The junior officers of Fort Crockett had organized a mess at the post-trader's. "And a mess it certainly is," said Lieutenant Ranson. The dining-table stood between hogsheads of molasses and a blazing log-fire, the counter of the store was their buffet, a pool-table with a cloth, blotted like a map of the Great Lakes, their sideboard, and Indian Pete acted as butler. But none of these things counted against the great fact that each evening Mary Cahill, the daughter of the post-trader, presided over the evening meal, and turned it into a banquet. From her high chair behind the counter, with the cash- register on her one side and the weighing-scales on the other, she gave her little Senate laws, and smiled upon each and all with the kind impartiality of a comrade.
At least, at one time she had been impartial. But of late she smiled upon all save Lieutenant Ranson. When he talked, she now looked at the blazing log-fire, and her cheeks glowed and her eyes seemed to reflect the lifting flame.
For five years, ever since her father brought her from the convent at St. Louis, Mary Cahill had watched officers come and officers go. Her knowledge concerning them, and their public and private affairs, was vast and miscellaneous. She was acquainted with the traditions of every regiment, with its war record, with its peace-time politics, its nicknames, its scandals, even with the earnings of each company- canteen. At Fort Crockett, which lay under her immediate observation, she knew more of what was going forward than did the regimental adjutant, more even than did the colonel's wife. If Trumpeter Tyler flatted on church call, if Mrs. Stickney applied to the quartermaster for three feet of stovepipe, if Lieutenant Curtis were granted two days' leave for quail-shooting, Mary Cahill knew it; and if Mrs. "Captain" Stairs obtained the post-ambulance for a drive to Kiowa City, when Mrs. "Captain" Ross wanted it for a picnic, she knew what words passed between those ladies, and which of the two wept. She knew all of these things, for each evening they were retailed to her by her "boarders." Her boarders were very loyal to Mary Cahill. Her position was a difficult one, and had it not been that the boy- officers were so understanding, it would have been much more difficult. For the life of a regimental post is as circumscribed as the life on a ship-of-war, and it would no more be possible for the ship's barber to rub shoulders with the admiral's epaulets than that a post-trader's child should visit the ladies on the "line," or that the wives of the enlisted men should dine with the young girl from whom they "took in" washing.
So, between the upper and the nether grindstones, Mary Cahill was left without the society of her own sex, and was of necessity forced to content herself with the society of the officers. And the officers played fair. Loyalty to Mary Cahill was a tradition at Fort Crockett, which it was the duty of each succeeding regiment to sustain. Moreover, her father, a dark, sinister man, alive only to money- making, was known to handle a revolver with the alertness of a town- marshal.
Since the day she left the convent Mary Cahill had held but two affections: one for this grim, taciturn parent, who brooded over her as jealously as a lover, and the other for the entire United States Army. The Army returned her affection without the jealousy of the father, and with much more than his effusiveness. But when Lieutenant Ranson arrived from the Philippines, the affections of Mary Cahill became less generously distributed, and her heart fluttered hourly between trouble and joy.
There were two rooms on the first floor of the post-trader's--this big one, which only officers and their women-folk might enter, and the other, the exchange of the enlisted men. The two were separated by a partition of logs and hung with shelves on which were displayed calicoes, tinned meats, and patent medicines. A door, cut in one end of the partition, with buffalo-robes for portieres, permitted Cahill to pass from behind the counter of one store to behind the counter of the other. On one side Mary Cahill served the Colonel's wife with many yards of silk ribbons to be converted into german favors, on the other her father weighed out bears' claws (manufactured in Hartford, Conn., from turkey-bones) to make a necklace for Red Wing, the squaw of the Arrephao chieftain. He waited upon everyone with gravity, and in obstinate silence. No one had ever seen Cahill smile. He himself occasionally joked with others in a grim and embarrassed manner. But no one had ever joked with him. It was reported that he came from New York, where, it was whispered, he had once kept bar on the Bowery for McTurk.
Sergeant Clancey, of G Troop, was the authority for this. But when, presuming on that supposition, he claimed acquaintanceship with Cahill, the post-trader spread out his hands on the counter and stared at the sergeant with cold and disconcerting eyes. "I never kept bar nowhere," he said. "I never been on the Bowery, never been in New York, never been east of Denver in my life. What was it you ordered?"
"Well, mebbe I'm wrong," growled the sergeant.
But a month later, when a coyote howled down near the Indian village, the sergeant said insinuatingly, "Sounds just like the cry of the Whyos, don't it?" And Cahill, who was listening to the wolf, unthinkingly nodded his head.
The sergeant snorted in triumph. "Yah, I told you so!" he cried, "a man that's never been on the Bowery, and knows the call of the Whyo gang! The drinks are on you, Cahill."
The post-trader did not raise his eyes, but drew a damp cloth up and down the counter, slowly and heavily, as a man sharpens a knife on a whetstone.
That night, as the sergeant went up the path to the post, a bullet passed through his hat. Clancey was a forceful man, and forceful men, unknown to themselves, make enemies, so he was uncertain as to whether this came from a trooper he had borne upon too harshly, or whether, In the darkness, he had been picked off for someone else. The next night, as he passed in the full light of the post-trader's windows, a shot came from among the dark shadows of the corral, and when he immediately sought safety in numbers among the Indians, cowboys, and troopers in the exchange, he was in time to see Cahill enter it from the other store, wrapping up a bottle of pain-killer for Mrs. Stickney's cook. But Clancey was not deceived. He observed with satisfaction that the soles and the heels of Cahill's boots were wet with the black mud of the corral.
The next morning, when the exchange was empty, the post-trader turned from arranging cans of condensed milk upon an upper shelf to face the sergeant's revolver. He threw up his hands to the level of his ears as though expressing sharp unbelief, and waited in silence. The sergeant advanced until the gun rested on the counter, Its muzzle pointing at the pit of Cahill's stomach. "You or me has got to leave this post," said the sergeant, "and I can't desert, so I guess it's up to you."
"What did you talk for?" asked Cahill. His attitude was still that of shocked disbelief, but his tone expressed a full acceptance of the situation and a desire to temporize.
"At first I thought it might be that new 'cruity' in F Troop," explained the sergeant "You came near making me kill the wrong man. What harm did I do you by saying you kept bar for McTurk? What's there in that to get hot about?"
"You said I run with the Whyos."
"What the h--l do I care what you've done!" roared the sergeant. "I don't kmow nothing about you, but I don't mean you should shoot me in the back. I'm going to tell this to my bunky, an' if I get shot up, the Troop'll know who done it, and you'll hang for it. Now, what are you going to do?"
Cahill did not tell what he would do; for, from the other store, the low voice of Mary Cahill called, "Father! Oh, father!"
The two men dodged, and eyed each other guiltily. The sergeant gazed at the buffalo-robe portieres with wide-opened eyes. Cahill's hands dropped from the region of his ears, and fell flat upon the counter.
When Miss Mary Cahill pushed aside the portieres Sergeant Clancey, of G Troop, was showing her father the mechanism of the new regulation- revolver. He apparently was having some difficulty with the cylinder, for his face was red. Her father was eying the gun with the critical approval of an expert.
"Father," said Miss Cahill petulantly, "why didn't you answer? Where is the blue stationery--the sort Major Ogden always buys? He's waiting."
The eyes of the post-trader did not wander from the gun before him. "Next to the blank books, Mame," he said. "On the second shelf."
Miss Cahill flashed a dazzling smile at the big sergeant, and whispered, so that the officer in the room behind her might not overhear, "Is he trying to sell you Government property, dad? Don't you touch it. Sergeant, I'm surprised at you tempting my poor father." She pulled the two buffalo-robes close around her neck so that her face only showed between them. It was a sweet, lovely face, with frank, boyish eyes.
"When the major's gone, sergeant," she whispered, "bring your gun around my side of the store and I'll buy it from you."
The sergeant nodded in violent assent, laughing noiselessly and slapping his knee in a perfect ecstasy of delight.
The curtains dropped and the face disappeared.
The sergeant fingered the gun and Cahill folded his arms defiantly.
"Well?" he said.
"Well?" asked the sergeant.
"I should think you could see how it is," said Cahill, "without my having to tell you."
"You mean you don't want she should know?"
"My God, no! Not even that I kept a bar."
"Well, I don't know nothing. I don't mean to tell nothing, anyway, so if you'll promise to be good I'll call this off."
For the first time in the history of Fort Crockett, Cahill was seen to smile. "May I reach under the counter NOW?" he asked.
The sergeant grinned appreciatively, and shifted his gun. "Yes, but I'll keep this out until I'm sure it's a bottle," he said, and laughed boisterously.
For an instant, under the cover of the counter, Cahill's hand touched longingly upon the gun that lay there, and then passed on to the bottle beside it. He drew it forth, and there was the clink of glasses.
In the other room Mary Cahill winked at the major, but that officer pretended to be both deaf to the clink of the glasses and blind to the wink. And so the incident was closed. Had it not been for the folly of Lieutenant Ranson it would have remained closed.
A week before this happened a fire had started in the Willow Bottoms among the tepees of some Kiowas, and the prairie, as far as one could see, was bruised and black. From the post it looked as though the sky had been raining ink. At the time all of the regiment but G and H Troops was out on a practice-march, experimenting with a new-fangled tabloid-ration. As soon as it turned the buttes it saw from where the light in the heavens came and the practice-march became a race.
At the post the men had doubled out under Lieutenant Ranson with wet horse-blankets, and while he led G Troop to fight the flames, H Troop, under old Major Stickney, burned a space around the post, across which the men of G Troop retreated, stumbling, with their ears and shoulders wrapped in the smoking blankets. The sparks beat upon them and the flames followed so fast that, as they ran, the blazing grass burned their lacings, and they kicked their gaiters ahead of them.
When the regiment arrived it found everybody at Fort Crockett talking enthusiastically of Ranson's conduct and resentfully of the fact that he had regarded the fire as one which had been started for his especial amusement.
"I assure you," said Mrs. Bolland to the colonel, "if it hadn't been for young Ranson we would have been burned in our beds; but he was most aggravating. He treated it as though it were Fourth of July fireworks. It is the only entertainment we have been able to offer him since he joined in which he has shown the slightest interest." Nevertheless, it was generally admitted that Ranson had saved the post. He had been ubiquitous. He had been seen galloping into the advancing flames like a stampeded colt, he had reappeared like a wraith in columns of black, whirling smoke, at the same moment his voice issued orders from twenty places. One instant he was visible beating back the fire with a wet blanket, waving it above him jubilantly, like a substitute at the Army-Navy game when his side scores, and the next staggering from out of the furnace dragging an asphyxiated trooper by the collar, and shrieking, "Hospital-steward, hospital-steward! here's a man on fire. Put him out, and send him back to me, quick!"
Those who met him in the whirlwind of smoke and billowing flame related that he chuckled continuously. "Isn't this fun?" he yelled at them. "Say, isn't this the best ever? I wouldn't have missed this for a trip to New York!"
When the colonel, having visited the hospital and spoken cheering words to those who were sans hair, sans eyebrows and with bandaged hands, complimented Lieutenant Ranson on the parade-ground before the assembled regiment, Ranson ran to his hut muttering strange and fearful oaths.
That night at mess he appealed to Mary Cahill for sympathy. "Goodness, mighty me!" he cried, "did you hear him? Wasn't it awful? If I'd thought he was going to hand me that I'd have deserted. What's the use of spoiling the only fun we've had that way? Why, if I'd known you could get that much excitement out of this rank prairie I'd have put a match to it myself three months ago. It's the only fun I've had, and he goes and preaches a funeral oration at me."
Ranson came into the army at the time of the Spanish war because it promised a new form of excitement, and because everybody else he knew had gone into it too. As the son of his father he was made an adjutant-general of volunteers with the rank of captain, and unloaded on the staff of a Southern brigadier, who was slated never to leave Charleston. But Ranson suspected this, and, after telegraphing his father for three days, was attached to the Philippines contingent and sailed from San Francisco in time to carry messages through the surf when the volunteers moved upon Manila. More cabling at the cost of many Mexican dollars caused him to be removed from the staff, and given a second lieutenancy in a volunteer regiment, and for two years he pursued the little brown men over the paddy sluices, burned villages, looted churches, and collected bolos and altar-cloths with that irresponsibility and contempt for regulations which is found chiefly in the appointment from civil life. Incidentally, he enjoyed himself so much that he believed in the army he had found the one place where excitement is always in the air, and as excitement was the breath of his nostrils he applied for a commission in the regular army. On his record he was appointed a second lieutenant in the Twentieth Cavalry, and on the return of that regiment to the States-- was buried alive at Fort Crockett.
