A Trooper Galahad
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A more abject, pitiable, helpless wretch even Texan troopers had never seen. Imploring his captors to protect him against the illimitable possibilities of lynch law, – for there were veteran soldiers present to whose thinking drum-head court-martial and summary execution were all too good for Marsden, – the ex-sergeant told the story of his stealings, and the names of his accomplices, but declared that all his ill-gotten gains were gone. Every cent he had at the time of his flight was taken from him, he protested, by the gang of desperadoes among whom he had found refuge.
"He's lyin', sorr," declared Sergeant Shaughnessy at this juncture. "He's hidin' the hoith av it somewheres, an' there's nothin' like the noose av a lariat to frishen his mimory." But old Mullane ordered silence.
"Go you back to Worth fast as you can," said he to Winn. "Write the report for me to sign before you start. Tell the colonel where what is left of the stolen property can be found, and we'll bring Marsden along with us. The quicker you get there the more you can save."
Worth was one hundred and fifty miles away on a bee-line, and Winn had to twist and turn, but he rode with buoyant heart. By prompt measures much of his misfortune might be wiped out. Then, with the proffered loan with which to settle his accounts and pay off certain pressing creditors, he could start afresh, his head at last above the waters that had weighed him down. He would lead a simple, inexpensive life, and Laura would have to help him. He could set aside one-fourth, or even, perhaps, one-third, of his pay to send each month to the bank at San Antonio. It would be hard, but at least he would be honest and manful, and Laura would have to try to dress and live inexpensively. She used to say she would rather share exile and poverty with him than a palace with any other man, but that seemed a bit like hyperbole in the light of her subsequent career. Long before this, he said, the bank would have sent the money to Worth. It was doubtless now awaiting him in Fuller's safe, or possibly Trott's. How blessed a thing it was that the cashier should have been an old and warm friend of his father, – that he should have written proffering aid for old times' sake to the son of the soldier he had known and been aided by and had learned to love in bygone days! It was odd that Mr. Cashier Bolton had not made himself known to him, Harry Winn, when he and his lovely bride were in San Antonio, but all the more was the offer appreciated. It was odd that he should couple with the offer a condition that Winn should give his word not to tell the name of his father's friend and his own benefactor, and further to agree neither to drink any intoxicant nor bet a cent on any game of chance until the money was repaid. He was not given to drinking, but he had heard of a fondness on his father's part for cards, and had felt the fascination himself. All right: he would promise gladly.
They got fresh horses at a midway camp where a small detachment guarded the Cougar Springs, rested during the hot hours of the first day after a long night ride, then set forth, chasing their long shadows in the late afternoon, and, riding on through the night, hove in sight of the twinkling lights in the company kitchens at Worth just as the dawn was spreading over the eastward prairie.At the guard-house, aroused by the sentry's warning, a sergeant tumbled off his bench and ran sleepily out to meet them. It was a man whom Winn had frequently seen hovering about his quarters in attendance upon their maid-of-all-work.
"All well at home, Quigley?" he queried, hopefully.
"All well, sir; leastwise Mrs. Winn and the baby is, so Miss Purdy said yesterday evenin'. Mrs. Blythe with her children and Colonel Lawrence's have gone to San Antonio. They're all goin' home together. Any luck, sir?"
"I should say so! Hit 'em hard twice, and caught Marsden alive."
"Great – Beg pardon, lieutenant, but that's the best news yet!" The soldier's eyes danced and pleaded for more, but Winn was eager to reach home, to tiptoe up to Laura's room, to kneel by the bedside and fold her, waking, in his strong, yearning arms, to bend and kiss his baby's sleeping face. He spurred on across the parade. The long, low line of officers' quarters lay black and unrelieved against the reddening sky. Only in one or two were faint night-lights burning, one down near the southern end, the room of the officer of the day, another in his own. The slats of the blinds, half turned, revealed the glimmer of a lamp within. Probably baby was awake and demanding entertainment, and there could be no surprising Laura as he had planned. Still, he guided his horse so as to avoid pebbles or anything that would click against the shod hoofs. The home-coming would be the sweeter for its being unheralded.
