The Sage Wood and Dead Flat stage coach was waiting before the station. The Pine Barrens mail wagon that connected with it was long overdue, with its transfer passengers, and the station had relapsed into listless expectation. Even the humors of Dick Boyle, the Chicago "drummer,"--and, so far, the solitary passenger--which had diverted the waiting loungers, began to fail in effect, though the cheerfulness of the humorist was unabated. The ostlers had slunk back into the stables, the station keeper and stage driver had reduced their conversation to impatient monosyllables, as if each thought the other responsible for the delay. A solitary Indian, wrapped in a commissary blanket and covered by a cast-off tall hat, crouched against the wall of the station looking stolidly at nothing. The station itself, a long, rambling building containing its entire accommodation for man and beast under one monotonous, shed-like roof, offered nothing to attract the eye. Still less the prospect, on the one side two miles of arid waste to the stunted, far-spaced pines in the distance, known as the "Barrens;" on the other an apparently limitless level with darker patches of sage brush, like the scars of burnt-out fires.
Dick Boyle approached the motionless Indian as a possible relief. "YOU don't seem to care much if school keeps or not, do you, Lo?"
The Indian, who had been half crouching on his upturned soles, here straightened himself with a lithe, animal-like movement, and stood up. Boyle took hold of a corner of his blanket and examined it critically.
"Gov'ment ain't pampering you with A1 goods, Lo! I reckon the agent charged 'em four dollars for that. Our firm could have delivered them to you for 2 dols. 37 cents, and thrown in a box of beads in the bargain. Suthin like this!" He took from his pocket a small box containing a gaudy bead necklace and held it up before the Indian.
The savage, who had regarded him--or rather looked beyond him--with the tolerating indifference of one interrupted by a frisking inferior animal, here suddenly changed his expression. A look of childish eagerness came into his gloomy face; he reached out his hand for the trinket.
"Hol' on!" said Boyle, hesitating for a moment; then he suddenly ejaculated, "Well! take it, and one o' these," and drew a business card from his pocket, which he stuck in the band of the battered tall hat of the aborigine. "There! show that to your friends, and when you're wantin' anything in our line"--
The interrupting roar of laughter, coming from the box seat of the coach, was probably what Boyle was expecting, for he turned away demurely and walked towards the coach. "All right, boys! I've squared the noble red man, and the star of empire is taking its westward way. And I reckon our firm will do the 'Great Father' business for him at about half the price that it is done in Washington."
But at this point the ostlers came hurrying out of the stables. "She's comin'," said one. "That's her dust just behind the Lone Pine--and by the way she's racin' I reckon she's comin' in mighty light."
"That's so," said the mail agent, standing up on the box seat for a better view, "but darned ef I kin see any outside passengers. I reckon we haven't waited for much."
Indeed, as the galloping horses of the incoming vehicle pulled out of the hanging dust in the distance, the solitary driver could be seen urging on his team. In a few moments more they had halted at the lower end of the station.
"Wonder what's up!" said the mail agent.
"Nothin'! Only a big Injin scare at Pine Barrens," said one of the ostlers. "Injins doin' ghost dancin'--or suthin like that--and the passengers just skunked out and went on by the other line. Thar's only one ez dar come--and she's a lady."
"A lady?" echoed Boyle.
"Yes," answered the driver, taking a deliberate survey of a tall, graceful girl who, waiving the gallant assistance of the station keeper, had leaped unaided from the vehicle. "A lady--and the fort commandant's darter at that! She's clar grit, you bet--a chip o' the old block. And all this means, sonny, that you're to give up that box seat to HER. Miss Julia Cantire don't take anythin' less when I'm around."
The young lady was already walking, directly and composedly, towards the waiting coach--erect, self-contained, well gloved and booted, and clothed, even in her dust cloak and cape of plain ashen merino, with the unmistakable panoply of taste and superiority. A good-sized aquiline nose, which made her handsome mouth look smaller; gray eyes, with an occasional humid yellow sparkle in their depths; brown penciled eyebrows, and brown tendrils of hair, all seemed to Boyle to be charmingly framed in by the silver gray veil twisted around her neck and under her oval chin. In her sober tints she appeared to him to have evoked a harmony even out of the dreadful dust around them. What HE appeared to her was not so plain; she looked him over--he was rather short; through him--he was easily penetrable; and then her eyes rested with a frank recognition on the driver.
"Good-morning, Mr. Foster," she said, with a smile.
"Mornin', miss. I hear they're havin' an Injin scare over at the Barrens. I reckon them men must feel mighty mean at bein' stumped by a lady!"
"I don't think they believed I would go, and some of them had their wives with them," returned the young lady indifferently; "besides, they are Eastern people, who don't know Indians as well as WE do, Mr. Foster."
The driver blushed with pleasure at the association. "Yes, ma'am," he laughed, "I reckon the sight of even old 'Fleas in the Blanket' over there," pointing to the Indian, who was walking stolidly away from the station, "would frighten 'em out o' their boots. And yet he's got inside his hat the business card o' this gentleman--Mr. Dick Boyle, traveling for the big firm o' Fletcher & Co. of Chicago"--he interpolated, rising suddenly to the formal heights of polite introduction; "so it sorter looks ez ef any SKELPIN' was to be done it might be the other way round, ha! ha!"
Miss Cantire accepted the introduction and the joke with polite but cool abstraction, and climbed lightly into the box seat as the mail bags and a quantity of luggage--evidently belonging to the evading passengers--were quickly transferred to the coach. But for his fair companion, the driver would probably have given profane voice to his conviction that his vehicle was used as a "d----d baggage truck," but he only smiled grimly, gathered up his reins, and flicked his whip. The coach plunged forward into the dust, which instantly rose around it, and made it thereafter a mere cloud in the distance. Some of that dust for a moment overtook and hid the Indian, walking stolidly in its track, but he emerged from it at an angle, with a quickened pace and a peculiar halting trot. Yet that trot was so well sustained that in an hour he had reached a fringe of rocks and low bushes hitherto invisible through the irregularities of the apparently level plain, into which he plunged and disappeared. The dust cloud which indicated the coach-- probably owing to these same irregularities--had long since been lost on the visible horizon.