After six months of this exile, one night at the mess-table Ranson broke forth in open rebellion. "I tell you I can't stand it a day longer," he cried. "I'm going to resign!"
From behind the counter Mary Cahill heard him in horror. Second Lieutenants Crosby and Curtis shuddered. They were sons of officers of the regular army. Only six months before they themselves had been forwarded from West Point, done up in neat new uniforms. The traditions of the Academy of loyalty and discipline had been kneaded into their vertebrae. In Ranson they saw only the horrible result of giving commissions to civilians.
"Maybe the post will be gayer now that spring has come," said Curtis hopefully, but with a doubtful look at the open fire.
"I wouldn't do anything rash," urged Crosby.
Miss Cahill shook her head. "Why, I like it at the post," she said, "and I've been here five years--ever since I left the convent--and I- --"
Ranson interrupted, bowing gallantly. "Yes, I know, Miss Cahill," he said, "but I didn't come here from a convent. I came here from the blood-stained fields of war. Now, out in the Philippines there's always something doing. They give you half a troop, and so long as you bring back enough Mausers and don't get your men cut up, you can fight all over the shop and no questions asked. But all I do here is take care of sick horses. Any vet. in the States has seen as much fighting as I have in the last half-year. I might as well have had charge of horse-car stables."
"There is some truth in that," said Curtis cautiously. "If you do resign, certainly no one can accuse you of resigning in the face of the enemy."
"Enemy, ye gods!" roared Ranson. "Why, if I were to see a Moro entering that door with a bolo in each fist I'd fall on his neck and kiss him. I'm not trained to this garrison business. You fellows are. They took all the sporting blood out of you at West Point; one bad mark for smoking a cigarette, two bad marks for failing to salute the instructor in botany, and all the excitement you ever knew were charades and a cadet-hop a t Cullum Hall. But, you see, before I went to the Philippines with Merritt, I'd been there twice on a fellow's yacht, and we'd tucked the Spanish governor in his bed with his spurs on. Now, I have to sit around and hear old Bolland tell how he put down a car-strike in St. Louis, and Stickney's long-winded yarns of Table Mountain and the Bloody Angle. He doesn't know the Civil War's over. I tell you, if I can't get excitement on tap I've got to make it, and if I make it out here they'll court-martial me. So there's nothing for it but to resign."
"You'd better wait till the end of the week," said Crosby, grinning. "It's going to be full of gayety. Thursday, paymaster's coming out with our cash, and to-night that Miss Post from New York arrives in the up stage. She's to visit the colonel, so everybody will have to give her a good time."
"Yes, I certainly must wait for that," growled Ranson; "there probably will be progressive euchre parties all along the line, and we'll sit up as late as ten o'clock and stick little gilt stars on ourselves."
Crosby laughed tolerantly.
"I see your point of view," he said. "I remember when my father took me to Monte Carlo I saw you at the tables with enough money in front of you to start a bank. I remember my father asked the croupiers why they allowed a child of your age to gamble. I was just a kid then, and so were you, too. I remember I thought you were the devil of a fellow."
Ranson looked sheepishly at Miss Cahill and laughed. "Well, so I was- -then," he said. "Anybody would be a devil of a fellow who'd been brought up as I was, with a doting parent who owns a trust and doesn't know the proper value of money. And yet you expect me to be happy with a fifty-cent limit game, and twenty miles of burned prairie. I tell you I've never been broken to it. I don't know what not having your own way means. And discipline! Why, every time I have to report one of my men to the colonel I send for him afterward and give him a drink and apologize to him. I tell you the army doesn't mean anything to me unless there's something doing, and as there is no fighting out here I'm for the back room of the Holland House and a rubber-tired automobile. Little old New York is good enough for me!"
As he spoke these fateful words of mutiny Lieutenant Ranson raised his black eyes and snatched a swift side-glance at the face of Mary Cahill. It was almost as though it were from her he sought his answer. He could not himself have told what it was he would have her say. But ever since the idea of leaving the army had come to him, Mary Cahill and the army had become interchangeable and had grown to mean one and the same thing. He fought against this condition of mind fiercely. He had determined that without active service the army was intolerable; but that without Mary Cahill civil life would also prove intolerable, he assured himself did not at all follow. He had laughed at the idea. He had even argued it out sensibly. Was it reasonable to suppose, he asked himself, that after circling the great globe three times he should find the one girl on it who alone could make him happy, sitting behind a post-trader's counter on the open prairie? His interest in Miss Cahill was the result of propinquity, that was all. It was due to the fact that there was no one else at hand, because he was sorry for her loneliness, because her absurd social ostracism had touched his sympathy. How long after he reached New York would he remember the little comrade with the brave, boyish eyes set in the delicate, feminine head, with its great waves of gorgeous hair? It would not be long, he guessed. He might remember the way she rode her pony, how she swung from her Mexican saddle and caught up a gauntlet from the ground. Yes, he certainly would remember that, and he would remember the day he had galloped after her and ridden with her through the Indian village, and again that day when they rode to the water-fall and the Lover's Leap. And he would remember her face at night as it bent over the books he borrowed for her, which she read while they were at mess, sitting in her high chair with her chin resting in her palms, staring down at the book before her. And the trick she had, whenever he spoke, of raising her head and looking into the fire, her eyes lighting and her lips smiling. They would be pleasant memories, he was sure. But once back again in the whirl and rush of the great world outside of Fort Crockett, even as memories they would pass away.
Mary Cahill made no outward answer to the rebellious utterance of Lieutenant Ranson. She only bent her eyes on her book and tried to think what the post would hold for her when he had carried out his threat and betaken himself into the world and out of her life forever. Night after night she had sat enthroned behind her barrier and listened to his talk, wondering deeply. He had talked of a world she knew only in novels, in history, and in books of travel. His view of it was not an educational one: he was no philosopher, nor trained observer. He remembered London--to her the capital of the world-- chiefly by its restaurants, Cairo on account of its execrable golf- links. He lived only to enjoy himself. His view was that of a boy, hearty and healthy and seeking only excitement and mischief. She had heard his tales of his brief career at Harvard, of the reunions at Henry's American bar, of the Futurity, the Suburban, the Grand Prix, of a yachting cruise which apparently had encountered every form of adventure, from the rescuing of a stranded opera-company to the ramming of a slaver's dhow. The regret with which he spoke of these free days, which was the regret of an exile marooned upon a desert island, excited all her sympathy for an ill she had never known. His discourteous scorn of the social pleasures of the post, from which she herself was excluded, rilled her with speculation. If he could forego these functions, how full and gay she argued his former life must have been. His attitude helped her to bear the deprivations more easily. And she, as a loyal child of the army, liked him also because he was no "cracker-box" captain, but a fighter, who had fought with no morbid ideas as to the rights or wrongs of the cause, but for the fun of fighting.
And one night, after he had been telling the mess of a Filipino officer who alone had held back his men and himself, and who at last died in his arms cursing him, she went to sleep declaring to herself that Lieutenant Ranson was becoming too like the man she had pictured for her husband than was good for her peace of mind. He had told the story as his tribute to a brave man fighting for his independence and with such regret that such a one should have died so miserably, that, to the embarrassment of the mess, the tears rolled down his cheeks. But he wiped them away with his napkin as unconcernedly as though they were caused by the pepper-box, and said simply, "He had sporting blood, he had. I've never felt so bad about anything as I did about that chap. Whenever I think of him standing up there with his back to the cathedral all shot to pieces, but giving us what for until he died, it makes me cry. So," he added, blowing his nose vigorously, "I won't think of it any more."
Tears are properly a woman's weapon, and when a man makes use of them, even in spite of himself, he is taking an advantage over the other sex which is unfair and outrageous. Lieutenant Ranson never knew the mischief the sympathy he had shown for his enemy caused in the heart of Mary Cahill, nor that from that moment she loved him deeply.
The West Point graduates before they answered Ranson's ultimatum smoked their cigarettes for some time in silence.
"Oh, there's been fighting even at Fort Crockett," said Crosby. "In the last two years the men have been ordered out seven times, haven't they, Miss Cahill? When the Indians got out of hand, and twice after cowboys, and twice after the Red Rider."
"The Red Rider!" protested Ranson; "I don't see anything exciting in rounding up one miserable horse thief."
"Only they don't round him up," returned Curtis crossly. "That's why it's exciting. He's the best in his business. He's held up the stage six times now in a year. Whoever the fellow is, if he's one man or a gang of men, he's the nerviest road-agent since the days of Abe Case."
Ranson in his then present mood was inclined toward pessimism. "It doesn't take any nerve to hold up a coach," he contradicted.
Curtis and Crosby snorted in chorus. "That's what you say," mocked Curtis.
"Well, it doesn't," repeated Ranson. "It's all a game of bluff. The etiquette is that the driver mustn't shoot the road-agent, and that the road-agent mustn't hurt the driver, and the passengers are too scared to move. The moment they see a man rise out of the night they throw up their hands. Why, even when a passenger does try to pull his gun the others won't let him. Each thinks sure that if there's any firing he will be the one to get hurt. And, besides, they don't know how many more men the road agent may have behind him. I don't---"
A movement on the part of Miss Cahill caused him to pause abruptly. Miss Cahill had descended from her throne and was advancing to meet the post-trader, who came toward her from the exchange.
"Lightfoot's squaw," he said. "Her baby's worse. She's sent for you."
Miss Cahill gave a gasp of sympathy, snatched up her hat from the counter, and the buffalo robes closed behind her.
Ranson stooped and reached for his sombrero. With the flight of Miss Cahill his interest in the courage of the Red Rider had departed also.
But Crosby appealed to the new-comer, "Cahill, YOU know," he said. "We've been talking of the man they call the Red Rider, the chap that wears a red bandanna over his face. Ranson says he hasn't any nerve. That's not so, is it?"
"I said it didn't take any nerve to hold up a stage," said Ranson; "and it doesn't."
The post-trader halted on his way back to the exchange and rubbed one hand meditatively over the other arm. With him speech was golden and difficult. After a pause he said: "Oh, he takes his chances."
"Of course he does," cried Crosby, encouragingly. "He takes the chance of being shot by the passengers, and of being caught by the posse and lynched, but this man's got away with it now six times in the last year. And I say that takes nerve."
"Why, for fifty dollars---" laughed Ranson.
He checked himself, and glanced over his shoulder at the retreating figure of Cahill. The buffalo robes fell again, and the spurs of the post-trader could be heard jangling over the earth-floor of the exchange.
"For fifty dollars," repeated Ranson, in brisk, businesslike tones, "I'll rob the up stage to-night myself!"
Previous knowledge of his moods, the sudden look of mischief in his eyes and a certain vibration in his voice caused the two lieutenants to jump simultaneously to their feet. "Ranson!" they shouted.
Ranson laughed mockingly. "Oh, I'm bored to death," he cried. "What will you bet I don't?"
He had risen with them, but, without waiting for their answer, ran to where his horse stood at the open door. He sank on his knees and began tugging violently at the stirrup-straps. The two officers, their eyes filled with concern, pursued him across the room. With Cahill twenty feet away, they dared not raise their voices, but in pantomime they beckoned him vigorously to return. Ranson came at once, flushed and smiling, holding a hooded army-stirrup in each hand. "Never do to have them see these!" he said. He threw the stirrups from him, behind the row of hogsheads. "I'll ride in the stirrup-straps!" He still spoke in the same low, brisk tone.
Crosby seized him savagely by the arm. "No, you won't!" he hissed. "Look here, Ranson. Listen to me; for Heaven's sake don't be an ass! They'll shoot you, you'll be killed---"
--"And court-martialed," panted Curtis.
"You'll go to Leavenworth for the rest of your life!"
Ranson threw off the detaining hand, and ran behind the counter. From a lower shelf he snatched a red bandanna kerchief. From another he dragged a rubber poncho, and buttoned it high about his throat. He picked up the steel shears which lay upon the counter, and snipping two holes in the red kerchief, stuck it under the brim of his sombrero. It fell before his face like a curtain. From his neck to his knees the poncho concealed his figure. All that was visible of him was his eyes, laughing through the holes in the red mask.
"Behold the Red Rider!" he groaned. "Hold up your hands!"
He pulled the kerchief from his face and threw the poncho over his arm. "Do you see these shears?" he whispered. "I'm going to hold up the stage with 'em. No one ever fires at a road agent. They just shout, 'Don't shoot, colonel, and I'll come down.' I'm going to bring 'em down with these shears."
