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Aunt Janet Braved








From: An Apache Princess

Nightfall of a weary day had come. Camp Sandy, startled from sleep in
the dark hour before the dawn, had found topic for much exciting talk,
and was getting tired as the twilight waned. No word had come from the
party sent in search of Downs, now deemed a deserter. No sign of him
had been found about the post. No explanation had occurred to either
Cutler or Graham of the parting between Elise and the late "striker."
She had never been known to notice or favor him in any way before. Her
smiles and coquetries had been lavished on the sergeants. In Downs
there was nothing whatsoever to attract her. It was not likely she had
given him money, said Cutler, because he was about the post all that
day after the Plumes' departure and with never a sign of inebriety. He
could not himself buy whisky, but among the ranchmen, packers, and
prospectors forever hanging about the post there were plenty ready to
play middleman for anyone who could supply the cash, and in this way
were the orders of the post commander made sometimes abortive. Downs
was gone, that was certain, and the question was, which way?

A sergeant and two men had taken the Prescott road; followed it to
Dick's Ranch, in the Cherry Creek Valley, and were assured the missing
man had never gone that way. Dick was himself a veteran trooper of
the ----th. He had invested his savings in this little estate and
settled thereon to grow up with the country--the Stannards' winsome
Millie having accepted a life interest in him and his modest property.
They knew every man riding that trail, from the daily mail messenger
to the semi-occasional courier. Their own regiment had gone, but they
had warm interest in its successors. They knew Downs, had known him
ever since his younger days when, a trig young Irish-Englishman, some
Londoner's discharged valet, he had 'listed in the cavalry, as he
expressed it, to reform. A model of temperance, soberness, and
chastity was Downs between times, and his gifts as groom of the
chambers, as well as groom of the stables, made him, when a model,
invaluable to bachelor officers in need of a competent soldier
servant. In days just after the great war he had won fame and money as
a light rider. It was then that Lieutenant Blake had dubbed him
"Epsom" Downs, and well-nigh quarreled with his chum, Lieutenant Ray,
over the question of proprietorship when the two were sent to separate
stations and Downs was "striking" for both. Downs settled the matter
by getting on a seven-days' drunk, squandering both fame and money,
and, though forgiven the scriptural seventy times seven (during which
term of years his name was changed to Ups and Downs), finally
forfeited the favor of both these indulgent masters and became
thereafter simply Downs, with no ups of sufficient length to restore
the average--much less to redeem him. And yet, when eventually
"bobtailed" out of the ----th, he had turned up at the old arsenal
recruiting depot at St. Louis, clean-shaven, neat, deft-handed,
helpful, to the end that an optimistic troop commander "took him on
again," in the belief that a reform had indeed been inaugurated. But,
like most good soldiers, the commander referred to knew little of
politics or potables, otherwise he would have set less store by the
strength of the reform movement and more by that of the potations.
Downs went so far on the highroad to heaven this time as to drink
nothing until his first payday. Meantime, as his captain's mercury,
messenger, and general utility man, moving much in polite society at
the arsenal and in town, he was frequently to be seen about
Headquarters of the Army, then established by General Sherman as far
as possible from Washington and as close to the heart of St. Louis. He
learned something of the ins and outs of social life in the gay city,
heard much theory and little truth about the time that Lieutenant
Blakely, returning suddenly thereto after an absence of two months,
during which time frequent letters had passed between him and Clarice
Latrobe, found that Major Plume had been her shadow for weeks, her
escort to dance after dance, her companion riding, driving, dining day
after day. Something of this Blakely had heard in letters from
friends. Little or nothing thereof had he heard from her. The public
never knew what passed between them (Elise, her maid, was better
informed). But Blakely within the day left town again, and within the
week there appeared the announcement of her forthcoming marriage,
Plume the presumably happy man. Downs got full the first payday after
his re-enlistment, as has been said, and drunk, as in duty bound, at
the major's "swagger" wedding. It was after this episode he fell
utterly from grace and went forth to the frontier irreclaimably
"Downs." It was a seven-days' topic of talk at Sandy that Lieutenant
Blakely, when acting Indian agent at the reservation, should have
accepted the services of this unpromising specimen as "striker." It
was a seven-weeks' wonder that Downs kept the pact, and sober as a
judge, from the hour he joined the Bugologist to the night that
self-contained young officer was sent crashing into his beetle show
under the impact of Wren's furious fist. Then came the last pound that
broke the back of Downs' wavering resolution, and now had come--what?
The sergeant and party rode back from Dick's to tell Captain Cutler
the deserter had not taken the Cherry Creek road. Another party just
in reported similarly that he had not taken the old, abandoned Grief
Hill trail. Still another returned from down-stream ranches to say he
could not have taken that route without being seen--and he had not
been seen. Ranchman Strom would swear to that because Downs was in his
debt for value received in shape of whisky, and Strom was rabid at the
idea of his getting away. In fine, as nothing but Downs was missing,
it became a matter of speculation along toward tattoo as to whether
Downs could have taken anything at all--except possibly his own life.

