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A Stricken Sentry








From: An Apache Princess

Sentry duty at Camp Sandy along in '75 had not been allowed to bear
too heavily on its little garrison. There was nothing worth stealing
about the place, said Plume, and no pawn-shop handy. Of course there
were government horses and mules, food and forage, arms and
ammunition, but these were the days of soldier supremacy in that arid
and distant land, and soldiers had a summary way of settling with
marauders that was discouraging to enterprise. Larceny was therefore
little known until the law, with its delays and circumventions, took
root in the virgin soil, and people at such posts as Sandy seldom shut
and rarely locked their doors, even by night. Windows were closed and
blanketed by day against the blazing sun and torrid heat, but, soon
after nightfall, every door and window was usually opened wide and
often kept so all the night long, in order that the cooler air,
settling down from mesa and mountain, might drift through every room
and hallway, licking up the starting dew upon the smooth, rounded
surface of the huge ollas, the porous water jars that hung suspended
on every porch, and wafting comfort to the heated brows of the lightly
covered sleepers within. Pyjamas were then unknown in army circles,
else even the single sheet that covered the drowsing soldier might
have been dispensed with.

Among the quarters occupied by married men, both in officers' row and
Sudsville under the plateau, doors were of little account in a
community where the only intruder to be feared was heat, and so it had
resulted that while the corrals, stables, and storehouses had their
guards, only a single sentry paced the long length of the eastward
side of the post, a single pair of eyes and a single rifle barrel
being deemed amply sufficient to protect against possible prowlers the
rear yards and entrances of the row. The westward front of the
officers' homes stood in plain view, on bright nights at least, of the
sentry at the guard-house, and needed no other protector. On dark
nights it was supposed to look out for itself.

A lonely time of it, as a rule, had No. 5, the "backyard sentry," but
this October night he lacked not for sensation. Lights burned until
very late in many of the quarters, while at Captain Wren's and
Lieutenant Blakely's people were up and moving about until long after
midnight. Of course No. 5 had heard all about the dreadful affair of
the early evening. What he and his fellows puzzled over was the
probable cause of Captain Wren's furious assault upon his subaltern.
Many a theory was afloat, Duane, with unlooked-for discretion, having
held his tongue as to the brief conversation that preceded the blow.
It was after eleven when the doctor paid his last visit for the night,
and the attendant came out on the rear porch for a pitcher of cool
water from the olla. It was long after twelve when the light in the
upstairs room at Captain Wren's was turned low, and for two hours
thereafter, with bowed head, the captain himself paced nervously up
and down, wearing in the soft and sandy soil a mournful pathway
parallel with his back porch. It was after three, noted Private
Mullins, of that first relief, when from the rear door of the major's
quarters there emerged two forms in feminine garb, and, there being no
hindering fences, away they hastened in the dim starlight, past
Wren's, Cutler's, Westervelt's, and Truman's quarters until they were
swallowed up in the general gloom about Lieutenant Blakely's. Private
Mullins could not say for certain whether they had entered the rear
door or gone around under the deep shadows of the veranda. When next
he saw them, fifteen minutes later, coming as swiftly and silently
back, Mullins was wondering whether he ought not to challenge and have
them account for themselves. His orders were to allow inmates of the
officers' quarters to pass in or out at night without challenge,
provided he "recognized them to be such." Now, Mullins felt morally
certain that these two were Mrs. Plume and Mrs. Plume's vivacious
maid, a French-Canadian damsel, much admired and sought in soldier
circles at the post, but Mullins had not seen their faces and could
rightfully insist it was his duty and prerogative to do so. The
question was, how would the "commanding officer's lady" like and take
it? Mullins therefore shook his head. "I hadn't the nerve," as he
expressed it, long afterwards. But no such frailty oppressed the
occupant of the adjoining house. Just as the two had reached the rear
of Wren's quarters, and were barely fifty steps from safety, the
captain himself, issuing again from the doorway, suddenly appeared
upon the scene, and in low, but imperative tone accosted them. "Who
are you?" said he, bending eagerly, sternly over them. One quick look
he gave, and, almost instantly recoiling, exclaimed "Mrs. Plume! I
beg--" Then, as though with sudden recollection, "No, madam, I do
not beg your pardon," and, turning on his heel, abruptly left them.
Without a word, but with the arm of the maid supporting, the taller
woman sped swiftly across the narrow intervening space and was lost
again within the shadows of her husband's home.