Crosby caught Curtis by the arm, laughing eagerly. "Come to the stables, quick," he cried. "We'll get twenty troopers after him before he can go a half mile." He turned on Ranson with a triumphant chuckle. "You'll not be dismissed this regiment, if I can help it," he cried.
Ranson gave an ugly laugh, like the snarl of a puppy over his bone. "If you try to follow me, or interfere with me, Lieutenant Crosby," he said, "I'll shoot you and your troopers!"
"With a pair of shears?" jeered Crosby.
"No, with the gun I've got in my pocket. Now you listen to me. I'm not going to use that gun on any stage filled with women, driven by a man seventy years old, but--and I mean it--if you try to stop me, I'll use it on you. I'm going to show you how anyone can bluff a stage full with a pair of tin shears and a red mask for a kicker. And I'll shoot the man that tries to stop me."
Ranson sprang to his horse's side, and stuck his toe into the empty stirrup-strap; there was a scattering of pebbles, a scurry of hoofs, and the horse and rider became a gray blot in the moonlight.
The two lieutenants stood irresolute. Under his breath Crosby was swearing fiercely. Curtis stood staring out of the open door.
"Will he do it?" he asked.
"Of course he'll do it."
Curtis crossed the room and dropped into a chair. "And what--what had we better do?" he asked. For some time the other made no answer. His brows were knit, and he tramped the room, scowling at the floor. Then with an exclamation of alarm he stepped lightly to the door of the exchange and threw back the curtain. In the other room, Cahill stood at its furthest corner, scooping sugar from a hogshead.
Crosby's scowl relaxed, and, reseating himself at the table, he rolled a cigarette. "Now, if he pulls it off," he whispered, "and gets back to quarters, then--it's a case of all's well. But, if he's shot, or caught, and it all comes out, then it's up to us to prove he meant it as a practical joke."
"It isn't our duty to report it now, is it?" asked Curtis, nervously.
"Certainly not! If he chooses to make an ass of himself, that's none of our business. Unless he's found out, we have heard nothing and seen nothing. If he's caught, then we've got to stick by him, and testify that he did it on a bet. He'll probably win out all right. There is nobody expected on the stage but that Miss Post and her aunt. And the driver's an old hand. He knows better than to fight."
"There may be some cowboys coming up."
"That's Ranson's lookout. As Cahill says, the Red Rider takes his chances."
"I wish there was something we could do now," Curtis protested, petulantly. "I suppose we've just got to sit still and wait for him?"
"That's all," answered Crosby, and then leaped to his feet. "What's that?" he asked. Out on the parade ground, a bugle-call broke suddenly on the soft spring air. It rang like an alarm. The noise of a man running swiftly sounded on the path, and before the officers reached the doorway Sergeant Clancey entered it, and halted at attention.
"The colonel's orders," panted the sergeant, "and the lieutenant's are to take twenty men from G and H Troops, and ride to Kiowa to escort the paymaster."
"The paymaster!" Crosby cried. "He's not coming till Thursday."
"He's just telegraphed from Kiowa City, lieutenant. He's ahead of his schedule. He wants an escort for the money. He left Kiowa a few minutes ago in the up stage."
The two lieutenants sprang forward, and shouted in chorus: "The stage? He is in the stage!"
Sergeant Clancey stared dubiously from one officer to the other. He misunderstood their alarm, and with the privilege of long service attempted to allay it. "The lieutenant knows nothing can happen to the stage till it reaches the buttes," he said. "There has never been a hold-up in the open, and the escort can reach the buttes long before the stage gets here." He coughed consciously. "Colonel's orders are to gallop, lieutenant."
As the two officers rode knee to knee through the night, the pay escort pounding the trail behind them, Crosby leaned from his saddle. "He has only ten minutes' start of us," he whispered. "We are certain to overtake him. We can't help but do it. We must do it. We MUST! If we don't, and he tries to stop Colonel Patten and the pay-roll, he'll die. Two women and a deaf driver, that--that's a joke. But an Indian fighter like old Patten, and Uncle Sam's money, that means a finish fight-and his death and disgrace." He turned savagely in his saddle. "Close up there!" he commanded. "Stop that talking. You keep your breath till I want it--and ride hard."
After the officers had galloped away from the messroom, and Sergeant Clancey had hurried after them to the stables, the post-trader entered it from the exchange and barred the door, which they in their haste had left open. As he did this, the close observer, had one been present, might have noted that though his movements were now alert and eager, they no longer were betrayed by any sound, and that his spurs had ceased to jangle. Yet that he purposed to ride abroad was evident from the fact that from a far corner he dragged out a heavy saddle. He flung this upon the counter, and swiftly stripped it of its stirrups. These, with more than necessary care, he hid away upon the highest shelf of the shop, while from the lower shelves he snatched a rubber poncho and a red kerchief. For a moment, as he unbarred the door, the post-trader paused and cast a quick glance before and behind him, and then the door closed and there was silence. A minute later it was broken by the hoofs of a horse galloping swiftly along the trail to Kiowa City.
That winter Miss Post had been going out a great deal more than was good for her, and when the spring came she broke down. The family doctor recommended Aiken, but an aunt of Miss Post's, Mrs. Truesdall, had been at Farmington with Mrs. "Colonel" Bolland, and urged visiting her instead. The doctor agreed that the climatic conditions existing at Fort Crockett were quite as health-giving as those at Aiken, and of the two the invalid decided that the regimental post would be more of a novelty.
So she and her aunt and the maid changed cars twice after leaving St. Louis and then staged it to Kiowa City, where, while waiting for "Pop" Henderson's coach to Fort Crockett, they dined with him on bacon, fried bread, and alkali water tinged with coffee.
It was at Kiowa City, a city of four hundred houses on blue-print paper and six on earth, that Miss Post first felt certain that she was going to enjoy her visit. It was there she first saw, at large and on his native heath, a blanket Indian. He was a tall, beautiful youth, with yellow ochre on his thin, brown arms and blue ochre on his cheekbones, who sat on "Pop's" steps, gazing impassively at the stars. Miss Post came out with her maid and fell over him. The maid screamed. Miss Post said: "I beg your pardon"; and the brave expressed his contempt by gutteral mutterings and by moving haughtily away. Miss Post was then glad that she had not gone to Aiken. For the twelve-mile drive through the moonlit buttes to Fort Crockett there was, besides the women, one other passenger. He was a travelling salesman of the Hancock Uniform Company, and was visiting Fort Crockett to measure the officers for their summer tunics. At dinner he passed Miss Post the condensed milk-can, and in other ways made himself agreeable. He informed her aunt that he was in the Military Equipment Department of the Army, but, much to that young woman's distress, addressed most of his remarks to the maid, who, to his taste, was the most attractive of the three.
"I take it," he said genially to Miss Post, "that you and the young lady are sisters."
"No," said Miss Post, "we are not related."
It was eight o'clock, and the moon was full in the heavens when "Pop" Henderson hoisted them into the stage and burdened his driver, Hunk Smith, with words of advice which were intended solely for the ears of the passengers.
"You want to be careful of that near wheeler, Hunk," he said, "or he'll upset you into a gully. An' in crossing the second ford, bear to the right; the water's running high, and it may carry youse all down stream. I don't want that these ladies should be drowned in any stage of mine. An' if the Red Rider jumps you don't put up no bluff, but sit still. The paymaster's due in a night or two, an' I've no doubt at all but that the Rider's laying for him. But if you tell him that there's no one inside but womenfolk and a tailor, mebbe he won't hurt youse. Now, ladies," he added, putting his head under the leather flap, as though unconscious that all he had said had already reached them, "without wishing to make you uneasy, I would advise your having your cash and jewelry ready in your hands. With road- agents it's mostly wisest to do what they say, an' to do it quick. Ef you give 'em all you've got, they sometimes go away without spilling blood, though, such being their habits, naturally disappointed." He turned his face toward the shrinking figure of the military tailor. "You, being an army man," he said, "will of course want to protect the ladies, but you mustn't do it. You must keep cool. Ef you pull your gun, like as not you'll all get killed. But I'm hoping for the best. Good-night all, an' a pleasant journey."
The stage moved off with many creaks and many cracks of the whip, which in part smothered Hunk Smith's laughter. But after the first mile, he, being a man with feelings and a family, pulled the mules to a halt.
The voice of the drummer could instantly be heard calling loudly from the darkness of the stage: "Don't open those flaps. If they see us, they'll fire!"
"I wanted you folks to know," said Hunk Smith, leaning from the box- seat, "that that talk of Pop's was all foolishness. You're as safe on this trail as in a Pullman palace-car. That was just his way. Pop will have his joke. You just go to sleep now, if you can, and trust to me. I'll get you there by eleven o'clock or break a trace. Breakin' a trace is all the danger there is, anyway," he added, cheerfully, "so don't fret."
Miss Post could not resist saying to Mrs. Truesdall: "I told you he was joking."
The stage had proceeded for two hours. Sometimes it dropped with locked wheels down sheer walls of clay, again it was dragged, careening drunkenly, out of fathomless pits. It pitched and tossed, slid and galloped, danced grotesquely from one wheel to another, from one stone to another, recoiled out of ruts, butted against rocks, and swept down and out of swollen streams that gurgled between the spokes.
"If ever I leave Fort Crockett," gasped Mrs. Truesdall between jolts, "I shall either wait until they build a railroad or walk."
They had all but left the hills, and were approaching the level prairie. That they might see the better the flaps had been rolled up, and the soft dry air came freely through the open sides. The mules were straining over the last hill. On either side only a few of the buttes were still visible. They stood out in the moonlight as cleanly cut as the bows of great battleships. The trail at last was level. Mrs. Truesdall's eyes closed. Her head fell forward. But Miss Post, weary as she was in body, could not sleep. To her the night-ride was full of strange and wonderful mysteries. Gratefully she drank in the dry scent of the prairie-grass, and, holding by the frame of the window, leaned far out over the wheel. As she did so, a man sprang into the trail from behind a wall of rock, and shouted hoarsely. He was covered to his knees with a black mantle. His face was hidden by a blood-red mask.
"Throw up your hands!" he commanded. There was a sharp creaking as the brakes locked, and from the driver's seat an amazed oath. The stage stopped with a violent jerk, and Mrs. Truesdall pitched gently forward toward her niece.
"I really believe I was asleep, Helen," she murmured. "What are we waiting for?"
"I think we are held up," said Miss Post.
The stage had halted beyond the wall of rock, and Miss Post looked behind it, but no other men were visible, only a horse with his bridle drawn around a stone. The man in the mask advanced upon the stage, holding a weapon at arm's-length. In the moonlight it flashed and glittered evilly. The man was but a few feet from Miss Post, and the light fell full upon her. Of him she could see only two black eyes that flashed as evilly as his weapon. For a period of suspense, which seemed cruelly prolonged, the man stood motionless, then he lowered his weapon. When he opened his lips the mask stuck to them, and his words came from behind it, broken and smothered. "Sorry to trouble you, miss," the mask said, "but I want that man beside you to get out."
Miss Post turned to the travelling salesman. "He wants you to get out," she said.
"Wants me!" exclaimed the drummer. "I'm not armed, you know." In a louder voice he protested, faintly: "I say, I'm not armed."
"Come out!" demanded the mask.
The drummer precipitated himself violently over the knees of the ladies into the road below, and held his hands high above him. "I'm not armed," he said; "indeed I'm not."
"Stand over there, with your back to that rock," the mask ordered. For a moment the road agent regarded him darkly, pointing his weapon meditatively at different parts of the salesman's person. He suggested a butcher designating certain choice cuts. The drummer's muscles jerked under the torture as though his anatomy were being prodded with an awl.
"I want your watch," said the mask. The drummer reached eagerly for his waistcoat.
"Hold up your hands!" roared the road agent. "By the eternal, if you play any rough-house tricks on me I'll--" He flourished his weapon until it flashed luminously.
An exclamation from Hunk Smith, opportunely uttered, saved the drummer from what was apparently instant annihilation. "Say, Rider," cried the driver, "I can't hold my arms up no longer. I'm going to put 'em down. But you leave me alone, an' I'll leave you alone. Is that a bargain?" The shrouded figure whirled his weapon upon the speaker. "Have I ever stopped you before, Hunk?" he demanded.
Hunk, at this recognition of himself as a public character, softened instantly. "I dunno whether 'twas you or one of your gang, but--"
"Well, you've still got your health, haven't you?"
"Then keep quiet," snarled the mask.
In retort Hunk Smith muttered audible threatenings, but sank obediently into an inert heap. Only his eyes, under cover of his sombrero, roamed restlessly. They noted the McClellan saddle on the Red Rider's horse, the white patch on its near fore-foot, the empty stirrup-straps, and at a great distance, so great that the eyes only of a plainsman could have detected it, a cloud of dust, or smoke, or mist, that rode above the trail and seemed to be moving swiftly down upon them.