The fringe which received him was really the rim of a depression quite concealed from the surface of the plain,--which it followed for some miles through a tangled trough-like bottom of low trees and underbrush,--and was a natural cover for wolves, coyotes, and occasionally bears, whose half-human footprint might have deceived a stranger. This did not, however, divert the Indian, who, trotting still doggedly on, paused only to examine another footprint--much more frequent--the smooth, inward-toed track of moccasins. The thicket grew more dense and difficult as he went on, yet he seemed to glide through its density and darkness--an obscurity that now seemed to be stirred by other moving objects, dimly seen, and as uncertain and intangible as sunlit leaves thrilled by the wind, yet bearing a strange resemblance to human figures! Pressing a few yards further, he himself presently became a part of this shadowy procession, which on closer scrutiny revealed itself as a single file of Indians, following each other in the same tireless trot. The woods and underbrush were full of them; all moving on, as he had moved, in a line parallel with the vanishing coach. Sometimes through the openings a bared painted limb, a crest of feathers, or a strip of gaudy blanket was visible, but nothing more. And yet only a few hundred yards away stretched the dusky, silent plain--vacant of sound or motion!
Meanwhile the Sage Wood and Pine Barren stage coach, profoundly oblivious--after the manner of all human invention--of everything but its regular function, toiled dustily out of the higher plain and began the grateful descent of a wooded canyon, which was, in fact, the culminating point of the depression, just described, along which the shadowy procession was slowly advancing, hardly a mile in the rear and flank of the vehicle. Miss Julia Cantire, who had faced the dust volleys of the plain unflinchingly, as became a soldier's daughter, here stood upright and shook herself--her pretty head and figure emerging like a goddess from the enveloping silver cloud. At least Mr. Boyle, relegated to the back seat, thought so--although her conversation and attentions had been chiefly directed to the driver and mail agent. Once, when he had light-heartedly addressed a remark to her, it had been received with a distinct but unpromising politeness that had made him desist from further attempts, yet without abatement of his cheerfulness, or resentment of the evident amusement his two male companions got out of his "snub." Indeed, it is to be feared that Miss Julia had certain prejudices of position, and may have thought that a "drummer"--or commercial traveler--was no more fitting company for the daughter of a major than an ordinary peddler. But it was more probable that Mr. Boyle's reputation as a humorist--a teller of funny stories and a boon companion of men--was inconsistent with the feminine ideal of high and exalted manhood. The man who "sets the table in a roar" is apt to be secretly detested by the sex, to say nothing of the other obvious reasons why Juliets do not like Mercutios!
For some such cause as this Dick Boyle was obliged to amuse himself silently, alone on the back seat, with those liberal powers of observation which nature had given him. On entering the canyon he had noticed the devious route the coach had taken to reach it, and had already invented an improved route which should enter the depression at the point where the Indians had already (unknown to him) plunged into it, and had conceived a road through the tangled brush that would shorten the distance by some miles. He had figured it out, and believed that it "would pay." But by this time they were beginning the somewhat steep and difficult ascent of the canyon on the other side. The vehicle had not crawled many yards before it stopped. Dick Boyle glanced around. Miss Cantire was getting down. She had expressed a wish to walk the rest of the ascent, and the coach was to wait for her at the top. Foster had effusively begged her to take her own time--"there was no hurry!" Boyle glanced a little longingly after her graceful figure, released from her cramped position on the box, as it flitted youthfully in and out of the wayside trees; he would like to have joined her in the woodland ramble, but even his good nature was not proof against her indifference. At a turn in the road they lost sight of her, and, as the driver and mail agent were deep in a discussion about the indistinct track, Boyle lapsed into his silent study of the country. Suddenly he uttered a slight exclamation, and quietly slipped from the back of the toiling coach to the ground. The action was, however, quickly noted by the driver, who promptly put his foot on the brake and pulled up. "Wot's up now?" he growled.
Boyle did not reply, but ran back a few steps and began searching eagerly on the ground.
"Lost suthin?" asked Foster.
"Found something," said Boyle, picking up a small object. "Look at that! D----d if it isn't the card I gave that Indian four hours ago at the station!" He held up the card.
"Look yer, sonny," retorted Foster gravely, "ef yer wantin' to get out and hang round Miss Cantire, why don't yer say so at oncet? That story won't wash!"
"Fact!" continued Boyle eagerly. "It's the same card I stuck in his hat--there's the greasy mark in the corner. How the devil did it--how did HE get here?"
"Better ax him," said Foster grimly, "ef he's anywhere round."
"But I say, Foster, I don't like the look of this at all! Miss Cantire is alone, and"--
But a burst of laughter from Foster and the mail agent interrupted him. "That's so," said Foster. "That's your best holt! Keep it up! You jest tell her that! Say thar's another Injin skeer on; that that thar bloodthirsty ole 'Fleas in His Blanket' is on the warpath, and you're goin' to shed the last drop o' your blood defendin' her! That'll fetch her, and she ain't bin treatin' you well! G'lang!"
The horses started forward under Foster's whip, leaving Boyle standing there, half inclined to join in the laugh against himself, and yet impelled by some strange instinct to take a more serious view of his discovery. There was no doubt it was the same card he had given to the Indian. True, that Indian might have given it to another--yet by what agency had it been brought there faster than the coach traveled on the same road, and yet invisibly to them? For an instant the humorous idea of literally accepting Foster's challenge, and communicating his discovery to Miss Cantire, occurred to him; he could have made a funny story out of it, and could have amused any other girl with it, but he would not force himself upon her, and again doubted if the discovery were a matter of amusement. If it were really serious, why should he alarm her? He resolved, however, to remain on the road, and within convenient distance of her, until she returned to the coach; she could not be far away. With this purpose he walked slowly on, halting occasionally to look behind.