"Never mind the saddle-bags now," he murmured to his orderly. "Take the horses to stables, and bring the traps over by and by." Then he tiptoed around to the back of the house. The front door, he knew, would be locked; so would that opening on the little gallery in rear; but there was the window of his den; he could easily raise it from outside and let himself in without any one's being the wiser. A glance at his watch showed him that in ten minutes the morning gun would fire and the post wake up to the shrill reveille of the infantry fifes and drums. Even though Laura should be awake and up with her baby, the surprise might be attempted. The back porch was lighted up with the glow from the east. The back door of the Barclay-Brayton establishment was ajar, and some one was moving about in the kitchen, – Hannibal, probably, getting coffee for his master in time for morning stables. Just to try it, Winn tiptoed up the low steps to the rear door, and there it stood, not wide open, but just ajar. "Miss Purdy" had mended her ways, then, and was rising betimes, he said. Softly entering, he passed through the little kitchen into the dark dining-room beyond, felt his way through into his deserted den to the left, – the blinds were tightly closed, – thence to the narrow hall, and up the carpeted, creaking stairs. The door of the back room at the east, the nursery, as right at the landing. The light of the dawn was strong enough to reveal dimly objects within. That door, too, was wide open, and there by the bedside was the cradle of his baby, and the little one placidly asleep. There in her bed, innocent of the possibility of masculine observation, her ears closed, her mouth wide open in the stupor of sleep, lay the domestic combination of nurse and maid-of-all-work. He tiptoed past the door and softly approached that of the front, the westward room, – his and Laura's. It, too, was partly open. A lamp burned dimly on the bureau. The broad, white bed, with its tumbled pillows and tossed-back coverlet, was empty, as he found the room to be. Laura, then, and not the maid, was the early riser. Softly he searched about the upper floor. She had heard him, after all, and was hiding somewhere to tease him. No; there on the back of her rocking-chair hung the pink, beribboned wrapper that was so becoming to her, and on another the dainty, lace-trimmed night-robe. She must be up and dressed, – his languid, lazy Laura, who rarely rose before nine o'clock, as a rule, and now it was only five. A strange throbbing began at his heart. Quickly he turned and scurried down the stairs, struck a match in the parlor, another in the dining-room. Both were empty. The den and its closets were explored. No one there.
Out he went through the kitchen to the eastward porch again. The light was stronger. Over the level mesa to the edge of the bluff, not fifty yards away, his eager eyes swept in search of the truant form. There stood at the very brow of the projecting point at the northeast side a little, latticed summer-house where sentimental couples sometimes sat and looked over the shallow valley of moonlight nights; and there, close beside it, switching the skirt of her stylish riding-habit with her whip, stood Laura Winn. Just as she turned and glanced impatiently over her shoulder, out from the adjoining door came a soldierly form in riding-dress. For an instant three forms seemed to stand stock-still; then came the shock and roar of the reveille gun, and before the echoes rolled away Lieutenant Winn, striding up to Barclay with fury in his eyes, struck the captain full in the face and sent him crashing over a kitchen chair.
Ten miles out to the northwest the stream that curved and twisted around the low mesa of Fort Worth burst its way through a ridge in the foot-hills, and, brawling and dashing at its rocky banks, rolled out over the lowlands, foaming at the mouth with the violence of its own struggles. Far in the heart of the hills it had its source in several clear, cold springs, while the deep hoarded snows of the harsh winters fed and swelled it in the springtide until it reached the proportions of a short-lived torrent. Huge heaps of uprooted trees and tangled brushwood it deposited along its shores as far down even as the fort, but nothing was carried below the sutler's. "Ahl's fish that comes to Fuller's net," said Sergeant McHugh, "an' sorra a sliver av a sardine iver got away from it." Once in a while, after unusual flood, the flotsam and jetsam of the creek would be diversified with wagon-bodies, ranch roofs, camp equipage, and the like, for "the Range," as this odd upheaval was locally termed, was a famous place for prospectors.
A beautiful stream was the Blanca within its mountain gates, but an ashen pallor overspread it after its fight for freedom. It was never the same stream after it got away. It danced and sparkled past pretty nooks and shaded ravines among the hills, but issued from the gateway, like the far-famed Stinking River of the Bannocks and Shoshones of Northwestern Wyoming, a metamorphosed stream. It had a bad reputation. It was solely responsible for the fact that Worth had been located away out here in the bald, bleak, open prairie country, instead of among those bold and beautiful heights to the northwest. "The very spot for a military post!" said the officers of the earlier scouting parties, as they camped within the gates in the midst of a lonely glade. "Lovely," said the Texan guides, in reply, "so long as you don't mind being drowned out every spring." It seems that snows would melt of a sudden, tremendous thunderstorms burst among the crags, and flood and deluge the valleys, for the Blanca could not with sufficient swiftness discharge its swollen torrents through that narrow gorge. Beautiful it lay, ordinarily, as a summer sea, and the bridle-path that wound through the pass was a favorite route for picnic-parties from Worth. But storm-clouds would rise and turn summer seas to raging water-demons, and then the flood that tore through the gates would sweep all before it, like the unloosed waters of the Conemaugh that awful May of '89.
