalo Creek."

"Partners?"

"Wal, by God!  I thought so, till just lately," his voice rising.
"Anyhow, I hed a bunch o' money in on the deal, though I 'll be darned
if I know just what's become o' it.  Yer see, stranger, Gene hed the
inside o' this Injun business, bein' as he 's sorter squaw man--"

"What!" interrupted the other sharply.  "Do you mean he married into
one of the tribes?"

"Sorter left-handed--yep; a Cheyenne woman.  Little thing like that did
n't faze Gene none, if he did have a white wife--a blamed good-looker
she was too.  She was out here onc't, three years ago, 'bout a week
maybe.  Course she did n't know nothin' 'bout the squaw, an' the Injuns
was all huntin' down in the Wichitas.  But as I wus sayin', Gene caught
on to this yere Injun war last spring--I reckon ol' Koleta, his Injun
father-in-law, likely told him what wus brewin'--he's sorter a
war-chief.  Anyhow he knew thet hell wus to pay, an' so we natch'ally
gathered up our long-horns an' drove 'em east whar they would n't be
raided.  We did n't git all the critters rounded up, as we wus in a
hurry, an' they wus scattered some 'cause of a hard winter.  So I come
back yere to round up the rest o' ther bunch."

"And brand a few outsiders."

He grinned.

"Maybe I was n't over-particular, but anyhow I got a thousand head
together by the last o' June, an' hit the trail with 'em.  Then hell
sure broke loose.  'Fore we 'd got that bunch o' cattle twenty mile
down the Cimarron we wus rounded up by a gang o' Cheyenne Injuns,
headed by that ornery Koleta, and every horn of 'em drove off.  Thar
wa'n't no fight; the damn bucks just laughed at us, an' left us sittin'
thar out on the prairie.  They hogged hosses an' all."

He wiped his face, and spat into the fire, while Hamlin sat silent, gun
in hand.

"I reckon now as how Le Fevre put ol' Koleta wise to that game, but I
was plum innocent then," he went on regretfully.  "Wall, we,--thar wus
four o' us,--hoofed it east till we struck some ranchers on Cow Crick,
and got the loan o' some ponies.  Then I struck out to locate the main
herd.  It didn't take me long, stranger, to discover thar wa'n't no
herd to locate.  But I struck their trail, whar Le Fevre had driven 'em
up into Missouri and cashed in fer a pot o' money.  Then the damn cuss
just natch'ally vanished.  I plugged 'bout fer two er three months
hopin' ter ketch up with him, but I never did.  I heerd tell o' him
onc't or twice, an' caught on he was travellin' under 'nuther
name--some durn French contraction--but thet's as much as I ever did
find out.  Finally, up in Independence I wus so durn near broke I
reckoned I 'd better put what I hed left in a grub stake, an' drift
back yere.  I figgered thet maybe I could pick up some o' those Injun
cattle again, and maybe some mavericks, an' so start 'nuther herd.
Anyhow I could lie low fer a while, believin' Le Fevre wus sure ter
come back soon as he thought the coast wus clear.  I knew then he an'
Koleta was in cahoots an' he 'd be headin' this way after the stock.
So I come down yere quiet, an' laid fer him to show up."

"What then?"

"Nuthin' much, till yisterday.  I got tergether some cows, herded down
river a ways, out o' sight in the bluffs, but hev hed ter keep mighty
quiet ter save my hair.  Them Cheyennes are sure pisen this year, an'
raisin' Cain.  I never see 'em so rambunctious afore.  But I hung on
yere, hidin' out, cause I didn't hev nowhar else ter go.  An'
yisterday, just ahead o' the blizzard, a Kiowa buck drifted in yere.
Slipped down the bluff, an' caught me 'fore ever I saw him.  Never laid
eyes on the red afore but he wus friendly 'nough, natch'ally mistakin'
me fer one o' Le Fevre's herders.  His name wus Black Smoke, an' he
could n't talk no English worth mentionin', but we made out to
understan' each other in Mex.  He wus too darn hungry and tired to talk
much anyhow.  But I got what I wanted to know out o' him."

"Well, go on, Hughes; you are making a long story out of it."

"The rest is short 'nough.  It seems he an' ol' Koleta, an' a young
Cheyenne buck, had been hangin' 'round across the river from Dodge fer
quite a while waitin' fer Le Fevre to pull off some sorter stunt.
Maybe I did n't get just the straight o' it, but anyhow they held up a
paymaster, er something like that, fer a big boodle.  They expected to
do it quiet like, hold the off'cer a day er so out in the desert, an'
then turn him loose to howl.  But them plans did n't just exactly work.
The fellow's daughter was with him, when the pinch was made, an' they
hed to take her 'long too.  Then the officer man got ugly, an' had to
be shot, an' Le Fevre quarrelled with the other white man in the
outfit, an' killed him.  That left the gal on their hands, an' them all
in a hell of a fix if they wus ever caught.  The young Injuns wanted to
kill the gal too, an' shet her mouth, but somehow Le Fevre an' Koleta
would n't hear to it--said she 'd be worth more alive than dead, an'
that they could hide her whar she 'd never be heard of ag'in unless her
friends put up money to buy her back."

Hamlin was leaning forward, watching the speaker intently, and it
seemed to him his heart had stopped beating.  This story had the
semblance of truth; it _was_ the truth.  So Dupont and Le Fevre were
one and the same.  He could believe this now, could perceive the
resemblance, although the man had grown older, taken on flesh, and
disguised himself wonderfully by growing that black beard.  Yet, at the
moment, he scarcely considered the man at all; his whole interest
concentrated on the fate of the unfortunate girl.

"Where were they taking her, Hughes--do you know?"

"Wa'n't but one place fer 'em to take her--the Cheyennes hev got winter
camp down yonder on the Canadian--Black Kettle's outfit.  Onc't thar,
all hell could n't pry her loose."

"And Le Fevre dared go there?  Among those hostiles?"

"Him!" Hughes laughed scornfully.  "Why, he's hand in glove with the
whole bunch.  He's raided with 'em, decked out in feathers an'
war-paint."

The Sergeant thought rapidly and leaped to a sudden conclusion.

"And you were trying to kill him when you shot us up?"

"Thet wus the idea, stranger; if I got a friend o' yourn, I 'm powerful
sorry."



CHAPTER XXVIII

SNOWBOUND

The gleam in Hamlin's eyes impelled the other to go on, and explain
fully.

"Lord, I know how yer feel, stranger, an', I reckon, if yer was to plug
me right yere it would n't more 'n even matters up.  But yer listen
furst afore yer shoot.  Thet Kiowa Black Smoke was sent on ahead, an'
got yere afore the storm.  He said them others wus 'bout four hours
behind, an' headin' fer this yere cabin to make camp.  They wa'n't
hurryin' none, fer they did n't suspect they wus bein' tracked.  Well,
thet was my chance; what I 'd been campin' out yere months a-waitin'
fer.  I did n't expect ter git nuthin' back, y' understand; all I
wanted was ter kill that damn skunk, an' squar accounts.  It looked ter
me then like I hed him on the hip.  He did n't know I was in the
kintry; all I hed to do was lay out in the hills, an' take a pot-shot
at him afore he saw me."

"And get the girl and the money."

"As God is my witness, I never thought 'bout thet.  I jest wanted ter
plug him.  I know it sounds sorter cowardly, but that fellow 's a
gun-fighter, an' he hed two Injuns with him.  Anyhow that wus my
notion, an' as soon as Black Smoke went lopin' up the valley, I loaded
up, an' climbed them bluffs, to whar I hed a good look-out erlong the
north trail.  I laid out thar all night.  The storm come up, an' I
mighty nigh froze, but snuggled down inter ther snow an' stuck.  When
yer onc't get a killin' freak on, yer goin' through hell an' high water
ter get yer man.  Thet's how I felt.  Well, just 'long 'bout daylight
an outfit showed up.  With my eyes half froze over, an' ther storm
blowin' the snow in my face, I could n't see much--nuthin' but outlines
o' hosses an' men.  But thar was four o' 'em, an' a big fellow ahead
breakin' trail.  Course I thought it was Le Fevre; I wa'n't lookin' fer
no one else, an' soon as I dared, I let drive.  He flopped over dead as
a door nail, an' then I popped away a couple o' times at the others.
One fell down, an' I thought I got him, but did n't wait to make sure;
just turned and hoofed it fer cover, knowin' the storm would hide my
trail.  I 'd got the man I went after, an' just natch'ally did n't give
er whoop what become o' the rest.  As I went down the bank I heard 'em
shootin' so I knowed some wus alive yet an' it would be better fer me
to crawl inter my hole an' lie still."

Hamlin sat motionless, staring at the man, not quite able to comprehend
his character.  Killing was part of the western code, and he could
appreciate Hughes' eagerness for revenge, but the underlying cowardice
in the man was almost bewildering.  Finally he got up, swept the
revolver on the bench into his pocket, walked over, and picked up the
gun.

"Now, Hughes," he said quietly.  "I'll talk, and you listen.  In my
judgment you are a miserable sneaking cur, and I am going to trust you
just so far as I can watch you.  I suppose I ought to shoot you where
you are, and have done with it.  You killed one of the best men who
ever lived, a friend of mine, Sam Wasson--"

"Who?"

"Sam Wasson, a government scout."

Hughes dropped his face into his hands.

"Good Lord!  I knew him!"

The Sergeant drew a deep breath, and into his face there came a look
almost of sympathy.

"Then you begin to realize the sort of fool you are," he went on
soberly.  "They don't make better men out here; his little finger was
worth more than your whole body.  But killing you won't bring Sam back,
and besides I reckon you 've told me the straight story, an' his
shooting was an accident in a way.  Then you 're more useful to me just
now alive than you would be dead.  My name is Hamlin, sergeant Seventh
Cavalry, and I am here after that man Le Fevre.  We trailed his outfit
from Dodge until the storm struck us, and then came straight through
travelling by compass.  I did not know the man's name was Le Fevre
until you told me; up in Kansas he is known as Dupont."

"That 's it; that's the name he took when he sold the cattle."

"The officer robbed and killed was Major McDonald, and it is his
daughter they hold.  The fellow Dupont quarrelled with and shot was a
deserter named Connors.  We found the body.  Now where do you suppose
Le Fevre is?"

Hughes stared into the fire, nervously pulling his beard.

"Wall, I 'd say in west yere somewhar along the Cimarron.  'T ain't
likely he had a compass, an' the wind wus from the nor'east.  Best they
could do, the ponies would drift.  The Injuns would keep the gineral
direction, o' course, storm 'er no storm, an' Gene is some plainsman
himself, but thet blizzard would sheer 'em off all the same.  I reckon
they 're under the banks ten mile, er more, up thar.  An' soon as there
's a change in weather, they 'll ride fer Black Kettle's camp.  Thet's
my guess, mister."

Hamlin turned the situation over deliberately in his mind, satisfied
that Hughes had reviewed the possibilities correctly.  If Le Fevre's
party had got through at all, then that was the most likely spot for
them to be hiding in.  They would have drifted beyond doubt, farther
than Hughes supposed, probably, as he had been sheltered from the real
violence of the wind as it raged on the open plain.  They might be
fifteen, even twenty miles away, and so completely drifted in as to be
undiscoverable except through accident.  What course then was best to
pursue?  The storm was likely to continue violent for a day, perhaps
two days longer.  His horses were exhausted, and Carroll helpless.  It
might not even be safe to leave the latter alone.  Yet if the frozen
man could be left in the hut to take care of himself and the ponies,
would there be any hope of success in an effort to proceed up the river
on foot?  He could make Hughes go--that was n't the difficulty--but
probably they could n't cover five miles a day through the snowdrifts.
And, even if they did succeed in getting through in time to intercept
the fugitives, the others would possess every advantage--both position
for defense, and horses on which to escape.  Hughes, lighting his pipe,
confident now in his own mind that he was personally safe, seemed to
sense the problem troubling the Sergeant.

"I reckon I know this yere kintry well 'nough," he said lazily, "ter
give yer a pointer er two.  I 've rounded up long-horns west o' yere.
Them fellers ain't goin' to strike out fer the Canadian till after the
storm quits.  By thet time yer ponies is rested up in better shape than
theirs will be, and we kin strike 'cross to the sou'west.  We 're bound
either to hit 'em, or ride 'cross thar trail."

"But the woman!" protested Hamlin, striding across the floor.  "What
may happen to her in the meanwhile?  She is an Eastern girl,
unaccustomed to this life,--a--a lady."

"Yer don't need worry none 'bout thet.  Ef she 's the right kind she
'll stan' more 'n a man when she has to.  I reckon it won't be none too
pleasant 'long with Gene an' them Cheyenne bucks, but if she 's pulled
through so far, thar ain't nuthin' special goin' ter happen till they
git to the Injun camp."

"You mean her fate will be decided in council?"

"Sure; thet's Cheyenne law.  Le Fevre knows it, an' ol' Koleta would
knife him in a minute if he got gay.  He's a devil all right--thet ol'
buck--but he 's afraid of Black Kettle, an' thar won't be no harm done
to the gal."

The Sergeant walked over to the fire, and stared down into the red
embers, striving to control himself.  He realized the truth of all
Hughes said, and yet had to fight fiercely his inclination to hasten to
her rescue.  The very thought of her alone in those ruthless hands was
torture.  There was no selfishness in the man's heart, no hope of
winning this girl for himself, yet he knew now that he loved her; that
for him she was the one woman in all the world.  Her face was in his
memory; the very soughing of the wind seemed her voice calling him.
But the real man in him--the plainsman instinct--conquered the
impetuosity of the lover.  There must be no mistake made--no rash,
hopeless effort.  Better delay, than ultimate failure, and Hughes' plan
was the more practical way.  He lifted his head, his lips set with
decision.

"You're right, old man.  We'll wait," he said sternly.  "Now to get
ready.  Have you a corral?"

The other made a gesture with his hand.

"Twenty rod b'low, under the bluff."

