A Trooper Galahad
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Only twenty miles in four hours, with fresh horses and the cool of the morning, and a paymaster with forty thousand dollars in deadly danger some sixty to eighty miles away. Slow going that, yet scientific. Not another drop of water could those lively chargers hope to have until they reached the springs at Crockett, forty miles away. Thrice has Brooks halted for brief ten minutes' rest, the resetting of saddles, etc., and now, after fifteen minutes' lively jog, he signals "walk" again, and glances back to watch the march of his men. By this time the column is long drawn out. The two troops are split up into four sections each, riding a little over a dozen men in a bunch; by this means they are relieved from the ill effects of the choking clouds of dust. Mullane halts with the major. It pleases him to convey the impression to his men that Brooks can't get along without him. A big pull at his pommel canteen, ten minutes back, has temporarily braced him, and he wants to talk, whereas Brooks, intent on the duty before him, wishes to think.
"Hwat time will we make Crockett's, major?"
"Not before five or five-thirty," is the brief answer.
"'L' Troop can do it in two hours less."
"So could 'D,' if it hadn't to push on again at nightfall." Brooks answers in civil tone, despite the hint conveyed by the brevity of his words, despite the conviction that is growing on him as he somewhat warily glances over his companion, that what "L" might do its captain won't do if he consults that canteen again. Two silent but keen-eared orderlies are sitting in saddle close beside their respective officers, and it will not do to give his thoughts away.
Then Mullane tries another tack. He seeks confidential relations with his chief; and when an Irishman has a man he is jealous of to talk about and whiskey to start him, he needs no supply of facts; they bubble from his seething brain, manufactured for the occasion.
"The Preacher was caught where he couldn't get out of it," says he, with a leering wink at the leading horseman. "Is he larnin' his thrade from Lawrence, afther robbin' him av his throop?"
And now Brooks fires up unexpectedly. Turning quickly on the Irishman with anger in his eyes, the major bends forward over the pommel. "Captain Mullane," he says, so low that the near-by troopers fail to catch his words, so distinctly that the captain cannot fail to, "there are things of more value in a trade than the tricks of it that you seem to know so well. You can learn more from Captain Barclay that is worth knowing than you can ever teach him, and I'll listen to no slur at his expense. You've been drinking too much, Mullane. Take my advice and pull the stopper out of that canteen and put one on your tongue."
The Irishman boils up with wrath. The idea of Major Mildmanners pitching into him – him, that was once the pride of the Second Dragoons! – and praising that white-livered parson! Whurroo! Mullane at the moment could have flung commission and conscience to the wind, everything but that canteen.Nothing but the stern and icy stare in Brooks's usually benignant eye represses the outburst trembling on the tangling tip of his tongue.
"If you knew – what I know, sorr, that man'd not be ridin' wid his betthers," he begins, "and it's this night that'll prove me wurrds."
It was at four o'clock of a blistering afternoon, twelve hours from the time of their start from the post, that the leaders in the long-extended column hove in sight of a patch of green down in a distant depression to the south that marked the site of Crockett Springs. Beyond it, hemming the broad, shallow valley, there rose a long wave of bare, desolate heights, rounded and billowing in soft and graceful contours as they rolled away northeastward, abrupt and jagged towards the south and southwest, where the stream seemed to have torn a pathway for the sudden torrents of the springtide that foamed away towards the broader valley of the Bravo. At the point where, rounding the nose of a low ridge, the trail twisted into view of Crockett's, the major halted to look back over his command, still tripping steadily onward in little bunches, each a dozen strong, each followed by its own little dust-cloud, each independent, apparently, of the others, yet moving as part of one harmonious train. Foremost, the group at the head of column had received accessions. Fuller, the sutler, finely mounted and bristling with arms of the latest and most approved pattern, backed by two sun-tanned Texans from his ranch, had overtaken the command at noon, bent on sharing its fortunes in the tussle anticipated with the outlaws; and they were now riding with "head-quarters," from which, on the other hand, two figures were missing, – Lawrence and one of the orderlies. As early as two o'clock the ex-captain had pushed on ahead, a double object in view, to warn Cramer's troop of the coming of the Worth command and the tidings they bore of the Friday gang, also to have a little party mount at once and gallop northeast, ten miles to the Saba trail, – a short cut from Worth to the San Saba Pass, used by horsemen in the rainy season. Captain Cramer might or might not have received warning of the appearance of the gang in the valley below his camp at the Springs; but the "Fridays," whoever their leader, would certainly have friends and confederates on the watch near Worth, friends who would probably take that very short cut and gallop at speed to warn the gang of the coming vengeance. Oddly enough, it was not Brooks nor Lawrence who was first to think of this, but Barclay. It was his modest suggestion at the noon halt, a suggestion that was put in form of a question, that had opened the major's eyes. "I remember, sir," said he, "that the Springs lie in a sort of elbow; the trail runs nearly east and west for many miles beyond them, and nearly north and south on this side. Is there no way in which scouts could gallop across our left and give warning to those fellows?"
