A Trooper Galahad
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Still another thing had occurred to make Barclay something apart from the bachelors. No sooner had his modest kit of household goods arrived than the unused kitchen of Brayton's quarters was fitted up; Hannibal was ensconced therein; a neat little dining-room was made of what had been designed for a small bedchamber on the ground-floor, and Barclay amazed the mess by setting forth champagne the last evening he dined there as a member, and then retired to the privacy of his own establishment, as he had at Sanders. The Winns' house-maid had of course dropped in to see how Hannibal was getting along, and dropped out to tell her discoveries, which were few. Then Brayton found the mess saying things about Barclay he could not agree with, and he, too, resigned and became a messmate of his captain, – a change for the better that speedily manifested itself in the healthy white of his clear eyes and a complexion that bore no trace of fiery stimulants such as were indulged in elsewhere. Then there was talk of others leaving the "Follansbee family" and asking to join at Brayton's, and this gave umbrage to Erin as represented in the bachelors' mess. And so an anti-Barclay feeling had sprung up at the post, among the unlettered at least, and these were days in which the unlettered were numerous. "Sorry for you, Brayton, me boy," grinned the senior sub of Fellows's troop. "It must be tough to come down to this after Lawrence." And he was amazed at Brayton's reply.
"Tough? Yes, for it shows me how much time I've wasted."
"Wait till we get Galahad out on the trail wid his new-fangled bits and seats," sneered Mullane but a day or two before. "That'll take the damned nonsense out of him. Faith, whin he goes I hope I may go along too to see the fun."
And, sooner than he thought for, the Irish captain had his wish.
One o'clock had just been called off by the sentries, and the moon was well over to the west, when the door of the major's quarters was opened and he with his lingering guests came forth upon the broad piazza, the red sparks of their cigars gleaming anew as they felt the fan of the rising breeze. Clear and summer-like as was the sky, there was a reminder of the snow-peaks in the wings of the wind, and Lawrence huddled his old cavalry cape about his shoulders as he faced it. He was talking eagerly, perhaps a little bombastically, of this great new mining company in which Buffstick was prominent as a director. He was full of hope and anticipation and disposed to patronize a trifle his friends who, wedded to the humdrum of the army, were debarred from so fine an opportunity of making money in abundance. So many of the number were going to do so much in the same way when first they left us for the broader paths of civil life.
"I tell you, Brooks," he said, enthusiastically, "I wouldn't take ten thousand dollars cash this night for my chance of making twice that sum within the year. Buffstick turns everything he touches into gold."
"Wonder if Barclay knows these mines," said De Lancy, reflectively, flipping the ashes from the end of his cigar."He has never opened his head about his mines to a soul. We don't know where they are."
"I don't know," said Lawrence, briefly. Even yet the mention of Barclay chafed him a bit. "I know this, though, that that company wouldn't offer me any such salary as twenty-five hundred dollars a year just to boss their men, unless there was big money in it somewhere. It's the first time I ever knew what it was to be indifferent to the coming of the paymaster. By the way, he ought to be here day after to-morrow, or to-morrow night in fact; it's long after twelve now. The escorts were warned as we came along."
"I think it a mistake," said Brooks, gravely, "to let any one know beforehand when the paymaster is to start. That Friday gang probably musters a hundred by this time. It's where all our thieves and deserters go. I haven't a doubt your old sergeant has joined them by this time, Lawrence. I believe that's where Marsden's gone, and that we'll hear from them in force again before we're a month older. They've kept reasonably quiet all winter, but June isn't far off. I'm blessed if I would want to make that trip from San Antonio with forty thousand dollars in greenbacks with less than a big troop of cavalry to guard it."
"He's got more money than that this time," said Lawrence. "Most of these men have four months' pay due them; so have the cavalry along the route. He has two other posts to pay. Hallo!" he cried, breaking suddenly off, "what's all the light about down at the sutler's? Here comes the sergeant of the guard."
Running diagonally across the parade, the moonlight glinting on his buttons and accoutrements, an infantry non-commissioned officer was speeding towards the quarters of Captain Blythe, near the upper end of the row; but, catching sight of the group at the major's, he suddenly swerved and came straight towards them, springing over the gurgling acequia and the dusty roadway and halting at the gate.
"What is it, sergeant?" asked two or three voices at once.
"I was looking for the officer of the day, sir. Is he here?"
"Over at his quarters, probably. What's amiss?"
"There's two of Fuller's men in, sir, from Crockett, – just about played out. They swear that not an hour after sunset the whole Friday gang – it couldn't have been anything else – came a-riding out from the foot-hills over towards the Wild Rose and kept on to the southeast. They saw the dust against the sky and hid in the rocks away off to the east of the trail, and they swear there must have been fifty of 'em at least."