"We 'll drive the horses down, feed and water them.  But first come
with me; there is a half-frozen man up yonder."

They ploughed through the snow together, choking and coughing in the
thick swirl of flakes that beat against their faces.  The three horses,
powdered white, stood tails to the storm, with heads to the bluff,
while the drifts completely covered Carroll.  He was sleeping, warm in
the blankets, and the two men picked him up and stumbled along with
their burden to the shelter of the cabin.  Then Hughes faced the
blizzard again, leading the horses to the corral, while Hamlin
ministered to the semi-conscious soldier, laying him out upon a pile of
soft skins, and vigorously rubbing his limbs to restore circulation.
The man was stupid from exposure, and in some pain, but exhibited no
dangerous symptoms.  When wrapped again in his blankets, he fell
instantly asleep.  Hughes returned, mantled with snow, and, as the door
opened, the howl of the storm swept by.

"No better outside?"

"Lord, no!  Worse, if anything.  Wind more east, sweepin' the snow up
the valley.  We 'll be plum shet up in an hour, I reckon.  Hosses all
right, though."

In the silence they could hear the fierce beating against the door, the
shrieking of the storm-fiend encompassing them about.



CHAPTER XXIX

THE CHASE

Hamlin never forgot those two days and nights of waiting, while the
storm roared without and the clouds of drifting snow made any dream of
advance impossible.  Trained as he was to patience, the delay left
marks in his face, and his nerves throbbed with pain.  His mind was
with her constantly, even in moments of uneasy sleep, picturing her
condition unsheltered from the storm, and protected only by Le Fevre
and his two Indian allies.  If he could only reach them, only strike a
blow for her release, it would be such a relief.  The uncertainty
weighed upon him, giving unrestricted play to the imagination, and,
incidentally awakening a love for the girl so overwhelming as almost to
frighten him.  He had fought this feeling heretofore, sternly,
deliberately, satisfied that such ambition was hopeless.  He would not
attempt to lower her to his level, nor give her the unhappiness of
knowing that he dared misconstrue her frank friendliness into aught
more tender.  But these misfortunes had changed the entire outlook.
Now he flung all pretence aside, eager to place his life on the altar
to save her.  Even a dim flame of hope began blazing in his heart--hope
that he might yet wring from Le Fevre a confession that would clear his
name.  He knew his man at last--knew him, and would track him now with
all the pitiless ingenuity of a savage.  Once he could stand erect,
absolved of disgrace, a man again among men, he would ignore the
uniform of the ranks, and go to her with all the pride of his race.
Ay! and down in his heart he knew that she would welcome his coming;
that her eyes would not look at the uniform, but down into the depths
of his own.

He thought of it all as he paced the floor, or stared into the fire,
while outside the wind raged and howled, piling the snow against the
cabin front, and whirling in mad bursts up the valley.  It would be
death to face the fury of it on those open plains.  There was nothing
left him but to swear, and pace back and forth.  Twice he and Hughes
fought their way to the corral, found the horses sheltered in a little
cove, and brought them food and water.  The struggle to accomplish this
was sufficient proof of the impossibility of going farther.  Exhausted
and breathless they staggered back into the quietness of the cabin,
feeling as though they had been beaten by clubs.  Once, desperate to
attempt something, Hamlin suggested searching for the bodies of Wasson
and Wade, but Hughes shook his head, staring at the other as though
half believing him demented.  The Sergeant strode to the door and
looked out into the smother of snow; then came back without a word of
protest.

Carroll improved steadily, complaining of pain where the frost had
nipped exposed flesh, yet able to sit up, and eat heartily.  There
remained a numbness in his feet and legs, however, which prevented his
standing alone, and both the others realized that he would have to be
left behind when the storm abated.  Hughes would go without doubt; on
this point the Sergeant was determined.  He did not altogether like or
trust the man; he could not blot from memory the cowardly shot which
had killed Wasson, nor entirely rid himself of a fear that he, himself,
had failed an old comrade, in not revenging his death; yet one thing
was clear--the man's hatred for Le Fevre made him valuable.
Treacherous as he might be by nature, now his whole soul was bent on
revenge.  Moreover he knew the lay of the land, the trail the fugitives
would follow, and to some extent Black Kettle's camp.  Little by little
Hamlin drew from him every detail of Le Fevre's life in the cattle
country, becoming more and more convinced that both men were thieves,
their herds largely stolen through connivance with Indians.
Undoubtedly Le Fevre was the bigger rascal of the two, and possessed
greater influence because of his marriage into the tribe.

It was the second midnight when the wind died down.  Hamlin, sleeping
fitfully, seemed to sense the change; he rose, forced the door open,
and peered out eagerly.  There was lightness to the sky, and all about,
the unbroken expanse of snow sparkled in cold crystals.  Nothing broke
the white desolation but the dark waters of the river still unfrozen,
and the gaunt limbs of the cottonwoods, now standing naked and
motionless.  The silence was profound, seeming almost painful after the
wild fury of the past days.  He could hear the soft purr of the water,
and Carroll's heavy breathing.  And it was cold, bitterly cold, the
chill of it penetrating to his very bones.  But for that he had no
care--his mind had absorbed the one important fact; the way was open,
they could go.  He shook Hughes roughly into wakefulness, giving
utterance to sharp, tense orders, as though he dealt with a man of his
own troop.

"Turn out--lively, now.  Yes, the storm is over.  It's midnight, or a
little after, and growing cold.  Put on your heavy stuff, and bring up
the two best horses.  Come, now; you 'll step off quicker than that,
Hughes, if you ride with me.  I 'll have everything ready by the time
you get here.  Eat!  Hell!  We 'll eat in the saddle!  What's that,
Carroll?'

"Ye ain't a-goin' to leave me yere alone, are ye, Sergeant?"

"No; there 'll be two horses to keep you company.  You've got a snap,
man; plenty to eat, and a good fire--what more do you want--a nurse?
Hughes, what, in the name of Heaven, are you standing there for?
Perhaps you would like to have me stir you up.  I will if those horses
are not here in ten minutes."

The cowman, muffled to the ears in a buffalo coat, plunged profanely
into the drift, slamming the door behind him.  Hamlin hastily glanced
over the few articles piled in readiness on the bench--ammunition,
blankets, food--paying no heed to Carroll's muttering of discontent.
By the time Hughes returned, he had everything strapped for the
saddles.  He thrust the cowman's rifle under his own flap, but handed
the latter a revolver, staring straight into his eyes as he did so.

"I reckon you and I have got enough in common in this chase to play
square," he said grimly.  "We 're both out after Le Fevre, ain't we?"

"You bet."

"All right, then; here 's your gun.  If you try any trickery, Hughes, I
'd advise that you get me the first shot, for if you miss you 'll never
have another."

The man drew the sleeve of his coat over his lips, his eyes shifting
before the Sergeant's steady gaze.

"I ain't thet sort," he muttered uneasily.  "Yer don't need to think
thet o' me."

"Maybe not," and Hamlin swung into the saddle carelessly.  "Only I
thought I 'd tell you beforehand what would happen if you attempt any
fool gun-play.  Take the lead, you know the trail."

Carroll, supporting himself by the table, crept across to the door and
watched them, reckless as to the entering cold.  The glare of the white
snow revealed clearly the outlines of the disappearing horsemen, as
they rode cautiously down the bank.  The thin fringe of shore ice broke
under the weight of the ponies' hoofs, as the riders forced them
forward into the icy water.  A moment later the two crept up the sharp
incline of the opposite shore, appearing distinct against the sky as
they attained the summit.  Hamlin waved his hand, and then, on a lope,
the figures vanished into the gloom.  Crying, and swearing at his
helplessness, the deserted soldier closed the door, and crept back
shivering into his blankets.

Hughes turned his horse's head to the southwest, and rode steadily
forward, the buffalo overcoat giving him a shaggy, grotesque appearance
in the spectral light reflected from the snow.  Without a word Hamlin
followed, a pace behind.  Their route lay for the first few miles
across a comparatively level plateau, over which the fierce wind of the
late storm had swept with such violence as to leave the surface packed
firm.  The night shut them in silently, giving to their immediate
surroundings a mournful loneliness most depressing.  There were no
shadows, only the dull snow-gleam across which they passed like
spectres, the only sound the crunching of their horses' hoofs on the
crust.  The Sergeant, staring about, felt that he had never looked upon
a more depressing spectacle than this gloomy landscape, desolate and
wind-swept, still over-arched with low-lying storm clouds, black and
ominous.

They advanced thus for two hours, making no attempt to force their
animals, and scarcely exchanging a word, both men watchful of the snow
underfoot in search of a possible trail, when the character of the
country began to change.  The level plain broke into a series of ridges
of irregular formation, all evidently heading toward some more southern
valley.  In the depressions the snow lay banked in deep drifts, and,
after plunging desperately through two of these, unable to judge
correctly in the dim light where to ride, Hughes turned more to the
south, skirting along the bare slope of a ridge, trusting some turn
lower down would yield them the necessary westerning.

"It's over the ponies' heads down thar, Sergeant," he said, pointing
sideways into the dark hollow, "an' we 're bound to strike a
cross-ridge afore we come to the bluffs."

"What bluffs?  The Canadian?"

"Yep; it 's badly broken kintry a long ways west o' yere.  Bad lands,
mostly, an' a hell o' a place for cattle to hide out."

"Hughes, do you know where Black Kettle's camp is?"

"Well, no, not exactly.  Las' winter the Cheyennes was settled 'bout
opposite the mouth o' Buffalo Creek, an' thar 're down thar somewhar
now.  Thar 's one thing sure--they ain't any east o' thet.  As we ain't
hit no trail, I reckon as how Le Fevre's outfit must hev drifted
further then I calc'lated."

"I thought so at the time," commented the other quietly.  "However, we
will have to make the circle, and, if the country out yonder is as you
describe, they will be no better off.  They 'll have to follow the
ridges to get through.  We may get a glimpse when daylight comes."

They rode on steadily, keeping down below the crest of the hills, yet
picking a passage where the snow had been swept clear.  The
slipperiness of the incline made their progress slow, as they dared not
risk the breaking of a horse's leg in that wilderness, and the faint
light glimmer was most confusing.  The wind had ceased, the calm was
impressive after the wild tumult, but the cold seemed to strengthen as
the dawn advanced, viciously biting the exposed faces of the men.  The
straining ponies were white with frost.  In the gray of a cheerless
dawn they reached the first line of bluffs, and drew rein just below
the summit, where they could look on across the lower ridges to the
westward.

It was a wild, desolate scene, the dull gray sky overhead, the black
and white shading below.  Mile on mile the picture unrolled to the
horizon, the vista widening slowly as the light increased, bringing
forth the details of barren, wind-swept ridges and shallow valleys
choked with snow.  Not a tree, not a shrub, not even a rock broke the
dead monotony.  All was loneliness and silence.  The snow lay gleaming
and untrampled, except as here and there a dull brown patch of dead
grass darkened the side of a hill.  Hamlin shadowed his eyes with
gloved hands, studying intently inch by inch the wide domain.  Suddenly
he arose in his stirrups, bending eagerly forward.

"By heaven!  There they are, Hughes," he exclaimed, feeling the hot
blood course through his veins.  "See, on the incline of that third
ridge.  There is a shadow there, and they are not moving.  Here; draw
in back of me; now you can see.  It looks as though they had a horse
down."

Hughes stared long in the direction indicated, his eyes narrowed into
mere slits.

"Ah! that's it," he said at last.  "Horse broke a leg; shot it jest
then--I seen the flash.  Now they 're goin' on.  See!  One fellow
climbin' up behind 'nother, an' the horse left lyin' thar on the snow."

"How many people do you make out?" and Hamlin's voice shook a little.
"There's four, ain't there?"

At that distance the fugitives looked like mere black dots.  It could
scarcely be determined that they moved, and yet their outlines were
distinct against the background of white snow, while the two watchers
possessed the trained vision of the plains.  Hughes answered after a
deliberate inspection, without so much as turning his head.

"Thar's four; leastwise thar was four hosses, and two--the Injuns
likely--are ridin' double.  Thar animals are 'bout played, it looks ter
me--just able ter crawl.  Ain't had no fodder is 'bout the size o' it.
We ought to be able ter head thet bunch off 'fore they git to the
Canadian at thet rate o' travel--hey, Sergeant?"

Hamlin's eyes followed the long sweep of the cross-ridge, studying its
trend, and the direction of the intervening valleys.  Once down on the
other slope all this extensive view would be hidden; they would have to
ride blindly, guessing at the particular swale along which those others
were advancing.  To come to the summit again would surely expose them
to those keen Indian eyes.  They would be searching the trail ahead
ceaselessly, noting every object along the crests of the ridges.
However, if the passage around was not blocked with snow, they ought to
attain the junction in ample time.  With twice as far to travel, their
ponies were strong and fit, and should win out against Le Fevre's
starved beasts.  He waved his gloved hand.

"We 'll try it," he said shortly; "come on, Hughes."

He led off along the steep side of the hill, and forcing his horse into
a sharp trot, headed straight out into the white wilderness; Hughes,
without uttering a word, brought down his quirt on his pony's flank and
followed.



CHAPTER XXX

THE FIGHT IN THE SNOW

The slope toward the south had not been swept clear by the wind, and
the horses broke through the crust to their knees, occasionally
stumbling into hollows where the drifts were deep.  This made progress
slow, although Hamlin pressed forward recklessly, fully aware of what
it would mean should the fugitives emerge first, and thus achieve a
clear passage to the river.  What was going on there to the right,
behind the fringe of low hills, could not be conjectured, but to the
left the riders could see clearly for a great distance over the
desolate, snow-draped land, down to the dark waters of the Canadian and
the shore beyond.  It was all a deserted waste, barren of movement, and
no smoke bore evidence of any Indian encampment near by.  A mile or
more to the west the river took a sharp bend, disappearing behind the
bluffs, and on the open plain, barely visible against the unsullied
mantle of snow, were dark specks, apparently moving, but in erratic
fashion.  The distance intervening was too great for either man to
distinguish exactly what these might be, yet as they plunged onward
their keen eyes searched the valley vigilantly through the cold clear
air.

