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A Rifled Desk








From: A Daughter Of The Sioux

Events moved swiftly in the week that followed. Particulars of the
accident to General Field, however, were slow in reaching Fort Frayne;
and, to the feverish unrest and mental trouble of the son, was now added
a feverish anxiety on the father's account that so complicated the
situation as to give Dr. Waller grave cause for alarm. Then it was that,
ignoring every possible thought of misbehavior on the part of the young
officer toward the gentle girl so dear to them, not only Mrs. Blake and
Mrs. Ray, but Mrs. Dade herself, insisted on being made of
use,--insisted on being permitted to go to his bedside and there to
minister, as only women can, to the suffering and distressed. Waller
thought it over and succumbed. The lad was no longer delirious, at
least, and if he revealed anything of what was uppermost in his mind it
would be a conscious and voluntary revelation. There were some things he
had said and that Waller alone had heard, the good old doctor wished
were known to certain others of the garrison, and to no one more than
Mrs. Dade; and so the prohibition against their visiting the wounded lad
was withdrawn, and not only these, but other women, sympathetically
attracted, were given the necessary authority.

There was other reason for this. From the commanding officer of the
supply camp at Rock Springs had come, finally, a letter that was full of
foreboding. General Field, it said, was sorely injured and might not
survive. If the department commander had only been at Omaha or Cheyenne,
as the anxious father hastened to reach his son, the mishap would never
have occurred. The general would gladly have seen to it that suitable
transportation from the railway to Frayne was afforded his old-time
comrade. But, in his absence, Field shrank from appealing to anyone
else, and, through the train conductor, wired ahead to Rock Creek for a
stout four-mule team and wagon, with a capable driver. The conductor
assured him that such things were to be had for money, and that
everything would be in readiness on his arrival. Team, wagon and driver
certainly were on hand, but the team looked rickety, so did the wagon,
so did the driver, who had obviously been priming for the occasion. It
was this rig or nothing, however; and, in spite of a courteous
remonstrance from the two officers at the supply camp, who saw and
condemned the "outfit," General Field started on time and returned on an
improvised trestle three hours later. The "outfit" had been tumbled over
a ledge into a rocky creek bottom, and with disastrous results to all
concerned except the one who deserved it most--the driver. The ways of
Providence are indeed inscrutable.

A surgeon had been sent from Fort Russell, and his report was such that
Waller would not let it go in full to his patient. They had carried the
old soldier back to camp, and such aid as could be given by the rude
hands of untaught men was all he had for nearly twenty-four hours, and
his suffering had been great. Internal injuries, it was feared, had been
sustained, and at his advanced age that was something almost fatal. No
wonder Waller was worried. Then Flint took alarm at other troubles
closer at hand. Up to this year he had been mercifully spared all
personal contact with our Indian wards, and when he was told by his
sentries that twice in succession night riders had been heard on the
westward "bench," and pony tracks in abundance had been found at the
upper ford--the site of Stabber's village--and that others still were to
be seen in the soft ground not far from Hay's corral, the major was more
than startled. At this stage of the proceedings, Sergeant Crabb of the
Cavalry was the most experienced Indian fighter left at the post. Crabb
was sent for, and unflinchingly gave his views. The Sioux had probably
scattered before the squadrons sent after them from the north; had fled
into the hills and, in small bands probably, were now raiding down
toward the Platte, well knowing there were few soldiers left to defend
Fort Frayne, and no cavalry were there to chase them.

"What brings them here? What do they hope to get or gain?" asked Flint.

"I don't know, sir," answered Crabb. "But this I do know, they are
after something and expect to get it. If I might make so bold, sir, I
think the major ought to keep an eye on them blasted halfbreeds at
Hay's."

It set Flint to serious thinking. Pete and Crapaud, paid henchmen of the
trader, had been taking advantage of their employer's absence and
celebrating after the manner of their kind. One of his officers, new
like himself to the neighborhood and to the Indians, had had encounter
with the two that rubbed his commissioned fur the wrong way. A sentry,
in discharge of his duty, had warned them one evening away from the rear
gate of a bachelor den, along officers' row, and had been told to go to
sheol, or words to that effect. They had more business there than he
had, said they, and, under the potent sway of "inspiring bold John
Barleycorn" had not even abated their position when the
officer-of-the-day happened along. They virtually damned and defied him,
too.