"By Jove!" said Brooks, "there's the old San Saba cut-off. What had we better do, Lawrence?" And Lawrence said, "Send at once a sergeant with a set of fours to the left, until they cut the trail, in order to prevent information going to the gang that way, and to report if any horsemen have already passed, which latter any old frontiersman can tell at a glance." Mullane, lurching drowsily in saddle all through the last stage, had thrown himself on the turf and gone sound asleep the moment the column halted. Only with extreme difficulty could he be aroused and made to understand what was wanted. Mr. Winn, standing silently by, turned his back on his temporary commander. He knew the Irish captain was well-nigh swamped with liquor, and he had no wish to bear witness against him. Those were days so close to the war that officers, old and new, still thought more of what a man had done than of what he was doing, and Mullane had been a gallant trooper. "You 'tind to it, sergeant," was again the Irishman's comprehensive order to his first sergeant when at last he grasped the significance of Brooks's words, and five horsemen rode away at the lope to the left front the moment the column again mounted. Again did Brooks see fit to caution his leading troop commander. "I am afraid you have sampled that whiskey once too often, Mullane. No more of it now, or you'll go to pieces when you are most needed," he muttered, then rode on to the head of column.
And the prediction came true. At the very next halt Mullane had fallen into a stupor so heavy that it was found impossible to rouse him. The assistant surgeon with the column made brief examination, then unslung and removed the canteen at the captain's pommel, and whispered his conclusion, – "Better leave his horse and orderly here with him."
"Then," said the major, briefly, "Winn, you command 'L' Troop." And when again the column mounted, Barclay rode back and directed his leading section to incline to the right, so that they passed the lonely little group, the two horses placidly cropping at the scant herbage, the orderly squatting with averted face, filled at once with shame and sympathy, the recumbent figure sprawled upon the prairie, its bloated red visage buried in the blue-sleeved arms. Barclay's rearward sections instinctively followed the lead, and only furtive glances were cast, and no audible comments made. The ranks were full of tough characters in those days, yet imbued with a strange fidelity in certain lines that reminds one of the dog immortalized by Bret Harte at Red Gulch, – the dog that had such deep sympathy for a helplessly drunken man. There was nothing in their code to prevent their stealing from Uncle Sam, their captain, or any other victim, but to hint that an officer or a friend was drunk would have been the height of impropriety.
Winn, not Mullane, therefore, led "The Devil's Own," as Mullane's troop – together with others, no doubt – had been appropriately designated. Barclay followed at the head of "D." When nearing Crockett Springs at five o'clock, a dim speck of courier came twisting out upon the trail to meet them, and Brooks long after recalled the thought that came to him as he read the despatch that reached him there. It was from Lawrence:
"Cramer got wind of the gang early this morning, followed with thirty men into the San Saba, had sharp fight, lost three men and many horses, and is corralled out there, about fifteen miles southeast. Cramer himself wounded, Dr. Augustin killed. Courier says most of Friday gang gone to San Saba Pass. You, of course, must push on to save Pennywise and his money. I take five men and horses here and hasten to pull Cramer out of the hole. Think you now justified in attacking gang wherever found. No doubt who were Cramer's assailants. Expect to reach him before six and have one more square fight out of Texas. Hastily,
"By heaven," cried Brooks, as he turned to Fuller and the little party riding with him, all studying his face with anxious eyes, "it's lucky we got here with our horses in good shape. Cramer is in a scrape somewhere out in the Range. Lawrence has gone to his aid, and there'll only be time for a bite at Crockett's; then we must push on and go ahead to the Pass." Then, dropping into thought, "Now, which of Laura Waite's victims will most welcome a square fight, – the man she wronged by dropping, or the man she wronged by taking?"