"Some of your long-horns, Hughes?" asked the Sergeant finally, pointing
as he turned and glanced back.  "Quite a bunch of cattle, it looks to
me."

"Them thar ain't cows," returned the other positively.  "Tha 're too
closely bunched up.  I reckon it 'll be Black Kettle's pony herd."

"Then his village will lie in beyond the big bend there," and Hamlin
rose in his stirrups, shading his eyes.  "The herders have n't driven
them far since the storm broke.  You don't see any smoke, do you?"

Hughes shook his head.

"You would n't likely see none against thet gray sky; them ponies is
two er maybe three miles off, an' ther camp is likely a mile er so
further.  Thar 's a big bend thar, as I remember; a sort o' level spot
with bluff all 'round, 'cept on the side o' ther river.  We hed a
cattle corral thar onc't, durin' a round-up.  Most likely that's whar
they are."

"And Le Fevre is heading straight for the spot.  Well, he 'll have to
come out on this bench first."

"Yep, there sure ain't no valleys lying between.  How many o' these
yere gulch openings have we got past already?"

"Three; there 's the fourth just ahead.  That's the one they were
trailing through.  No doubt about that, is there?"

"Not 'less them Injuns took to the ridge.  They wus sure in the fourth
valley when we fust sighted the outfit back thar.  Whatcher goin' ter
do, Sergeant?  Jump 'em a hoss-back, an' just pump lead?"

Hamlin had thought this over as he rode and already had planned his
attack.  The opening to the valley, along which Le Fevre's exhausted
party were slowly advancing toward them, seemed favorable--it was
narrow and badly choked with snow.  It offered an ideal place for a
surprise and was far enough away from the Indian encampment--if the
latter was situated as Hughes believed, in the great bend above--so
that no echo of shots would carry that distance, even through the crisp
atmosphere.  There were two things the Sergeant had determined to
accomplish if possible--the rescue of Miss Molly uninjured, and the
capture of Le Fevre.  No matter how deeply he despised the man he could
not afford to have him killed.  So far as the Indians were concerned
there would be no mercy shown, for if either one escaped he would carry
the news to the village.  With all this in his mind the Sergeant swung
out of the saddle, dropping the rein to the ground, confident that the
tired cow-pony would remain quiet.  His belt was buckled outside the
army overcoat, and he drew his revolver, tested it, and slipped it back
loosely into the holster.  Then he pulled out the rifle from under the
flap of the saddle, grimly handling it in his gloved fingers.  Hughes,
his head sunk into his fur collar, his hot breath steaming in the cold
atmosphere, watched him curiously.

"Lookin' fer a right smart fight, I reckon," he said, a trifle
uneasily.  "Believe me, yer ain't goin' ter find thet fellar no spring
chicken.  He 's some on ther gun play."

"I hope he knows enough to quit when he 's cornered," returned the
other pleasantly, sweeping his eyes to the opening in the hills, "for I
'm aiming to take him back to Kansas alive."

"The hell ye are!"

"That 's the plan, pardner, and I 've got reason for it.  I knew Le
Fevre once, years ago, during the war, and I 've been some anxious to
get my hands on him ever since.  He 's worth far more to me alive than
dead, just now, and, Hughes," his voice hardening, "you 'll bear that
fact in mind when the fracas begins.  From now on this is my affair,
not yours.  You understand?  You get busy with the two bucks, and leave
the white man to me.  Come on now,--dismount."

Hughes came to the ground with evident reluctance, swearing savagely.

"What do yer think I 'm yere for," he demanded roughly, "if it wa'n't
to shoot that cuss?"

Hamlin strode swiftly over, and dropped a hand on the shaggy shoulder.

"You are here because I ordered you to come with me; because if you
hadn't I would have killed you back there in the shack, you red-handed
murderer.  Now listen, Hughes.  I know what you are--a cattle thief.
You and Le Fevre belong to the same outfit, only he was the smarter of
the two.  I have spared your life for a purpose, and if you fail me now
I 'll shoot you down as I would a dog.  Don't try to threaten me, you
cur, for I am not that kind.  I am not trusting you; I have n't from
the first, but you are going into this fight on my side, and under my
orders."

The two men glared into each other's eyes, silent, breathing hard, but
there was a grim determination about the Sergeant's set jaw that left
Hughes speechless.  He grinned weakly, stamping down the snow under
foot.  Hamlin's continued silence brought a protest to his lips.

"Damn if I know why you say that," he began.  "Haven't I been square?"

"Because I know your style, Hughes.  You hate Le Fevre for the dirty
trick he played on you, but you 'd sell out to him again in five
minutes if you thought there was any money in it.  I don't propose
giving you the chance.  You 'll go ahead, and you are in more danger
from me than that outfit yonder.  Now move, and we 'll take a look up
the valley."

They ploughed a way through the drifts to the mouth of the narrow
opening between the hills, dropping to their knees in the snow, and
cautiously creeping forward the last few yards.  Hamlin, convinced that
fear alone could control the ex-cowthief, kept slightly to the rear.

"Now wait, Hughes," he said, his voice lowered but still tense with
command.  "Be careful, man.  Crawl up there in between those drifts,
and look over.  Keep down low, you fool."

The two men wriggled slowly forward, smothered in the snowdrift, until
Hughes' eyes barely topped the surface.  Hamlin lay outstretched a foot
below, watchful for the slightest sign of treachery.  The cowman stared
up the depression, blinking his eyes in the snow glare.  The impatient
Sergeant gripped his arm.

"Well, what is it?  Are they coming?"

"You bet, an' about dead, from the looks of 'em.  Them fellars ain't
lookin' fer nuthin'.  I reckon I could stand up straight yere an' they
'd never see me.  Take a look yerself; it's safe 'nough."

Hamlin drew himself up, and peered out over the snow, but still gripped
the other's arm.  With his first glance up the valley there swept over
him a strange feeling of sympathy for those he was hunting.  It was a
dismal, depressing picture--the bare, snow-covered hillsides, and
between, floundering weakly through the drifts, the little party of
fugitives, the emaciated ponies staggering with weakness, the men on
foot, reeling as they tramped forward, their heads lowered in utter
weariness.  The girl alone was in saddle, so wrapped about in blankets
as to be formless, even her face concealed.  The manner in which she
swayed to the movements of the pony, urged on by one of the Indians,
was evidence that she was bound fast, and helpless.  At sight of her
condition Hamlin felt his old relentless purpose return.  He was
plainsman enough to realize what suffering those men had passed through
before reaching such extremity, and was quick to appreciate the full
meaning of their exhaustion, and to sympathize with it.  He had passed
through a similar baptism, and remembered the desperate clutch of the
storm-king.

But the sight of that poor girl swaying helplessly in the saddle, a
bound prisoner in the midst of those ruffians, who had murdered her
father before her eyes and who were bearing her to all the unspeakable
horrors of Indian captivity, instantly stifled within him every plea of
mercy.  No matter what they had suffered, they were a ruthless,
merciless gang of cut-throats and thieves, fleeing from justice,
deserving of no consideration.  Yet their distressed appearance, their
lack of vigilance, rendered him careless.  They seemed too weak to
resist, too exhausted to fight; the cold plucking at their hearts had
seemingly already conquered.  It was this impression which caused him
to act recklessly, rising to his feet, rifle in hand, directly in their
track, halting their advance with stern command.

"Hands up!  Quick now, the three of you!  Don't wait, Dupont; I 've got
the drop!"

The white man was in front, a huge, shapeless figure in his furs, his
black beard frosted oddly.  He stood motionless, astounded at this
strange apparition in blue cavalry overcoat, which had sprung up so
suddenly in that wilderness.  For an instant he must have deemed the
vision confronting him some illusion of the desert, for he never
stirred except to rub a gloved hand across his eyes.

"By all the gods, Dupont," roared the Sergeant impatiently, "do you
want me to shoot?  Damn you, throw up your hands!"

Slowly, as though his mind was still in a dream, the man's hands were
lifted above his head, one grasping a short, sawed-off gun.  The
expression upon his face was ugly, as he began to dimly understand what
this unexpected hold-up meant.  There followed an instant of silence,
in which Hamlin, forgetful of Hughes, who still remained lying quiet in
the snow, took a step or two forward, rifle at shoulder.  The two
Indians, swathed in blankets, but with arms upraised, were in direct
line, motionless as statues.  He could see the gleam of their dark
eyes, and even noticed the figure of the girl straighten in the saddle.

Dupont gave fierce utterance to an oath.  Apparently he failed to
recognize the soldier, but as Hughes rose to his knees, suspicion
leaped instantly to his brain.

"A hold-up, hey!" he said coolly.  "Hughes, you sneaking old coward,
come out into the open once.  What is it you want?"

"Nothing to that, Dupont," returned the Sergeant, glancing back
questioningly toward his companion.  "Your old partner is here under my
orders.  I am Sergeant Hamlin, Seventh Cavalry.  Throw down that gun!"

"What!  You--"

"Yes, you are my prisoner, I 've followed you from Dodge.  Throw down
the gun!"

It was dropped sullenly into the snow.

"Now, Hughes, go ahead, and disarm those Indians."

The cowman shuffled forward, revolver in hand, circling to keep safely
beyond reach of Dupont, who eyed him maliciously.  The latter was so
buttoned up in a buffalo coat as to make it impossible for him to reach
a weapon, and Hamlin permitted his eyes to waver slightly, as he
watched the Indians.  What occurred the next instant came so suddenly
as scarcely to leave an impression.  It was swift, instinctive action,
primitive impulse.  An Indian hand fell beneath its blanket covering;
there was a flash of flame across a pony's saddle; Hughes sprang
backward, and went reeling into the snow.  Hamlin fired, as the savage
dodged between the horse's legs, sending him sprawling, and, ignoring
the other Indian, swung about to cover Dupont.  Swift as he moved, he
was too late.  With one desperate spring backward the white man was
behind the woman's pony, sheltered by her shapeless figure, gripping
the animal's bit.  The second Indian dropped to his knees and opened
fire.  With a sudden lurch forward the Sergeant plunged headlong in the
snow.



CHAPTER XXXI

THE GIRL AND THE MAN

As he went down, uninjured, but realizing now that this was to be a
battle to the death, Hamlin flung open his coat, and gripped his
revolver.  Lying there on his face he fired twice, deliberately,
choosing the exposed Indian as a target.  The latter, striving to mount
his frightened pony, fell forward, grasping the mane desperately, a
stream of blood dyeing his blanket as the animal dashed across the
valley.  Dupont had whirled the girl's horse to the left, and, with her
body as a shield, was attempting to escape.  Already he was too far
away to make a revolver shot safe.  Hamlin arose to his knees, and
picked up the dropped rifle.  His lips were pressed tight; his eyes
full of grim determination.  Why didn't Dupont fire?  Could it be he
was unarmed?  Or was he hoping by delay to gain a closer shot?
Keen-eyed, resolute, the Sergeant determined to take no chances.  The
rifle came to a level,--a spurt of flame, a sharp report, and the pony
staggered to its knees, and sank, bearing its helpless burden with it.
Dupont let go his grip on the rein, and stood upright, clearly outlined
against the white hillside, staring back toward the kneeling Sergeant,
the faint smoke cloud whirling between.

"All right--damn you!--you've got me!" he said sullenly.

Hamlin never moved, except to snap out the emptied cartridge.

"Unbutton that coat," he commanded tersely.  "Now turn around.  No
shooting iron, hey!  That's rather careless of a gun-man."

He dropped his rifle, and strode forward revolver in hand, glancing
curiously at the dead Indian as he passed.  A riata hung to the pommel
of a saddle, and he paused to shake it loose, uncoiling the thin rope,
but with watchful eyes constantly on his prisoner.  He felt no fear of
Dupont, now that he knew the fellow to be unarmed, and the wounded
Indian had vanished over the ridge.  Yet Dupont was a powerful man, and
desperate enough to accept any chance.  Something in the sullen,
glowering face confronting him awoke the Sergeant to caution.  He
seemed to sense the plan of the other, and stopped suddenly, slipping
the rope through his fingers.

He swung the coil about his head, measuring the distance, every faculty
concentrated on the toss.  He had forgotten Hughes lying in the snow
behind; he neither saw nor heard the fellow scramble weakly to his
knees, revolver outstretched in a half-frozen hand.  And Hughes, his
eyes already glazing in death, saw only the two figures.  In that
moment hate triumphed over cowardice; he could not distinguish which
was Dupont, which Hamlin.  In the madness of despair he cared
little--only he would kill some one before he died.  His weapon wavered
frantically as he sought to aim, the man holding himself up by one
hand.  Dupont, facing that way, saw this apparition, and leaped aside,
stumbling over the dead pony.  Hughes' weapon belched, and Hamlin, the
lasso whirling above him in the air, pitched forward, and came crashing
down into the snow.

It was all the work of an instant, a wild, confused bit, so rapidly
enacted as to seem unreal even to the participants.  Hamlin lay
motionless, barely conscious of living, yet unable to stir a muscle.
Hughes, screaming out one oath, sank back into a heap, his frozen
fingers still gripping his smoking weapon.  Then Dupont rose cautiously
to his knees, peering forth across the dead body of the pony.  The man
was unnerved, unable at first to comprehend what had occurred.  He was
saved as by a miracle, and his great form shook from head to foot.
Then, as his eyes rested on the outstretched body of the Sergeant, hate
conquered every other feeling; he staggered to his feet, picked up the
gun lying in the snow, walked across, and brutally kicked the prostrate
form.  There was no response, no movement.

"All I wish is that I 'd been the one to kill yer," he growled
savagely, grinning down.  "Hell of a good shot, though I reckon the
blame fool meant it for me."  He threw the rifle forward, in readiness,
and moved cautiously over toward Hughes.

"Deader than a door-nail," he muttered, pressing back the buffalo coat,
and staring contemptuously down into the white, staring face.  "I
wonder how that coward ever happened to be here--laying out for me, I
reckon!"