Cutler was now desirous of questioning Blakely at length, and
obtaining his views and theories as to Downs, for Cutler believed that
Blakely had certain well-defined views which he was keeping to
himself. Between these two, however, had grown an unbridgeable gulf.
Dr. Graham had declared at eight o'clock that morning that Mr. Blakely
was still so weak that he ought not to go with the searching parties,
and on receipt of this dictum Captain Cutler had issued his, to wit,
that Blakely should not go either in search of Downs or in pursuit of
Captain Wren. It stung Blakely and angered him even against Graham,
steeling him against the post commander. Each of these gentlemen
begged him to make his temporary home under his roof, and Blakely
would not. "Major Plume's quarters are now vacant, then," said Cutler
to Graham. "If he won't come to you or to me, let him take a room
there." This, too, Blakely refused. He reddened, what is more, at the
suggestion. He sent Nixon down to Mr. Hart's, the trader's, to ask if
he could occupy a spare room there, and when Hart said, yes, most
certainly, Cutler reddened in turn when told of it, and sent
Lieutenant Doty, the adjutant, to say that the post commander could
not "consent to an officer's occupying quarters outside the garrison
when there was abundant room within." Then came Truman and Westervelt
to beg Blakely to come to them. Then came a note from Mrs. Sanders,
reminding him that, as an officer of the cavalry, it would be casting
reflections on his own corps to go and dwell with aliens. "Captain
Sanders would never forgive me," said she, "if you did not take our
spare room. Indeed, I shall feel far safer with a man in the house now
that we are having fires and Indian out-breaks and prisoners escaping
and all that sort of thing. Do come, Mr. Blakely." And in that blue
flannel shirt and the trooper trousers and bandanna neckerchief,
Blakely went and thanked her; sent for Nixon and his saddle-bags, and
with such patience as was possible settled down forthwith. Truth to
tell it was high time he settled somewhere, for excitement, exposure,
physical ill, and mental torment had told upon him severely. At
sunset, as he seemed too miserable to leave his room and come to the
dining table, Mrs. Sanders sent for the doctor, and reluctantly
Blakely let him in.

That evening, just after tattoo had sounded, Kate Sanders and Angela
were having murmured conference on the Wrens' veranda. Aunt Janet had
gone to hospital to carry unimpeachable jelly to the several patients
and dubious words of cheer. Jelly they absorbed with much avidity and
her words with meek resignation. Mullins, she thought, after his
dreadful experience and close touch with death, must be in receptive
mood and repentant of his sins. Of just what sins to repent poor Pat
might still be unsettled in his mind. It was sufficient that he had
them, as all soldiers must have, said Miss Wren, and now that his
brain seemed clearing and the fever gone and he was too weak and
helpless to resist, the time seemed ripe for the sowing of good seed,
and Janet went to sow.

But there by Mullins's bed, all unabashed at Janet's marked
disapprobation, sat Norah Shaughnessy. There, in flannel shirt and
trooper trousers and bandanna neckerchief, pale, but collected, stood
the objectionable Mr. Blakely. He was bending over, saying something
to Mullins, as she halted in the open doorway, and Blakely, looking
quickly up, went with much civility to greet and escort her within. To
his courteous, "Good-evening, Miss Wren, may I relieve you of your
basket?" she returned prompt negative and, honoring him with no
further notice, stood and gazed with Miss Shaughnessy at the
focus--Miss Shaughnessy who, after one brief glance, turned a broad
Irish back on the intruder at the doorway and resumed her murmuring to
Mullins.

"Is the doctor here--or Steward Griffin?" spoke the lady, to the room
at large, looking beyond the lieutenant and toward the single soldier
attendant present.

