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Moccasin Tracks








From: An Apache Princess

When Mr. Blakely left the post that afternoon he went afoot. When he
returned, just after the sounding of retreat, he came in saddle.
Purposely he avoided the road that led in front of the long line of
officers' quarters and chose instead the water-wagon track along the
rear. People among the laundresses' quarters, south of the mesa on
which stood the quadrangular inclosure of Camp Sandy, eyed him
curiously as he ambled through on his borrowed pony; but he looked
neither to right nor left and hurried on in obvious discomposure. He
was looking pale and very tired, said the saddler sergeant's wife, an
hour later, when all the garrison was agog with the story of Wren's
mad assault. He never seemed to see the two or three soldiers, men of
family, who rose and saluted as he passed, and not an officer in the
regiment was more exact or scrupulous in his recognition of such
soldier courtesy as Blakely had ever been. They wondered, therefore,
at his strange abstraction. They wondered more, looking after him,
when, just as his stumbling pony reached the crest, the rider reined
him in and halted short in evident embarrassment. They could not see
what he saw--two young girls in gossamer gowns of white, with arms
entwining each other's waists, their backs toward him, slowly pacing
northward up the mesa and to the right of the road. Some old croquet
arches, balls, and mallets lay scattered about, long since abandoned
to dry rot and disuse, and, so absorbed were the damsels in their
confidential chat,--bubbling over, too, with merry laughter,--they
gave no heed to these until one, the taller of the pair, catching her
slippered foot in the stiff, unyielding wire, plunged forward and
fell, nearly dragging her companion with her. Blakely, who had hung
back, drove his barbless heels into the pony's flanks, sent him
lurching forward, and in less than no time was out of saddle and
aiding her to rise, laughing so hard she, for a moment, could not
speak or thank him. Save to flowing skirt, there was not the faintest
damage, yet his eyes, his voice, his almost tremulous touch were all
suggestive of deep concern, before, once more mounting, he raised his
broad-brimmed hat and bade them reluctant good-night. Kate Sanders ran
scurrying home an instant later, but Angela's big and shining eyes
followed him every inch of the way until he once more dismounted at
the upper end of the row and, looking back, saw her and waved his hat,
whereat she ran, blushing, smiling, and not a little wondering,
flustered and happy, into the gallery of their own quarters and the
immediate presence of her father. Blakely, meanwhile, had summoned his
servant:

"Take this pony at once to Mr. Hart," said he, "and say I'll be back
again as soon as I've seen the commanding officer."

When Downs, the messenger, returned to the house about half an hour
later, it was to find his master prostrate and bleeding on the bed in
his room, Dr. Graham and the hospital attendant working over him, the
major and certain of his officers, with gloomy faces and muttering
tongues, conferring on the piazza in front, and one of the
lieutenant's precious cases of bugs and butterflies a wreck of
shattered glass. More than half the officers of the post were present.
A bevy of women and girls had gathered in the dusk some distance down
the row. The wondering Milesian whispered inquiry of silent soldiers
lingering about the house, but the gruff voice of Sergeant Clancy bade
them go about their business. Not until nearly an hour later was it
generally known that Captain Wren had been escorted to his quarters by
the post adjutant and ordered to remain therein in close arrest.

If some older and more experienced officer than Duane had been there
perhaps the matter would not have proved so tragic, but the latter was
utterly unstrung by Wren's furious attack and the unlooked-for result.
Without warning of any kind, the burly Scot had launched his big fist
straight at Blakely's jaw, and sent the slender, still fever-weakened
form crashing through a case of specimens, reducing it to splinters
that cruelly cut and tore the bruised and senseless face. A corporal
of the guard, marching his relief in rear of the quarters at the
moment, every door and window being open, heard the crash, the wild
cry for help, rushed in, with his men at his heels, and found the
captain standing stunned and ghastly, with the sweat starting from his
brow, staring down at the result of his fearful work. From the front
Captain Sanders and his amazed lieutenant came hurrying. Together they
lifted the stricken and bleeding man to his bed in the back room and
started a soldier for the doctor on the run. The sight of this man,
speeding down the row, bombarded all the way with questions he could
not stop to answer, startled every soul along that westward-facing
front, and sent men and women streaming up the line toward Blakely's
quarters at the north end. The doctor fairly brushed them from his
path and Major Plume had no easy task persuading the tearful, pallid
groups of army wives and daughters to retire to the neighboring
quarters. Janet Wren alone refused point-blank. She would not go
without first seeing her brother. It was she who took the arm of the
awed, bewildered, shame-and conscience-stricken man and led him, with
bowed and humbled head, the adjutant aiding on the other side, back to
the door he had so sternly closed upon his only child, and that now as
summarily shut on him. Dr. Graham had pronounced the young officer's
injuries serious, and the post commander was angry to the very core.

