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Absent From Duty








From: A Daughter Of The Sioux

For a moment the major stood in silence; then, briefly saying, "Call
Captain Ray," turned again to the dimly lighted hallway of his
commodious quarters, (the women thought it such a shame there should be
no "lady of the house" for the largest and finest of the long line known
as "Officers' Row") while the sergeant of the guard scurried away to the
soldier home of the senior cavalry captain on duty at the post. When the
major again came forth his field glasses were in his hand and he had
hurried down the steps and out into the broad sheen of the moonlight
when he caught sight of the courier seated on the horseblock at the
gate, wearily leaning his head upon his gauntleted hand. Webb stopped
short:

"Come right in here, my lad," he cried, "I want to speak with you," and,
followed slowly by the soldier, he entered his parlor, and whirled an
easy chair in front of the open fireplace. "Sit right down there now,
and I'll be with you in a minute," he added; bustled into the rear room
and presently reappeared with a decanter and glass; poured out a stiff
tot of Monongahela; "A little water?" he asked, as the trooper's eye
brightened gratefully. A little water was added and off came the right
hand gauntlet. "I drink the major's health and long life to him," said
the soldier, gulping down the fluid without so much as a wink. Then,
true to his training, set down the glass and stood strictly at
attention.

"You've had nothing to eat since yesterday morning, I'll be bound," said
Webb. "Now, I've got to see some of my officers at once. You make
yourself at home here. You'll find cold beef, bread, cheese, pickles,
milk, if you care for it, and pie right there in the pantry. Take the
lamp in with you and help yourself. If you want another nip, there's the
decanter. You've made splendid time. Did you meet no Indians?"

"Not one, sir, but I saw smokes at sunset out toward Eagle Butte."

"Your name--I see you belong to Captain Truscott's troop."

"Kennedy, sir; and I thank the major."

"Then I'll leave you in charge until you've had your fill," said the
commander. "Then go over to 'F' Troop's quarters and get a bed. Tell
anybody who comes I've gone to the flagstaff." With that the major
stalked from the room, followed by the Irishman's adoring eyes. A moment
later he stood by the tall white staff at the edge of the northward
bluff, at whose feet the river swept by in musical murmurings. There he
quickly focussed his glass, and gazed away westward up the Platte to
where but the evening before a score of Indian lodges dotted the other
bank, perhaps two miles away. The September moon was at its full and, in
that rare, cloudless atmosphere, flooding the valley with its soft,
silvery light so that close at hand, within the limits of the garrison,
every object could be almost as distinctly seen as in broad day-light,
but, farther away, over the lowlands and the river bottom and the
rolling prairie stretching to the northern horizon, the cottonwoods
along the stream or in the distant swales made only black blotches
against the vague, colorless surface, and the bold bluffs beyond the
reservation limits south of the flashing waters, the sharp, sawlike edge
of the distant mountain range that barred the way to the west, even the
cleancut outlines of Eagle Butte, the landmark of the northward prairie,
visible for fifty miles by day, were now all veiled in some intangible
filament that screened them from the soldier's searching gaze. Later in
the season, on such a night, their crests would gleam with radiance
almost intolerable, the glistening sheen of their spotless crown of
snow. All over this broad expanse of upland prairie and wooded river bed
and boldly undulating bluff line not so much as a spark of fire peeped
through the wing of night to tell the presence of human wayfarer, white,
halfbreed or Indian, even where the Sioux had swarmed, perhaps two
hundred strong, at sunset of the day gone by.

Close at hand, northernmost of the brown line, was the double set of
quarters occupied by Captains Blake and Ray, the latter, as senior,
having chosen the half nearest the bluff because of the encircling
veranda and the fine, far-extending view. A bright light gleamed now
behind the blinds of the corner room of the second floor, telling that
the captain was up and dressing in answer to the commander's summons,
but all the rest of the dozen houses were black, save where at the
middle of the row a faint glow came from the open doorway at the
commanding officer's. Across the broad level of the parade were the
long, low barracks of the troops, six in number, gable-ending east and
west. Closing the quadrangle on the south were the headquarters
buildings and the assembly room, the offices of the adjutant and
quartermaster, the commissary and quartermaster's storehouses, etc. At
the southwest angle stood the guard-house, where oil lamps, backed by
their reflectors of polished tin, sent brilliant beams of light athwart
the roadway. Beyond these low buildings the black bulk of the Medicine
Bow Mountains, only a dozen miles away, tumbled confusedly against the
sparkling sky. All spoke of peace, security, repose, for even in the
flats under the westward bluff, where lay the wide extended corrals, hay
and wood yards and the stables, not one of the myriad dogs that hung
about the post was lifting up his voice to bay the autumn moon. Even
those easily-started night trumpeters, the big Missouri mules, sprawled
about their roomy, sand-floored stables and drowsed in placid comfort,
wearied with their musical efforts of the earlier hours of the night and
gathering impetus for the sonorous braying with which they should
presently salute the dawn.