"The doctor and the steward are both at home just now, Miss Wren,"
said Blakely. "May I offer you a chair?"

Miss Wren preferred to stand.

"I wish to speak with Steward Griffin," said she again. "Can you go
for him?" this time obviously limiting her language to the attendant
himself, and carefully excluding Mr. Blakely from the field of her
recognition. The attendant dumbly shook his head. So Aunt Janet tried
again.

"Norah, you know where the steward lives, will you--" But Blakely
saw rebellion awake again in Ireland and interposed.

"The steward shall be here at once, Miss Wren," said he, and tiptoed
away. The lady's doubtful eye turned and followed him a moment, then
slowly she permitted herself to enter. Griffin, heading for the
dispensary at the moment and apprised of her visit, came hurrying in.
Blakely, pondering over the few words Mullins had faintly spoken,
walked slowly over toward the line. His talk with Graham had in a
measure stilled the spirit of rancor that had possessed him earlier in
the day. Graham, at least, was stanch and steadfast, not a weathercock
like Cutler. Graham had given him soothing medicine and advised his
strolling a while in the open air--he had slept so much of the
stifling afternoon--and now, hearing the sound of women's voices on
the dark veranda nearest him, he veered to the left, passed around the
blackened ruin of his own quarters and down along the rear of the line
just as the musician of the guard was sounding "Lights Out"--"Taps."

And then a sudden thought occurred to him. Sentries began challenging
at taps. He was close to the post of No. 5. He could even see the
shadowy form of the sentry slowly pacing toward him, and here he stood
in the garb of a private soldier instead of his official dress. It
caused him quickly to veer again, to turn to his right, the west, and
to enter the open space between the now deserted quarters of the
permanent commander and those of Captain Wren adjoining them to the
north. Another moment and he stopped short. Girlish voices, low and
murmurous, fell upon his ear. In a moment he had recognized them. "It
won't take me two minutes, Angela. I'll go and get it now," were the
first words distinctly heard, and, with a rustle of skirts, Kate
Sanders bounded lightly from the piazza to the sands and disappeared
around the corner of the major's quarters, going in the direction of
her home. For the first time in many eventful days Blakely stood
almost within touch of the girl whose little note was even then
nestling in an inner pocket, and they were alone.

"Miss Angela!"

Gently he spoke her name, but the effect was startling. She had been
reclining in a hammock, and at sound of his voice struggled suddenly
to a sitting posture, a low cry on her lips. In some strange way, in
the darkness, the fright, confusion,--whatever it may have been,--she
lost her balance and her seat. The hammock whirled from under her, and
with exasperating thump, unharmed but wrathful, the girl was tumbled
to the resounding floor. Blakely sprang to her aid, but she was up in
the split of a second, scorning, or not seeing, his eager,
outstretched hand.

"My--Miss Angela!" he began, all anxiety and distress, "I hope you're
not hurt," and the outstretched hands were trembling.

"I know I'm not," was the uncompromising reply, "not in the least;
startled--that's all! Gentlemen don't usually come upon one that
way--in the dark." She was panting a bit, but striving bravely,
angrily, to be calm and cool--icy cool.

"Nor would I have come that way," then, stupidly, "had I known you
were--here. Forgive me."

How could she, after that? She had no wish to see him, so she had
schooled herself. She would decline to see him, were he to ask for her
at the door; but, not for an instant did she wish to hear that he did
not wish to see her, yet he had haplessly, brusquely said he wouldn't
have come had he known she was there. It was her duty to leave him,
instantly. It was her desire first to punish him.

"My aunt is not at home," she began, the frost of the Sierras in her
tone.

"I just left her, a moment ago, at the hospital," said he, steadfastly
ignoring her repellent tone. Indeed, if anything, the tone rejoiced
him, for it told a tale she would not have told for realms and
empires. He was ten years older and had lived. "But--forgive me," he
went on, "you are trembling, Miss Angela." She was, and loathed
herself, and promptly denied it. He gravely placed a chair. "You fell
heavily, and it must have jarred you. Please sit down," and stepping
to the olla, "let me bring you some water."