Meantime the coach continued its difficult ascent, a difficulty made greater by the singular nervousness of the horses, that only with great trouble and some objurgation from the driver could be prevented from shying from the regular track.
"Now, wot's gone o' them critters?" said the irate Foster, straining at the reins until he seemed to lift the leader back into the track again.
"Looks as ef they smelt suthin--b'ar or Injin ponies," suggested the mail agent.
"Injin ponies?" repeated Foster scornfully.
"Fac'! Injin ponies set a hoss crazy--jest as wild hosses would!"
"Whar's yer Injin ponies?" demanded Foster incredulously.
"Dunno," said the mail agent simply.
But here the horses again swerved so madly from some point of the thicket beside them that the coach completely left the track on the right. Luckily it was a disused trail and the ground fairly good, and Foster gave them their heads, satisfied of his ability to regain the regular road when necessary. It took some moments for him to recover complete control of the frightened animals, and then their nervousness having abated with their distance from the thicket, and the trail being less steep though more winding than the regular road, he concluded to keep it until he got to the summit, when he would regain the highway once more and await his passengers. Having done this, the two men stood up on the box, and with an anxiety they tried to conceal from each other looked down the canyon for the lagging pedestrians.
"I hope Miss Cantire hasn't been stampeded from the track by any skeer like that," said the mail agent dubiously.
"Not she! She's got too much grit and sabe for that, unless that drummer hez caught up with her and unloaded his yarn about that kyard."
They were the last words the men spoke. For two rifle shots cracked from the thicket beside the road; two shots aimed with such deliberateness and precision that the two men, mortally stricken, collapsed where they stood, hanging for a brief moment over the dashboard before they rolled over on the horses' backs. Nor did they remain there long, for the next moment they were seized by half a dozen shadowy figures and with the horses and their cut traces dragged into the thicket. A half dozen and then a dozen other shadows flitted and swarmed over, in, and through the coach, reinforced by still more, until the whole vehicle seemed to be possessed, covered, and hidden by them, swaying and moving with their weight, like helpless carrion beneath a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet even while this seething congregation was at its greatest, at some unknown signal it as suddenly dispersed, vanished, and disappeared, leaving the coach empty--vacant and void of all that had given it life, weight, animation, and purpose--a mere skeleton on the roadside. The afternoon wind blew through its open doors and ravaged rack and box as if it had been the wreck of weeks instead of minutes, and the level rays of the setting sun flashed and blazed into its windows as though fire had been added to the ruin. But even this presently faded, leaving the abandoned coach a rigid, lifeless spectre on the twilight plain.
An hour later there was the sound of hurrying hoofs and jingling accoutrements, and out of the plain swept a squad of cavalrymen bearing down upon the deserted vehicle. For a few moments they, too, seemed to surround and possess it, even as the other shadows had done, penetrating the woods and thicket beside it. And then as suddenly at some signal they swept forward furiously in the track of the destroying shadows.
Miss Cantire took full advantage of the suggestion "not to hurry" in her walk, with certain feminine ideas of its latitude. She gathered a few wild flowers and some berries in the underwood, inspected some birds' nests with a healthy youthful curiosity, and even took the opportunity of arranging some moist tendrils of her silky hair with something she took from the small reticule that hung coquettishly from her girdle. It was, indeed, some twenty minutes before she emerged into the road again; the vehicle had evidently disappeared in a turn of the long, winding ascent, but just ahead of her was that dreadful man, the "Chicago drummer." She was not vain, but she made no doubt that he was waiting there for her. There was no avoiding him, but his companionship could be made a brief one. She began to walk with ostentatious swiftness.
Boyle, whose concern for her safety was secretly relieved at this, began to walk forward briskly too without looking around. Miss Cantire was not prepared for this; it looked so ridiculously as if she were chasing him! She hesitated slightly, but now as she was nearly abreast of him she was obliged to keep on.
"I think you do well to hurry, Miss Cantire," he said as she passed. "I've lost sight of the coach for some time, and I dare say they're already waiting for us at the summit."
Miss Cantire did not like this any better. To go on beside this dreadful man, scrambling breathlessly after the stage--for all the world like an absorbed and sentimentally belated pair of picnickers--was really TOO much. "Perhaps if YOU ran on and told them I was coming as fast as I could," she suggested tentatively.
"It would be as much as my life is worth to appear before Foster without you," he said laughingly. "You've only got to hurry on a little faster."
But the young lady resented this being driven by a "drummer." She began to lag, depressing her pretty brows ominously.
"Let me carry your flowers," said Boyle. He had noticed that she was finding some difficulty in holding up her skirt and the nosegay at the same time.
"No! No!" she said in hurried horror at this new suggestion of their companionship. "Thank you very much--but they're really not worth keeping--I am going to throw them away. There!" she added, tossing them impatiently in the dust.
But she had not reckoned on Boyle's perfect good-humor. That gentle idiot stooped down, actually gathered them up again, and was following! She hurried on; if she could only get to the coach first, ignoring him! But a vulgar man like that would be sure to hand them to her with some joke! Then she lagged again--she was getting tired, and she could see no sign of the coach. The drummer, too, was also lagging behind--at a respectful distance, like a groom or one of her father's troopers. Nevertheless this did not put her in a much better humor, and halting until he came abreast of her, she said impatiently: "I don't see why Mr. Foster should think it necessary to send any one to look after me."
"He didn't," returned Boyle simply. "I got down to pick up something."
"To pick up something?" she returned incredulously.
"Yes. THAT." He held out the card. "It's the card of our firm."
Miss Cantire smiled ironically. "You are certainly devoted to your business."