Beyond the guard-house, at the edge of the plateau overlooking the
westward flats, but invisible from the flagstaff bluff, stood the big
wooden edifice known as the store, with its card and billiard room for
the officers on the southern side, another for the enlisted men upon the
northern, the bar and general merchandise establishment compressed
between them. Southward, farther still, surrounded by crude greenhouses
abounding in potted plants and beds of vine and vegetables, was the big
and somewhat pretentious house of the post trader himself, his own
stables and corral being half way down the slope and well away from
those of the garrison. "Out of sight," muttered Webb, "but by no means
out of mind," for it was safe to say the thoughts of more than half the
men and women making up the social element of Fort Frayne had been
centering within the last few days beneath the roof that gave shelter to
that brilliant, fascinating beauty Nanette Flower.

Ten days a denizen of the fort, it seemed as though she had been there
as many weeks, so completely had she accepted the situation and
possessed herself of the ins and outs of garrison life. The women had
called, of course, and gone away filled with unwilling admiration, for
the girl's gowns and graces were undeniable. The married men, as was the
army way, had called with their wives on the occasion of the first
visit. The bachelors, from Webb down to the junior subaltern, had called
in little squads at first; afterwards, except the major, they sought to
see Miss Flower when other fellows were not present. Even Hartley and
Donovan, the two whose devotions to Esther Dade had been carried to the
verge of oppression, and who were on terms of distant civility only when
compelled to appear together in the presence of women or their other
superiors, had been moved to more than one visit at the Hays', but
Hartley speedily returned to his undesired siege at the quarters of
Captain Dade, while Donovan joined forces with two other youngsters,
Bruce and Putney, because it gave them comfort to bother Field; who,
being the adjutant, and a very busy man, could visit only at certain
hours of the day or evening. Now, it had become apparent to the boys
that despite her general attitude of cordiality their attentions were
not what Mrs. Hay so much desired as those of the major commanding.
Twice had he been invited to dine within the week of Nanette's coming.
Once he accepted. The second time he begged off on plea of a previous
engagement, subsequently made, to go shooting with Blake. It was the
bachelor heart and home of Major Webb to which Mrs. Hay would have laid
vicarious siege, small blame to her, for that indomitable
cross-examiner, Mrs. Wilkins, wife and manager of the veteran ranker now
serving as post quartermaster, had wormed out of Mrs. Hay the admission
that Nanette had no fortune. She was the only daughter of a half
brother, very dear to Mrs. Hay, whom she had lost, she said, long years
before. To do her justice, it was quite apparent that Miss Flower was no
party to the plan, for, though she beamed on Webb as she did on all, she
frankly showed her preference for the younger officers who could dance
as well as ride, and either dancing or riding was her glory. She danced
like a sylph; she seemed to float about the room as though on air; she
rode superbly, and shirked no leap that even Ray and Field took with
lowered hands and close gripping knees. She was joyous, laughing,
radiant with all the officers, and fairly glowed with cordiality for all
the women. But it speedily developed that she would rather dance with
Field than any of the others, probably because he was by far the best
waltzer, and to ride with him, because, Ray excepted, there was none to
excel him in the saddle. Ten days had she been at Frayne and within that
time had become as thoroughly at ease and home as though it had been her
abiding place since babyhood. It was plain to see that big Bill Hay
almost worshipped this lovely protegee of the wife he more than
worshipped. It was plain to see that Webb uneasily held aloof, as though
fearful of singeing his shrivelling wings. It was plain to see that the
hitherto indomitable Mrs. Wilkins was puzzled. It was not so plain to
see that there were two women at the post on whom Miss Flower's charms
made slight impression--Mesdames Blake and Ray--two wise young matrons
who were known to have few secrets from each other and no intimacies--or
rather no confidences--with any other woman at Fort Frayne--Mrs. Dade
possibly excepted.

But what they thought, their liege lords stood ready to swear to; and it
was to them Webb turned in his perplexity when it became apparent that
his young adjutant was ensnared. It was to Ray he promptly opened his
heart, as that veteran of a dozen Indian campaigns, then drawing his
fourth "fogy," came hastening out to join the commander.

"Here's confirmation of the telegram. Read that, Ray," said Webb,
handing him the despatch from Fort Beecher. "Then come with me to
Field's. He's missing."

"Missing!" cried Ray, in consternation, as he hurriedly opened the page.
"In God's name what do you mean?"

"I mean he isn't in quarters and hasn't been in bed to-night. Now I need
him--and it's two o'clock."