Private Mullins, silent and probably unseen witness of this episode,
slowly tossed his rifle from the port to the shoulder; shook his
puzzled head; stared a moment at the dim figure of Captain Wren again
in the starlit morning, nervously tramping up and down his narrow
limit; then mechanically sauntered down the roadway, pondering much
over what he had seen and heard during the brief period of his early
morning watch. Reaching the south, the lower, end of his post, he
turned again. He had but ten minutes left of his two-hour tramp. The
second relief was due to start at 3.30, and should reach him at 3.35.
He was wondering would the officer of the day "come nosin' round"
within that time, asking him his orders, and was everything all right
on his post? And had he observed anything unusual? There was Captain
Wren, like a caged tiger, tramping up and down behind his quarters.
At least he had been, for now he had disappeared. There were, or
rather had been, the two ladies in long cloaks flitting in the shadows
from the major's quarters to those of the invalid lieutenant. Mullins
certainly did not wish to speak about them to any official visitor,
whatever he might whisper later to Norah Shaughnessy, the saddler
sergeant's daughter--Norah, who was nurse girl at the Trumans', and
knew all the ins and outs of social life at Sandy--Norah, at whose
window, under the north gable, he gazed with love in his eyes as he
made his every round. He was a good soldier, was Mullins, but glad
this night to get off post. Through the gap between the second and
third quarters he saw the lights at the guard-house and could faintly
see the black silhouette of armed men in front of them. The relief was
forming sharp on time, and presently Corporal Donovan would be
bringing Trooper Schultz, of "C" Troop, straight across the parade in
search of him. The major so allowed his sentry on No. 5 to be relieved
at night. Mullins thanked the saints with pious fervor that no more
ladies would be like to flit across his vision, that night at least,
when, dimly through the dusk, against the spangled northern sky, he
sighted another figure crouching across the upper end of his post and
making straight for the lighted entrance at the rear of the
lieutenant's quarters. Someone else, then, had interest at
Blakely's--someone coming stealthily from without. A minute later
certain wakeful ears were startled by a moaning cry for aid.