He straightened up and laughed, glancing furtively about.

"Some good joke that.  The whole outfit cleaned out, and me twenty
thousand to the good," feeling inside his coat to make sure.  "It 's
there all right.  Well, good-bye, boys, there don't seem to be nothing
here for me to stay for."

He caught the straying pony and swung up into the saddle, glanced about
once more at the motionless figures, and finally rode off up the ridge,
unconsciously following the tracks left by the fleeing Indian.  If the
girl ever occurred to him, he gave no sign of remembrance, and she
uttered no word.  Lying on her side, her eyes wide open, she watched
him ride away, across the barren space, until the slow-moving pony
topped the ridge, and disappeared on the other side.  Twice the man
turned and glanced back into the valley, but saw nothing except the
black blotches on the snow.  Molly made no motion, no outcry.  She
preferred death there alone, rather than rescue at his hands.  Scarcely
conscious, feeling no strength in her limbs, no hope pulsing at her
heart, she closed her eyes and lay still.  Yet wrapped about as she
was, her young body remained warm, and the very disappearance of Dupont
yielded a sense of freedom, awoke a strong desire to live.  Her eyes
opened again, despairingly, and gazed across the barren expanse.  She
could see Hamlin lying face downward, the yellow lining of his cavalry
cape over his head.  It seemed to her the man's foot moved.  Could she
be dreaming?  No!  He actually drew up one limb.

This evidence that the Sergeant still lived gave her fresh strength and
renewed determination.  She struggled to move her own feet; the left
was free, but the right was caught firmly beneath the pony.  She
struggled desperately, forgetful of pain, in the faith that she might
save Hamlin.  Little by little she worked the imprisoned limb free,
only to find it numb and helpless.  She lay there breathless, conscious
that she ached from head to foot.  Beyond her the Sergeant groaned and
turned partially over upon his side.  Tugging at the blanket she
managed to free one arm, gripped the mane of the dead pony, and drew
herself into a sitting posture.  Now the blood seemed to surge through
her veins in new volume, and she labored feverishly to release the
other hand.  At last she undid a knot with her teeth, and slipped the
blanket from her, beating her hands together to restore circulation.
Her right leg still was too numb to stand upon, but she crept forward,
dragging it helplessly behind her over the snow, to where Hamlin lay.

The girl's heart seemed to stop beating as she looked at him--at the
white, colorless face, the closed eyes, the discoloration of blood
staining the temple.  Yet he lived; his faint breath was plainly
perceptible in the frosty air.

"O God!" she sobbed, "what can I do!"

It was an unrestrained cry of anguish, yet there was no hesitation in
action.  She had forgotten everything except that helpless figure lying
before her on the snow--her own danger, the surrounding desolation, the
dead forms accentuating that wilderness tragedy.  With bare hands she
bathed his face in snow, rubbing the flesh until it flushed red,
pressing her own warm body against his, her lips speaking his name
again and again, almost hysterically, as though she hoped thus to call
him back to consciousness.  Her exploring fingers told her that it was
no serious wound which had creased the side of his head; if there was
no other he would surely revive, and the discovery sent her blood
throbbing through her veins.  She lifted his head to her lap, chafing
his cold wrists frantically, her eyes staring again out across the
barren snow fields, with fresh realization of their intense loneliness.
She choked back a sob of despair, and glanced down again into Hamlin's
face.  He did not stir but his eyes were open, regarding her in
bewilderment.

"Molly," he whispered, forgetting, "is this really you?  What has
happened?"

The girl's eyes filled instantly with tears, but she did not move,
except that the clasp of her hands grew stronger.

"Yes, I am Molly; please do not move yet.  You have been hurt, but it
is all right now."

"Hurt!" he lifted his head slightly and stared about; then dropped it
again with a sigh of content.  "Oh, yes, now I know.  Hughes shot me
from behind."  He struggled upright, in spite of her efforts at
restraint, feeling beside him for the rifle.  "Dupont was there, behind
that dead pony.  What became of Dupont?"

She dropped her face in her hands, her form trembling.

"He--he got away.  He thought you were dead; to--to make sure he came
over and kicked you.  Then he took your rifle, and the only pony left,
and rode off."

"And left you?"

"Yes--he--he never thought of me; only--only how he should escape with
the money.  I never moved, never opened my eyes; perhaps he believed me
dead also, and--and I prayed he would.  I would rather have died than
have him touch me again.  And--and I thought you were dead too.  O God!
It was so horrible!"

The man's voice was soft and low, thrilling with the love that refused
control.

"I know, dear; I know it all, now," he said tenderly, clasping her
hands.  "But that is all over and gone."  He put up one hand to his
wound.  "Heavens, how my head aches!  But that pain won't last long.  I
am a bit groggy yet, but will be on my feet pretty soon.  You are a
brave little girl.  Tell me how you got free?"

She went over the short story slowly, not lifting her eyes to his, and
he listened in silence, moving his limbs about, confident of the
gradual return of strength.

"But how did it happen?" he asked.  "Your capture?  Your father's
death?  It is all a mystery to me after I left you on the hotel
balcony."

The tears stood in her eyes suddenly uplifted to his, and impulsively
the man encircled her with his arm.

"You know I care, dear," he exclaimed recklessly.  "You are not afraid
to tell me."

"No, no; you have been so kind, so true.  I can tell you
everything--only it is so hard to confess the truth about my father."

"You suspect he was implicated?" he asked in astonishment, "that he
actually had a part in the plot?"

She looked at him gravely, down into his very soul.

"Yes, and--and that hurts more than all the rest."



CHAPTER XXXII

WORDS OF LOVE

Hamlin was silent for a moment, not knowing what to say that would
comfort or help.  He had never suspected this, and yet he could not
refrain altogether from experiencing a feeling of relief.  Deeply as he
sympathized with her in this trouble, still the man could not but be
conscious of those barriers formerly existing between them which this
discovery had instantly swept away.  Now they could meet upon a level,
as man and woman.  No longer could rank intervene; not even the stain
of his own court-martial.  Possibly she dreamed of what was passing in
his mind, for she suddenly lifted her eyes to his.

"Shall I tell you?"

"No; not now; both your explanation and mine can wait," he replied
quickly.  "I can stand alone now--see," and he regained his feet,
swaying slightly with dizziness, yet smiling down at her as he held
forth a hand.  "Now you try it; take hold of me until you test your
limbs--that was an ugly fall you got when I shot your pony."

She straightened slowly, her cheeks flushing in the keen air, her eyes
striving to smile back in response to his challenge.

"That was nothing," she protested, tramping about.  "I only went down
into the snow, but my arms were bound, and the pony fell on my foot--it
feels quite natural now."

"Good.  We shall have to tramp a little way.  In which direction did
Dupont go?"

"Across the ridge there; see, that is his trail."

"Then he never saw our horses out yonder.  That is one piece or good
luck, at least.  The sooner we get to them the better.  I have been
guilty of enough foolishness to-day to be careful hereafter."  He
looked across at Hughes' body.  "I wonder if that fellow meant to hit
me?  I never trusted him much, but I did n't expect that.  Did you see
him fire?"

"Yes, but it was so sudden I could not even cry out.  He was upon one
knee, and his revolver waved like this as he tried to aim.  Dupont saw
it, and jumped just as he pulled the trigger."

"I thought so.  The poor devil got the wrong man."

"Why?  Were those two enemies?"

"They had been partners, stealing and running cattle.  Dupont had
cheated Hughes out of his share, and there was bad blood between them.
I ran across the fellow up on the Cimarron, waiting for Dupont to come
back to his old range.  Did you ever hear Dupont called by any other
name?"

She shook her head questioningly.

"No; was n't that his real name?  The woman back there--wasn't she his
wife?"

"She was his wife, yes; but their name was not Dupont.  That was
assumed; the correct one was Le Fevre."

"Le Fevre!  Why,--why, wasn't that the name of the man you told me
about once?--the officer who brought you those orders?"

"He is the same.  I did not know him at Dodge; not until Hughes told
me.  He had changed greatly in appearance, and I only saw him at night.
But it was because I knew that I failed to kill him here; I wanted him
alive, so I could compel him to tell the truth."

She gave a little sob, her hands clasped together.  The man's voice
softened, and he took a step nearer, bending above her.

"And yet now I do not care quite as much as I did."

She looked up quickly into his face, and as swiftly lowered her lashes.

"You mean you have found other evidence?"

"No, but I have found you, dear.  You need not try, for I am not going
to let you get away.  It is not the officer's daughter and the enlisted
man any more.  Those barriers are all gone.  I do not mean that I am
indifferent to the stain on my name, or any less desirous of wringing
the truth from Gene Le Fevre's lips, but even the memory of that past
can keep me silent no longer.  You are alone in the world now, alone
and in the shadow of disgrace--you need me."

He stopped, amazed at the boldness of his own words, and, in the
silence of that hesitation, Molly lifted her eyes to his face.

"I think I have always needed you," she said simply.

He did not touch her, except to clasp the extended hands.  The
loneliness of the girl, here, helpless, alone with him in that
wilderness of snow, bore in upon his consciousness with a suddenness
that robbed him of all sense of triumph.  He had spoken passionately,
recklessly, inspired by her nearness, her dependence upon him.  He had
faith that she cared; her eyes, her manner, had told him this, yet even
now he could not realize all that was meant by that quiet confession.
The iron discipline of years would not relax instantly; in spite of the
boldness of his utterance, he was still the soldier, feeling the chasm
of rank.  Her very confession, so simply spoken, tended to confuse, to
mystify him.

"Do you mean," he asked eagerly, "that you love me?"

"What else should I mean?" she said slowly.  "It is not new to me; I
have known for a long while."

"That I loved you!"

"Yes," smiling now.  "Love is no mystery to a woman.  I do not care
because you are in the ranks; that is only a temporary condition.  I
knew you out there, at the very first, as a gentleman.  I have never
doubted you.  Here, in this wilderness, I am not afraid.  It is not
because my father is dead or because he has been guilty of crime, that
I say this.  I would have said it before, on the balcony there in
Dodge, had you asked me.  It is not the uniform I love, but the man.
Can you not understand?"

"Will you marry me--a sergeant of cavalry?"

She was still smiling, her eyes frankly looking into his own.

"I will marry David Hamlin," she answered firmly, "let him be what he
may."

The man let out his suppressed breath in a sob of relief, his eyes
brightening with triumph.

"Oh, Molly!  Molly!" he cried, "I cannot tell you what this all means
to me.  There is no past now to my life, but all future."

"Am I that to you?"

"That!  Yes, and a thousand times more!  I had ambition once,
opportunity, even wealth.  They were swept away by a man's lie, a
woman's perfidy.  Out of that wreck, I crawled into the world again a
mere thing.  I lived simply because I must live, skulking in obscurity,
my only inspiration the hope of an honorable death or an opportunity
for vengeance.  Mine was the life of the ranks in the desert,
associating with the lowest scum, in constant contact with savagery.  I
could not speak to a decent woman, or be a man among men.  There was
nothing left me but to brood over wrongs, and plot revenge.  I became
morose, savage, a mere creature of discipline, food for powder.  It was
no more when I first met you.  But with that meeting the chains
snapped, the old ambitions of life returned.  You were a mere girl from
the East; you did not understand, nor care about the snobbery of army
life.  No, it was not that--you were above it.  You trusted me, treated
me as a friend, almost as an equal.  I loved you then, when we parted
on the trail, but I went back to New Mexico to fight fate.  It was such
a hopeless dream, yet all summer long I rode with memory tugging at my
heart.  I grew to hate myself, but could never forget you."

She drew nearer, her hand upon his arm, her face uplifted.

"And you thought I did not care?"

"How could I dream you did?" almost bitterly.  "You were gracious,
kind--but you were a major's daughter, as far away from me as the
stars.  I never heard from you; not even a rumor of your whereabouts
came to me across the plains.  I supposed you had returned East; had
passed out of my life forever.  Then that night when we rode into Dodge
I saw you again--saw you in the yellow lamp-light watching us pass,
heard you ask what troops those were, and I knew instantly all my
fighting out there in the desert had been vain--that you were forever
the one, one woman."

"I remained for that," she confessed softly, her lashes wet.

"At Dodge?"

"Yes, at Dodge.  I knew you would come, must come.  Some intuition
seemed to tell me that we should meet again.  Oh, I was so happy the
night you came!  No one had told me your troop had been ordered in.  It
was like a dream come true.  When I saw you leading your horse across
the parade I could hardly refrain from calling out to you before them
all.  I did not care what they thought--for my soldier had come home
from the wars."

"Sweetheart," the deep voice faltering, "may--may I kiss you?"

"Of course you may."

Their lips met, and she clung to him, as his arms held her closely.  It
was like a dream to him, this sudden, unexpected surrender.  Perhaps
she read this in his eyes.

"Do not misunderstand," she urged softly.  "I do not come to you
because of what has happened, because I am alone and helpless.  If you
had stepped from the ranks that night at Dodge, I would have answered
even as I do now."

"You love me?--love me?" he repeated.

"Yes."

Even as he looked down into her upturned face, there was borne back
upon him a realization of their predicament.  His eyes swept over the
surrounding desolation, the two dead bodies lying motionless in the
snow, the stiffening pony, the drear hillside which shut them in.  The
sight brought him back to consciousness with a shock.  Minutes might
mean much now.  Dupont had disappeared over that ridge to the right, in
the direction of Black Kettle's camp.  How far away that might be was
altogether guess-work, yet what would inevitably occur when the
fugitive arrived among his friends, and told his story, could be
clearly conceived.  Even if the man believed Hamlin killed, he would
recall to mind the girl, and would return to assure himself as to her
fate.  Knowing her helplessness, the practical impossibility of her
escape alone, a return expedition might not be hurried, yet, beyond
doubt, this isolated valley would have Indian visitors within a few
hours.  And when these discovered the truth they would be hot upon a
trail where concealment was impossible.  The only hope of escape, and
that far from brilliant,--as he remembered the long desert ride from
the distant cow-camp on the Cimarron,--lay in immediate departure.
Every moment of delay served to increase their peril.  Even beyond the
danger of Dupont's report to Black Kettle, this snow-bound valley was
not so far away from that chief's camp as to be safe from invasion by
young warriors in search of game.  All this flashed upon Hamlin's
consciousness instantly, even as his heart thrilled to her frank avowal.