He had hardly time to finish the words when the sutler himself came galloping over the parade, "hot foot," on his wiry mustang, and drew up in front of the gate. "Has the sergeant told you?" he asked, breathlessly. "It's Reed and his partner, – two of the best men on my ranch, – and they can't be mistaken. You know what it must mean, gentlemen. The gang is after the paymaster, and I think Colonel Frazier should know at once." No wonder Fuller was breathless, bareheaded, and only half dressed. Anywhere from thirty to forty thousand dollars might be diverted from its proper and legitimate use if that Friday gang should overpower the guard and get away with it. His coffers were filled with sutler checks redeemable in currency at the pay-table, as was the wonted way of the old army. It was a case of feast or famine with Fuller, and he poured his tale into sympathetic ears. Brooks himself went over to the colonel's, and found that weasel of a chief already awake. Mrs. Frazier didn't allow galloping over her parade in the dead of the night without an attempt to detect the perpetrator. That vigilant dame had more than once brought graceless skylarkers to terms, and the quadrupedante putrem sonitu of Fuller's mustang represented to her incensed and virtuous ears only the mad lark of some scapegrace subaltern, who perchance had not been as attentive to 'Manda as he should have been, and she was out of dreamland and over at the window before Fuller fairly drew rein.
"What is it, Brooks, me boy?" asked Frazier from his casement, as did gallant O'Dowd of his loyal Dobbin. "I'll be down in a minute." By the time he reached the door Fuller had hurried up his stiff and wearied scouts, and in the presence of a little party of officers the story was told again, and told without break or variation. There was only one opinion. The scattered outlaws had easily got wind of the coming of the paymaster with his unusual amount of treasure, and, quickly assembling, they were heading away to meet him far to the southeast of the big post, very possibly planning to ambuscade the party in the winding defiles of the San Saba Hills. Not a moment was to be lost. For the first time the full weight of his divorce from all that was once his profession and his pride fell on Ned Lawrence, as for an instant the colonel's eyes turned to him as of old, – the dashing and successful leader of the best scouts sent from Worth in the last two years. Then, as though suddenly realizing that he had no longer that arm to lean on, old Frazier spoke:
"Why, Brooks, you'll have to go. I can't trust such a command to Mullane, and it'll take two companies at least."
And twenty minutes later, answering the sharp summons of their veteran sergeants, the men of Mullane's and Barclay's troops were tumbling out of their bunks and into their boots, "hell-bent for a rousin' ride," and the old captain of Troop "D" was saying to the new, "Captain Barclay, may I ask you for a mount? I've been longing for two years past for a whack at this very gang, and now that the chance has come I cannot stay here and let my old troop go."
And all men present marked the moment of hesitation, the manner of reluctance, before Barclay gravely answered, "There is nothing at my disposal to which you are not most welcome, Colonel Lawrence; and yet – do you think – you ought to go?"
"I could not stay here, sir, and see my old troop go without me," was the answer.
Few were the families at Fort Worth that were not up and out on the piazzas or at the windows to see Brooks's detachment as it marched away in the light of the setting moon just as the stars were paling in the eastern sky; but the merciful angel of sleep spread her hushing wings over the white bed where two children lay dreaming, and never until the troopers were miles beyond the vision of the keen-eyed sentries did Ada know that the loved father, restored to her but a few hours before, was once more riding the Texan trail, soldier sense of duty leading on, and God alone knowing to what end.