"Well, yes," returned Boyle good-humoredly. "You see I reckon it don't pay to do anything halfway. And whatever I do, I mean to keep my eyes about me." In spite of her prejudice, Miss Cantire could see that these necessary organs, if rather flippant, were honest. "Yes, I suppose there isn't much on that I don't take in. Why now, Miss Cantire, there's that fancy dust cloak you're wearing--it isn't in our line of goods--nor in anybody's line west of Chicago; it came from Boston or New York, and was made for home consumption! But your hat--and mighty pretty it is too, as YOU'VE fixed it up--is only regular Dunstable stock, which we could put down at Pine Barrens for four and a half cents a piece, net. Yet I suppose you paid nearly twenty-five cents for it at the Agency!"
Oddly enough this cool appraisement of her costume did not incense the young lady as it ought to have done. On the contrary, for some occult feminine reason, it amused and interested her. It would be such a good story to tell her friends of a "drummer's" idea of gallantry; and to tease the flirtatious young West Pointer who had just joined. And the appraisement was truthful--Major Cantire had only his pay--and Miss Cantire had been obliged to select that hat from the government stores.
"Are you in the habit of giving this information to ladies you meet in traveling?" she asked.
"Well, no!" answered Boyle--"for that's just where you have to keep your eyes open. Most of 'em wouldn't like it, and it's no use aggravating a possible customer. But you are not that kind."
Miss Cantire was silent. She knew she was not of that kind, but she did not require his vulgar indorsement. She pushed on for some moments alone, when suddenly he hailed her. She turned impatiently. He was carefully examining the road on both sides.
"We have either lost our way," he said, rejoining her, "or the coach has turned off somewhere. These tracks are not fresh, and as they are all going the same way, they were made by the up coach last night. They're not OUR tracks; I thought it strange we hadn't sighted the coach by this time."
"And then"--said Miss Cantire impatiently.
"We must turn back until we find them again."
The young lady frowned. "Why not keep on until we get to the top?" she said pettishly. "I'm sure I shall." She stopped suddenly as she caught sight of his grave face and keen, observant eyes. "Why can't we go on as we are?"
"Because we are expected to come back to the COACH--and not to the summit merely. These are the 'orders,' and you know you are a soldier's daughter!" He laughed as he spoke, but there was a certain quiet deliberation in his manner that impressed her. When he added, after a pause, "We must go back and find where the tracks turned off," she obeyed without a word.
They walked for some time, eagerly searching for signs of the missing vehicle. A curious interest and a new reliance in Boyle's judgment obliterated her previous annoyance, and made her more natural. She ran ahead of him with youthful eagerness, examining the ground, following a false clue with great animation, and confessing her defeat with a charming laugh. And it was she who, after retracing their steps for ten minutes, found the diverging track with a girlish cry of triumph. Boyle, who had followed her movements quite as interestedly as her discovery, looked a little grave as he noticed the deep indentations made by the struggling horses. Miss Cantire detected the change in his face; ten minutes before she would never have observed it. "I suppose we had better follow the new track," she said inquiringly, as he seemed to hesitate.
"Certainly," he said quickly, as if coming to a prompt decision. "That is safest."
"What do you think has happened? The ground looks very much cut up," she said in a confidential tone, as new to her as her previous observation of him.
"A horse has probably stumbled and they've taken the old trail as less difficult," said Boyle promptly. In his heart he did not believe it, yet he knew that if anything serious had threatened them the coach would have waited in the road. "It's an easier trail for us, though I suppose it's a little longer," he added presently.
"You take everything so good-humoredly, Mr. Boyle," she said after a pause.
"It's the way to do business, Miss Cantire," he said. "A man in my line has to cultivate it."
She wished he hadn't said that, but, nevertheless, she returned a little archly: "But you haven't any business with the stage company nor with ME, although I admit I intend to get my Dunstable hereafter from your firm at the wholesale prices."
Before he could reply, the detonation of two gunshots, softened by distance, floated down from the ridge above them. "There!" said Miss Cantire eagerly. "Do you hear that?"
His face was turned towards the distant ridge, but really that she might not question his eyes. She continued with animation: "That's from the coach--to guide us--don't you see?"
"Yes," he returned, with a quick laugh, "and it says hurry up-- mighty quick--we're tired waiting--so we'd better push on."
"Why don't you answer back with your revolver?" she asked.
"Haven't got one," he said.
"Haven't got one?" she repeated in genuine surprise. "I thought you gentlemen who are traveling always carried one. Perhaps it's inconsistent with your gospel of good-humor."
"That's just it, Miss Cantire," he said with a laugh. "You've hit it."
"Why," she said hesitatingly, "even I have a derringer--a very little one, you know, which I carry in my reticule. Captain Richards gave it to me." She opened her reticule and showed a pretty ivory-handled pistol. The look of joyful surprise which came into his face changed quickly as she cocked it and lifted it into the air. He seized her arm quickly.
"No, please don't, you might want it--I mean the report won't carry far enough. It's a very useful little thing, for all that, but it's only effective at close quarters." He kept the pistol in his hand as they walked on. But Miss Cantire noticed this, also his evident satisfaction when she had at first produced it, and his concern when she was about to discharge it uselessly. She was a clever girl, and a frank one to those she was inclined to trust. And she began to trust this stranger. A smile stole along her oval cheek.
"I really believe you're afraid of something, Mr. Boyle," she said, without looking up. "What is it? You haven't got that Indian scare too?"
Boyle had no false shame. "I think I have," he returned, with equal frankness. "You see, I don't understand Indians as well as you--and Foster."
"Well, you take my word and Foster's that there is not the least danger from them. About here they are merely grown-up children, cruel and destructive as most children are; but they know their masters by this time, and the old days of promiscuous scalping are over. The only other childish propensity they keep is thieving. Even then they only steal what they actually want,--horses, guns, and powder. A coach can go where an ammunition or an emigrant wagon can't. So your trunk of samples is quite safe with Foster."
Boyle did not think it necessary to protest. Perhaps he was thinking of something else.