"This is so strange I can hardly realize the truth," he said gravely.
"But, dear one, we must talk elsewhere, and not here.  Life was never
before worth so much as it is now, and every instant we waste here may
mean capture and death.  Come, there are two ponies at the mouth of the
valley."

He snatched up the blanket from the ground, and wrapped it about her in
such manner as to enable her to walk; stooped over Hughes, loosened the
revolver from his stiffened fingers, and then came back to where she
waited.

"You can walk?  It is not far."

"Yes, the numbness is all gone."

He was all seriousness now, alert and watchful, the plainsman and the
soldier.

"Then come; I'll break trail."

"Where is the Indian village?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly.

"Beyond those bluffs; at least Hughes thought so.  We saw their pony
herd in the valley below, mere dots against the snow."

Ten minutes later, ploughing through the intervening drifts, they came
forth to the broad vista of the valley and the two patient ponies
standing motionless.



CHAPTER XXXIII

MOLLY'S STORY

The two rode steadily, following the trail left by Hamlin and Hughes
earlier in the morning.  As there had been no wind, and the cold had
crusted the snow, the tracks left by the two ponies were easily
followed.  As they skirted the ridge the Indian pony herd could be
distinguished, sufficiently close by this time to leave no doubt as to
what they were.  Hamlin cautiously kept back out of sight in the breaks
of the ridge, although his keen eyes, searching the upper valley,
discovered no sign of pursuit.  Tired as Dupont's horse undoubtedly
was, he might not yet have attained the Indian encampment, which, in
truth, might be much farther away than Hughes had supposed.  The fact
that no spirals of smoke were visible puzzled the Sergeant, for in that
frosty air they should naturally be perceived for a considerable
distance.  Possibly, however, the bluffs were higher and more abrupt,
farther up stream, affording better chances of concealment.  Indeed it
was quite probable that the Indians would seek the most sheltered spot
available for their winter camp, irrespective of any possible fear of
attack.  Reasonably safe from a winter campaign, the atrocities of the
past summer would naturally tend to make them unusually cautious and
watchful.

Molly, muffled to the eyes in her thick blanket, permitted her pony to
follow the other without guidance, until they both dipped down into the
hollow, safe from any possible observation.  In some mysterious way the
overpowering feeling of terror which had controlled her for days past
had departed.  The mere presence of Hamlin was an assurance of safety.
As she watched him, erect in saddle, his blue overcoat tightly
buttoned, his revolver belt strapped outside, she no longer felt any
consciousness of the surrounding desolation, or the nearness of savage
foes.  Her heart beat fast and her cheeks flushed in memory of what had
so swiftly occurred between them.  Without thought, or struggle, she
gave herself unreservedly to his guidance, serenely confident in his
power to succeed.  He was a man so strong, so resourceful, so fitted to
the environment, that her trust in him was unquestioned.  She needed to
ask nothing; was content to follow in silence.  Even as she realized
the completeness of her surrender, the Sergeant, relaxing none of his
watchfulness, checked his pony so that they could ride onward side by
side.

"We will follow the trail back," he explained, glancing aside at her
face.  "It is easier to follow than to strike out for ourselves across
the open."

"Where does it lead?"

"To an old cow-camp on the Cimarron.  There is a trooper there waiting.
Shall I tell you the story?"

"I wish you would."

"And then I am to have yours in return--everything?"

"Yes," she said, and their eyes met.  "There is nothing to
conceal--from you."

He told his tale simply, and in few words; how he had missed, and
sought after her in Dodge; how that searching had led directly to the
discovery of crime, and finally the revealment of Major McDonald's
body.  He told of his efforts at organizing a party to follow the
fugitives, inspired by a belief that she was a prisoner, of the trip
through the blizzard, and of how he had succeeded in outstripping
Dupont in the race.

The girl listened silently, able from her own experience to fill in the
details of that relentless pursuit, which could not be halted either by
storm or bullets.  The strength, the determination of the man, appealed
to her with new force, and tears welled into her eyes.

"Why, you are crying!" he exclaimed in surprise.

"That is nothing," her lips smiling, as she loosened one hand from the
blanket and reached across to clasp his.  "You must know, dear, how
happy I am to have found you.  No one else could have done this."

"Oh, yes, little girl," soberly.  "Wasson would have gone on, if I had
been the one to go down.  The hardest part of it all was waiting for
the storm to cease, not knowing where you were hidden--that nearly
drove me insane."

"I understand; uncertainty is harder to bear than anything else.  Shall
I tell you now what happened to me?"

"Yes," tenderly, "as much, or as little as you please."

"Then it shall be everything, dear," her hand-grasp tightening.  A
moment she hesitated, looking out across the snow plains, and then back
into his eyes.  From their expression she gained courage to proceed,
her voice low, yet clear enough to make every syllable distinctly
audible.

"I--I was frightened when you left me alone on the balcony, and went in
to confront Mrs. Dupont.  I knew the woman and suspected that she would
only be too glad to find some indiscretion she could use against me.
It occurred to me that possibly she had seen me enter the parlor and
was there herself to make sure.  If so, she would hesitate at no trick
to verify her suspicions.  This thought so took possession of me that I
determined to escape if possible.  And it appeared easy of
accomplishment.  There was but a short drop to the ground, while a few
steps around the end of the hotel would bring me safely to the front
entrance.  The temptation to try was irresistible.  I heard your voices
within and thought I understood her game.  It was dark below, yet I
knew how close the earth was, and there was no sign of any one about.
I clambered over the railing, let myself down as far as I could, and
dropped.  The slight fall did not even jar me, yet I was none too soon.
As I crouched there in the darkness, she flung open the curtains, and
looked out on to the vacant balcony.  I saw the flash of light, and
heard her laugh--it was not pleasant laughter, for she was disappointed
not to find me there.  After the curtains fell again I could no longer
hear your voices, and my sole desire was to get back into the hotel
unobserved.  I was not afraid, only I dreaded to meet any one who might
recognize me."

She paused in her recital, as though to recall more clearly the exact
facts, the two riding forward, Hamlin leaning over toward her,
occasionally glancing watchfully behind.

"The guests were already beginning to straggle back to the dance hall
from supper, and I waited in the shadow of the building for an
opportunity to slip into the hotel unobserved.  While I hid there a
cavalry soldier from the fort rode up, swung down from his saddle, and
ran up the steps.  I heard him ask for Major McDonald.  Almost
immediately he came out again, and I passed him on the porch.  Just
inside the door I met my father.  He was leaving the hotel with Dupont,
and the latter swore savagely when I caught my father's arm, asking
what message the orderly had brought.  He answered strangely, saying he
had received orders to go at once to Ripley on the stage; that he might
be gone several days.  There was nothing about all that to startle a
soldier's daughter, but Dupont kept his hand on my father's arm, urging
him to hurry.  The actions of the man aroused my suspicions.  I knew my
father was acting paymaster, and I could perceive the outlines of a
leather bag bulging beneath his overcoat.  If this contained money,
then I grasped Dupont's purpose.  My plan of action occurred to me in a
flash--I would accompany him until--until he was safely in the stage,
and find opportunity to whisper warning.  I remember asking him to wait
a moment for me, and rushing to the cloak room after my coat.  But when
I returned they were gone.  I ran out into the street, but they were
not to be seen; they had not gone toward the stage office, for the
lights revealed that distance clearly, and they had had no time in
which to disappear within.  With the one thought that Dupont had lured
my father out of sight for purposes of robbery, I started to run down
the little alley-way next the hotel.  I know now how foolish I was, but
then I was reckless.  It was dark and I saw and heard nothing to warn
me of danger.  It was in my mind that my father had been lured on to
the open prairie behind the hotel.  Suddenly I was seized roughly, and
a cloth whipped over my face before I could even scream.  I heard a
voice say: 'Damned if it ain't the girl!  What will we do with her?'
and then Dupont's voice answered gruffly: 'Hell, there ain't anything
to do, but take the little hussy along.  She 'd queer the whole game,
an' we 've got an extra horse.  They jerked me forward so roughly, and
I was so frightened that--that I must have fainted.  At any rate I
remember nothing more distinctly until we had crossed the river, and I
was on horseback wrapped in a blanket, and tied to the saddle.  Some
one was holding me erect; I could not move my arms, but could see and
hear.  It was dark, and we were moving slowly; there were two Indians
ahead, and a white man riding each side of me.  They thought me
unconscious still, and spoke occasionally; little by little I
recognized their voices, and understood their words."

Her voice broke into a sob, but the Sergeant's eyes were still gazing
vigilantly out over the snow-clad hills.

"It is hard to tell the rest," she said finally, "but I learned that it
was not robbery, but the betrayal of trust.  My father was guilty, and
yet at the same time a victim.  I only got the truth in snatches, which
I had to piece together, although later I learned other details.  Mrs.
Dupont had bled my father through some knowledge she had gained of his
sister's family.  I cannot even imagine what this could have been, but
it was sufficient for her purpose.  He gave her all he had, and
then--then she heard of this government money being sent to Ripley.
She had known about that for several days through the Lieutenant, and
had ample time to arrange the plot.  My father must have been crazy to
have entered into the scheme, but he did, he did.  The woman compelled
him to it."

"I understand, Molly," broke in Hamlin, anxious to spare her the
details.  "They were to pretend robbery, but with the Major's
connivance.  An officer impersonating him was despatched to Ripley by
stage.  This would prevent any immediate pursuit.  Later the Major was
to be released, to return to Dodge with his story.  The projection of
yourself into the affair disarranged the entire plot, and then a
quarrel occurred, and your father was killed."

"Yes; it was over what should be done with me; although I believe now
they intended to kill him, so as to retain all the money.  The older
Indian fired the shot treacherously."

"And Connors?"

"Dupont killed him; they were both drunk, and the soldier fired first,
but missed."

"And after that?"

She covered her face with her hands.

"It was all a dream of continuous horror, yet through it all, I do not
recall consciousness of physical torture.  I seemed to be mentally
numbed, my brain a blank.  It was a realization of my father's guilt
more than my own danger which affected me--that and his death.  They
were not unkind nor brutal.  Indeed I do not clearly recall that I was
even spoken to, except when some necessary order was given.  One night
I heard them discuss what should be done with me; that I was to be
hidden away in Black Kettle's camp.  Generally Dupont spoke to the
Indians in their own tongue, but that night he thought me asleep.  I--I
had no hope left--not even faith that you could ever rescue me."

Hamlin's hand clasped hers firmly, but his eyes were riveted on
something in the distance.

"Wait," he said, checking his horse, "what is that?  See; down in the
valley of the creek!  Is it not a moving body of men?"



CHAPTER XXXIV

THE ADVANCE OF CUSTER

The Sergeant swung down from the saddle and forced both ponies back
below the crest of the hill, his swift glance sweeping back over their
trail.  Then he gazed again searchingly into the valley below.

"What is it?" she questioned.

"A moving column of horsemen, soldiers from their formation, for
Indians never march in column of fours.  They are too far away for me
to be certain yet.  What troops can be away out here?"

"Wasn't there to be a winter campaign against Black Kettle?" she
questioned.  "It was the rumor at Dodge.  Perhaps--"

"Why, yes, that must be it," he interrupted eagerly.  "Custer and the
Seventh.  What luck!  And I'll be in it with the boys after all."

"Shall we not ride to meet them?"

"Soon, yes; only we need to be certain first."

"Are you not?" and she rose in her stirrups.  "I am sure they are
cavalrymen.  Now you can see clearly as they climb the hill."

"There is no doubt," he admitted, "a single troop ahead of the main
body; the others will be beyond the bend in the stream."

He stepped back, where he could look directly into her face.

"They are soldiers all right, but that was not what I wanted to be so
certain about.  When we ride down there, Molly girl, we shall be
swallowed up into the old life once more, the old army life."

"Yes."

"Perhaps you do not realize how different it will all be from out here
alone together."

"Why should it be different?"

"I shall be again a soldier in the ranks, under orders, and you Major
McDonald's daughter."

"But--but--" her eyes full of appeal.

"No, little girl," he explained quickly, reaching up and touching her
gently; "we are never going to say anything about that to those down
there--his comrades in arms.  It is going to be our secret.  I am glad
you told me; it has brought us together as, perhaps, nothing else
could, but there is no reason why the world should ever know.  Let them
think he died defending his trust.  Perhaps he did; what you overheard
might have been said for a purpose, but, even if it were true, he had
been driven to it by a merciless woman.  It is ours to defend, not
blacken his memory."

She bent slowly down until her cheek touched his.

"I--I thought you would say that," she returned slowly, "but what else
you said is not so--there will never again be a barrier of rank between
us."  She straightened in the saddle, looking down into his eyes.
"Whoever the officer may be in command of that detachment, I want you
to tell him all."

"All?"

"Yes, that we are engaged; I am proud to have them know."

The truth was shining in her eyes, glowing on her cheeks.  She leaned
forward.

"Kiss me, and believe!"

"Molly, Molly," he whispered.  "Never will I doubt again."

They could perceive the blue of the overcoats as they rode over the
ridge, and at their sudden appearance the little column of horsemen
came to a halt.  Hamlin flung up one hand in signal, and the two urged
their ponies down the side of the hill.  Three men spurred forth to
meet them, spreading out slightly as though still suspicious of some
trick, but, as they drew near, the leader suddenly waved his hand, and
they dashed forward.

"Hamlin!  Glad to see you again," the first rider greeted the Sergeant
cordially.  "Can this be Major McDonald's daughter."

"Yes, Major Elliott; I can repeat the story as we ride along, sir.  You
are the advance of Custer's expedition, I presume?"