Just what happened, and how it happened, within the minute, led to
conflicting stories on the morrow. First man examined by Major Plume
was Lieutenant Truman of the Infantry, who happened to be officer of
the day. He had been over at Blakely's about midnight, he said; had
found the patient sleeping under the influence of soothing medicine,
and, after a whispered word with Todd, the hospital attendant, had
tiptoed out again, encountering Downs, the lieutenant's striker, in
the darkness on the rear porch. Downs said he was that excited he
couldn't sleep at all, and Mr. Truman had come to the conclusion that
Downs's excitement was due, in large part, to local influences totally
disconnected with the affairs of the early evening. Downs was an
Irishman who loved the "craytur," and had been known to resort to
unconventional methods of getting it. At twelve o'clock, said Mr.
Truman, the striker had obviously been priming. Now Plume's standing
orders were that no liquor should be sold to Downs at the store and
none to other soldiers except in "pony" glasses and for use on the
spot. None could be carried away unconsumed. The only legitimate
spirits, therefore, to which Downs could have access were those in
Blakely's locked closet--spirits hitherto used only in the
preservation of specimens, and though probably not much worse than the
whisky sold at the store, disdainfully referred to by votaries as
"Blakely's bug juice." Mr. Truman, therefore, demanded of Downs the
possession of the lieutenant's keys, and, with aggrieved dignity of
mien, Downs had referred him to the doctor, whose suspicions had been
earlier aroused. Intending to visit his sentries after the change of
guard at 1.30, Truman had thrown himself into a reclining chair in his
little parlor, while Mrs. Truman and the little Trumans slumbered
peacefully aloft. After reading an hour or so the lieutenant fell into
a doze from which he awoke with a start. Mrs. Truman was bending over
him. Mrs. Truman had been aroused by hearing voices in cautious, yet
excited, colloquy in the shadows of Blakely's back porch. She felt
sure that Downs was one and thought from the sound that he must be
intoxicated, so Truman shuffled out to see, and somebody, bending
double in the dusk, scurried away at his approach. He heard rather
than saw. But there was Downs, at least, slinking back into the house,
and him Truman halted and accosted. "Who was that with you?" he asked,
and Downs thickly swore he hadn't seen a soul. But all the while Downs
was clumsily stuffing something into a side pocket, and Truman,
seizing his hand, dragged it forth into the light. It was one of the
hospital six-ounce bottles, bearing a label indicative of glycerine
lotion, but the color of the contained fluid belied the label. A sniff
was sufficient. "Who gave you this whisky?" was the next demand, and
Downs declared 'twas a hospital "messager" that brought it over,
thinking the lieutenant might need it. Truman, filled with wrath, had
dragged Downs into the dimly lighted room to the rear of that in which
lay Lieutenant Blakely, and was there upbraiding and investigating
when startled by the stifled cry that, rising suddenly on the night
from the open mesa just without, had so alarmed so many in the
garrison. Of what had led to it he had then no more idea than the
dead.

Corporal Donovan, next examined, said he was marching Schultz over to
relieve Mullins on No. 5, just after half-past three, and heading for
the short cut between the quarters of Captains Wren and Cutler, which
was about where No. 5 generally met the relief, when, just as they
were halfway between the flagstaff and the row, Schultz began to limp
and said there must be a pebble in his boot. So they halted. Schultz
kicked off his boot and shook it upside down, and, while he was
tugging at it again, they both heard a sort of gurgling, gasping cry
out on the mesa. Of course Donovan started and ran that way, leaving
Schultz to follow, and, just back of Captain Westervelt's, the third
house from the northward end, he almost collided with Lieutenant
Truman, officer of the day, who ordered him to run for Dr. Graham and
fetch him up to Lieutenant Blakely's quick. So of what had taken place
he, too, was ignorant until later.

It was the hospital attendant, Todd, whose story came next and brought
Plume to his feet with consternation in his eyes. Todd said he had
been sitting at the lieutenant's bedside when, somewhere about three
o'clock, he had to go out and tell Downs to make less noise. Downs was
completely upset by the catastrophe to his officer and, somehow, had
got a few comforting drinks stowed away, and these had started him to
singing some confounded Irish keen that grated on Todd's nerves. He
was afraid it would disturb the patient and he was about to go out
and remonstrate when the singing stopped and presently he heard
Downs's voice in excited conversation. Then a woman's voice in low,
urgent, persuasive whisper became faintly audible, and this surprised
Todd beyond expression. He had thought to go and take a look and see
who it could be, when there was a sudden swish of skirts and scurry of
feet, and then Mr. Truman's voice was heard. Then there was some kind
of sharp talk from the lieutenant to Downs, and then, in a sort of a
lull, there came that uncanny cry out on the mesa, and, stopping
only long enough to see that the lieutenant was not roused or
disturbed, Todd hastened forth. One or two dim figures, dark and
shadowy, were just visible on the eastward mesa, barely ten paces
away, and thither the attendant ran. Downs, lurching heavily, was just
ahead of him. Together they came upon a little group. Somebody went
running southward--Lieutenant Truman, as Todd learned later--hurrying
for the doctor. A soldier equipped as a sentry lay moaning on the
sand, clasping a bloody hand to his side, and over him, stern, silent,
but agitated, bent Captain Wren.





Next: The Captain's Defiance

Previous: Moccasin Tracks



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