"I've a mind," she went on slyly, "to tell you something more. Confidence for confidence: as you've told me YOUR trade secrets, I'll tell you one of OURS. Before we left Pine Barrens, my father ordered a small escort of cavalrymen to be in readiness to join that coach if the scouts, who were watching, thought it necessary. So, you see, I'm something of a fraud as regards my reputation for courage."
"That doesn't follow," said Boyle admiringly, "for your father must have thought there was some danger, or he wouldn't have taken that precaution."
"Oh, it wasn't for me," said the young girl quickly.
"Not for you?" repeated Boyle.
Miss Cantire stopped short, with a pretty flush of color and an adorable laugh. "There! I've done it, so I might as well tell the whole story. But I can trust you, Mr. Boyle." (She faced him with clear, penetrating eyes.) "Well," she laughed again, "you might have noticed that we had a quantity of baggage of passengers who didn't go? Well, those passengers never intended to go, and hadn't any baggage! Do you understand? Those innocent-looking heavy trunks contained carbines and cartridges from our post for Fort Taylor"--she made him a mischievous curtsy--"under MY charge! And," she added, enjoying his astonishment, "as you saw, I brought them through safe to the station, and had them transferred to this coach with less fuss and trouble than a commissary transport and escort would have made."
"And they were in THIS coach?" repeated Boyle abstractedly.
"Were? They ARE!" said Miss Cantire.
"Then the sooner I get you back to your treasure again the better," said Boyle with a laugh. "Does Foster know it?"
"Of course not! Do you suppose I'd tell it to anybody but a stranger to the place? Perhaps, like you, I know when and to whom to impart information," she said mischievously.
Whatever was in Boyle's mind he had space for profound and admiring astonishment of the young lady before him. The girlish simplicity and trustfulness of her revelation seemed as inconsistent with his previous impression of her reserve and independence as her girlish reasoning and manner was now delightfully at variance with her tallness, her aquiline nose, and her erect figure. Mr. Boyle, like most short men, was apt to overestimate the qualities of size.
They walked on for some moments in silence. The ascent was comparatively easy but devious, and Boyle could see that this new detour would take them still some time to reach the summit. Miss Cantire at last voiced the thought in his own mind. "I wonder what induced them to turn off here? and if you hadn't been so clever as to discover their tracks, how could we have found them? But," she added, with feminine logic, "that, of course, is why they fired those shots."
Boyle remembered, however, that the shots came from another direction, but did not correct her conclusion. Nevertheless he said lightly: "Perhaps even Foster might have had an Indian scare."
"He ought to know 'friendlies' or 'government reservation men' better by this time," said Miss Cantire; "however, there is something in that. Do you know," she added with a laugh, "though I haven't your keen eyes I'm gifted with a keen scent, and once or twice I've thought I SMELT Indians--that peculiar odor of their camps, which is unlike anything else, and which one detects even in their ponies. I used to notice it when I rode one; no amount of grooming could take it away."
"I don't suppose that the intensity or degree of this odor would give you any idea of the hostile or friendly feelings of the Indians towards you?" asked Boyle grimly.
Although the remark was consistent with Boyle's objectionable reputation as a humorist, Miss Cantire deigned to receive it with a smile, at which Boyle, who was a little relieved by their security so far, and their nearness to their journey's end, developed further ingenious trifling until, at the end of an hour, they stood upon the plain again.
There was no sign of the coach, but its fresh track was visible leading along the bank of the ravine towards the intersection of the road they should have come by, and to which the coach had indubitably returned. Mr. Boyle drew a long breath. They were comparatively safe from any invisible attack now. At the end of ten minutes Miss Cantire, from her superior height, detected the top of the missing vehicle appearing above the stunted bushes at the junction of the highway.
"Would you mind throwing those old flowers away now?" she said, glancing at the spoils which Boyle still carried.
"Why?" he asked.
"Oh, they're too ridiculous. Please do."
"May I keep one?" he asked, with the first intonation of masculine weakness in his voice.
"If you like," she said, a little coldly.
Boyle selected a small spray of myrtle and cast the other flowers obediently aside.
"Dear me, how ridiculous!" she said.
"What is ridiculous?" he asked, lifting his eyes to hers with a slight color. But he saw that she was straining her eyes in the distance.
"Why, there don't seem to be any horses to the coach!"
He looked. Through a gap in the furze he could see the vehicle now quite distinctly, standing empty, horseless and alone. He glanced hurriedly around them; on the one side a few rocks protected them from the tangled rim of the ridge; on the other stretched the plain. "Sit down, don't move until I return," he said quickly. "Take that." He handed back her pistol, and ran quickly to the coach. It was no illusion; there it stood vacant, abandoned, its dropped pole and cut traces showing too plainly the fearful haste of its desertion! A light step behind him made him turn. It was Miss Cantire, pink and breathless, carrying the cocked derringer in her hand. "How foolish of you--without a weapon," she gasped in explanation.
Then they both stared at the coach, the empty plain, and at each other! After their tedious ascent, their long detour, their protracted expectancy and their eager curiosity, there was such a suggestion of hideous mockery in this vacant, useless vehicle-- apparently left to them in what seemed their utter abandonment-- that it instinctively affected them alike. And as I am writing of human nature I am compelled to say that they both burst into a fit of laughter that for the moment stopped all other expression!
"It was so kind of them to leave the coach," said Miss Cantire faintly, as she took her handkerchief from her wet and mirthful eyes. "But what made them run away?"
Boyle did not reply; he was eagerly examining the coach. In that brief hour and a half the dust of the plain had blown thick upon it, and covered any foul stain or blot that might have suggested the awful truth. Even the soft imprint of the Indians' moccasined feet had been trampled out by the later horse hoofs of the cavalrymen. It was these that first attracted Boyle's attention, but he thought them the marks made by the plunging of the released coach horses.
Not so his companion! She was examining them more closely, and suddenly lifted her bright, animated face. "Look!" she said; "our men have been here, and have had a hand in this--whatever it is."
"Our men?" repeated Boyle blankly.