At the sight, Hunk shifted the tobacco in his cheek and nervously crossed his knees, while a grin of ineffable cunning passed across his face.
With his sombrero in his hand, the Red Rider stepped to the wheel of the stage. As he did so, Miss Post observed that above the line of his kerchief his hair was evenly and carefully parted in the middle.
"I'm afraid, ladies," said the road agent, "that I have delayed you unnecessarily. It seems that I have called up the wrong number." He emitted a reassuring chuckle, and, fanning himself with his sombrero, continued speaking in a tone of polite irony: "The Wells, Fargo messenger is the party I am laying for. He's coming over this trail with a package of diamonds. That's what I'm after. At first I thought 'Fighting Bob' over there by the rock might have it on him; but he doesn't act like any Wells, Fargo Express agent I have ever tackled before, and I guess the laugh's on me. I seem to have been weeping over the wrong grave." He replaced his sombrero on his head at a rakish angle, and waved his hand. "Ladies, you are at liberty to proceed."
But instantly he stepped forward again, and brought his face so close to the window that they could see the whites of his eyes. "Before we part," he murmured, persuasively, "you wouldn't mind leaving me something as a souvenir, would you?" He turned the skull-like openings of the mask full upon Miss Post.
Mrs. Truesdall exclaimed, hysterically: "Why, certainly not!" she cried. "Here's everything I have, except what's sewn inside my waist, where I can't possibly get at it. I assure you I cannot. The proprietor of that hotel told us we'd probably--meet you, and so I have everything ready." She thrust her two hands through the window. They held a roll of bills, a watch, and her rings
Miss Post laughed in an ecstasy of merriment "Oh, no, aunt," she protested, "don't. No, not at all. The gentleman only wants a keepsake. Something to remember us by. Isn't that it?" she asked. She regarded the blood-red mask steadily with a brilliant smile.
The road agent did not at once answer. At her words he had started back with such sharp suspicion that one might have thought he meditated instant flight. Through the holes in his mask he now glared searchingly at Miss Post, but still in silence.
"I think this will satisfy him," said Miss Post.
Out of the collection in her aunt's hands she picked a silver coin and held it forward. "Something to keep as a pocket-piece," she said, mockingly, "to remind you of your kindness to three lone females in distress."
Still silent, the road agent reached for the money, and then growled at her in a tone which had suddenly become gruff and overbearing. It suggested to Miss Post the voice of the head of the family playing Santa Claus for the children. "And now you, miss," he demanded.
Miss Post took another coin from the heap, studied its inscription, and passed it through the window. "This one is from me," she said. "Mine is dated 1901. The moonlight," she added, leaning far forward and smiling out at him, "makes it quite easy to see the date; as easy," she went on, picking her words, "as it is to see your peculiar revolver and the coat-of-arms on your ring." She drew her head back." Good-night," she cooed, sweetly.
The Red Rider jumped from the door. An exclamation which might have been a laugh or an oath was smothered by his mask. He turned swiftly upon the salesman. "Get back into the coach," he commanded. "And you, Hunk," he called, "if you send a posse after me, next night I ketch you out here alone you'll lose the top of your head."
The salesman scrambled into the stage through the door opposite the one at which the Red Rider was standing, and the road agent again raised his sombrero with a sweeping gesture worthy of D'Artagnan. "Good-night, ladies," he said.
"Good-night, sir," Mrs. Truesdall answered, grimly, but exuding a relieved sigh. Then, her indignation giving her courage, she leaned from the window and hurled a Parthian arrow. "I must say," she protested, "I think you might be in a better business."
The road agent waved his hand to the young lady. "Good-by," he said.
"Au revoir," said Miss Post, pleasantly.
"Good-by, miss," stammered the road agent,
"I said 'Au revoir,'" repeated Miss Post.
The road agent, apparently routed by these simple words, fled muttering toward his horse.
Hunk Smith was having trouble with his brake. He kicked at it and, stooping, pulled at it, but the wheels did not move.
Mrs. Truesdall fell into a fresh panic. "What is it now?" she called, miserably.
Before he answered, Hunk Smith threw a quick glance toward the column of moving dust. He was apparently reassured.
"The brake," he grunted. "The darned thing's stuck!"
The road agent was tugging at the stone beneath which he had slipped his bridle. "Can I help?" he asked, politely. But before he reached the stage, he suddenly stopped with an imperative sweep of his arm for silence. He stood motionless, his body bent to the ground, leaning forward and staring down the trail. Then he sprang upright. "You old fox!" he roared, "you're gaining time, are you?"
With a laugh he tore free his bridle and threw himself across his horse. His legs locked under it, his hands clasped its mane, and with a cowboy yell he dashed past the stage in the direction of Kiowa City, his voice floating back in shouts of jeering laughter. From behind him he heard Hunk Smith's voice answering his own in a cry for "Help!" and from a rapidly decreasing distance the throb of many hoofs. For an instant he drew upon his rein, and then, with a defiant chuckle, drove his spurs deep into his horse's side.
Mrs. Truesdall also heard the pounding of many hoofs, as well as Hunk Smith's howls for help, and feared a fresh attack. "Oh, what is it?" she begged
"Soldiers from the fort," Hunk called, excitedly, and again raised his voice in a long, dismal howl.
"Sounds cheery, doesn't it?" said the salesman; "referring to the soldiers," he explained. It was his first coherent remark since the Red Rider had appeared and disappeared.
"Oh, I hope they won't--" began Miss Post, anxiously.
The hoof-beats changed to thunder, and with the pounding on the dry trail came the jangle of stirrups and sling-belts. Then a voice, and the coach was surrounded by dust-covered troopers and horses breathing heavily. Lieutenant Crosby pulled up beside the window of the stage. "Are you there, Colonel Patten?" he panted. He peered forward into the stage, but no one answered him. "Is the paymaster in here?" he demanded.
The voice of Lieutenant Curtis shouted in turn at Hunk Smith. "Is the paymaster in there, driver?"
"Paymaster? No!" Hunk roared. "A drummer and three ladies. We've been held up. The Red Rider--" He rose and waved his whip over the top of the coach. "He went that way. You can ketch him easy."
Sergeant Clancey and half a dozen troopers jerked at their bridles. But Crosby, at the window, shouted "Halt!"
"What's your name?" he demanded of the salesman.
"Myers," stammered the drummer. "I'm from the Hancock Uniform--"
Curtis had spurred his horse beside that of his brother officer. "Is Colonel Patten at Kiowa?" he interrupted.
"I can't give you any information as to that," replied Mr. Myers, importantly; "but these ladies and I have just been held up by the Red Rider. If you'll hurry you'll--"
The two officers pulled back their horses from the stage and, leaning from their saddles, consulted in eager whispers. Their men fidgeted with their reins, and stared with amazed eyes at their officers. Lieutenant Crosby was openly smiling, "He's got away with it," he whispered. "Patten missed the stage, thank God, and he's met nothing worse than these women."
"We MUST make a bluff at following him," whispered Curtis.
"Certainly not! Our orders are to report to Colonel Patten, and act as his escort."
"But he's not at Kiowa; that fellow says so."
"He telegraphed the Colonel from Kiowa," returned Crosby. "How could he do that if he wasn't there?" He turned upon Hunk Smith. "When did you leave Henderson's?" he demanded.
"Seven o'clock," answered Hunk Smith, sulkily. "Say, if you young fellows want to catch--"
"And Patten telegraphed at eight," cried Crosby. "That's it. He reached Kiowa after the stage had gone. Sergeant Clancey!" he called.
The Sergeant pushed out from the mass of wondering troopers.
"When did the paymaster say he was leaving Kiowa?"
"Leaving at once, the telegram said," answered Clancey.
"'Meet me with escort before I reach the buttes.' That's the message I was told to give the lieutenant."
Hunk Smith leaned from the box-seat. "Mebbe Pop's driving him over himself in the buckboard," he volunteered. "Pop often takes 'em over that way if they miss the stage."
"That's how it is, of course," cried Crosby. "He's on his way now in the buckboard."
Hunk Smith surveyed the troopers dismally and shook his head. "If he runs up against the Red Rider, it's 'good-by' your pay, boys," he cried.
"Fall in there!" shouted Crosby. "Corporal Tynan, fall out with two men and escort these ladies to the fort." He touched his hat to Miss Post, and, with Curtis at his side, sprang into the trail. "Gallop! March!" he commanded.
"Do you think he'll tackle the buckboard, too?" whispered Curtis.
Crosby laughed joyously and drew a long breath of relief.
"No, he's all right now," he answered. "Don't you see, he doesn't know about Patten or the buckboard. He's probably well on his way to the post now. I delayed the game at the stage there on purpose to give him a good start. He's safe by now."
"It was a close call," laughed the other. "He's got to give us a dinner for helping him out of this."
"We'd have caught him red-handed," said Crosby, "if we'd been five minutes sooner. Lord!" he gasped. "It makes me cold to think of it. The men would have shot him off his horse. But what a story for those women! I hope I'll be there when they tell it. If Ranson can keep his face straight, he's a wonder." For some moments they raced silently neck by neck, and then Curtis again leaned from his saddle. "I hope he HAS turned back to the post," he said. "Look at the men how they're keeping watch for him. They're scouts, all of them."
"What if they are?" returned Crosby, easily. "Ranson's in uniform-- out for a moonlight canter. You can bet a million dollars he didn't wear his red mask long after he heard us coming."
"I suppose he'll think we've followed to spoil his fun. You know you said we would."
"Yes, he was going to shoot us," laughed Crosby. "I wonder why he packs a gun. It's a silly thing to do."
The officers fell apart again, and there was silence over the prairie, save for the creaking of leather and the beat of the hoofs. And then, faint and far away, there came the quick crack of a revolver, another, and then a fusillade. "My God!" gasped Crosby. He threw himself forwards digging his spurs into his horse, and rode as though he were trying to escape from his own men.
No one issued an order, no one looked a question; each, officer and enlisted man, bowed his head and raced to be the first.
The trail was barricaded by two struggling horses and an overturned buckboard. The rigid figure of a man lay flat upon his back staring at the moon, another white-haired figure staggered forward from a rock. "Who goes there?" it demanded.
"United States troops. Is that you, Colonel Patten?"
Colonel Patten's right arm was swinging limply at his side. With his left hand he clasped his right shoulder. The blood, black in the moonlight, was oozing between his fingers.
"We were held up," he said. "He shot the driver and the horses. I fired at him, but he broke my arm. He shot the gun out of my hand. When he reached for the satchel I tried to beat him off with my left arm, but he threw me into the road. He went that way--toward Kiowa."
Sergeant Clancey, who was kneeling by the figure in the trail, raised his hand in salute. "Pop Henderson, lieutenant," he said. "He's shot through the heart. He's dead."
"He took the money, ten thousand dollars," cried Colonel Patten. "He wore a red mask and a rubber poncho. And I saw that he had no stirrups in his stirrup-straps."
Crosby dodged, as though someone had thrown a knife, and then raised his hand stiffly and heavily.
"Lieutenant Curtis, you will remain here with Colonel Patten," he ordered. His voice was without emotion. It fell flat and dead. "Deploy as skirmishers," he commanded. "G Troop to the fight of the trail, H Troop to the left. Stop anyone you see--anyone. If he tries to escape, cry 'Halt!' twice and then fire--to kill. Forward! Gallop! March! Toward the post."
"No!" shouted Colonel Patten. "He went toward Kiowa."
Crosby replied in the same dead voice: "He doubled after he left you, colonel. He has gone to the post."
Colonel Patten struggled from the supporting arms that held him and leaned eagerly forward. "You know him, then?" he demanded.
"Yes," cried Crosby, "God help him! Spread out there, you, in open order--and ride like hell!"
Just before the officers' club closed for the night Lieutenant Ranson came in and, seating himself at the piano, picked out "The Queen of the Philippine Islands" with one finger. Major Stickney and others who were playing bridge were considerably annoyed. Ranson then demanded that everyone present should drink his health in champagne for the reason that it was his birthday and that he was glad he was alive, and wished everyone else to feel the same way about it. "Or, for any other reason why," he added generously. This frontal attack upon the whist-players upset the game entirely, and Ranson, enthroned upon the piano-stool, addressed the room. He held up a buckskin tobacco-bag decorated with beads.
"I got this down at the Indian village to-night," he said. "That old squaw, Red Wing, makes 'em for two dollars. Crosby paid five dollars for his in New Mexico, and it isn't half as good. What do you think? I got lost coming back, and went all the way round by the buttes before I found the trail, and I've only been here six months. They certainly ought to make me chief of scouts."