"We are; the others are some miles behind, moving slowly so that the
wagons can keep within touch.  Wonderful the way those wagons have
pushed ahead over the rough country.  Have only missed camp twice since
we left Dodge."

"When was that, sir?"

"Before the blizzard all except your troop were at Camp Supply; they
had joined since, and it was then we heard about your trip down here.
What became of your men, Sergeant?"

"Wasson and one private were killed, sir; the other private was frozen
so badly I had to leave him in shelter on the Cimarron."

"By gad, it sounds interesting; and so you tackled the villains alone,
and had some fight at that before rescuing Miss McDonald.  Well, the
story will keep until we make camp again.  However," and he bent low
over the lady's hand, "I must congratulate Miss McDonald on her
escaping without any serious injury."

"That is not all I should be congratulated upon, Major Elliott," she
said quietly.

"No--eh--perhaps I do not understand."

"I desire that you shall; I refer to my engagement to Sergeant Hamlin."

The officer glanced in some bewilderment from her face to that of the
silent trooper.

"You--you mean matrimonial?" he stammered, plainly embarrassed, unable
so suddenly to grasp the peculiar situation.  "Hamlin, what--what does
this mean?"

"Miss Molly and I have known each other for some time," explained the
Sergeant bluntly.  "Out here alone we discovered we were more than
friends.  That is all, sir."

For an instant Elliott hesitated, held by the strange etiquette of
rank, then the gentleman conquered the soldier, and he drew off his
glove, and held out his hand.

"I can congratulate you, Miss McDonald," he exclaimed frankly.  "I have
known Sergeant Hamlin for two years; he is a soldier and a gentleman."

The red blood swept into her cheeks, her eyes brightening.

"He is my soldier," she replied softly, "and the man I love."

They rode together down the steep hillside covered with its mantle of
snow to join the little body of troopers halted in the valley.  Only
once did Elliott speak.

"You know Black Kettle's camp, Sergeant?"

"We were almost within sight of it, sir.  I saw his pony herd
distinctly."

"Where was that?"

"On the Canadian, close to the mouth of Buffalo Creek."

"Did you learn anything as to the number of Indians with him?"

"Nothing definite, but it is a large encampment, not all Cheyennes."

"So we heard, but were unable to discover the exact situation.  We have
been feeling our way forward cautiously.  I fear it is going to be my
unpleasant duty to separate you and Miss McDonald.  We shall need your
services as guide, and the lady will be far better off with the main
column.  Indeed some of the empty wagons are to be sent back to Camp
Supply to-night, and probably Custer will deem it best that she return
with them.  This winter campaigning is going to be rough work, outside
of the fighting.  You know Custer, and his style; besides Sheridan is
himself at Camp Supply in command."

"You hear, Molly?"

"Yes; of course, I will do whatever General Custer deems best.  Are
there any women at Camp Supply, Major?"

"Yes, a few; camp women mostly, although there may be also an officer's
wife or two--19th Kansas volunteers."

"Then it will be best for me to go there, if I can," she smiled.  "I am
desperately in need of clothes."

"I suspected as much.  I will arrange to give you a guard at once.  And
you, Sergeant?  As you are still under special orders, I presume I have
no authority to detain you in my command."

"I prefer to remain, sir," grimly.  "Dupont, Miss McDonald's captor, is
alive and in Black Kettle's camp.  We still have a feud to settle."

"Good; then that is arranged; ah, Miss McDonald, allow me to present
Lieutenant Chambers.  Lieutenant, detail three men to guard the lady
back to the main column.  Have her taken to General Custer at once."

"Very well, sir; and the command?"

Elliott looked at the Sergeant inquiringly.

"That is for Sergeant Hamlin to determine; he has just been scouting
through that country, and will act as guide."

The Sergeant stood for a moment motionless beside his horse studying
the vista of snow-draped hillside.  The region beyond the crest of the
ridge unrolled before his memory.

"Then we will keep directly on up this valley, sir," he said at last.
"It's Wolf Creek, is it not?  We shall be safer to keep out of sight
to-day, and this depression must lead toward the Canadian.  May I
exchange mounts with one of those men going back, Major?  I fear my
pony is about done."

"Certainly."

There was no opportunity for anything save a simple grasp of the hand,
ere Molly rode away with her escort.  Then the little column of
troopers moved on, and Hamlin, glancing backward as he rode past, took
his place in advance beside Major Elliott.



CHAPTER XXXV

THE INDIAN TRAIL

The weather became colder as the day advanced.  Scattered pellets of
snow in the air lashed the faces of the troopers, who rode steadily
forward, the capes of their overcoats thrown over their heads for
protection.  The snow of the late storm lay in drifts along the banks
of the narrow stream, and the horses picked their passage higher up
where the wind had swept the brown earth clear, at the same time
keeping well below the crest.  As they thus toiled slowly forward,
Hamlin related his story to the Major in detail, carefully concealing
all suspicion of McDonald's connection with the crime.  It was growing
dusk when the company emerged into the valley of the Canadian.  All
about them was desolation and silence, and as they were still miles
away from the position assigned for Black Kettle's encampment, the men
were permitted to build fires and prepare a warm meal under shelter of
the bluffs.  Two hours later the main column arrived and also went into
camp.  It was intensely cold but the men were cheerful as they ate
their supper of smoky and half-roasted buffalo meat, bacon, hard-tack,
and coffee.

In response to orders the Sergeant went down the line of tiny fires to
report in person to Custer.  He found that commander ensconced in a
small tent, hastily erected in a little grove of cottonwoods, which
afforded a slight protection from the piercing wind.  Before him on the
ground from which the snow had been swept lay a map of the region,
while all about, pressed tightly into the narrow quarters, were his
troop officers.  As Hamlin was announced by the orderly, conversation
ceased, and Custer surveyed the newcomer an instant in silence.

"Step forward, Sergeant," he said quietly.  "Ah, yes; I had forgotten
your name, but remember your face," he smiled about on the group.  "We
have been so scattered since our organization, gentlemen, that we are
all comparative strangers."  He stood up, lifting in one hand a tin cup
of coffee.  "Gentlemen, all we of the Seventh rejoice in the honor of
the service, whether it be upheld by officer or enlisted man.  I bid
you drink a toast with me to Sergeant Hamlin."

"But, General, I have done nothing to deserve--"

"Observe the modesty of a real hero.  Yet wait until I am through.
With due regard for his achievements as a soldier, I propose this toast
in commemoration of a greater deed of gallantry than those of arms--the
capture of Miss Molly McDonald!"

There was a quick uplifting of cups, a burst of laughter, and a volley
of questions, the Sergeant staring about motionless, his face flushed.

"What is it, General?"

"Tell us the story!"

"Give us the joke!"

"But I assure you it is no joke.  I have it direct from the fair lips
of the lady.  Brace yourselves, gentlemen, for the shock.  You young
West Pointers lose, and yet the honor remains with the regiment.  Miss
Molly McDonald, the toast of old Fort Dodge, whose bright eyes have won
all your hearts, has given hers to Sergeant Hamlin of the Seventh.  And
now again, boys, to the honor of the regiment!"

Out of the buzz of conversation and the hearty words of congratulation,
Hamlin emerged bewildered, finding himself again facing Custer, whose
manner had as swiftly changed into the brusque note of command.

"I have met you before, Sergeant," he said slowly, "before your
assignment to the Seventh, I think.  I am not sure where; were you in
the Shenandoah?"

"I was, sir."

"At Winchester?"

"I saw you first at Cedar Creek, General Custer; I brought a flag."

"That's it; I have the incident clearly before me now.  You were a
lieutenant-colonel?"

"Of the Fourth Texas, sir."

"Exactly; I think I heard later--but never mind that now.  Sheridan
remembers you; he even mentioned your name to me a few weeks ago.  No
doubt that was what caused me to recognize your face again after all
these years.  How long have you been in our service?"

"Ever since the war closed."

For a moment the two men looked into each others' faces, the commander
smiling, the enlisted man at respectful attention.

"I will talk with you at some future time, Sergeant," Custer said at
last, resuming his seat on a log.  "Now we shall have to consider the
to-morrow's march.  Were you within sight of Black Kettle's camp?"

"No, sir; only of his pony herd out in the valley of the Canadian."

"Where would you suppose the camp situated?"

"Above, behind the bluffs, about the mouth of Buffalo Creek."

Custer drew the map toward him, scrutinizing it carefully.

"You may be right, of course," he commented, his glance on the faces of
the officers, "but this does not agree with the understanding at Camp
Supply, nor the report of our Indian scouts.  We supposed Black Kettle
to be farther south on the Washita.  How large was the pony herd?"

"We were not near enough to count the animals, sir, but there must have
been two hundred head."

"A large party then, at least.  What do you say, Corbin?"

The scout addressed, conspicuous in his buffalo skin coat, leaned
against the tent-pole, his black whiskers moving industriously as he
chewed.

"Wal, Gineral," he said slowly, "I know this yere 'Brick' Hamlin, an'
he 's a right smart plainsman, sojer 'er no sojer.  If he says he saw
thet pony herd, then he sure did.  Thet means a considerable bunch o'
Injuns thar, er tharabouts.  Now I know Black Kettle's outfit is down
on the Washita, so the only conclusion is that this yere band thet the
Sergeant stirred up is some new tribe er other, a-driftin' down frum
the north.  I reckon if we ride up ther valley we 'll hit their trail,
an' it 'll lead straight down to them Cheyennes."

Custer took time to consider this explanation, spreading the field map
out on his knees, and measuring the distance between the streams.  No
one in the little group spoke, although several leaned forward eagerly.
The chief was not a man to ask advice; he preferred to decide for
himself.  Suddenly he straightened up and threw back his head to look
about.

"In my judgment Corbin is right, gentlemen," he said impetuously.  "I
had intended crossing here, but instead we will go further up stream.
There is doubtless a ford near Buffalo Creek, and if we can strike an
Indian trail leading to the Washita, we can follow easily by night, or
day, and it is bound to terminate at Black Kettle's camp.  Return to
your troops, and be ready to march at daybreak.  Major Elliott, you
will take the advance again, at least three hours ahead of the main
column.  Move with caution, your flankers well out; both Hamlin and
Corbin will go with you.  Are there any questions?"

"Full field equipment?" asked a voice.

"Certainly, although in case of going into action the overcoats will be
discarded.  Look over your ammunition carefully to-night."

They filed out of the tent one by one, some of the older officers
pausing a moment to speak with Hamlin, his own captain extending his
hand cordially, with a warm word of commendation.  The Sergeant and
Major Elliott alone remained.

"If I strike a fresh trail, General," asked the latter, "am I to press
forward or wait for the main body?"

"Send back a courier at once, but advance cautiously, careful not to
expose yourselves.  There is to be no attack except in surprise, and
with full force.  This is important, Major, as we are doubtless
outnumbered, ten to one.  Was there something else, Sergeant?"

"I was going to ask about Miss McDonald, sir."

"Oh, yes; she is safely on her way to Camp Supply, under ample guard.
The convoy was to stop on the Cimarron, and pick up the frozen soldier
you left there, and if possible, find the bodies of the two dead men."


Long before daylight Elliott's advance camp was under arms, the chilled
and sleepy troopers moving forward through the drifted snow of the
north bank; the wintry wind, sweeping down the valley, stung their
faces and benumbed their bodies.  The night had been cold and blustery,
productive of little comfort to either man or beast, but hope of early
action animated the troopers and made them oblivious to hardship.
There was little grumbling in the ranks, and by daybreak the head of
the long column came opposite the opening into the valley wherein
Hamlin had overtaken the fugitives.  With Corbin beside him, the
Sergeant spurred his pony aside, but there was little to see; the
bodies of the dead lay as they had fallen, black blotches on the snow,
but there were no fresh trails to show that either Dupont, or any
Indian ally, had returned to the spot.

"That's evidence enough, 'Brick,'" commented the scout, staring about
warily, "that thar wus no permanent camp over thar," waving his hand
toward the crest of the ridge.  "Them redskins was on the march, an'
that geezer had ter follow 'em, er else starve ter death.  He 'd a bin
back afore this, an' on yer trail with a bunch o' young bucks."

From the top of the ridge they could look down on the toiling column of
cavalrymen below in the bluff shadow, and gaze off over the wide
expanse of valley, through which ran the half-frozen Canadian.
Everywhere stretched the white, wintry desolation.

"Whar wus thet pony herd?"

Hamlin pointed up the valley to the place where the swerve came in the
stream.

"Just below that point; do you see where the wind has swept the ground
bare?"

"Sure they were n't buffalo?"

"They were ponies all right, and herded."

The two men spurred back across the hills, and made report to Elliott.
There was no hesitancy in that officer.  The leading squadron was
instantly swung into formation as skirmishers, and sent forward.  From
river-bank to crest of bluff they ploughed through the drifts,
overcoats strapped behind and carbines flung forward in readiness for
action, but as they climbed to that topmost ridge, eager, expectant, it
was only to gaze down upon a deserted camp, trampled snow, and
blackened embers of numerous fires.  Hamlin was the first to scramble
down the steep bluff, dismount, and drag his trembling horse sliding
after.  Behind plunged Corbin and Elliott, anxious to read the signs,
to open the pages of this wilderness book.  A glance here and there, a
testing of the blackened embers, a few steps along the broad trail, and
these plainsmen knew the story.  The Major straightened up, his hand on
his horse's neck, his eyes sweeping those barren plains to the
southward, and then turned to where his troopers were swarming down the
bluff.

"Corbin," he said sharply, "ride back to General Custer at top speed.
Tell him we have discovered a Cheyenne camp here at the mouth of
Buffalo Creek of not less than a hundred and fifty warriors, deserted,
and not to exceed twenty-four horses.  Their trail leads south toward
the Washita.  Report that we shall cross the river in pursuit at once,
and keep on cautiously until dark.  Take a man with you; no, not
Sergeant Hamlin, I shall need him here."