Two hours later, refreshed by cooling draughts from the brook that bubbled away from the Springs, their nostrils sponged out, their saddles reset, their stomachs gladdened by a light feed, the horses of the two troops seemed fit for a chase, despite their sixty-mile march since dawn. A courier, galloping ahead, had borne Brooks's directions that coffee should be ready for his men, and Cramer's camp guard had found time to add substantials to that comforting fluid. Only half an hour did the major delay, but even in that time the horses had a quick rub-down with wisps of hay, and the men themselves swung into saddle with an air that seemed to say, "There's fun ahead!" The sun was shining aslant from low down in the western sky as the column once more jogged away on the dusty trail, Barclay's troop now in the lead, opening out just as it had marched most of the day, while Winn, between whom and the new captain there had passed a few courteous yet rather formal words at one or two of the halts, gave to Mullane's old first sergeant the charge of the leading section, and himself rode at the distant rear of column, for by dusk, if at all, straggling would be likely, and straggling would have to be suppressed with a firm hand. The sun was at their backs now: away to the front lay the rift in the hills through which wound the San Saba road, and off to the right front, well to the southeast, somewhere among those jagged bluffs just beginning to tinge with gold about their sharp and saw-like crests, lay the scene of Cramer's morning tussle with the outlaws, who, as all now realized, must have opened on him from ambush and shot down several horses and not a few men before the troopers could reply. No further news had come from him, however. The courier who brought the first news said he had to run the gauntlet, although only a few of the gang seemed to be hanging about the scene of the fight, – their main body, as he had previously reported, having gone in the direction of the Pass. Brooks well knew that the moment he reached the foot-hills he would have to move with caution, throwing out advanced guards and, where possible, flankers. He knew that he would need every man, and believed that Cramer's people, now that Lawrence had gone to join them, could take care of themselves; but the courier's story, told to eager ears, had "told" in more ways than one. His description of the ambuscade, the way Cramer, the doctor, Sergeant O'Brien, and others at the head of column were tumbled at the first fire, all had tended to make the head of Brooks's column an unpopular place to ride, – at least less popular than earlier in the day. Fuller and his men decided that their horses would be the better for an hour or two of rest at the cantonment, and so the column moved on without them.
Longer grew the shadows and loftier the range far to the front, as once more the pace quickened to the trot, and Brooks and his men jogged on. The doctor, a gifted young practitioner whom Collabone held in high regard, seemed still to think that he should have been allowed to take an orderly and his instruments and gallop out on Lawrence's trail to the aid of Cramer's wounded. "Then what is to become of mine?" asked the major, calmly. "I'm sorry for Cramer, sorry his doctor is killed, but we may need you any moment more than he does. No, Lawrence has gone to him; he'll do what he can to make the wounded comfortable, leave a small guard with them, and then guide the rest of Cramer's troop through the range to the San Saba, join either Pennywise's party or ours, and between us we ought to give those fellows a thrashing they'll never forget, – if only they'll stand and take it, – if only," he added below his breath, "they don't lay for us in some of those deep twisting ca?ons where twenty men could overthrow a thousand."
The doctor admitted the force of his superior's argument, and said no word. All the same, however, his eyes kept wandering off from time to time towards the foot-hills at the southeast, now turning to violet in shade, "like half-mourning," said the doctor to Galahad, as, only half content, he dropped back to ride a few moments at the latter's side. "And it won't be long," he added to himself, "before they'll be shrouded in deep black. Pray God there's no ill omen in that!"
And now the road began to rise, very slowly, very gently as yet, but perceptibly, towards the still distant range. The long, spindle-shanked shadows of the horses had disappeared. The sun, yellow-red, was just sinking below the horizon through the dust-clouds in their wake, when one of the foremost troopers, close at Barclay's heels, muttered, "It's somethin' movin', anyhow, and what is it if it ain't a horse?" And Barclay and the doctor, turning in saddle, caught his eye. "I seen it a minute ago away out yonder towards them buttes," continued the soldier, pointing out across the prairie to their right front, "and I couldn't be sure then. It's comin' this way, whatever it is, comin' fast. Look, sir! There it is again!"
And with all their eyes Barclay and the doctor gazed, but could see no moving object. Only the rolling prairie, growing darker, dimmer every minute, only the sun-tipped ridge and buttes and shining pinnacles far away towards the San Saba. And still the relentless trot went on, and the major's head was never turned; yet his orderly, too, was ducking and peering from time to time off to the southeast, just where the trooper had pointed. Barclay, cautioning his sergeant to keep a steady trot, spurred forward, the doctor following.
"What do you see?" they asked, and the orderly too stretched forth a grimy gauntlet.
"Thought I saw a horse, sir. Some of 'K' Troop's, maybe, for there was no rider."
With this corroborative evidence, Barclay hailed the major. "Major, may I send a man or two out in that direction?" he asked. "Two of our people report seeing a horse galloping this way."