From Worth to the White Gate the prairie road wound hard and firm, and before the late excitement several picnic-, riding-, and driving-parties had paid their spring-time visits. It was quite the thing, too, for such maids and matrons as were good horsewomen to ride thither in the lengthening afternoons. Mrs. Frazier had consulted Collabone as to the earliest date on which Barclay could stand a long drive, as she wished to give a little f?te in his honor, and had planned a picnic to Barrier Rock, a romantic spot just within the gorge. Collabone had referred her to his assistant, and that younger officer consulted his patient before committing himself to reply.
"I don't care to ride in an ambulance, doctor, but I do long to get in saddle. There's no strain on that leg below the knee. Can't you let me mount from my back porch here and amble around these fine mornings before people are up?" And "Funnybone" assented. He and Barclay rode out together, very cautiously, next morning at reveille, and, finding his patient benefited by the gentle exercise on such a perfect mount as either of those Kentucky bays, the doctor said, "Go again; only ride slowly, and mount and dismount only at the back porch, where you have only to lower yourself into saddle. Be sure to avoid any shock or jar, then you're all right."
Hannibal and Mrs. Winn's domestic were the only persons besides Barclay's orderly to see the start, but had the domestic herself been alone it would have been sufficient to insure transmission of the news. First she told her mistress. Later she learned from Hannibal that the captain was going out to stables next morning the same way, and had ordered coffee to be ready at reveille. This, too, was conveyed to Laura, and that evening she sent for the veteran stable sergeant of the troop to which her husband was temporarily attached, and asked him if Robin Hood, a pretty little chestnut she used to ride, was still in the stable. He was, and would Mrs. Winn be pleased to ride? The sergeant would be glad to see the lady in saddle again. Her handsome side-saddle was, with her bridle, always kept in perfect order, but for several months Mrs. Winn had taken no exercise that way.
"I'm going to ride at reveille, sergeant," she confided to the faithful soldier. "It's so long since I mounted, I wish to try once or twice when people can't see me." And Sergeant Burns had promised that as soon as the sentry would release him after gun-fire Robin Hood should be on hand. He'd be proud to come with him himself.
True to his word, Burns was up at four-fifteen; Robin was groomed and fed and watered and saddled in style, and ready to start the moment the sentry was relieved by the morning gun-fire from the imposition of the order to "allow no horse to be taken out between taps and reveille, except in the presence of a commissioned officer or the sergeant of the guard." The sight that met the sergeant's eyes as he cantered around back of the row of officers' quarters, leading Robin by the rein, was one he never forgot.
With pallid face, down which the blood was streaming from a cut at the temple, Captain Barclay was seated on the steps, striving to bind a handkerchief about his lower leg. Old Hannibal, forgetful of the dignity of the Old Dominion, was actually running down the back road, in haste, it seems, to summon the doctor. On the porch, amid some overturned chairs, two athletic, sinewy young men were grappling, one of them, Lieutenant Brayton, almost lifting and carrying the other, Lieutenant Winn, towards his own doorway, both ashen gray as to their faces, both fearfully excited, both struggling hard, both with panting breath striving to speak with exaggerated calm.
On this scene, wringing her hands, sobbing with fright and misery, flitting first to Barclay's side, then back towards her straining husband, saying wild and incoherent things to both, was Laura Winn. Burns had the frontiersman's contempt for a chimney-pot hat, and never seemed one so incongruous as this, – her riding head-gear which in the midst of her wailings Mrs. Winn clasped to her heaving breast. To make matters more complicated, the neighborhood was waking up, domestics and "strikers" were gazing from back porches farther down the row, and Blythe's big hounds had taken to barking furiously, until that bulky and bewildered soldier himself came forth, damned them into their kennel, then hastened in consternation to the aid of Barclay. By this time, too, Winn had succeeded in making his wife hear him, and was ordering her within-doors; but like some daft creature she hovered, moaning and wringing her hands and staring at Barclay, whose eyes were now beginning to close, and whose form was slowly swaying.
"In God's name, man, what's happened?" demanded Blythe, as he seized and steadied the toppling form. "Why, you're bleeding like an ox. Your boot is running over. Drop those horses, Burns, and run for the doctor, lively," he urged. Needing no further authority, the sergeant turned his charges loose and scurried after Hannibal.