There was the polite laugh which is granted to any remark made by the one who is paying for the champagne.
"Oh, that's where you were, was it?" said the post-adjutant, genially. "The colonel sent Clancey after you and Crosby. Clancey reported that he couldn't find you. So we sent Curtis. They went to act as escort for Colonel Patten and the pay. He's coming up to-night in the stage." Ranson was gazing down into his glass. Before he raised his head he picked several pieces of ice out of it and then drained it.
"The paymaster, hey?" he said. "He's in the stage to-night, is he?"
"Yes," said the adjutant; and then as the bugle and stamp of hoofs sounded from the parade outside, "and that's him now, I guess," he added.
Ranson refilled his glass with infinite care, and then, in spite of a smile that twitched at the corners of his mouth, emptied it slowly.
There was the jingle of spurs and a measured tramp on the veranda of the club-house, and for the first time in its history four enlisted men, carrying their Krags, invaded its portals. They were led by Lieutenant Crosby; his face was white under the tan, and full of suffering. The officers in the room received the intrusion in amazed silence. Crosby strode among them, looking neither to the left nor right, and touched Lieutenant Ranson upon the shoulder.
"The colonel's orders, Lieutenant Ranson," he said. "You are under arrest."
Ranson leaned back against the music-rack and placed his glass upon the keyboard. One leg was crossed over the other, and he did not remove it.
"Then you can't take a joke," he said in a low tone. "You had to run and tell." He laughed and raised his voice so that all in the club might hear, "What am I arrested for, Crosby?" he asked.
The lines in Crosby's face deepened, and only those who sat near could hear him. "You are under arrest for attempting to kill a superior officer, for the robbery of the government pay-train--and for murder."
Ranson jumped to his feet. "My God, Crosby!" he cried.
"Silence! Don't talk!" ordered Crosby. "Come along with me."
The four troopers fell in in rear of Lieutenant Crosby and their prisoner. He drew a quick, frightened breath, and then, throwing back his shoulders, fell into step, and the six men tramped from the club and out into the night.
That night at the post there was little sleep for any one. The feet of hurrying orderlies beat upon the parade-ground, the windows of the Officers' Club blazed defiantly, and from the darkened quarters of the enlisted men came the sound of voices snarling in violent vituperation. At midnight, half of Ranson's troop, having attacked the rest of the regiment with cavalry-boots, were marched under arrest to the guard-house. As they passed Ranson's hut, where he still paced the veranda, a burning cigarette attesting his wakefulness, they cheered him riotously. At two o'clock it was announced from the hospital that both patients were out of danger; for it had developed that, in his hurried diagnosis, Sergeant Clancey had located Henderson's heart six inches from where it should have been.
When one of the men who guarded Ranson reported this good news the prisoner said, "Still, I hope they'll hang whoever did it. They shouldn't hang a man for being a good shot and let him off because he's a bad one."
At the time of the hold-up Mary Cahill had been a half-mile distant from the post at the camp of the Kiowas, where she had gone in answer to the cry of Lightfoot's squaw. When she returned she found Indian Pete in charge of the exchange. Her father, he told her, had ridden to the Indian village in search of her. As he spoke the post-trader appeared. "I'm sorry I missed you," his daughter called to him.
At the sound Cahill pulled his horse sharply toward the corral. "I had a horse-deal on--with the chief," he answered over his shoulder. "When I got to Lightfoot's tent you had gone."
After he had dismounted, and was coming toward her, she noted that his right hand was bound in a handkerchief, and exclaimed with apprehension.
"It is nothing," Cahill protested. "I was foolin' with one of the new regulation revolvers, with my hand over the muzzle. Ball went through the palm."
Miss Cahill gave a tremulous cry and caught the injured hand to her lips.
Her father snatched it from her roughly.
"Let go!" he growled. "It serves me right."
A few minutes later Mary Cahill, bearing liniment for her father's hand, knocked at his bedroom and found it empty. When she peered from the top of the stairs into the shop-window below she saw him busily engaged with his one hand buckling the stirrup-straps of his saddle.
When she called, he sprang upright with an oath. He had faced her so suddenly that it sounded as though he had sworn, not in surprise, but at her.
"You startled me," he murmured. His eyes glanced suspiciously from her to the saddle. "These stirrup-straps--they're too short," he announced. "Pete or somebody's been using my saddle."
"I came to bring you this 'first-aid' bandage for your hand," said his daughter.
Cahill gave a shrug of impatience.
"My hand's all right," he said; "you go to bed. I've got to begin taking account of stock."
"There's no time by day. Go to bed."
For nearly an hour Miss Cahill lay awake listening to her father moving about in the shop below. Never before had he spoken roughly to her, and she, knowing how much the thought that he had done so would distress him, was herself distressed.
In his lonely vigil on the veranda, Ranson looked from the post down the hill to where the light still shone from Mary Cahill's window. He wondered if she had heard the news, and if it were any thought of him that kept sleep from her.
"You ass! you idiot!" he muttered. "You've worried and troubled her. She believes one of her precious army is a thief and a murderer." He cursed himself picturesquely, but the thought that she might possibly be concerned on his account, did not, he found, distress him as greatly as it should. On the contrary, as he watched the light his heart glowed warmly. And long after the light went out he still looked toward the home of the post-trader, his brain filled with thoughts of his return to his former life outside the army, the old life to which he vowed he would not return alone.
The next morning Miss Cahill learned the news when the junior officer came to mess and explained why Ranson was not with them. Her only comment was to at once start for his quarters with his breakfast in a basket. She could have sent it by Pete, but, she argued, when one of her officers was in trouble that was not the time to turn him over to the mercies of a servant. No, she assured herself, it was not because the officer happened to be Ranson. She would have done as much, or as little, for any one of them. When Curtis and Haines were ill of the grippe, had she not carried them many good things of her own making?
But it was not an easy sacrifice. As she crossed the parade-ground she recognized that over-night Ranson's hut, where he was a prisoner in his own quarters, had become to the post the storm-centre of interest, and to approach it was to invite the attention of the garrison. At head-quarters a group of officers turned and looked her way, there was a flutter among the frocks on Mrs. Bolland's porch, and the enlisted men, smoking their pipes on the rail of the barracks, whispered together. When she reached Ranson's hut over four hundred pairs of eyes were upon her, and her cheeks were flushing. Ranson came leaping to the gate, and lifted the basket from her arm as though he were removing an opera-cloak. He set it upon the gate- post, and nervously clasped the palings of the gate with both hands. He had not been to bed, but that fact alone could not explain the strangeness of his manner. Never before had she seen him disconcerted or abashed.
"You shouldn't have done it," he stammered. "Indeed, indeed, you are much too good. But you shouldn't have come."
His voice shook slightly.
"Why not?" asked Mary Cahill. "I couldn't let you go hungry."
"You know it isn't that," he said; "it's your coming here at all. Why, only three of the fellows have been near me this morning. And they only came from a sense of duty. I know they did--I could feel it. You shouldn't have come here. I'm not a proper person; I'm an outlaw. You might think this was a pest-house, you might think I was a leper. Why, those Stickney girls have been watching me all morning through a field-glass." He clasped and unclasped his fingers around the palings. "They believe I did it," he protested, with the bewildered accents of a child. "They all believe it."
Miss Cahill laughed. The laugh was quieting and comforting. It brought him nearer to earth, and her next remark brought him still further.
"Have you had any breakfast?" she asked.
"Breakfast!" stammered Ranson. "No. The guard brought some, but I couldn't eat it. This thing has taken the life out of me--to think sane, sensible people--my own people--could believe that I'd steal, that I'd kill a man for money."
"Yes, I know," said Miss Cahill soothingly; "but you've not had any sleep, and you need your coffee." She lifted the lid of the basket. "It's getting cold," she said. "Don't you worry about what people think. You must remember you're a prisoner now under arrest. You can't expect the officers to run over here as freely as they used to. What do you want?" she laughed. "Do you think the colonel should parade the band and give you a serenade?" For a moment Ranson stared at her dully, and then his sense of proportion returned to him. He threw back his head and laughed with her joyfully.
From verandas, barracks, and headquarters, the four hundred pairs of eyes noted this evidence of heartlessness with varied emotions. But, unmindful of them, Ranson now leaned forward, the eager, searching look coming back into his black eyes. They were so close to Mary Cahill's that she drew away. He dropped his voice to a whisper and spoke swiftly.
"Miss Cahill, whatever happens to me I won't forget this. I won't forget your coming here and throwing heart into me. You were the only one who did. I haven't asked you if you believe that I--"
She raised her eyes reproachfully and smiled. "You know you don't have to do that," she said.
The prisoner seized the palings as though he meant to pull apart the barrier between them. He drew a long breath like one inhaling a draught of clean morning air.
"No," he said, his voice ringing, "I don't have to do that."
He cast a swift glance to the left and right. The sentry's bayonet was just disappearing behind the corner of the hut. To the four hundred other eyes around the parade-ground Lieutenant Ranson's attitude suggested that he was explaining to Cahill's daughter what he wanted for his luncheon. His eyes held her as firmly as though the palings he clasped were her two hands.
"Mary," he said, and the speaking of her name seemed to stop the beating of his heart. "Mary," he whispered, as softly as though he were beginning a prayer, "you're the bravest, the sweetest, the dearest girl in all the world. And I've known it for months, and now you must know. And there'll never be any other girl in my life but you."
Mary Cahill drew away from him in doubt and wonder.
"I didn't mean to tell you just yet," he whispered, "but now that I've seen you I can't help it. I knew it last night when I stood back there and watched your windows, and couldn't think of this trouble, nor of anything else, but just you. And you've got to promise me, if I get out of this all right--you must--must promise me--"
Mary Cahill's eyes, as she raised them to his, were moist and glowing. They promised him with a great love and tenderness. But at the sight Ranson protested wildly.
"No," he whispered, "you mustn't promise--anything. I shouldn't have asked it. After I'm out of this, after the court-martial, then you've got to promise that you'll never, never leave me."
Miss Cahill knit her hands together and turned away her head. The happiness in her heart rose to her throat like a great melody and choked her. Before her, exposed in the thin spring sunshine, was the square of ugly brown cottages, the bare parade-ground, in its centre Trumpeter Tyler fingering his bugle, and beyond on every side an ocean of blackened prairie. But she saw nothing of this. She saw instead a beautiful world opening its arms to her, a world smiling with sunshine, glowing with color, singing with love and content.
She turned to him with all that was in her heart showing in her face.
"Don't!" he begged, tremblingly, "don't answer. I couldn't bear it-- if you said 'no' to me." He jerked his head toward the men who guarded him. "Wait until I'm tried, and not in disgrace." He shook the gate between them savagely as though it actually held him a prisoner.
Mary Cahill raised her head proudly.
"You have no right. You've hurt me," she whispered. "You hurt me."
"Hurt you?" he cried.
She pressed her hands together. It was impossible to tell him, it was impossible to speak of what she felt; of the pride, of the trust and love, to disclose this new and wonderful thing while the gate was between them, while the sentries paced on either side, while the curious eyes of the garrison were fastened upon her.
"Oh, can't you see?" she whispered. "As though I cared for a court- martial! I KNOW you. You are just the same. You are just what you have always been to me--what you always will be to me."
She thrust her hand toward him and he seized it in both of his, and then released it instantly, and, as though afraid of his own self- control, backed hurriedly from her, and she turned and walked rapidly away.
Captain Carr, who had been Ranson's captain in the Philippines, and who was much his friend, had been appointed to act as his counsel. When later that morning he visited his client to lay out a line of defence he found Ranson inclined to treat the danger which threatened him with the most arrogant flippancy. He had never seen him in a more objectionable mood.
"You can call the charge 'tommy-rot' if you like," Carr protested, sharply. "But, let me tell you that's not the view any one else takes of it, and if you expect the officers of the court-martial and the civil authorities to take that view of it you've got to get down to work and help me prove that it IS 'tommy rot.' That Miss Post, as soon as she got here, when she thought it was only a practical joke, told them that the road agent threatened her with a pair of shears. Now, Crosby and Curtis will testify that you took a pair of shears from Cahill's, and from what Miss Post saw of your ring she can probably identify that, too; so--"
"Oh, we concede the shears," declared Ranson, waving his hand grandly. "We admit the first hold-up."
"The devil we do!" returned Carr. "Now, as your counsel, I advise nothing of the sort."
"You advise me to lie?"