The officer-of-the-day reported to the commanding officer, and that
officer called on Mrs. Hay to tell her he should order the culprits off
the reservation if they were not better behaved. Mrs. Hay, so said the
servant, was feeling far from well and had to ask to be excused, when
who should appear but that ministering angel Mrs. Dade herself, and Mrs.
Dade undertook to tell Mrs. Hay of the misconduct of the men, even when
assuring Major Flint she feared it was a matter in which Mrs. Hay was
powerless. They were afraid of Hay, but not of her. Hearing of Mrs.
Hay's illness, Mrs. Dade and other women had come to visit and console
her, but there were very few whom she would now consent to see. Even
though confident no bodily harm would befall her husband or her niece,
Mrs. Hay was evidently sore disturbed about something. Failing to see
her, Major Flint sent for the bartender and clerk, and bade them say
where these truculent, semi-savage bacchanals got their whiskey, and
both men promptly and confidently declared it wasn't at the store.
Neither of them would give or sell to either halfbreed a drop, and old
Wilkins stood sponsor for the integrity of the affiants, both of whom he
had known for years and both of whom intimated that the two specimens
had no need to be begging, buying or stealing whiskey, when Bill Hay's
private cellar held more than enough to fill the whole Sioux nation.
"Moreover," said Pink Marble, "they've got the run of the stables now
the old man's away, and there isn't a night some of those horses ain't
out." When Flint said that was something Mrs. Hay ought to know, Pink
Marble replied that was something Mrs. Hay did know, unless she refused
to believe the evidence of her own senses as well as his, and Pink
thought it high time our fellows in the field had recaptured Hay and
fetched him home. If it wasn't done mighty soon he, Pink, wouldn't be
answerable for what might happen at the post.

All the more anxious did this make Flint. He decided that the exigencies
of the case warranted his putting a sentry over Hay's stable, with
orders to permit no horse to be taken out except by an order from him,
and Crabb took him and showed him, two days later, the tracks of two
horses going and coming in the soft earth in front of a narrow side door
that led to the corral. Flint had this door padlocked at once and
Wilkins took the key, and that night was surprised by a note from Mrs.
Hay.

"The stablemen complain that the sentries will not let them take the
horses out even for water and exercise, which has never been the case
before," and Mrs. Hay begged that the restriction might be removed.
Indeed, if Major Flint would remove the sentry, she would assume all
responsibility for loss or damage. The men had been with Mr. Hay, she
said, for six years and never had been interfered with before, and they
were sensitive and hurt and would quit work, they said, if further
molested. Then there would be nobody to take their place and the stock
would suffer.

In point of fact, Mrs. Hay was pleading for the very men against whom
the other employes claimed to have warned her--these two halfbreeds who
had defied his sentries,--and Flint's anxieties materially increased. It
taxed all his stock of personal piety, and strengthened the belief he
was beginning to harbor, that Mrs. Hay had some use for the horses at
night--some sojourners in the neighborhood with whom she must
communicate, and who could they be but Sioux?

Then Mistress McGann, sound sleeper that she used to be, declared to the
temporary post commander, as he was, and temporary lodger as she
considered him, that things "was goin' on about the post she'd never
heard the likes of before, and that the meejor would never put up with
a minute." When Mrs. McGann said "the meejor" she meant not Flint, but
his predecessor. There was but one major in her world,--the one she
treated like a minor. Being a soldier's wife, however, she knew the
deference due to the commanding officer, even though she did not choose
to show it, and when bidden to say her say and tell what things "was
goin' on" Mistress McGann asseverated, with the asperity of a woman who
has had to put her husband to bed two nights running, that the time had
never been before that he was so drunk he didn't know his way home, and
so got into the back of the bachelor quarters instead of his own. "And
to think av his bein' propped up at his own gate by a lousy, frog-eatin'
half Frinchman, half salvage!" Yet, when investigated, this proved to be
the case, and the further question arose, where did McGann get his
whiskey? A faithful, loyal devoted old servitor was McGann, yet Webb, as
we have seen, had ever to watch his whiskey carefully lest the Irishman
should see it, and seeing taste, and tasting fall. The store had orders
from Mrs. McGann, countersigned by Webb, to the effect that her husband
was never to have a drop. Flint was a teetotaller himself, and noted
without a shadow of disapprobation that the decanters on the sideboard
were both empty the very day he took possession, also that the cupboard
was securely locked. Mrs. McGann was sure her liege got no liquor there
nor at the store, and his confused statement that it was given him by
"fellers at the stables," was treated with scorn. McGann then was still
under marital surveillance and official displeasure the day after Mrs.
McGann's revelations, with unexplained iniquities to answer for when his
head cleared and his legs resumed their functions. But by that time
other matters were brought to light that laid still further accusation
at his door. With the consent of Dr. Waller, Lieutenant Field had been
allowed to send an attendant for his desk. There were letters, he said,
he greatly wished to see and answer, and Mrs. Ray had been so kind as to
offer to act as his amanuensis. The attendant went with the key and came
back with a scared face. Somebody, he said, had been there before him.