"Yes!--troopers from the post--the escort I told you of. These are the prints of the regulation cavalry horseshoe--not of Foster's team, nor of Indian ponies, who never have any! Don't you see?" she went on eagerly; "our men have got wind of something and have galloped down here--along the ridge--see!" she went on, pointing to the hoof prints coming from the plain. "They've anticipated some Indian attack and secured everything."
"But if they were the same escort you spoke of, they must have known you were here, and have"--he was about to say "abandoned you," but checked himself, remembering they were her father's soldiers.
"They knew I could take care of myself, and wouldn't stand in the way of their duty," said the young girl, anticipating him with quick professional pride that seemed to fit her aquiline nose and tall figure. "And if they knew that," she added, softening with a mischievous smile, "they also knew, of course, that I was protected by a gallant stranger vouched for by Mr. Foster! No!" she added, with a certain blind, devoted confidence, which Boyle noticed with a slight wince that she had never shown before, "it's all right! and 'by orders,' Mr. Boyle, and when they've done their work they'll be back."
But Boyle's masculine common sense was, perhaps, safer than Miss Cantire's feminine faith and inherited discipline, for in an instant he suddenly comprehended the actual truth! The Indians had been there FIRST; THEY had despoiled the coach and got off safely with their booty and prisoners on the approach of the escort, who were now naturally pursuing them with a fury aroused by the belief that their commander's daughter was one of their prisoners. This conviction was a dreadful one, yet a relief as far as the young girl was concerned. But should he tell her? No! Better that she should keep her calm faith in the triumphant promptness of the soldiers--and their speedy return.
"I dare say you are right," he said cheerfully, "and let us be thankful that in the empty coach you'll have at least a half- civilized shelter until they return. Meantime I'll go and reconnoitre a little."
"I will go with you," she said.
But Boyle pointed out to her so strongly the necessity of her remaining to wait for the return of the soldiers that, being also fagged out by her long climb, she obediently consented, while he, even with his inspiration of the truth, did not believe in the return of the despoilers, and knew she would be safe.
He made his way to the nearest thicket, where he rightly believed the ambush had been prepared, and to which undoubtedly they first retreated with their booty. He expected to find some signs or traces of their spoil which in their haste they had to abandon. He was more successful than he anticipated. A few steps into the thicket brought him full upon a realization of more than his worst convictions--the dead body of Foster! Near it lay the body of the mail agent. Both had been evidently dragged into the thicket from where they fell, scalped and half stripped. There was no evidence of any later struggle; they must have been dead when they were brought there.
Boyle was neither a hard-hearted nor an unduly sensitive man. His vocation had brought him peril enough by land and water; he had often rendered valuable assistance to others, his sympathy never confusing his directness and common sense. He was sorry for these two men, and would have fought to save them. But he had no imaginative ideas of death. And his keen perception of the truth was consequently sensitively alive only to that grotesqueness of aspect which too often the hapless victims of violence are apt to assume. He saw no agony in the vacant eyes of the two men lying on their backs in apparently the complacent abandonment of drunkenness, which was further simulated by their tumbled and disordered hair matted by coagulated blood, which, however, had lost its sanguine color. He thought only of the unsuspecting girl sitting in the lonely coach, and hurriedly dragged them further into the bushes. In doing this he discovered a loaded revolver and a flask of spirits which had been lying under them, and promptly secured them. A few paces away lay the coveted trunks of arms and ammunition, their lids wrenched off and their contents gone. He noticed with a grim smile that his own trunks of samples had shared a like fate, but was delighted to find that while the brighter trifles had attracted the Indians' childish cupidity they had overlooked a heavy black merino shawl of a cheap but serviceable quality. It would help to protect Miss Cantire from the evening wind, which was already rising over the chill and stark plain. It also occurred to him that she would need water after her parched journey, and he resolved to look for a spring, being rewarded at last by a trickling rill near the ambush camp. But he had no utensil except the spirit flask, which he finally emptied of its contents and replaced with the pure water--a heroic sacrifice to a traveler who knew the comfort of a stimulant. He retraced his steps, and was just emerging from the thicket when his quick eye caught sight of a moving shadow before him close to the ground, which set the hot blood coursing through his veins.
It was the figure of an Indian crawling on his hands and knees towards the coach, scarcely forty yards away. For the first time that afternoon Boyle's calm good-humor was overswept by a blind and furious rage. Yet even then he was sane enough to remember that a pistol shot would alarm the girl, and to keep that weapon as a last resource. For an instant he crept forward as silently and stealthily as the savage, and then, with a sudden bound, leaped upon him, driving his head and shoulders down against the rocks before he could utter a cry, and sending the scalping knife he was carrying between his teeth flying with the shock from his battered jaw. Boyle seized it--his knee still in the man's back--but the prostrate body never moved beyond a slight contraction of the lower limbs. The shock had broken the Indian's neck. He turned the inert man on his back--the head hung loosely on the side. But in that brief instant Boyle had recognized the "friendly" Indian of the station to whom he had given the card.
He rose dizzily to his feet. The whole action had passed in a few seconds of time, and had not even been noticed by the sole occupant of the coach. He mechanically cocked his revolver, but the man beneath him never moved again. Neither was there any sign of flight or reinforcement from the thicket around him. Again the whole truth flashed upon him. This spy and traitor had been left behind by the marauders to return to the station and avert suspicion; he had been lurking around, but being without firearms, had not dared to attack the pair together.
It was a moment or two before Boyle regained his usual elastic good-humor. Then he coolly returned to the spring, "washed himself of the Indian," as he grimly expressed it to himself, brushed his clothes, picked up the shawl and flask, and returned to the coach. It was getting dark now, but the glow of the western sky shone unimpeded through the windows, and the silence gave him a great fear. He was relieved, however, on opening the door, to find Miss Cantire sitting stiffly in a corner. "I am sorry I was so long," he said, apologetically to her attitude, "but"--
"I suppose you took your own time," she interrupted in a voice of injured tolerance. "I don't blame you; anything's better than being cooped up in this tiresome stage for goodness knows how long!"