The scout was off like a shot, riding straight down the valley, a
trooper pounding along behind him.  Major Elliott ran his eyes over the
little bunch of cavalrymen.

"Captain Sparling, send two of your men to test the depth or water
there where those Indians crossed.  As soon as ascertained we will ford
the river."



CHAPTER XXXVI

READY TO ATTACK

There was a ford but it was rocky and dangerous, and so narrow that
horse after horse slipped aside into the swift current, bearing his
rider with him into the icy water.  Comrades hauled the unfortunate
ones forth, and fires were hastily built under shelter of the south
bank.  Those who reached the landing dry shared their extra clothing
with those water-soaked, and hot coffee was hastily served to all
alike.  Eager as the men were to push forward, more than an hour was
lost in passage, for the stream was bank full, the current rapid and
littered with quantities of floating ice.  Some of these ice cakes
startled the struggling horses and inflicted painful wounds, and it was
only by a free use of ropes and lariats that the entire command finally
succeeded in attaining the southern shore.  Shivering with the cold,
the troopers again found their saddles and pressed grimly forward on
the trail.  Hamlin, with five others, led the way along a beaten track
which had been trampled by the passing herd of Indian ponies and
plainly marked by the trailing poles of numerous wicky-ups.

This led straight away into the south across the valley of the
Canadian, on to the plains beyond.  The snow here was a foot deep on a
level, and in places the going was heavy.  As they advanced, the
weather moderated somewhat, and the upper crust became soft.  Before
them stretched the dreary level of the plains, broken by occasional
ravines and little isolated patches of trees.  No sign of Indians was
seen other than the-deserted trail, and confident that the band had had
fully twenty-four hours' start their pursuers advanced as rapidly as
the ground would permit.  The very clearness of the trail was evidence
that the Indians had no conception that they were being followed.
Confident of safety in their winter retreat, they were making no effort
to protect their rear, never dreaming there were soldiers within
hundreds of miles.  Whatever report Dupont had made, it had awakened no
alarm.  Why should it?  So far as he knew there were but two men
pursuing him into the wilderness, and both of these he believed lying
dead in the snow.

Steadily, mile after mile, they rode, and it was after dark when the
little column was finally halted beside a stream, where they could
safely hide themselves in a patch of timber.  Tiny fires were built
under protection of the steep banks of the creek, and the men made
coffee, and fed their hungry horses.  The silence was profound.  It was
a dark night, although the surrounding snow plains yielded a spectral
light.  Major Elliott, drinking coffee and munching hard-tack with the
troop captain, sent for Sergeant Hamlin.

The latter advanced within the glow of the fire, and saluted.

"We have been gaining on those fellows, Sergeant," the Major began,
"and must be drawing close to the Washita."

"We are travelling faster than they did, sir," was the reply, "because
they had to break trail, and there were some women and children with
them.  I have no knowledge of this region, but the creek empties into
the Washita without doubt."

"That would be my judgment.  Sparling and I were just talking it over.
I shall wait here until Custer comes up; my force is too small to
attack openly, and my orders are not to bring on an engagement.  Custer
has some Osage scouts with him who will know this country."

"But, Major," ventured Hamlin, "if the General follows our trail it
will be hours yet before he can reach here, and then his men will be
completely exhausted."

"He will not follow our trail.  He has Corbin and 'California Joe' with
him.  They are plainsmen who know their business.  He 'll cross the
Canadian, and strike out across the plains to intercept us.  In that
way he will have no farther to travel than we have had.  In my judgment
we shall not wait here long alone.  Have you eaten?"

"No, sir; I have been stationing the guard."

"Then sit down here and share what little we have.  We can waive
formality to-night."

It was after nine o'clock when the sentries challenged the advance of
Custer's column, as it stole silently out of the gloom.  Ten minutes
later the men were hovering about the fires, absorbing such small
comforts as were possible, while the General and Major Elliott
discussed the situation and planned to push forward.  An hour later the
fires were extinguished, the horses quietly saddled, and noiselessly
the tired cavalrymen moved out once more and took up the trail.  The
moon had risen, lighting up the desert, and the Osage guides, together
with the two scouts, led the way.  At Custer's request Hamlin rode
beside him in lead of the troopers.  Not a word was spoken above a
whisper, and strict orders were passed down the line prohibiting the
lighting of a match or the smoking of a pipe.  Canteens were muffled
and swords thrust securely under saddle flaps.  Like a body of spectres
they moved silently across the snow in the moonlight, cavalry capes
drawn over their heads, the only sound the crunching of horses' hoofs
breaking through the crust.

The trail was as distinct as a road, and the guides pushed ahead as
rapidly as by daylight, yet with ever increasing caution.  Suddenly one
of the Osages signalled for a halt, averring that he smelled fire.  The
scouts dismounted and crept forward, discovering a small campfire,
deserted but still smouldering, in a strip of timber.  Careful
examination made it certain that this fire must have been kindled by
Indian boys, herding ponies during the day, and probably meant that the
village was very close at hand.  The Osage guides and the two white
scouts again picked up the trail, the cavalry advancing slowly some
distance behind.  Custer, accompanied by Hamlin, rode a yard to the
rear and joined the scouts, who were cautiously feeling their way up a
slight declivity.

The Osage in advance crept through the snow to the crest of the ridge
and looked carefully down into the valley below.  Instantly his hand
went up in a gesture of caution and he hurriedly made his cautious way
back to where Custer sat his horse waiting.

"What is it?  What did you see?"

"Heap Injuns down there!"

The General swung down from his saddle, motioned the Sergeant to
follow, and the two men crept to the crest and looked over.  The dim
moonlight was confusing, while the shadow of timber rendered everything
indistinct.  Yet they were able to make out a herd of ponies,
distinguished the distant bark of a dog and the tinkle of a bell.
Without question this was the Indians' winter camp, and they had
reached it undiscovered.  Custer glanced at his watch--the hour was
past midnight.  He pressed Hamlin's sleeve, his lips close to the
Sergeant's ear.

"Creep back, and bring my officers up here," he whispered.  "Have them
take off their sabres."

As they crept, one after the other, to where he lay in the snow, the
General, whose eyes had become accustomed to the moon-gleam, pointed
out the location of the village and such natural surroundings as could
be vaguely distinguished.  The situation thus outlined in their minds,
they drew silently back from the crest, leaving there a single Osage
guide on guard, and returned to the waiting regiment, standing to horse
less than a mile distant.  Custer's orders for immediate attack came
swiftly, and Hamlin, acting as his orderly, bore them to the several
commands.  The entire force was slightly in excess of eight hundred
men, and there was every probability that the Indians outnumbered them
five to one.  Scouts had reported to Sheridan that this camp of Black
Kettle's was the winter rendezvous not only of Cheyennes, but also of
bands of fighting Arapahoes, Kiowas, Comanches, and even some Apaches,
the most daring and desperate warriors of the plains.  Yet this was no
time to hesitate, to debate; it was a moment for decisive action.  The
blow must be struck at once, before daylight, with all the power of
surprise.

The little body of cavalrymen was divided into four detachments.  Two
of these were at once marched to the left, circling the village
silently in the darkness, and taking up a position at the farther
extremity.  A third detachment moved to the right, and found their way
down into the valley, where they lay concealed in a strip of timber.
Custer, with the fourth detachment under his own command, remained in
position on the trail.  The sleeping village was thus completely
surrounded, and the orders were for those in command of the different
forces to approach as closely as possible without running risk of
discovery, and then to remain absolutely quiet until daybreak.  Not a
match was to be lighted nor a shot fired until the charge was sounded
by the trumpeter who remained with Custer.  Then all were to spur
forward as one man.



CHAPTER XXXVII

THE BATTLE WITH THE INDIANS

Corbin had gone with the detachment circling to the left, and
"California Joe" was with the other in the valley, but Hamlin remained
with the chief.  About them was profound silence, the men standing
beside their horses.  There was nothing to do but wait, every nerve at
high tension.  The wintry air grew colder, but the troopers were not
allowed to make the slightest noise, not even to swing their arms or
stamp their feet.  After the last detachment swept silently out into
the night, there still remained four hours until daylight.  No one knew
what had occurred; the various troops had melted away into the dark and
disappeared.  No word, no sound had come back.  They could only wait in
faith on their comrades.  The men were dismounted, each one holding his
own horse in instant readiness for action.  Not a few, wearied with the
day's work, while still clinging to their bridles, wrapped the capes of
their overcoats over their heads and threw themselves down in the snow,
and fell asleep.

At the first sight of dawn Hamlin was sent down the line to arouse
them.  Overcoats were taken off, and strapped to the saddles, carbines
loaded and slung, pistols examined and loosened in their holsters,
saddles recinched, and curb chains carefully looked after.  This was
the work of but a few moments, the half-frozen soldiers moving with an
eagerness that sent the hot blood coursing fiercely through numbed
limbs.  To the whispered command to mount, running from lip to lip
along the line, the men sprang joyously into their saddles, their
quickened ears and eager eyes ready for the signal.

Slowly, at a walk, Custer led them forward toward the crest of the
hill, where the Osage guide watched through the spectral light of dawn
the doomed village beneath.  To the uplift of a hand the column halted,
and Custer and his bugler went forward.  A step behind crouched the
Sergeant, grasping the reins of three horses, while a little to the
right, beyond the sweep of the coming charge, waited the regimental
band.

Peering over the crest, the leader saw through the dim haze, scarcely
five hundred yards distant, dotting the north bank of the Washita for
more than a quarter of a mile, the Indian village.  There was about it
scarcely a sign of human life.  From the top of two or three of the
tepees light wreaths of smoke floated languidly out on the wintry air,
and beyond the pony herd was restlessly moving.  Even as he gazed, half
convinced that the Indians had been warned, the village deserted, the
sharp report of a rifle rang out in the distance.

Hamlin saw the General spring upright, his lips uttering the sharp
command, "_Sound the charge!_"  Even while the piercing blare of the
bugle cut the frosty air, there was a jingle of steel as the troopers
behind spurred forward.  Almost at the instant the three dismounted men
were in saddle.  Custer waved his hand at the band, shouted "Play!" and
to the rollicking air of "Garry Owen," the eager column of horsemen
broke into a mad gallop, and with ringing cheers and mighty rush, swept
over the ridge straight down into the startled village.  To Hamlin, at
Custer's side, reins in his teeth, a revolver in either hand, what
followed was scarcely a memory.  It remained afterward as a blurred,
indistinct picture of action, changing so rapidly as to leave no
definite outlines.  He heard the answering call of three bugles; the
deafening thud of horses' hoofs; the converging cheers of excited
troopers; the mingling ring of revolver shots; a sharp order cleaving
the turmoil; the wild neigh of a stricken horse; the guttural yells of
Indians leaping from their tepees into the open.  Then he was in the
heart of the village, firing with both hands; before him, about him,
half-naked savages fighting desperately, striking at him with knives,
firing from the shelter of tepees, springing at him with naked hands in
a fierce effort to drag him from the saddle.  It was all confusion,
chaos, a babble of noise, his eyes blinded by glint of steel and glare
of fire.  The impetus of their rush carried them irresistibly forward;
over and through tents they rode, across the bodies of living and dead;
men reeled and fell from saddle; riderless horses swept on unguided;
revolvers emptied were flung aside, and hands closed hard on sabre
hilts.  Foot by foot, yard by yard, they drove the wedge of their
charge, until they swept through the fringe of tepees, out into the
stampeded pony herd.

The bugle rang again, and they turned, facing back, and charged once
more, no longer in close formation, but every trooper fighting as he
could.  Complete as the surprise had been, the men of the Seventh
realized now the odds against them, the desperate nature of the fight.
Out from the sheltering tepees poured a flood of warriors; rifles in
hand they fought savagely.  The screams of women and children, the
howling and baying of Indian dogs, the crack of rifles, the wild war
cries, all mingled into an indescribable din.  Black Kettle was almost
the first to fall, but other chiefs rallied their warriors, and fought
like fiends, yielding ground only by inches, until they found shelter
amid the trees, and under the river bank.

In the cessation of hand to hand fighting the detachments came
together, reforming their ranks, and reloading their arms.  Squads of
troopers fired the tepees, and gathering their prisoners under guard,
hastened back to the ranks again at the call of the bugle.  By now
Custer comprehended his desperate position, and the full strength of
his Indian foes.  Fresh hordes were before him, already threatening
attack.  Hamlin, bleeding from two flesh wounds, rode in from the left
flank where he had been borne by the impetus of the last charge, with
full knowledge of the truth.  Their attack had been centred on Black
Kettle's village, but below, a mile or two apart, were other villages,
representing all the hostile tribes of the southern plains.  Already
these were hurrying up to join those rallying warriors under shelter of
the river bank.  Even from where Custer stood at the outskirts of the
devastated village he could distinguish the warbonnets of Cheyennes,
Arapahoes, Kiowas and Comanches mingled together in display of savagery.

His decision was instant, that of the impetuous cavalry leader, knowing
well the inherent strength and weakness of his branch of the service.
He could not hope to hold his position before such a mass of the enemy,
with the little force at his disposal.  His only chance of escape, to
come off victor, was to strike them so swiftly and with such force as
to paralyze pursuit.  Already the reinforcing warriors were sweeping
forward to attack, two thousand strong, led fiercely by Little Raven,
an Arapahoe; Santanta, a Kiowa, and Little Rock, a Cheyenne.
Dismounting his men he prepared for a desperate resistance, although
the troopers' ammunition was running low.  Suddenly, crashing through
the very Indian lines, came a four-mule wagon.  The quartermaster was
on the box, driving recklessly.  Only Hamlin and a dozen other men were
still in saddle.  Without orders they dashed forward, spurring maddened
horses into the ranks of the Indians, hurling them left and right,
firing into infuriated red faces, and slashing about with dripping
sabres.  Into the lane thus formed sprang the tortured mules, sweeping
on with their precious load of ammunition.  Behind closed in the squad
of rescuers, struggling for their lives amid a horde of savages.  Then,
with one wild shout, the dismounted troopers leaped to the rescue,
hurling back the disorganized Indian mass, and dragging their comrades
from the rout.  It was hand to hand, clubbed carbine against knife and
spear, a fierce, breathless struggle.  Behind eager hands ripped open
the ammunition cases; cartridges were jammed into empty guns, and a
second line of fighting men leaped forward, their front tipped with
fire.