"Help me carry Barclay in-doors," was the next word. With one warning order to Winn to keep away, young Brayton broke loose from him and ran to assist. As though half stupefied, Winn heavily moved a pace or two, then sank upon a bench and stared. His wife stood gazing in horror at the trail of blood that followed the three men into the hall, then faltered over to where the young soldier sat, moaning, "Oh, Harry! Oh, Harry!" Reaching his side, she laid her hand upon his shoulder and bade him look at her, – speak to her. He rose slowly to his feet, his face averted, shook himself free, and, with a shudder, but never uttering a word in reply, passed into his dark doorway. The nurse-girl, wide-eyed, met him at the threshold. "Go to your mistress," he said, hoarsely. He stumbled on through the house, unslung the revolver belted to his waist, and laid it on the hall table; reconsidered; buckled it firmly on, and, pulling his hat down over his eyes, drew back the door-bolt and let himself out upon the front piazza. Crossing the parade, he saw the red sash of the officer of the day. De Lancy was dragging sleepily back from his reveille visit to the guard, but the sight of Winn aroused him, and he quickened his pace and came striding to him.
"Hullo, lad," he hailed, full twenty paces away, "what luck? Got Marsden, the sergeant tells me. – Why – Good God! what's happened?"
"Nothing," said Winn, "except, perhaps, I've killed Barclay. Take me to the colonel."
"You're daft, man!" said De Lancy, instantly, while an awful fear almost checked the beating of his heart. Then, seizing Winn by the arm, "What d'ye mean?" he asked.
"Go and see," said Winn, stupidly, as he buried his face in his arms a moment, then stretched them out full length, and, tossing his head back, shut his eyes as though to blot out a hateful sight. "Go," he continued; "then come and take me to the colonel."
And De Lancy started on the run and collided with Brayton at the door.
"For God's sake, go and hurry up 'Funnybone,'" moaned the youngster. "Here's Barclay bleeding to death."
De Lancy ran his best: guardsmen across the parade stopped and stared, men in shirt-sleeves rushed out on the barrack stoops and stood and gazed, and a corporal, with rifle trailed, came running over to see what was amiss, just as the junior doctor, in cap and overcoat, trousers and slippers, came bolting out of his hallway and flying up the path. In front of De Lancy's one slipper went hurtling back through midair, but the doctor rushed on in stocking-foot. The corporal picked up the shoe and followed. No one seemed to look for the moment at Winn, who turned slowly back to the pathway and like a blind man seemed groping his way towards Frazier's. The officer of the day passed him by on the run, following at the doctor's heels, with never another look at him. Men seemed to think only of Barclay. Was it credible that an officer and a gentleman, as Winn had been regarded, could purposely have dealt that honored soldier a mortal blow, unless – unless – but who could find words to frame the thought? Once within Brayton's hallway, De Lancy turned and slammed shut the door, for others were coming on the run from far across the parade. Over at the guard-house the men had started for their breakfast, but hung there, clustered about the sentry-post, gazing over the criss-cross plat of the parade, and muttering their conjectures as to the cause of the trouble. The sight of Lieutenant Winn wandering on down the row, turning from time to time, halting as though uncertain what he ought to do, while every other officer was running to the other end of the row, was something they could not understand.
Then Mrs. Winn, in riding-habit, came suddenly forth upon her piazza, and, gazing wildly up and down, caught sight of her husband, now some fifty paces away along the gravel walk. Stretching forth her arms to him, she began to call aloud, "Harry! Harry! please come back!" He never turned. She ran down the steps and out to the gate and called him, louder, louder, so that they could hear the voice all over the garrison in the sweet, still morning air; but on he went, doggedly now, faster and faster. She gathered up her clinging skirts in one hand, and, pleading still, followed after. Not until he had mounted the steps at the colonel's did the young officer turn again; then with uplifted hand and arm he stood warning her back. Something in the attitude, something in the stern, quivering white face, seemed at last to bring to her the realization of the force of his unspoken denunciation.
"Harry! Harry!" she cried. "Oh, come and let me tell you. You don't understand! I meant no wrong! I was only going for a ride, – not with him, – not with him, Harry!" And so, pleading, weeping, she followed almost to the colonel's gate before the door was opened from within and Winn was swallowed up in the darkness of the hall.
By this time some inkling of the trouble had been borne to Collabone, ever an early riser. As he came hastily forth from his quarters, the first thing he saw was the drooping form of Mrs. Winn, weeping at the colonel's gate. Seizing her arm with scant ceremony, he whirled her about and bore her homeward, she sobbing out her story as they sped along, he listening with clouded, anxious face.
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