Even as he spoke the voice of the sentry at the guard-house rang out the
watch call through the still and sparkling night. It was taken up by
Number Two back of the storehouses, and his "All's well" was still
echoing among the foothills, prolonged and powerful, when Number Three,
down at the quartermaster's corral, began his soldier song; and so,
alert, cheery, reassuring, the sentries sent their deep-voiced assurance
on its unbroken round to the waking guardian at the southwest angle, and
as his final "A-a-a-ll's W-e-ell" went rolling away over bluff and
stream and prairie, Ray lifted a grave and anxious face from the fateful
paper.

"Lame Wolf out? That's bad in itself! He's old Red Cloud's nephew and a
brute at best. Stabber's people there yet?" he suddenly asked, whirling
on his heel and gazing westward.

"Can't make out even with my glasses. All dark as pitch among the
cottonwoods, but Kennedy, who made the ride, says he saw smokes back of
Eagle Butte just before sunset."

"Then you can bet they won't be there at dawn--the warriors at least. Of
course the women, the kids and old men will stay if only for a blind. He
had forty fighting men, and Wolf's got at least two hundred. What
started the row?"

"The arrest of those two young bucks on charge of killing Finn, the
sheep herder, on the Piney last week. I don't believe the Sioux began
it. There's a bad lot among those damned rustlers," said Webb, snapping
the glass into its well-worn case. "But no matter who starts, we have to
finish it. Old Plodder is worried and wants help. Reckon I'll have to
send you, Ray."

"Ready whenever you say, sir," was the prompt and soldierly reply. Even
marriage had not taken the edge from Ray's keen zest for campaigning.
"Shall I have out my sergeant and cooks at once? We'll need to take
rations."

"Yes, but wait with me till I wire the chief at Laramie. Come to the
office." So saying the post commander turned and strode away. The
captain glanced at the upper window where the light now dimly burned,
but blind and window were open, and a woman's form appeared.

"It's all right, Maidie," called the captain, softly. "May have to start
out on scout at daybreak. That's all. Home soon," and with a reassuring
wave of the hand, turned again to his stanch friend and commander.

"I hate to send you--again," said Webb. "You were out in June, and the
others have had only short scouts since--"

"Don't bother. What's a cavalryman for? Shall we?--I--can't believe
it--some how," and Ray stopped, glanced inquiringly at the major, and
then nodded toward the doorway of the third house on the row. The ground
floor was occupied by Field as his quarters, the up-stair rooms by
Putney and Ross.

"Come in," said the major, briefly, and, pushing through the gate they
softly entered the dark hallway and struck a light in the front room. A
wood fire was smouldering on the andirons in the wide brick chimney
place. An open book, face downward, was on the centre table. Two
embroidered slippers lay as though hurriedly kicked off, one under the
sofa beyond the mantelpiece, the other half way across the worn carpet.
Striking another match at the doorway, Ray passed on to the little inner
room,--the bed chamber. On the bed, carelessly thrown, were the young
officer's best and newest forage cap, undress uniform coat and trousers.
He had used them during the evening when calling at the Hays'. On the
floor were the enamelled leather buttoned boots he wore on such
occasions. The bed was otherwise untouched. Other boots and shoes in
orderly row stood against the wall beside the plain, unpainted wardrobe.
The spurred riding boots and the knee-tight breeches were gone. Turning
back to the front room, Ray found the major, his face gray and
disturbed, holding forth to him an open envelope. Ray took it and
glanced at the superscription. "Lieutenant Beverly Field, Fort Frayne,"
and returned it without a word. Both knew the strange, angular, slashing
hand-writing at a glance, for both had seen and remarked it before. It
was Nanette Flower's.

Dropping the envelope on the table--he had found it on the floor--Webb
led the way to the open air. There was then no time to compare views.
There stood the sergeant.

"Sir," said he, with a snap of the gloved left hand at the brown tube
nestling in the hollow of the shoulder, "Number Five reports that he has
heard galloping hoofbeats up the bench twice in the last half hour, and
thought he saw distant horsemen,--three;--couldn't say whether they were
Indians or cowboys."

"Very good, sergeant," was the major's brief answer. "Send for the
telegraph operator and my orderly."

The sergeant turned.

"One moment," called Ray,--"your pardon, Major--My first sergeant, too,
and--sergeant, have any sentries reported horses taken out from the
stables to-night?"

"Not one, sir," and, stanch and sturdy, the commander of the guard stood
ready to vouch for his men.

"That's all!"

A quick salute, a face to the right about and the sergeant was gone.
Webb turned and looked inquiringly at Ray.

"I asked, sir," was that officer's brief explanation, "because wherever
Field has gone he wore riding dress."





Next: A Night Encounter

Previous: Foreshadowed Events



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