"Sir!" exclaimed Carr. "A plea of not guilty is only a legal form. When you consider that the first hold-up in itself is enough to lose you your commission--"
"Well, it's MY commission," said Ranson. "It was only a silly joke, anyway. And the War Department must have some sense of humor or it wouldn't have given me a commission in the first place. Of course, we'll admit the first hold-up, but we won't stand for the second one. I had no more to do with that than with the Whitechapel murders."
"How are we to prove that?" demanded Carr. "Where's your alibi? Where were you after the first hold-up?"
"I was making for home as fast as I could cut," said Ranson. He suddenly stopped in his walk up and down the room and confronted his counsel sternly. "Captain," he demanded, "I wish you to instruct me on a point of law."
Carr's brow relaxed. He was relieved to find that Ranson had awakened to the seriousness of the charges against him.
"That's what I'm here for," he said, encouragingly.
"Well, captain," said Ranson, "if an officer is under arrest as I am and confined to his quarters, is he or is he not allowed to send to the club for a bottle of champagne?"
"Really, Ranson!" cried the captain, angrily, "you are impossible."
"I only want to celebrate," said Ranson, meekly. "I'm a very happy man; I'm the happiest man on earth. I want to ride across the prairie shooting off both guns and yelling like a cowboy. Instead of which I am locked up indoors and have to talk to you about a highway robbery which does not amuse me, which does not concern me--and of which I know nothing and care less. Now, YOU are detailed to prove me innocent. That's your duty, and you ought to do your duty, But don't drag me in. I've got much more important things to think about."
Bewilderment, rage, and despair were written upon the face of the captain.
"Ranson!" he roared. "Is this a pose, or are you mad? Can't you understand that you came very near to being hanged for murder and that you are in great danger of going to jail for theft? Let me put before you the extremely unpleasant position in which you have been ass enough to place yourself. You don't quite seem to grasp it. You tell two brother-officers that you are going to rob the stage. To do so you disguise yourself in a poncho and a red handkerchief, and you remove the army-stirrups from your stirrup-leathers. You then do rob this coach, or at least hold it up, and you are recognized. A few minutes later, in the same trail and in the same direction you have taken, there is a second hold-up, this time of the paymaster. The man who robs the paymaster wears a poncho and a red kerchief, and he has no stirrups in his stirrup-leathers. The two hold-ups take place within a half-mile of each other, within five minutes of each other. Now, is it reasonable to believe that last night two men were hiding in the buttes intent upon robbery, each in an army poncho, each wearing a red bandanna handkerchief, and each riding without stirrups? Between believing in such a strange coincidence and that you did it, I'll be hanged if I don't believe you did it."
"I don't blame you," said Ranson. "What can I do to set your mind at rest?"
"Well, tell me exactly what persons knew that you meant to hold up the stage."
"Curtis and Crosby; no one else."
"Not even Cahill?"
"No, Cahill came in just before I said I would stop the stage, but I remember particularly that before I spoke I waited for him to get back to the exchange."
"And Crosby tells me," continued Carr, "that the instant you had gone he looked into the exchange and saw Cahill at the farthest corner from the door. He could have heard nothing."
"If you ask me, I think you've begun at the wrong end," said Ranson. "If I were looking for the Red Rider I'd search for him in Kiowa City."
"Because, at this end no one but a few officers knew that the paymaster was coming, while in Kiowa everybody in the town knew it, for they saw him start. It would be very easy for one of those cowboys to ride ahead and lie in wait for him in the buttes. There are several tough specimens in Kiowa. Any one of them would rob a man for twenty dollars--let alone ten thousand. There's 'Abe' Fisher and Foster King, and the Chase boys, and I believe old 'Pop' Henderson himself isn't above holding up one of his own stages."
"He's above shooting himself in the lungs," said Carr. "Nonsense. No, I am convinced that someone followed you from this post, and perhaps Cahill can tell us who that was. I sent for him this morning, and he's waiting at my quarters now. Suppose I ask him to step over here, so that we can discuss it together."
Before he answered, Ranson hesitated, with his eyes on the ground. He had no way of knowing whether Mary Cahill had told her father anything of what he had said to her that morning. But if she had done so, he did not want to meet Cahill in the presence of a third party for the first time since he had learned the news.
"I'll tell you what I wish you would do," he said. "I wish you'd let me see Cahill first, by myself. What I want to see him about has nothing to do with the hold-up," he added. "It concerns only us two, but I'd like to have it out of the way before we consult him as a witness."
Carr rose doubtfully. "Why, certainly," he said; "I'll send him over, and when you're ready for me step out on the porch and call. I'll be sitting on my veranda. I hope you've had no quarrel with Cahill--I mean I hope this personal matter is nothing that will prejudice him against you."
Ranson smiled. "I hope not, too," he said. "No, we've not quarrelled- -yet," he added.
Carr still lingered. "Cahill is like to be a very important witness for the other side--"
"I doubt it," said Ranson, easily. "Cahill's a close-mouthed chap, but when he does talk he talks to the point and he'll tell the truth. That can't hurt us."
As Cahill crossed the parade-ground from Captain Carr's quarters on his way to Ranson's hut his brain was crowded swiftly with doubts, memories, and resolves. For him the interview held no alarms. He had no misgivings as to its outcome. For his daughter's sake he was determined that he himself must not be disgraced in her eyes and that to that end Ranson must be sacrificed. It was to make a lady of her, as he understood what a lady should be, that on six moonlit raids he had ventured forth in his red mask and robbed the Kiowa stage. That there were others who roamed abroad in the disguise of the Red Rider he was well aware. There were nights the stage was held up when he was innocently busy behind his counter in touch with the whole garrison. Of these nights he made much. They were alibis furnished by his rivals. They served to keep suspicion from himself, and he, working for the same object, was indefatigable in proclaiming that all the depredations of the Red Rider showed the handiwork of one and the same individual.
"He comes from Kiowa of course," he would point out. "Some feller who lives where the stage starts, and knows when the passengers carry money. You don't hear of him holding up a stage full of recruits or cow-punchers. It's always the drummers and the mine directors that the Red Rider lays for. How does he know they're in the stage if he don't see 'em start from Kiowa? Ask 'Pop' Henderson. Ask 'Abe' Fisher. Mebbe they know more than they'd care to tell."
The money which at different times Cahill had taken from the Kiowa stage lay in a New York bank, and the law of limitation made it now possible for him to return to that city and claim it. Already his savings were sufficient in amount to support both his daughter and himself in one of those foreign cities, of which she had so often told him and for which he knew she hungered. And for the last five years he had had no other object in living than to feed her wants. Through some strange trick of the mind he remembered suddenly and vividly a long-forgotten scene in the back room of McTurk's, when he was McTurk's bouncer. The night before a girl had killed herself in this same back room; she made the third who had done so in the month. He recalled the faces of the reporters eyeing McTurk in cold distaste as that terror of the Bowery whimpered before them on his knees. "But my daughters will read it," he had begged. "Suppose they believe I'm what you call me. Don't go and give me a bad name to them, gentlemen. It ain't my fault the girl's died here. You wouldn't have my daughters think I'm to blame for that? They're ladies, my daughters, they're just out of the convent, and they don't know that there is such women in the world as come to this place. And I can't have 'em turned against their old pop. For God's sake, gentlemen, don't let my girls know!"
Cahill remembered the contempt he had felt for his employer as he pulled him to his feet, but now McTurk's appeal seemed just and natural. His point of view was that of the loving and considerate parent. In Cahill's mind there was no moral question involved. If to make his girl rich and a lady, and to lift her out of the life of the Exchange, was a sin the sin was his own and he was willing to "stand for it." And, like McTurk, he would see that the sin of the father was not visited upon the child. Ranson was rich, foolishly, selfishly rich; his father was a United States Senator with influence enough, and money enough, to fight the law--to buy his son out of jail. Sooner than his daughter should know that her father was one of those who sometimes wore the mask of the Red Rider, Ranson, for all he cared, could go to jail, or to hell. With this ultimatum in his mind, Cahill confronted his would-be son-in-law with a calm and assured countenance.
Ranson greeted him with respectful deference, and while Cahill seated himself, Ranson, chatting hospitably, placed cigars and glasses before him. He began upon the subject that touched him the most nearly.
"Miss Cahill was good enough to bring up my breakfast this morning," he said. "Has she told you of what I said to her?"
Cahill shook his head. "No, I haven't seen her. We've been taking account of stock all morning."
"Then--then you've heard nothing from her about me?" said Ranson.
The post trader raised his head in surprise. "No. Captain Carr spoke to me about your arrest, and then said you wanted to see me first about something private." The post trader fixed Ranson with his keen, unwavering eyes. "What might that be?" he asked.
"Well, it doesn't matter now," stammered Ranson; "I'll wait until Miss Cahill tells you."
"Any complaint about the food?" inquired the post trader.
Ranson laughed nervously. "No, it's not that," he said. He rose, and, to protect what Miss Cahill evidently wished to remain a secret, changed the subject. "You see you've lived in these parts so long, Mr. Cahill," he explained, "and you know so many people, I thought maybe you could put me on the track or give me some hint as to which of that Kiowa gang really did rob the paymaster." Ranson was pulling the cork from the whiskey bottle, and when he asked the question Cahill pushed his glass from him and shook his head. Ranson looked up interrogatively and smiled. "You mean you think I did it myself?" he asked.
"I didn't understand from Captain Carr," the post trader began in heavy tones, "that it's my opinion you're after. He said I might be wanted to testify who was present last night in my store."
"Certainly, that's all we want," Ranson answered, genially. "I only thought you might give me a friendly pointer or two on the outside. And, of course, if it's your opinion I did the deed we certainly don't want your opinion. But that needn't prevent your taking a drink with me, need it? Don't be afraid. I'm not trying to corrupt you. And I'm not trying to poison a witness for the other fellows, either. Help yourself."
Cahill stretched out his left hand. His right remained hidden in the side pocket of his coat. "What's the matter with your right hand?" Ranson asked. "Are you holding a gun on me? Really, Mr. Cahill, you're not taking any chances, are you?" Ranson gazed about the room as though seeking an appreciative audience. "He's such an important witness," he cried, delightedly, "that first he's afraid I'll poison him and he won't drink with me, and now he covers me with a gun."
Reluctantly, Cahill drew out his hand. "I was putting the bridle on my pony last night," he said. "He bit me."
Ranson exclaimed sympathetically, "Oh, that's too bad," he said. "Well, you know you want to be careful. A horse's teeth really are poisonous." He examined his own hands complacently. "Now, if I had a bandage like that on my right hand they would hang me sure, no matter whether it was a bite, or a burn, or a bullet."
Cahill raised the glass to his lips and sipped the whiskey critically. "Why?" he asked.
"Why? Why, didn't you know that the paymaster boasted last night to the surgeons that he hit this fellow in the hand? He says--"
Cahill snorted scornfully. "How'd he know that? What makes him think so?"
"Well, never mind, let him think so," Ranson answered, fervently. "Don't discourage him. That's the only evidence I've got on my side. He says he fired to disarm the man, and that he saw him shift his gun to his left hand. It was the shot that the man fired when he held his gun in his left that broke the colonel's arm. Now, everybody knows I can't hit a barn with my left. And as for having any wounds concealed about my person"--Ranson turned his hands like a conjurer to show the front and back--"they can search me. So, if the paymaster will only stick to that story--that he hit the man--it will help me a lot." Ranson seated himself on the table and swung his leg. "And of course it would be a big help, too, if you could remember who was in your Exchange when I was planning to rob the coach. For someone certainly must have overheard me, someone must have copied my disguise, and that someone is the man we must find. Unless he came from Kiowa."
Cahill shoved his glass from him across the table and, placing his hands on his knees, stared at his host coldly and defiantly. His would-be son-in-law observed the aggressiveness of his attitude, but, in his fuller knowledge of their prospective relations, smiled blandly.
"Mr. Ranson," began Cahill, "I've no feelings against you personally. I've a friendly feeling for all of you young gentlemen at my mess. But you're not playing fair with me. I can see what you want, and I can tell you that you and Captain Carr are not helping your case by asking me up here to drink and smoke with you, when you know that I'm the most important witness they've got against you."
Ranson stared at his father-in-law-elect in genuine amazement, and then laughed lightly.
"Why, dear Mr. Cahill," he cried, "I wouldn't think of bribing you with such a bad brand of whiskey as this. And I didn't know you were such an important witness as all that. But, of course, I know whatever you say in this community goes, and if your testimony is against me, I'm sorry for it, very sorry. I suppose you will testify that there was no one in the Exchange who could have heard my plan?"