She was weak. Her knees, her hands, were shaking as they never shook
before. He had seen her aunt at the hospital. He had left her aunt
there without a moment's delay that he might hasten to see her,
Angela. He was here and bending over her, with brimming gourd of cool
spring water. Nay, more, with one hand he pressed it to her lips, with
the other he held his handkerchief so that the drops might not fall
upon her gown. He was bending over her, so close she could hear, she
thought, the swift beating of his heart. She knew that if what Aunt
Janet had told, and her father had seen, of him were true, she would
rather die than suffer a touch of his hand. Yet one hand had touched
her, gently, yet firmly, as he helped her to the chair, and the touch
she loathed was sweet to her in spite of herself. From the moment of
their first meeting this man had done what no other man had done
before--spoken to her and treated her as a grown woman, with a man's
admiration in his fine blue eyes, with deference in word and chivalric
grace in manner. And in spite of the mean things whispered about
him--about him and--anybody, she had felt her young heart going out to
him, her buoyant, joyous, healthful nature opening and expanding in
the sunshine of his presence. And now he had come to seek her, after
all the peril and excitement and trouble he had undergone, and now,
all loverlike tenderness and concern, was bending over her and
murmuring to her, his deep voice almost as tremulous as her hand. Oh,
it couldn't be true that he--cared for--was interested in--that woman,
the major's wife! Not that she ought to care one way or another,
except that it was so despicable--so unlike him. Yet she had promised
herself--had virtually promised her father--that she would hold far
aloof from this man, and here he stood, so close that their
heart-beats almost intermingled, and he was telling her that he wished
she had kept and never returned the little butterfly net, for now,
when it had won a value it never before had known, it was his fate to
lose it. "And now," he said, "I hope to be sent to-morrow to join your
father in the field, and I wish to tell you that, whenever I go, I
shall first come to see what you may have to send to him. Will you--be
here, Miss Angela?"

For a moment--silence. She was thinking of her duty to her father, of
her implied promise, of all that Janet had told her, and so thinking
could not for the moment answer--could not meet his earnest gaze. Dark
as it was she felt, rather than saw, the glow of his deep blue eyes.
She could not mistake the tenderness of his tone. She had so believed
in him. He seemed so far above the callow, vapid, empty-headed
youngsters the other girls were twittering about from morn till night.
She felt that she believed in him now, no matter what had been said or
who had said it. She felt that if he would but say it was all a
mistake--that no woman had crossed his threshold, all Camp Sandy might
swear to the truth of the story, and she would laugh at it. But how
could she ask such a thing of him? Her cheeks took fire at the
thought. It was he who broke the silence.

"Something has happened to break your faith in me, Miss Angela," said
he, with instant gravity. "I certainly had it--I know I had it--not
a week ago"; and now he had dropped to a seat in the swaying hammock,
and with calm strength and will bent toward her and compelled her
attention. "I have a right to know, as matters stand. Will you tell
me, or must I wait until I see your father?" With that Neil Blakely
actually sought to take her hand. She whipped it behind her at the
instant. "Will you tell me?" he repeated, bending closer.

From down the line, dancing along the wooden veranda, came the sound
of swift footfalls--Kate Sanders hurrying back. Another moment and it
would be too late. The denial she longed to hear from his lips might
never be spoken. If spoken at all it must be here and now, yet how
could she--how could she ask him?

"I will tell you, Mr. Blakely." The words came from the window of the
darkened parlor, close at hand. The voice was that of Janet Wren,
austere and uncompromising. "I got here in time to hear your
question--I will answer for my niece--"

"Aunt Janet--No!"

"Be quiet, Angela. Mr. Blakely, it is because this child's father saw,
and I heard of, that which makes you unworthy the faith of a young,
pure-hearted girl. Who was the--the creature to whom you opened your
door last Wednesday midnight?"

Kate Sanders, singing softly, blithely, came tripping along the
major's deserted veranda, her fresh young voice, glad, yet subdued,
caroling the words of a dear old song that Parepa had made loved and
famous full ten years before:

"And as he lingered by her side,
In spite of his comrade's warning
The old, old story was told again
At five o'clock in the morning."

Then came sudden silence, as springing to the sandy ground, the singer
reached the Wrens' veranda and saw the dim form of Mr. Blakely,
standing silently confronting a still dimmer form, faintly visible at
the side window against the soft, tempered light of the hanging lamp
in the hall.

"Who was the creature?" I repeat, were the strange words, in Miss
Wren's most telling tone, that brought Kate Sanders to a halt,
startled, silent.

Then Blakely answered: "Some day I shall tell Miss Angela, madam, but
never--you. Good-night."





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