"I was hunting for water," he said humbly, "and have brought you some." He handed her the flask.
"And I see you have had a wash," she said a little enviously. "How spick and span you look! But what's the matter with your necktie?"
He put his hand to his neck hurriedly. His necktie was loose, and had twisted to one side in the struggle. He colored quite as much from the sensitiveness of a studiously neat man as from the fear of discovery. "And what's that?" she added, pointing to the shawl.
"One of my samples that I suppose was turned out of the coach and forgotten in the transfer," he said glibly. "I thought it might keep you warm."
She looked at it dubiously and laid it gingerly aside. "You don't mean to say you go about with such things OPENLY?" she said querulously.
"Yes; one mustn't lose a chance of trade, you know," he resumed with a smile.
"And you haven't found this journey very profitable," she said dryly. "You certainly are devoted to your business!" After a pause, discontentedly: "It's quite night already--we can't sit here in the dark."
"We can take one of the coach lamps inside; they're still there. I've been thinking the matter over, and I reckon if we leave one lighted outside the coach it may guide your friends back." He HAD considered it, and believed that the audacity of the act, coupled with the knowledge the Indians must have of the presence of the soldiers in the vicinity, would deter rather than invite their approach.
She brightened considerably with the coach lamp which he lit and brought inside. By its light she watched him curiously. His face was slightly flushed and his eyes very bright and keen looking. Man killing, except with old professional hands, has the disadvantage of affecting the circulation.
But Miss Cantire had noticed that the flask smelt of whiskey. The poor man had probably fortified himself from the fatigues of the day.
"I suppose you are getting bored by this delay," she said tentatively.
"Not at all," he replied. "Would you like to play cards? I've got a pack in my pocket. We can use the middle seat as a table, and hang the lantern by the window strap."
She assented languidly from the back seat; he was on the front seat, with the middle seat for a table between them. First Mr. Boyle showed her some tricks with the cards and kindled her momentary and flashing interest in a mysteriously evoked but evanescent knave. Then they played euchre, at which Miss Cantire cheated adorably, and Mr. Boyle lost game after game shamelessly. Then once or twice Miss Cantire was fain to put her cards to her mouth to conceal an apologetic yawn, and her blue-veined eyelids grew heavy. Whereupon Mr. Boyle suggested that she should make herself comfortable in the corner of the coach with as many cushions as she liked and the despised shawl, while he took the night air in a prowl around the coach and a lookout for the returning party. Doing so, he was delighted, after a turn or two, to find her asleep, and so returned contentedly to his sentry round.
He was some distance from the coach when a low moaning sound in the thicket presently increased until it rose and fell in a prolonged howl that was repeated from the darkened plains beyond. He recognized the voice of wolves; he instinctively felt the sickening cause of it. They had scented the dead bodies, and he now regretted that he had left his own victim so near the coach. He was hastening thither when a cry, this time human and more terrifying, came from the coach. He turned towards it as its door flew open and Miss Cantire came rushing toward him. Her face was colorless, her eyes wild with fear, and her tall, slim figure trembled convulsively as she frantically caught at the lapels of his coat, as if to hide herself within its folds, and gasped breathlessly,--
"What is it? Oh! Mr. Boyle, save me!"
"They are wolves," he said hurriedly. "But there is no danger; they would never attack you; you were safe where you were; let me lead you back."
But she remained rooted to the spot, still clinging desperately to his coat. "No, no!" she said, "I dare not! I heard that awful cry in my sleep. I looked out and saw it--a dreadful creature with yellow eyes and tongue, and a sickening breath as it passed between the wheels just below me. Ah! What's that?" and she again lapsed in nervous terror against him.
Boyle passed his arm around her promptly, firmly, masterfully. She seemed to feel the implied protection, and yielded to it gratefully, with the further breakdown of a sob. "There is no danger," he repeated cheerfully. "Wolves are not good to look at, I know, but they wouldn't have attacked you. The beast only scents some carrion on the plain, and you probably frightened him more than he did you. Lean on me," he continued as her step tottered; "you will be better in the coach."
"And you won't leave me alone again?" she said in hesitating terror.
He supported her to the coach gravely, gently--her master and still more his own for all that her beautiful loosened hair was against his cheek and shoulder, its perfume in his nostrils, and the contour of her lithe and perfect figure against his own. He helped her back into the coach, with the aid of the cushions and shawl arranged a reclining couch for her on the back seat, and then resumed his old place patiently. By degrees the color came back to her face--as much of it as was not hidden by her handkerchief.
Then a tremulous voice behind it began a half-smothered apology. "I am SO ashamed, Mr. Boyle--I really could not help it! But it was so sudden--and so horrible--I shouldn't have been afraid of it had it been really an Indian with a scalping knife--instead of that beast! I don't know why I did it--but I was alone--and seemed to be dead--and you were dead too and they were coming to eat me! They do, you know--you said so just now! Perhaps I was dreaming. I don't know what you must think of me--I had no idea I was such a coward!"
But Boyle protested indignantly. He was sure if HE had been asleep and had not known what wolves were before, he would have been equally frightened. She must try to go to sleep again--he was sure she could--and he would not stir from the coach until she waked, or her friends came.
She grew quieter presently, and took away the handkerchief from a mouth that smiled though it still quivered; then reaction began, and her tired nerves brought her languor and finally repose. Boyle watched the shadows thicken around her long lashes until they lay softly on the faint flush that sleep was bringing to her cheek; her delicate lips parted, and her quick breath at last came with the regularity of slumber.
So she slept, and he, sitting silently opposite her, dreamed--the old dream that comes to most good men and true once in their lives. He scarcely moved until the dawn lightened with opal the dreary plain, bringing back the horizon and day, when he woke from his dream with a sigh, and then a laugh. Then he listened for the sound of distant hoofs, and hearing them, crept noiselessly from the coach. A compact body of horsemen were bearing down upon it. He rose quickly to meet them, and throwing up his hand, brought them to a halt at some distance from the coach. They spread out, resolving themselves into a dozen troopers and a smart young cadet- like officer.