Dragged from his horse at the first fierce shock, his revolver empty,
his broken sabre a jagged piece of steel, Hamlin hacked his way through
the first line of warriors, and found refuge behind a dead horse.
Here, with two others, he made a stand, gripping a carbine.  It was all
the work of a moment.  About him were skurrying figures, infuriated
faces, threatening weapons, yells of agony, cries of rage.  The three
fought like fiends, standing back to back, and striking blindly at
leaping bodies and clutching hands.  Out of the mist, the mad confusion
of breathless combat, one face alone seemed to confront the Sergeant.
At first it was a delirium; then it became a reality.  He saw the
shagginess of a buffalo coat, the gleam of a white face.  All else
vanished in a fierce desire to kill.  He leaped forward, crazed with
sudden hate, hurled aside the naked bodies in the path, and sent his
whirling carbine stock crashing at Dupont.  Even as it struck he fell,
clutched by gripping hands, and over all rang out the cheer of the
charging troopers.  Hamlin staggered to his knees, spent and
breathless, and smiled grimly down at the dead white man in that ring
of red.

It was over, yet that little body of troopers dared not remain.  About
them still, although demoralized and defeated, circled an overwhelming
mass of savages capable of crushing them to death, when they again
rallied and consolidated.  Custer did the only thing possible.  Turning
loose the pony herd, gathering his captives close, he swung his compact
command into marching column.  Before the scattered tribes could rally
for a second attack, with flankers out, and skirmishers in advance, the
cavalrymen rode straight down the valley toward the retreating
hostiles.  It was a bold and desperate move, the commander's object
being to impress upon the Indian chiefs the thought of his utter
fearlessness, and to create the impression that the Seventh would never
dare such a thing if they did not have a larger force behind.  With
flags unfurled, and the band playing, the troopers swept on.  The very
mad audacity of the movement struck terror into the hearts of the
warriors, and they broke and fled.  As darkness fell the survivors of
the Seventh rode alone, amid the silent desolation of the plains.

Halting a moment for rest under shelter of the river bank, Custer
hastily wrote his report and sent for Hamlin.  The latter approached
and stood motionless in the red glare of the single camp-fire.  The
impetuous commander glanced up inquiringly.

"Sergeant, I must send a messenger to Camp Supply.  Are you fit to go?"

"As much so as any one, General Custer," was the quiet response.  "I
have no wounds of consequence."

"Very well.  Take the freshest horse in the command, and an Osage
guide.  You know the country, but he will be of assistance.  I have
written a very brief report; you are to tell Sheridan personally the
entire story.  We shall rest here two hours, and then proceed slowly
along the trail.  I anticipate no further serious fighting.  You will
depart at once."

"Very well, sir," the Sergeant saluted, and turned away, halting an
instant to ask, "You have reported the losses, I presume?"

"Yes, the dead and wounded.  There are some missing, who may yet come
in.  Major Elliott and fourteen others are still unaccounted for."  He
paused.  "By the way, Sergeant, while you are with Sheridan, explain to
him who you are--he may have news for you.  Good-night, and good luck."

He stood up and held out his hand.  In surprise, his eyes suddenly
filling with tears, Hamlin felt the grip of his fingers.  Then he
turned, unable to articulate a sentence, and strode away into the night.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

AT CAMP SUPPLY

There are yet living in that great Southwest those who will retell the
story of Hamlin's ride from the banks of the Washita to Camp Supply.
It remains one of the epics of the plains, one of the proud traditions
of the army.  To the man himself those hours of danger, struggle and
weariness, were more a dream than a reality.  He passed through them
almost unconsciously, a soldier performing his duty in utter
forgetfulness of self, nerved by the discipline of years of service, by
the importance of his mission, and by memory of Molly McDonald.  Love
and duty held him reeling in the saddle, brought him safely to the
journey's end.

Let the details pass unwritten.  Beneath the darkening skies of early
evening, the Sergeant and the Osage guide rode forth into the peril and
mystery of the shrouded desert.  Beyond the outmost picket, moving as
silently as two spectres, they found at last a coulee leading upward
from the valley to the plains above.  To their left the Indian fires
swept in half circle, and between were the dark outlines of savage
foes.  From rock to rock echoed guttural voices, but, foot by foot,
unnoted by the keen eyes, the two crept steadily on through the
midnight of that sheltering ravine, dismounted, hands clasping the
nostrils of their ponies, feeling through the darkness for each step,
halting breathless at every crackle of a twig, every crunch of snow
under foot.  Again and again they paused, silent, motionless, as some
apparition of savagery outlined itself between them and the sky, yet
slowly, steadily, every instinct of the plains exercised, they passed
unseen.

In the earliest gray of dawn the two wearied men crept out upon the
upper plateau, dragging their horses.  Behind, the mists of the night
still hung heavy and dark over the valley, yet with a new sense of
freedom they swung into their saddles, faced sternly the chill wind of
the north, and rode forward across the desolate snow fields.  It was no
boys' play!  The tough, half-broken Indian ponies kept steady stride,
leaping the drifts, skimming rapidly along the bare hillsides.  From
dawn to dark scarcely a word was uttered.  By turns they slept in the
saddle, the one awake gripping the others' rein.  Once, in a strip of
cottonwood, beside a frozen creek, they paused to light a fire and make
a hasty meal.  Then they were off again, facing the frosty air, riding
straight into the north.  Before them stretched the barren snow-clad
steppes, forlorn and shelterless, with scarcely a mark of guidance
anywhere, a dismal wilderness, intersected by gloomy ravines and frozen
creeks.  Here and there a river, the water icy cold and covered with
floating ice, barred their passage; down in the valleys the drifted
snow turned them aside.  Again and again the struggling ponies
floundered to their ears, or slid head-long down some steep declivity.
Twice Hamlin was thrown, and once the Osage was crushed between
floating cakes and submerged in the icy stream.  Across the open
barrens swept the wind into their faces, a ceaseless buffeting,
chilling to the marrow; their eyes burned in the snow-glare.  Yet they
rode on and on, voiceless, suffering in the grim silence of despair,
fit denizens of that scene of utter desolation.

At the Cimarron the half-frozen Indian collapsed, falling from his
saddle into the snow utterly exhausted.  Staggering himself like a
drunken man, the Sergeant dragged the nerveless body into a crevice of
the bluff out of the wild sweep of the wind, trampled aside the snow
into a wall of shelter, built a hasty fire, and poured hot coffee
between the shivering lips.  With the earliest gray of another dawn,
the white man caught the strongest pony, and rode on alone.  He never
knew the story of those hours--only that his trail led straight into
the north.  He rode erect at first, then leaning forward clinging to
the mane; now and then he staggered along on foot dragging his pony by
the rein.  Once he stopped to eat, breaking the ice in a creek for
water.  It began to snow, the thick fall of flakes blotting out the
horizon, leaving him to stumble blindly through the murk.  Then
darkness came, wrapping him in a cloak of silence in the midst of that
unspeakable desert.  His limbs stiffened, his brain reeled from intense
fatigue.  He dragged himself back into the saddle, pressing the pony
into a slow trot.  Suddenly out of the wall of gloom sprang the yellow
lights of Camp Supply.  Beneath these winking eyes of guidance there
burst the red glare of a fire.  Even as he saw it the pony fell, but
the exhausted man had forgotten now everything but duty.  The knowledge
that he had won the long struggle brought him new strength.  He
wrenched his feet free from the stirrups, and ran forward, calling to
the guard.  They met him, and he stood straight before them, every
nerve taut--a soldier.

"I bring despatches from Custer," he said slowly, holding himself firm.
"Take me to General Sheridan."

The corporal walked beside him, down the trampled road, questioning
eagerly as they passed the line of shacks toward the double log house
where the commander was quartered.  Hamlin heard, and answered briefly,
yet was conscious only of an effort to retain his strength.  Once
within, he saw only the short, sturdy figure sitting behind a table,
the shaggy gray beard, the stern, questioning eyes which surveyed him.
He stood there straight, motionless, his uniform powdered with snow,
his teeth clinched so as not to betray weakness, his face roughened by
exposure, grimy with dirt, and disfigured by a week's growth of beard.
Sheridan stared at him, shading his eyes from the glow of the lamp.

"You are from Custer?"

"Yes, sir."

He drew the papers from within his overcoat, stepped forward and laid
them on the table.  Sheridan placed one hand upon them, but did not
remove his gaze from Hamlin's face.

"When did you leave?"

"The evening of the 27th, sir.  I was sent back with an Osage guide to
bring you this report."

"And the guide?"

"He gave out on the Cimarron and I came on alone."

"And Custer?  Did he strike Black Kettle?"

"We found his camp the evening of the 26th, and attacked at daybreak
the next morning.  There were more Indians with him than we expected to
find--between two and three thousand, warriors from all the southern
tribes.  Their tepees were set up for ten miles along the Washita.  We
captured Black Kettle's village, and destroyed it; took his pony herd,
and released a number of white prisoners, including some women and
children.  There was a sharp fight, and we lost quite a few men; I left
too early to learn how many."

"And the command--is it in any danger?"

"I think not, sir.  General Custer was confident he could retire
safely.  The Indians were thoroughly whipped, and apparently had no
chief under whom they could rally."

The General opened the single sheet of paper, and ran his eyes slowly
down the lines of writing.  Hamlin, feeling his head reel giddily,
reached out silently and grasped the back of a chair in support.
Sheridan glanced up.

"General Custer reports Major Elliott as missing and several officers
badly wounded."

"Yes, sir."

"What Indians were engaged, and under what chiefs?"

"Mostly Cheyennes, although there were bands of Arapahoes, Kiowas,
Comanches, and a few Apaches.  Little Rock was in command after Black
Kettle was killed--that is of the Cheyennes.  Little Raven, and
Santanta led the others."

"A fiend, that last.  But, Sergeant, you are exhausted.  I will talk
with you to-morrow.  The officer of the day will assign you quarters."

Hamlin, still clinging to the chair with one hand, lifted the other in
salute.

"General Sheridan," he said, striving to control his voice, "General
Custer's last words to me were that I was to tell you who I am.  I do
not know what he meant, but he said you would have news for me."

"Indeed!" in surprise, stiffening in his chair.

"Yes, sir--my name is Hamlin."

"Hamlin!  Hamlin!" the General repeated the word.  "I have no
recollection--why, yes, by Gad!  You were a Confederate colonel."

"Fourth Texas Infantry."

"That's it!  I have it now; you were court-martialed after the affair
at Fisher's Hill, and dismissed from the service--disobedience of
orders, or something like that.  Wait a minute."

He rapped sharply on the table, and the door behind, leading into the
other room, instantly opened to admit the orderly.  In the dim light of
the single lamp Hamlin saw the short, stocky figure of a soldier,
bearded, and immaculately clean.  Even as the fellow's gloved hand came
sharply up to his cap visor, Sheridan snapped out:

"Orderly, see if you recognize this man."

Erect, the very impersonation of military discipline, the soldier
crossed the room, and stared into the unshaven face of the Sergeant.
Suddenly his eyes brightened, and he wheeled about as if on a pivot,
again bringing his gloved hand up in salute.

"Eet vas Colonel Hamlin, I tink ya," he said in strong German accent.
"I know heem."

The Sergeant gripped his arm, bringing his face about once more.

"You are Shultz--Sergeant-Major Shultz!" he cried.  "What ever became
of you?  What is it you know?"

"Wait a minute, Hamlin," said Sheridan quickly, rising to his feet.  "I
can explain this much better than that Dutchman.  He means well enough,
but his tongue twists.  It seems Custer met you once in the Shenandoah,
and later heard of your dismissal from the service.  One night he spoke
about the affair in my quarters.  Shultz was present on duty and
overheard.  He spoke up like a little man; said he was there when you
got your orders, that they were delivered verbally by the staff
officer, and he repeated them for us word for word.  He was taken
prisoner an hour later, and never heard of your court-martial.  Is that
it, Shultz?"

"Mine Gott, ya; I sa dot alreatty," fervently.  "He tell you not
reconnoisance--_charge_!  I heard eet twice.  Gott in Himmel, vat a
hell in der pines!"

"Hamlin," continued Sheridan quietly, "there is little enough we can do
to right this wrong.  There is no way in which that Confederate
court-martial can be reconvened.  But I shall have Shultz's deposition
taken and scattered broadcast.  We will clear your name of stain.  What
became of that cowardly cur who lied?"

Hamlin pressed one hand against his throbbing temples, struggling
against the faintness which threatened mastery.

"He--he paid for it, sir," he managed to say.  "He--he died three days
ago in Black Kettle's camp."

"You got him!"

"Yes--I--I got him."

"I have forgotten--what was the coward's name?"

"Eugene Le Fevre, but in Kansas they called him Dupont."

"Dupont!  Dupont!"  Sheridan struck the table with his closed fist.
"Good Lord, man!  Not the husband of that woman who ran off with
Lieutenant Gaskins, from Dodge?"

"I--I never heard--"

The room whirled before him in mist, the faces vanished; he heard an
exclamation from Shultz, a sharp command from Sheridan, and then seemed
to crumble up on the floor.  There was the sharp rustle of a woman's
skirt, a quick, light step, the pressure of an arm beneath his head.

"Quick, orderly, he 's fainted," it was the General's voice, sounding
afar off.  "Get some brandy, Shultz.  Here, Miss McDonald, let me hold
the man's head."

She turned slightly, her soft hand pressing back the hair from Hamlin's
forehead.

"No," she protested firmly, "he is my soldier."

And the Sergeant, looking past the face of the girl he loved saw tears
dimming the stern eyes of his commander.



THE END





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Molly McDonald - A Tale of the Old Frontier" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home