"And, as it's not likely two men at exactly the same time should have thought of robbing the stage in exactly the same way, I must have robbed it myself."
Cahill nursed his bandaged hand with the other. "That's the court's business," he growled; "I mean to tell the truth."
"And the truth is?" asked Ransom
"The truth is that last night there was no one in the Exchange but you officers and me. If anybody'd come in on the store side you'd have seen him, wouldn't you? and if he'd come into the Exchange I'd have seen him. But no one come in. I was there alone--and certainly I didn't hear your plan, and I didn't rob the stage. When you fellows left I went down to the Indian village. Half the reservation can prove I was there all the evening--so of the four of us, that lets me out. Crosby and Curtis were in command of the pay escort--that's their alibi--and as far as I can see, lieutenant, that puts it up to you."
Ranson laughed and shook his head. "Yes, it certainly looks that way," he said. "Only I can't see why you need be so damned pleased about it." He grinned wickedly. "If you weren't such a respectable member of Fort Crockett society I might say you listened at the door, and rode after me in one of your own ponchos. As for the Indian village, that's no alibi. A Kiowa swear his skin's as white as yours if you give him a drink."
"And is that why I get this one?" Cahill demanded. "Am I a Kiowa?"
Ranson laughed and shoved the bottle toward his father-in-law-elect.
"Oh, can't you take a joke?" he said. "Take another drink, then."
The voice outside the hut was too low to reach the irate Cahill, but Ranson heard it and leaped to his feet.
"Wait," he commanded. He ran to the door, and met Sergeant Clancey at the threshold.
"Miss Cahill, lieutenant," said the sergeant, "wants to see her father."
Cahill had followed Ranson to the door, "You want to see me, Mame? "he asked.
"Yes," Miss Cahill cried; "and Mr. Ransom, too, if I may." She caught her father eagerly by the arm, but her eyes were turned joyfully upon Ranson. They were laughing with excitement. Her voice was trembling and eager.
"It is something I have discovered," she cried; "I found it out just now, and I think--oh, I hope!--it is most important. I believe it will clear Mr. Ranson!" she cried, happily. "At least it will show that last night someone went out to rob the coach and went dressed as he was."
Cahill gave a short laugh. "What's his name?" he asked, mockingly. "Have you seen him?"
"I didn't see him and I don't know his name, but--"
Cahill snorted, and picked up his sombrero from the table. "Then it's not so very important after all," he said. "Is that all that brought you here?"
"The main thing is that she is here," said Ranson; "for which the poor prisoner is grateful--grateful to her and to the man she hasn't seen, in the mask and poncho, whose name she doesn't know. Mr. Cahill, bad as it is, I insist on your finishing your whiskey. Miss Cahill, please sit down."
He moved a chair toward her and, as he did so, looked full into her face with such love and happiness that she turned her eyes away.
"Well?" asked Cahill.
"I must first explain to Lieutenant Ranson, father," said his daughter, "that to-day is the day we take account of stock."
"Speaking of stock," said Ranson, "don't forget that I owe you for a red kerchief and a rubber poncho. You can have them back, if you like. I won't need a rain coat where I am going."
"Don't," said Miss Cahill. "Please let me go on. After I brought you your breakfast here, I couldn't begin to work just at once. I was thinking about--something else. Everyone was talking of you--your arrest, and I couldn't settle down to take account of stock." She threw a look at Ranson which asked for his sympathy. "But when I did start I began with the ponchos and the red kerchiefs, and then I found out something." Cahill was regarding his daughter in strange distress, but Ranson appeared indifferent to her words, and intent only on the light and beauty in her face. But he asked, smiling, "And that was?"
"You see," continued Miss Cahill, eagerly, "I always keep a dozen of each article, and as each one is sold I check it off in my day-book. Yesterday Mrs. Bolland bought a poncho for the colonel. That left eleven ponchos. Then a few minutes later I gave Lightfoot a red kerchief for his squaw. That left eleven kerchiefs."
"Stop!" cried Ranson. "Miss Cahill," he began, severely, "I hope you do not mean to throw suspicion on the wife of my respected colonel, or on Mrs. Lightfoot, 'the Prairie Flower.' Those ladies are my personal friends; I refuse to believe them guilty. And have you ever seen Mrs. Bolland on horseback? You wrong her. It is impossible."
"Please," begged Miss Cahill, "please let me explain. When you went to hold up the stage you took a poncho and a kerchief. That should have left ten of each. But when I counted them this morning there were nine red kerchiefs and nine ponchos."
Ranson slapped his knee sharply. "Good!" he said. "That is interesting."
"What does it prove?" demanded Cahill.
"It proves nothing, or it proves everything," said Miss Cahill. "To my mind it proves without any doubt that someone overheard Mr. Ranson's plan, that he dressed like him to throw suspicion on him, and that this second person was the one who robbed the paymaster. Now, father, this is where you can help us. You were there then. Try to remember. It is so important. Who came into the store after the others had gone away?"
Cahill tossed his head like an angry bull.
"There are fifty places in this post," he protested, roughly, "where a man can get a poncho. Every trooper owns his slicker."
"But, father, we don't know that theirs are missing," cried Miss Cahill, "and we do know that those in our store are. Don't think I am foolish. It seemed such an important fact to me, and I had hoped it would help."
"It does help--immensely!" cried Ranson.
"I think it's a splendid clue. But, unfortunately, I don't think we can prove anything by your father, for he's just been telling me that there was no one in the place but himself. No one came in, and he was quite alone--" Ranson had begun speaking eagerly, but either his own words or the intentness with which Cahill received them caused him to halt and hesitate--"absolutely--alone."
"You see," said Cahill, thickly, "as soon as they had gone I rode to the Indian village."
"Why, no, father," corrected Miss Cahill. "Don't you remember, you told me last night that when you reached Lightfoot's tent I had just gone. That was quite two hours after the others left the store." In her earnestness Miss Cahill had placed her hand upon her father's arm and clutched it eagerly. "And you remember no one coming in before you left?" she asked. "No one?"
Cahill had not replaced the bandaged hand in his pocket, but had shoved it inside the opening of his coat. As Mary Cahill caught his arm her fingers sank into the palm of the hand and he gave a slight grimace of pain.
"Oh, father," Miss Cahill cried, "your hand! I am so sorry. Did I hurt it? Please--let me see."
Cahill drew back with sudden violence.
"No!" he cried. "Leave it alone! Come, we must be going." But Miss Cahill held the wounded hand in both her own. When she turned her eyes to Ranson they were filled with tender concern.
"I hurt him," she said, reproachfully. "He shot himself last night with one of those new cylinder revolvers."
Her father snatched the hand from her. He tried to drown her voice by a sudden movement toward the door. "Come!" he called. "Do you hear me?"
But his daughter in her sympathy continued. "He was holding it so," she said, "and it went off, and the bullet passed through here." She laid the tip of a slim white finger on the palm of her right hand.
"The bullet!" cried Ranson. He repeated, dully, "The bullet!"
There was a sudden, tense silence. Outside they could hear the crunch of the sentry's heel in the gravel, and from the baseball field back of the barracks the soft spring air was rent with the jubilant crack of the bat as it drove the ball. Afterward Ranson remembered that while one half of his brain was terribly acute to the moment, the other was wondering whether the runner had made his base. It seemed an interminable time before Ranson raised his eyes from Miss Cahill's palm to her father's face. What he read in them caused Cahill to drop his hand swiftly to his hip.
Ranson saw the gesture and threw out both his hands. He gave a hysterical laugh, strangely boyish and immature, and ran to place himself between Cahill and the door. "Drop it!" he whispered. "My God, man!" he entreated, "don't make a fool of yourself. Mr. Cahill," he cried aloud, "you can't go till you know. Can he, Mary? Yes, Mary." The tone in which he repeated the name was proprietary and commanding. He took her hand. "Mr. Cahill," he said, joyously, "we've got something to tell you. I want you to understand that in spite of all I'VE done--I say in spite of all I'VE done--I mean getting into this trouble and disgrace, and all that--I've dared to ask your daughter to marry me." He turned and led Miss Cahill swiftly toward the veranda. "Oh, I knew he wouldn't like it," he cried. "You see. I told you so. You've got to let me talk to him alone. You go outside and wait. I can talk better when you are not here. I'll soon bring him around."
"Father," pleaded Miss Cahill, timidly. From behind her back Ranson shook his head at the post-trader in violent pantomime. "She'd better go outside and wait, hadn't she, Mr. Cahill?" he directed.
As he was bidden, the post-trader raised his head and nodded toward the door. The onslaught of sudden and new conditions overwhelmed and paralyzed him.
"Father!" said Miss Cahill, "it isn't just as you think. Mr. Ranson did ask me to marry him--in a way--At least, I knew what he meant. But I did not say--in a way--that I would marry him. I mean it was not settled, or I would have told you. You mustn't think I would have left you out of this--of my happiness, you who have done everything to make me happy."
She reproached her father with her eyes fastened on his face. His own were stern, fixed, and miserable. "You will let it be, won't you, father?" she begged. "It--it means so much. I--can't tell you--" She threw out her hand toward Ranson as though designating a superior being. "Why, I can't tell HIM. But if you are harsh with him or with me it will break my heart. For as I love you, father, I love him--and it has got to be. It must be. For I love him so. I have always loved him. Father," she whispered, "I love him so."
Ranson, humbly, gratefully, took the girl's hand and led her gently to the veranda and closed the door upon her. Then he came down the room and regarded his prospective father-in-law with an expression of amused exasperation. He thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his riding-breeches and nodded his head. "Well," he exclaimed, "you've made a damned pretty mess of it, haven't you?"
Cahill had sunk heavily into a chair and was staring at Ranson with the stupid, wondering gaze of a dumb animal in pain. During the moments in which the two men eyed each other Ranson's smile disappeared. Cahill raised himself slowly as though with a great effort.
"I done it," said Cahill, "for her. I done it to make her happy."
"That's all right," said Ranson, briskly. "She's going to be happy. We're all going to be happy."
"An' all I did," Cahill continued, as though unconscious of the interruption, "was to disgrace her." He rose suddenly to his feet. His mental sufferings were so keen that his huge body trembled. He recognized how truly he had made "a mess of it." He saw that all he had hoped to do for his daughter by crime would have been done for her by this marriage with Ranson, which would have made her a "lady," made her rich, made her happy. Had it not been for his midnight raids she would have been honored, loved, and envied, even by the wife of the colonel herself. But through him disgrace had come upon her, sorrow and trouble. She would not be known as the daughter of Senator Ranson, but of Cahill, an ex-member of the Whyo gang, a highway robber, as the daughter of a thief who was serving his time in State prison. At the thought Cahill stepped backward unsteadily as though he had been struck. He cried suddenly aloud. Then his hand whipped back to his revolver, but before he could use it Ranson had seized his wrist with both hands. The two struggled silently and fiercely. The fact of opposition brought back to Cahill all of his great strength.
"No, you don't!" Ranson muttered. "Think of your daughter, man. Drop it!"
"I shall do it," Cahill panted. "I am thinking of my daughter. It's the only way out. Take your hands off me--I shall!"
With his knuckles Ranson bored cruelly into the wounded hand, and it opened and the gun dropped from it; but as it did so it went off with a report that rang through the building. There was an instant rush of feet upon the steps of the veranda, and at the sound the two men sprang apart, eyeing each other sheepishly like two discovered truants. When Sergeant Clancey and the guard pushed through the door Ranson stood facing it, spinning the revolver in cowboy fashion around his fourth finger. He addressed the sergeant in a tone of bitter irony.
"Oh, you've come at last," he demanded. "Are you deaf? Why didn't you come when I called?" His tone showed he considered he had just cause for annoyance.
"The gun brought me, I--" began Clancey.
"Yes, I hoped it might. That's why I fired it," snapped Ranson. "I want two whiskey-and-sodas. Quick now!"
"Two--" gasped Clancey.
"Whiskey-and-sodas. See how fast one of you can chase over to the club and get 'em. And next time I want a drink don't make me wake the entire garrison."
As the soldiers retreated Ranson discovered Miss Cahill's white face beyond them. He ran and held the door open by a few inches.
"It's all right," he whispered, reassuringly. "He's nearly persuaded. Wait just a minute longer and he'll be giving us his blessing."
"But the pistol-shot?" she asked.
"I was just calling the guard. The electric bell's broken, and your father wanted a drink. That's a good sign, isn't it? Shows he's friendly, What kind did you say you wanted, Mr. Cahill--Scotch was it, or rye?" Ranson glanced back at the sombre, silent figure of Cahill, and then again opened the door sufficiently for him to stick out his head. "Sergeant," he called, "make them both Scotch--long ones."