"If you are seeking Miss Cantire," he said in a quiet, businesslike tone, "she is quite safe in the coach and asleep. She knows nothing yet of what has happened, and believes it is you who have taken everything away for security against an Indian attack. She has had a pretty rough night--what with her fatigue and her alarm at the wolves--and I thought it best to keep the truth from her as long as possible, and I would advise you to break it to her gently." He then briefly told the story of their experiences, omitting only his own personal encounter with the Indian. A new pride, which was perhaps the result of his vigil, prevented him.
The young officer glanced at him with as much courtesy as might be afforded to a civilian intruding upon active military operations. "I am sure Major Cantire will be greatly obliged to you when he knows it," he said politely, "and as we intend to harness up and take the coach back to Sage Wood Station immediately, you will have an opportunity of telling him."
"I am not going back by the coach to Sage Wood," said Boyle quietly. "I have already lost twelve hours of my time--as well as my trunk--on this picnic, and I reckon the least Major Cantire can do is to let me take one of your horses to the next station in time to catch the down coach. I can do it, if I set out at once."
Boyle heard his name, with the familiar prefix of "Dicky," given to the officer by a commissary sergeant, whom he recognized as having met at the Agency, and the words "Chicago drummer " added, while a perceptible smile went throughout the group. "Very well, sir," said the officer, with a familiarity a shade less respectful than his previous formal manner. "You can take the horse, as I believe the Indians have already made free with your samples. Give him a mount, sergeant."
The two men walked towards the coach. Boyle lingered a moment at the window to show him the figure of Miss Cantire still peacefully slumbering among her pile of cushions, and then turned quietly away. A moment later he was galloping on one of the troopers' horses across the empty plain.
Miss Cantire awoke presently to the sound of a familiar voice and the sight of figures that she knew. But the young officer's first words of explanation--a guarded account of the pursuit of the Indians and the recapture of the arms, suppressing the killing of Foster and the mail agent--brought a change to her brightened face and a wrinkle to her pretty brow.
"But Mr. Boyle said nothing of this to me," she said, sitting up. "Where is he?"
"Already on his way to the next station on one of our horses! Wanted to catch the down stage and get a new box of samples, I fancy, as the braves had rigged themselves out with his laces and ribbons. Said he'd lost time enough on this picnic," returned the young officer, with a laugh. "Smart business chap; but I hope he didn't bore you?"
Miss Cantire felt her cheek flush, and bit her lip. "I found him most kind and considerate, Mr. Ashford," she said coldly. "He may have thought the escort could have joined the coach a little earlier, and saved all this; but he was too much of a gentleman to say anything about it to ME," she added dryly, with a slight elevation of her aquiline nose.
Nevertheless Boyle's last words stung her deeply. To hurry off, too, without saying "good-by," or even asking how she slept! No doubt he HAD lost time, and was tired of her company, and thought more of his precious samples than of her! After all, it was like him to rush off for an order!
She was half inclined to call the young officer back and tell him how Boyle had criticised her costume on the road. But Mr. Ashford was at that time entirely preoccupied with his men around a ledge of rock and bushes some yards from the coach, yet not so far away but that she could hear what they said. "I'll swear there was no dead Injin here when we came yesterday! We searched the whole place--by daylight, too--for any sign. The Injin was killed in his tracks by some one last night. It's like Dick Boyle, lieutenant, to have done it, and like him to have said nothin' to frighten the young lady. He knows when to keep his mouth shut--and when to open it."
Miss Cantire sank back in her corner as the officer turned and approached the coach. The incident of the past night flashed back upon her--Mr. Boyle's long absence, his flushed face, twisted necktie, and enforced cheerfulness. She was shocked, amazed, discomfited--and admiring! And this hero had been sitting opposite to her, silent all the rest of the night!
"Did Mr. Boyle say anything of an Indian attack last night?" asked Ashford. "Did you hear anything?"
"Only the wolves howling," said Miss Cantire. "Mr. Boyle was away twice." She was strangely reticent--in complimentary imitation of her missing hero.
"There's a dead Indian here who has been killed," began Ashford.
"Oh, please don't say anything more, Mr. Ashford," interrupted the young lady, "but let us get away from this horrid place at once. Do get the horses in. I can't stand it."
But the horses were already harnessed and mounted, postilion-wise, by the troopers. The vehicle was ready to start when Miss Cantire called "Stop!"
When Ashford presented himself at the door, the young lady was upon her hands and knees, searching the bottom of the coach. "Oh, dear! I've lost something. I must have dropped it on the road," she said breathlessly, with pink cheeks. "You must positively wait and let me go back and find it. I won't be long. You know there's 'no hurry.'"
Mr. Ashford stared as Miss Cantire skipped like a schoolgirl from the coach and ran down the trail by which she and Boyle had approached the coach the night before. She had not gone far before she came upon the withered flowers he had thrown away at her command. "It must be about here," she murmured. Suddenly she uttered a cry of delight, and picked up the business card that Boyle had shown her. Then she looked furtively around her, and, selecting a sprig of myrtle among the cast-off flowers, concealed it in her mantle and ran back, glowing, to the coach. "Thank you! All right, I've found it," she called to Ashford, with a dazzling smile, and leaped inside.
The coach drove on, and Miss Cantire, alone in its recesses, drew the myrtle from her mantle and folding it carefully in her handkerchief, placed it in her reticule. Then she drew out the card, read its dryly practical information over and over again, examined the soiled edges, brushed them daintily, and held it for a moment, with eyes that saw not, motionless in her hand. Then she raised it slowly to her lips, rolled it into a spiral, and, loosening a hook and eye, thrust it gently into her bosom.
And Dick Boyle, galloping away to the distant station, did not know that the first step towards a realization of his foolish dream had been taken!