The day that broke on old Fort Worth thus late in a sunshiny May proved one of deep anxiety. There was no telegraph wire then to connect it with the distant head-quarters of the department. If there had been it would have been cut six times a week. There was no way of waving back the coming convoy or of signalling danger. Crockett Springs lay a long day's ride to the southeast, and the little troop of cavalry there in camp was looking for the coming of no call upon it for duty until early on the morrow it should supply the paymaster and his party with breakfast, the ambulance with fresh mules and driver, and the night riders of the escort with their relief. Forty troopers from Crockett Springs would take the place of those who had come from the San Saba, and trot along with the paymaster until, somewhere about midway to Worth, they should meet the forty sent out the previous night to bivouac on the prairie and be ready to take up the gait and keep it until the man of money and his safe were well within the limits of the reservation. But the fifty-mile stage from Crockett to the southeast was the worst on the long line. The road wound over the divide to the valley of the San Saba, and on the way had to twist and turn through defiles of the range of hills, where more than a dozen times Indians and outlaws had defied the little detachments of cavalry scouting after them. The worst part of the pass lay some twenty miles beyond the stage station at Crockett Springs. Neither Indians nor outlaws, to be sure, had been heard of in that neighborhood for several months, but that proved nothing. It was easy for the latter to sweep from their supposed fastnesses in the Apache range to the west, and, issuing from the Wild Rose Pass, to water miles below the springs and then line the rocks in the heart of the San Saba Pass, without a trooper being the wiser. Forty cavalrymen, as Lawrence knew, would be the major's escort from the camp on the Rio San Saba beyond the range. Forty men disciplined and organized ought ordinarily to be able to cope with any band of outlaws to be found in Texas. But when, as was now reasonably certain, this far-famed Friday gang had received accessions from the troops themselves and had welcomed the deserters and desperadoes so frequently sloughed off from the soldier skin of Uncle Sam in the days close following the great war, there was grave reason for precaution, and graver still for anxiety. Question as he might, Frazier could not shake an atom of the original statement of Fuller's men. Fifty mounted outlaws, at least count, with a dozen led horses, they had seen through their field-glass far over the prairie, pushing southeastward from the direction of Wild Rose Pass of the Apache range, straight for the lower valley through which ran the little stream that had its source at Crockett Springs.
So there were anxious hearts at Worth, for, while it was felt that Brooks would lose no moment and was well on his way at four o'clock of this bright Sunday morning, he had still some sixty miles to traverse before he could get to Crockett, rest and bait his men and horses, pick up Cramer's troop there camped, and then push ahead for the San Saba, where he expected to find the outlaw gang disposed in ambuscade, confidently awaiting the coming of their prey.
Now, Brooks had men enough to thrash them soundly, but unless he caught them in the act of spoliation he lacked authority. Just as sure as he pitched into a force of armed frontiersmen, they would appeal to the courts, and public sentiment would be dead against him. He could doubtless push ahead through the range, careless of lurking scouts of the would-be robbers, meet Major Pennywise and his protectors, and escort them back in safety. That problem presented no great difficulty; but what Frazier wanted and Brooks wanted and everybody, presumably, wanted was that the outlaws should be caught in the act and be punished then and there. The question was how to catch them in the act without being themselves discovered, and before the gang had had time to inflict much damage on the paymaster's party. There was the rub. "Why, their first volley, delivered from ambush, might kill half the outfit and the paymaster too," said Frazier. "No, we dare not risk it, Brooks. Push through and pull him through, that's the best we can do – unless," and here came the redeeming clause, "unless on the way you should light on some unforeseen chance. Then – use your discretion."
Mounted on the very horse he used to ride as troop commander, and with the old familiar horse-equipments, Ned Lawrence left the post at the major's side. He had slept as only soldiers can, curled up in the stage-coach, during the previous afternoon, and was in far better trim for the long ride in saddle than Captain Mullane, who with bleary eyes and muddled head rode solus in front of the leading troop, his one lieutenant, Mr. Bralligan, being reported by Dr. Collabone's assistant as sick in quarters, which indeed he was, with a lump the size of an apple on the side of his head, and another, apparently the heft and density of a six-pounder cannon-ball, rolling about inside of it. "D" Troop, jogging easily along at the rear of column, was led by Barclay and Brayton, both of whom had marked the absence of the subaltern of the leading company, and neither of whom was surprised when ten miles out there came galloping past them, with a touch of the hand to his hat-brim, the late regimental commissary, Lieutenant Harry Winn.
"That's good!" said Brayton, as he saw his classmate ride up to the major and report, then fall back and range himself alongside Mullane. But Barclay was silent.
"You think he ought not to have come?" asked Brayton, half hesitatingly, as he glanced at his silent leader.
"I'm thinking more of others – who should be here," was the answer. "Yet those two have so much to leave." And Brayton, following the glance of his captain's eyes, fully understood.
The morning grew warm as the sun began to climb above the distant low-lying hills to the east. The dust soon rose in dense clouds from beneath the crushing hoofs, and, leaving Brayton with the troop, Barclay cut across the chord of a long arc in the trail and reined up alongside the major. The command at the moment was moving at a sharp trot through a long, low depression in the prairie-like surface. Brooks returned the captain's punctilious salute with a cheery nod and cordial word of greeting.
"With your permission, sir, I will fall back a hundred yards or so, divide the troop into sections, and so avoid the dust."
Brooks glanced back over his shoulder. "Why, certainly, captain," said he. "I ought to have known the dust would be rising by this time. It's eight o'clock," he continued, glancing at his watch. Barclay turned in saddle and signalled with his gauntlet, whereat Brayton slackened speed to the walk, and a gap began to grow between the rearmost horses of Mullane's troop and the head of "D's" already dusty column.