He shut the door and turned upon the post-trader. "Now, then, father- in-law," he said, briskly, "you've got to cut and run, and you've got to run quick. We'll tell 'em you're going to Fort Worth to buy the engagement ring, because I can't, being under arrest. But you go to Duncan City instead, and from there take the cars, to--"
"Run away!" Cahill repeated, dazedly. "But you'll be court- martialled."
"There won't be any court-martial!"
Cahill glanced around the room quickly. "I see," he cried. In his eagerness he was almost smiling. "I'm to leave a confession and give it to you."
"Confession! What rot!" cried Ranson.
"They can't prove anything against me. Everyone knows by now that there were two men on the trail, but they don't know who the other man was, and no one ever must know--especially Mary."
Cahill struck the table with his fist. "I won't stand for it!" he cried. "I got you into this and I'm goin'--"
"Yes, going to jail," retorted Ranson. "You'll look nice behind the bars, won't you? Your daughter will be proud of you in a striped suit. Don't talk nonsense. You're going to run and hide some place, somewhere, where Mary and I can come and pay you a visit. Say-- Canada. No, not Canada. I'd rather visit you in jail than in a Montreal hotel. Say Tangier, or Buenos Ayres, or Paris. Yes, Paris is safe enough--and so amusing."
Cahill seated himself heavily. "I trapped you into this fix, Mr. Ranson," he said, "you know I did, and now I mean to get you out of it. I ain't going to leave the man my Mame wants to marry with a cloud on him. I ain't going to let her husband be jailed."
Ranson had run to his desk and from a drawer drew forth a roll of bills. He advanced with them in his hand.
"Yes, Paris is certainly the place," he said. "Here's three hundred dollars. I'll cable you the rest. You've never been to Paris, have you? It's full of beautiful sights--Henry's American Bar, for instance, and the courtyard of the Grand Hotel, and Maxim's. All good Americans go to Paris when they die and all the bad ones while they are alive. You'll find lots of both kinds, and you'll sit all day on the sidewalk and drink Bock and listen to Hungarian bands. And Mary and I will join you there and take you driving in the Bois. Now, you start at once. I'll tell her you've gone to New York to talk it over with father, and buy the ring. Then I'll say you've gone on to Paris to rent us apartments for the honeymoon. I'll explain it somehow. That's better than going to jail, isn't it, and making us bow our heads in grief?"
Cahill, in his turn, approached the desk and, seating himself before it, began writing rapidly.
"What is it?" asked Ranson.
"A confession," said Cahill, his pen scratching.
"I won't take it," Ranson said, "and I won't use it."
"I ain't going to give it to you," said Cahill, over his shoulder. "I know better than that. But I don't go to Paris unless I leave a confession behind me. Call in the guard," he commanded; "I want two witnesses."
"I'll see you hanged first," said Ranson.
Cahill crossed the room to the door and, throwing it open, called, "Corporal of the guard!"
As he spoke, Captain Carr and Mrs. Bolland, accompanied by Miss Post and her aunt, were crossing the parade-ground. For a moment the post- trader surveyed them doubtfully, and then, stepping out upon the veranda, beckoned to them.
"Here's a paper I've signed, captain," he said; "I wish you'd witness my signature. It's my testimony for the court-martial."
"Then someone else had better sign it," said Carr. "Might look prejudiced if I did." He turned to the ladies. "These ladies are coming in to see Ranson now. They'll witness it."
Miss Cahill, from the other end of the veranda, and the visitors entered the room together.
"Mrs. Truesdale!" cried Ranson. "You are pouring coals of fire upon my head. And Miss Post! Indeed, this is too much honor. After the way I threatened and tried to frighten you last night I expected you to hang me, at least, instead of which you have, I trust, come to tea."
"Nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Bolland, sternly. "These ladies insisted on my bringing them here to say how sorry they are that they talked so much and got you into this trouble. Understand, Mr. Ranson," the colonel's wife added, with dignity, "that I am not here officially as Mrs. Bolland, but as a friend of these ladies."
"You are welcome in whatever form you take, Mrs. Bolland," cried Ranson, "and, believe me, I am in no trouble--no trouble, I assure you. In fact, I am quite the most contented man in the world. Mrs. Bolland, in spite of the cloud, the temporary cloud which rests upon my fair name, I take great pride in announcing to you that this young lady has done me the honor to consent to become my wife. Her father, a very old and dear friend, has given his consent. And I take this occasion to tell you of my good fortune, both in your official capacity and as my friend."
There was a chorus of exclamations and congratulations in which Mrs. Bolland showed herself to be a true wife and a social diplomatist. In the post-trader's daughter she instantly recognized the heiress to the Ranson millions, and the daughter of a Senator who also was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Brevets and Promotions. She fell upon Miss Cahill's shoulder and kissed her on both cheeks. Turning eagerly upon Mrs. Truesdale, she said, "Alice, you can understand how I feel when I tell you that this child has always been to me like one of my own."
Carr took Ranson's hand and wrung it. Sergeant Clancey grew purple with pleasure and stole back to the veranda, where he whispered joyfully to a sentry. In another moment a passing private was seen racing delightedly toward the baseball field.
At the same moment Lieutenants Crosby and Curtis and the regimental adjutant crossed the parade ground from the colonel's quarters and ran up the steps of Ranson's hut. The expressions of good-will, of smiling embarrassment and general satisfaction which Lieutenant Crosby observed on the countenances of those present seemed to give him a momentary check.
"Oh," he exclaimed, disappointedly, "someone has told you!"
Ranson laughed and took the hand which Crosby held doubtfully toward him. "No one has told me," he said. "I've been telling them."
"Then you haven't heard?" Crosby cried, delightedly. "That's good. I begged to be the first to let you know, because I felt so badly at having doubted you. You must let me congratulate you. You are free."
"Free?" smiled Ranson.
"Yes, relieved from arrest," Crosby cried, joyfully. He turned and took Ranson's sword from the hands of the adjutant. "And the colonel's let your troop have the band to give you a serenade."
But Ranson's face showed no sign of satisfaction.
"Wait!" he cried. "Why am I relieved from arrest?"
"Why? Because the other fellow has confessed."
Ranson placed himself suddenly in front of Mary Cahill as though to shield her. His eyes stole stealthily towards Cahill's confession. Still unread and still unsigned, it lay unopened upon the table. Cahill was gazing upon Ranson in blank bewilderment.
Captain Carr gasped a sigh of relief that was far from complimentary to his client.
"Who confessed?" he cried.
"'Pop' Henderson," said Crosby.
"'Pop' Henderson!" shouted Cahill. Unmindful of his wound, he struck the table savagely with his fist. For the first time in the knowledge of the post he exhibited emotion. "'Pop' Henderson, by the eternal!" he cried. "And I never guessed it!"
"Yes," said Crosby, eagerly. "Abe Fisher was in it. Henderson persuaded the paymaster to make the trip alone with him. Then he dressed up Fisher to represent the Red Rider and sent him on ahead to hold him up. They were to share the money afterward. But Fisher fired on 'Pop' to kill, so as to have it all, and 'Pop's' trying to get even. And what with wanting to hurt Fisher, and thinking he is going to die, and not wishing to see you hanged, he's told the truth. We wired Kiowa early this morning and arrested Fisher. They've found the money, and he has confessed, too."
"But the poncho and the red kerchief?" protested Carr. "And he had no stirrups!"
"Oh, Fisher had the make-up all right," laughed Crosby; "Henderson says Fisher's the 'only, original' Red Rider. And as for the stirrups, I'm afraid that's my fault. I asked the colonel if the man wasn't riding without stirrups, and I guess the wish was father to the fact. He only imagined he hadn't seen any stirrups. The colonel was rattled. So, old man," he added, turning to Ranson, "here's your sword again, and God bless you."
Already the post had learned the news from the band and the verandas of the enlisted men overflowed with delighted troopers. From the stables and the ball field came the sound of hurrying feet, and a tumult of cheers and cowboy yells. Across the parade-ground the regimental band bore down upon Ranson's hut, proclaiming to the garrison that there would be a hot time in the old town that night. But Sergeant Clancey ran to meet the bandmaster, and shouted in his ear. "He's going to marry Mary Cahill," he cried. "I heard him tell the colonel's wife. Play 'Just Because She Made Them Goo-goo Eyes.'"
"Like hell!" cried the bandmaster, indignantly, breaking in on the tune with his baton. "I know my business! Now, then, men," he commanded, "'I'll Leave My Happy Home for You.'"
As Mrs. Bolland dragged Miss Cahill into view of the assembled troopers Ranson pulled his father-in-law into a far corner of the room. He shook the written confession in his face.
"Now, will you kindly tell me what that means?" he demanded. "What sort of a gallery play were you trying to make?"
Cahill shifted his sombrero guiltily. "I was trying to get you out of the hole," he stammered. "I--I thought you done it."
"You thought I done it!"
"Sure. I never thought nothing else."
"Then why do you say here that YOU did it?"
"Oh, because," stammered Cahill, miserably, "'cause of Mary, 'cause she wanted to marry you--'cause you were going to marry her."
"Well--but--what good were you going to do by shooting yourself?"
"Oh, then?" Cahill jerked back his head as though casting out an unpleasant memory. "I thought you'd caught me, you, too--between you!"
"Caught you! Then you did--?"
"No, but I tried to. I heard your plan, and I did follow you in the poncho and kerchief, meaning to hold up the stage first, and leave it to Crosby and Curtis to prove you did it. But when I reached the coach you were there ahead of me, and I rode away and put in my time at the Indian village. I never saw the paymaster's cart, never heard of it till this morning. But what with Mame missing the poncho out of our shop and the wound in my hand I guessed they'd all soon suspect me. I saw you did. So I thought I'd just confess to what I meant to do, even if I didn't do it."
Ranson surveyed his father-in-law with a delighted grin. "How did you get that bullet-hole in your hand?" he asked.
Cahill laughed shamefacedly. "I hate to tell you that," he said. "I got it just as I said I did. My new gun went off while I was fooling with it, with my hand over the muzzle. And me the best shot in the Territory! But when I heard the paymaster claimed he shot the Red Rider through the palm I knew no one would believe me if I told the truth. So I lied."
Ranson glanced down at the written confession, and then tore it slowly into pieces. "And you were sure I robbed the stage, and yet you believed that I'd use this? What sort of a son-in-law do you think you've got?"
"You thought I robbed the stage, didn't you?"
"And you were going to stand for robbing it yourself, weren't you? Well, that's the sort of son-in-law I've got!"
The two men held out their hands at the same instant.
Mary Cahill, her face glowing with pride and besieged with blushes, came toward them from the veranda. She was laughing and radiant, but she turned her eyes on Ranson with a look of tender reproach.
"Why did you desert me?" she said. "It was awful. They are calling you now. They are playing 'The Conquering Hero.'"
"Mr. Cahill," commanded Ranson, "go out there and make a speech." He turned to Mary Cahill and lifted one of her hands in both of his. "Well, I AM the conquering hero," he said. "I've won the only thing worth winning, dearest," he whispered; "we'll run away from them in a minute, and we'll ride to the waterfall and the Lover's Leap." He looked down at her wistfully. "Do you remember?"
Mary Cahill raised her head and smiled. He leaned toward her breathlessly.
"Why, did it mean that to you, too?" he asked.
She smiled up at him in assent.
"But I didn't say anything, did I?" whispered Ranson. "I hardly knew you then. But I knew that day that I--that I would marry you or nobody else. And did you think--that you--"
"Yes," Mary Cahill whispered.
He bent his head and touched her hand with his lips.
"Then we'll go back this morning to the waterfall," he said, "and tell it that it's all come right. And now, we'll bow to those crazy people out there, those make-believe dream-people, who don't know that there is nothing real in this world but just you and me, and that we love each other."
A dishevelled orderly bearing a tray with two glasses confronted Ranson at the door. "Here's the Scotch and sodas, lieutenant," he panted. "I couldn't get 'em any sooner. The men wanted to take 'em off me--to drink Miss Cahill's health."
"So they shall," said Ranson. "Tell them to drink the canteen dry and charge it to me. What's a little thing like the regulations between friends? They have taught me my manners. Mr. Cahill," he called.
The post-trader returned from the veranda.
Ranson solemnly handed him a glass and raised the other in the air. "Here's hoping that the Red Rider rides on his raids no more," he said; "and to the future Mrs. Ranson--to Mary Cahill, God bless her!"
He shattered the empty glass in the grate and took Cahill's hand.
"Father-in-law," said Ranson, "let's promise each other to lead a new and a better life."
* * * * * * * * * * * *