They did not tell Field this at the time. The doctor went at once with
the messenger, and in five minutes had taken in the situation. Field's
rooms had been entered and probably robbed. There was only one other
occupant of the desolate set that so recently had rung to the music of
so many glad young voices. Of the garrison proper at Frayne all the
cavalry officers except Wilkins were away at the front; all the infantry
officers, five in number, were also up along the Big Horn. The four who
had come with Flint were strangers to the post, but Herron, who had been
a classmate of Ross at the Point, moved into his room and took the
responsibility of introducing the contract doctor, who came with them,
into the quarters at the front of the house on the second floor. These
rooms had been left open and unlocked. There was nothing, said the
lawful occupant, worth stealing, which was probably true; but Field had
bolted, inside, the door of his sleeping room; locked the hall door of
his living room and taken the key with him when he rode with Ray. The
doctor looked over the rooms a moment; then sent for Wilkins, the post
quartermaster, who came in a huff at being disturbed at lunch. Field had
been rather particular about his belongings. His uniforms always hung on
certain pegs in the plain wooden wardrobe. The drawers of his bureau
were generally arranged like the clothes press of cadet days, as though
for inspection, but now coats, blouses, dressingsack and smoking jacket
hung with pockets turned inside out or flung about the bed and floor.
Trousers had been treated with like contempt. The bureau looked like
what sailors used to call a "hurrah's nest," and a writing desk,
brass-bound and of solid make, that stood on a table by a front window,
had been forcibly wrenched open, and its contents were tossed about the
floor. A larger desk,--a wooden field desk--stood upon a trestle across
the room, and this, too, had been ransacked. Just what was missing only
one man could tell. Just how they entered was patent to all--through a
glazed window between the bed-room and the now unused dining room
beyond. Just who were the housebreakers no man present could say; but
Mistress McGann that afternoon communicated her suspicion to her
sore-headed spouse, and did it boldly and with the aid of a broomstick.
"It's all along," she said, "av your shtoopin' to dhrink wid them low
lived salvages at Hay's. Now, what d'ye know about this?"

But McGann swore piously he knew nothing "barrin' that Pete and Crapaud
had some good liquor one night--dear knows when it was--an' I helped 'em
dhrink your health,--an' when 'twas gone, and more was wanted, sure Pete
said he'd taken a demijohn to the lieutenant's, with Mr. Hay's
compliments, the day before he left for the front, and sure he couldn't
have drunk all av it, and if the back dure was open Pete would inquire
anyhow."

That was all Michael remembered or felt warranted in revealing, for
stoutly he declared his and their innocence of having burglariously
entered any premises, let alone the lieutenant's. "Sure they'd bite
their own noses off fur him," said Mike, which impossible feat attested
the full measure of halfbreed devotion. Mistress McGann decided to make
further investigation before saying anything to anybody; but, before the
dawn of another day, matters took such shape that fear of sorrowful
consequences, involving even Michael, set a ban on her impulse to speak.
Field, it seems, had been at last induced to sleep some hours that
evening, and it was nearly twelve when he awoke and saw his desk on a
table near the window. The attendant was nodding in an easy chair; and,
just as the young officer determined to rouse him, Mrs. Dade, with the
doctor, appeared on tiptoe at the doorway. For a few minutes they kept
him interested in letters and reports concerning his father's condition,
the gravity of which, however, was still withheld from him. Then there
were reports from Tongue River, brought in by courier, that had to be
told him. But after a while he would be no longer denied. He demanded to
see his desk and his letters.

At a sign from the doctor, the attendant raised it from the table and
bore it to the bed. "I found things in some confusion in your quarters,
Field," said Waller, by way of preparation, "and I probably haven't
arranged the letters as you would if you had had time. They were lying
about loosely--"

But he got no further. Field had started up and was leaning on one
elbow. The other arm was outstretched. "What do you mean?" he cried.
"The desk hasn't been opened?"

Too evidently, however, it had been, and in an instant Field had pulled
a brass pin that held in place a little drawer. It popped part way out,
and with trembling hands he drew it forth--empty.

Before he could speak Mrs. Dade suddenly held up her hand in signal for
silence, her face paling at the instant. There was a rush of slippered
feet through the corridor, a hum of excited voices, and both Dr. Waller
and the attendant darted for the door.

Outside, in the faint starlight, sound of commotion came from the
direction of the guard-house,--of swift footfalls from far across the
parade, of the vitreous jar of windows hastily raised. Two or three
lights popped suddenly into view along the dark line of officers'
quarters, and Waller's voice, with a ring of authority unusual to him,
halted a running corporal of the guard.

"What is it?" demanded he.

"I don't know, sir," was the soldier's answer. "There was an awful
scream from the end quarters--Captain Ray's, sir." Then on he went
again.

And then came the crack, crack of a pistol.





Next: Burglary At Blake's

Previous: Night Prowling At Frayne



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