"Ride with us a moment, won't you, Barclay?" called the major, significantly, as his subordinate seemed on the point of reining aside to wait for his men. "I want you two to know each other." And the new and the old captain of "D" Troop, who had courteously shaken hands with each other when presented in the dim light of the declining moon at four o'clock, now trotted side by side, Lawrence eying his successor with keen yet pleasant interest. He had been hearing all manner of good of him during the wakeful watches of the night, and was manfully fighting against the faint yet irrepressible feeling of jealous dislike with which broader and better men than he have had to struggle on being supplanted. Do what he might to battle against it, Lawrence had been conscious of it hour after hour, and felt that he winced time and again when some of the callers spoke even guardedly of the changes Barclay was making in the old troop, changes all men except the ultra-conservative ranker element (as the ranker was so often constituted at that peculiar time, be it understood) could see were for the better.
"You and Barclay lead on, will you, Ned?" said the major, in his genial way. "I wish to speak with Mullane a moment." Whereat he reined out to the right and waited for the big Irishman to come lunging up. Mullane was already spurring close at his heels, gloomily eying the combination in front. "There are Oirish and Oirish," as one of their most appreciative and broad-minded exponents, Private Terence Mulvaney, has told us; and it galled the veteran dragoon to see his junior in rank bidden to ride even for the moment at the head of the swiftly moving column. So, reckless of the fact that his individual spurt would call for a certain forcing of the pace along his entire troop, now moving in long column of twos, Mullane had spurred his horse to close the twelve-yard gap between himself and the major's orderly, determined that there should be no conference of the powers in which he was not represented.
"Captain Mullane," said Brooks, "I see it is getting dusty. You might divide into sections, as 'D' troop has done, and keep fifty yards apart, so that the dust can blow aside and not choke your men."
"This is 'L' Troop, sorr, and my men are not babes in arrums," was Mullane's magnificent reply. At any other time he might have felt the pertinence of the suggestion, but here was a case where a doughboy captain, bedad, had instigated the measure for the comfort of his men. That was enough to damn it in the eyes of the old dragoon. The answer was shouted, too, with double intent. Mullane desired Barclay to hear what he thought of such over-solicitude; but Barclay, riding onward sturdily if not quite so easily as was Lawrence, gave no sign. He was listening, with head inclined, to the words of the keen campaigner on his right.
Brooks was quick to note the intention of the Irish officer, and equally quick to note the flushed and inflamed condition of his face, the thickness of his tongue. "So ho, my Celtic friend," thought he, as he saw that two canteens were swung on the off side of Mullane's saddle, one at the cantle under the rolled blanket, the other half shaded by the bulging folds of the overcoat at the pommel, "I suspected there was more whiskey than wit in your eagerness at the start; now I know it."
But even to Mullane the major would not speak discourteously. "We all know 'L' Troop is ready for anything, captain," he smilingly answered, "but I have to call for unusual exertion to-day, and the fresher they are to-night the better. Let them open out, as I say," he continued; and Mullane saw it was useless to put on further airs.
"You 'tind to it, sergeant," he grunted over his shoulder to his loyal henchman, and then, uninvited, ranged up alongside the leader.
The prairie was open here; the road split up into several tracks from time to time, and the men could have ridden platoon front without much difficulty for two or three miles. Away to the southeast the ground rose in slow, gradual, almost imperceptible slope to the edge of the far horizon, not a tree or shrub exceeding a yard in height breaking anywhere the dull monotony of the landscape. Eastward, miles and miles away, a line of low rolling hills framed the dull hues of the picture. Northward there was the same almost limitless expanse of low, lazy undulation. To the right front, the south and southwest, the land seemed to fall away in even longer, lazier billows, until it flattened out into a broad valley, drained by some far-distant, invisible stream. Only to the west and northwest, over their right shoulders, was there gleam of something brighter. The faint blue outline of the far-away Apache range was still capped in places by glistening white, while straight away to the northwest, back of and beyond the dim dust-cloud through which the swallow-tailed guidons were peeping, hovered over their winding trail the bold and commanding heights, Fort Worth's shelter against the keen blasts that swept in winter-time across the prairie from the upper valley of the Rio Bravo. Four hours out, and just where the road dipped into that broad deep swale a quarter-mile behind the rearmost troopers, – just where the wreck of one of Fuller's wagons and the bones of two of Fuller's mules and the soft spongy mud to the west of the trail told how the waters could gather there in the rainy season and evaporate to nothingness when needed in the dry, – a solitary stake driven into the yielding soil bore on bullet-perforated cross-board the legend, "20 miles to Worth and only 20 rods to Hell."
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