But, even as he spoke, over a distant divide, popping up against the sky just long enough to catch the eyes of half a dozen men at once, a black dot darted into view and then came bounding down the long, gradual incline, looming larger and larger as it ran; presently the body and legs could be made out, and then the sweeping mane and tail, – a riderless horse, a cavalry horse probably, coming at eager speed to join his comrade creatures in the long column. Cavalry horse undoubtedly, as, bounding nearer and nearer, the flapping rein, the dangling, black-hooded stirrups, the coarse gray blanket, and the well-known saddle could be distinguished, a gruesome sight to trooper eyes, harbinger of disaster if not of death in almost every case, – a cavalry charger riderless! And at last, as with piteous neigh the laboring steed came galloping straightway on, a cry went up from two or three soldier throats at the instant, a wail of soldier sorrow: "God save us, fellows! it's Blarney – it's the colonel's own!" Officers and men, they swarmed about the weary, panting, trembling creature, as hope died in every heart at what they saw: the saddle and blanket, the old overcoat, rolled at the pommel, that so often had stood between Ned Lawrence and the Texas gales, were all dripping with blood, yet Blarney had never a scratch.
The moon was throwing black shadows into the deep cleft in the San Saba, where the Crockett trail twisted along beside the swift-running rivulet, that rose in the heart of the hills and bubbled merrily away until lost in the westward valley and the brook that found its source at the springs far out under the foot-hills towards the Bravo. Slowly, wearily, warily, half a dozen troopers on jaded horses were feeling their way up the pass, a veteran corporal full thirty yards ahead of his fellows leading on. With the advance rode an officer whose shoulder-straps, gleaming on the shell jacket sometimes worn in the mounted service immediately after the war, seemed almost too bright and new to accord with the dust-grimed chevrons and trimmings of his comrades. New and brilliant, too, were the hilt and scabbard of the sabre that dangled by his side. New and "green" the men of his command had believed him to be, in cavalry matters at least, when first he joined them some weeks before, but the most casehardened old customer among their seasoned troopers had abandoned that view before ever they started on this scout after a gang of notorious outlaws, and now a new and very different theory was grinding its way into their tired brains, – that the "Doughboy Dragoon," as they had earlier dubbed him, "Captain Gallyhad," as one of them heard he was called, could give them points in covering the front of a column that were worth knowing, even if they had been learned in a doughboy regiment and among the Sioux. It would be a smart "Friday" that managed to ambuscade old Brooks's column that cloudless, moonlit, breezeless night, for, with that veteran's full consent, as well as to his infinite relief, Captain Barclay had himself gone forward with the advance the moment they began to wind in among the hills, and there at the post of danger he had held his way, alert and vigilant, despite long hours in saddle that had told heavily on more than half the command, calm and brave despite the fact that their welcome to the westward portal of the Pass was the sight of poor Blarney running to them for shelter, sympathy, and companionship, covered with the blood of his beloved rider.
And what was that rider's fate? It was now almost eleven o'clock, and no man knew. Only briefly had they halted and flocked about the panting steed, for stern was the need that held them to their course. With awe-stricken faces and compressed lips they looked into each other's eyes, as though to ask, What next? Who next? The major, tender-hearted as a woman, well-nigh choked with distress and anxiety as he turned to Barclay for counsel; and long before the rearmost of the column had reached the spot the decision had been made. The leaders were again pushing on. Young Brayton, with half a dozen troopers, had been despatched southwestward along the falda, ordered to search high and low for Lawrence, dead or alive. There was only one theory, – that, pushing eagerly ahead to the relief of Cramer's crippled troop, the gallant ex-captain had taken no thought of personal danger; the old instinct of leadership had possessed him, and, foremost of his little squad, he had been picked off by lurking bushwackers of the outlaws, crouching like Indians in the shelter of the rocks, and had fallen another victim of their desperado efforts. "One more fight in Texas," indeed. Poor, brave, warm-hearted Ned! That one more fight, reported in Washington by an indulgent department commander, might bring about immediate measures for his restoration to the army; but was it worth the risk? Was it worth what might befall those motherless children, praying for father hour after hour that livelong day? Should it have been permitted, had there been any one to prevent, in view of the fact that no longer was there soldier duty to lead him on? The government had released him from all that, had bidden him go. It had no further use for the services of such as he; it had turned him loose upon the world, with heavy stoppages against the stipulated bonus. "Oh, what right had he," cried Brooks, "to forget those babies back at Worth, well knowing as he must that no man's life is worth a hair in front of the rifles of that outlaw gang, much less an enemy such as Lawrence has shown himself to be?" The major's heart and head were heavy as once more the order forward was given. With every inclination to turn from his course with his entire command, to hasten in search of Lawrence's little party and Cramer's halted men, he well knew that should the paymaster and his precious thousands fall into the outlaw hands of the Friday gang he would be held responsible, even though San Saba's cantonment sent with him a force of forty men.
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