One woman there was who, with others, had aimlessly hastened up the
line, and who seemed now verging on hysterics--the major's wife. It
was Mrs. Graham who rebukefully sent her own braw young brood
scurrying homeward through the gathering dusk, and then possessed
herself of Mrs. Plume. "The shock has unnerved you," she charitably,
soothingly whispered: "Come away with me," but the major's wife
refused to go. Hart, the big post trader, had just reached the spot,
driving up in his light buckboard. His usually jovial face was full of
sympathy and trouble. He could not believe the news, he said. Mr.
Blakely had been with him so short a time beforehand and was coming
down again at once, so Downs, the striker, told him, when some soldier
ran in to say the lieutenant had been half killed by Captain Wren.
Plume heard him talking and came down the low steps to meet and confer
with him, while the others, men and women, listened eagerly, expectant
of developments. Then Hart became visibly embarrassed. Yes, Mr.
Blakely had come up from below and begged the loan of a pony, saying
he must get to the post at once to see Major Plume. Hadn't he seen the
major? No! Then Hart's embarrassment increased. Yes, something had
happened. Blakely had told him, and in fact they--he--all of them had
something very important on hand. He didn't know what to do now, with
Mr. Blakely unable to speak, and, to the manifest disappointment of
the swift-gathering group, Hart finally begged the major to step aside
with him a moment and he would tell him what he knew. All eyes
followed them, then followed the major as he came hurrying back with
heightened color and went straight to Dr. Graham at the sufferer's
side. "Can I speak with him? Is he well enough to answer a question or
two?" he asked, and the doctor shook his head. "Then, by the Lord,
I'll have to wire to Prescott!" said Plume, and left the room at
once. "What is it?" feebly queried the patient, now half-conscious.
But the doctor answered only "Hush! No talking now, Mr. Blakely," and
bade the others leave the room and let him get to sleep.

But tattoo had not sounded that still and starlit evening when a
strange story was in circulation about the post, brought up from the
trader's store by pack-train hands who said they were there when Mr.
Blakely came in and asked for Hart--"wanted him right away, bad," was
the way they put it. Then it transpired that Mr. Blakely had found no
sport at bug-hunting and had fallen into a doze while waiting for
winged insects, and when he woke it was to make a startling
discovery--his beautiful Geneva watch had disappeared from one pocket
and a flat note case, carried in an inner breast pocket of his white
duck blouse, and containing about one hundred dollars, was also gone.
Some vagrant soldier, possibly, or some "hard-luck outfit" of
prospectors, probably, had come upon him sleeping, and had made way
with his few valuables. Two soldiers had been down stream, fishing for
what they called Tonto trout, but they were looked up instantly and
proved to be men above suspicion. Two prospectors had been at Hart's,
nooning, and had ridden off down stream toward three o'clock. There
was a clew worth following, and certain hangers-on about the trader's,
"layin' fer a job," had casually hinted at the prospect of a game down
at Snicker's--a ranch five miles below. Here, too, was something worth
investigating. If Blakely had been robbed, as now seemed more than
likely, Camp Sandy felt that the perpetrator must still be close at
hand and of the packer or prospector class.

But before the ranks were broken, after the roll-call, then invariably
held at half-past nine, Hart came driving back in a buckboard, with a
lantern and a passenger, the latter one of the keenest trailers among
the sergeants of Captain Sanders' troop, and Sanders was with the
major as the man sprang from the wagon and stood at salute.

"Found anything, sergeant?" asked Plume.

"Not a boot track, sir, but the lieutenant's own."

"No tracks at all--in that soft sand!" exclaimed the major,
disappointed and unbelieving. His wife had come slowly forward from
within doors, and, bending slightly toward them, stood listening.

"No boot tracks, sir. There's others though--Tonto moccasins!"

Plume stood bewildered. "By Jove! I never thought of that!" said he,
turning presently on his second troop commander. "But who ever heard
of Apaches taking a man's watch and leaving--him?"

"If the major will look," said the sergeant, quietly producing a
scouting notebook such as was then issued by the engineer department,
"I measured 'em and made rough copies here. There was two, sir. Both
came, both went, by the path through the willows up stream. We didn't
have time to follow. One is longer and slimmer than the other. If I
may make so bold, sir, I'd have a guard down there to-night to keep
people away; otherwise the tracks may be spoiled before morning."

"Take three men and go yourself," said the major promptly. "See
anything of any of the lieutenant's property? Mr. Hart told you,
didn't he?" Plume was studying the sergeant's pencil sketches, by the
light of the trader's lantern, as he spoke, a curious, puzzled look on
his soldierly face.

"Saw where the box had lain in the sand, sir, but no trace of the
net," and Sergeant Shannon was thinking less of these matters than of
his sketches. There was something he thought the major ought to see,
and presently he saw.

"Why, sergeant, these may be Tonto moccasin tracks, but not grown
men's. They are mere boys, aren't they?"

"Mere girls, sir."

There was a sound of rustling skirts upon the bare piazza. Plume
glanced impatiently over his shoulder. Mrs. Plume had vanished into
the unlighted hallway.

"That would account for their taking the net," said he thoughtfully,
"but what on earth would the guileless Tonto maiden do with a watch or
with greenbacks? They wouldn't dare show with them at the agency! How
far did you follow the tracks?"

"Only a rod or two. Once in the willows they can't well quit them till
they reach the shallows above the pool, sir. We can guard there
to-night and begin trailing at dawn."

"So be it then!" and presently the conference closed.

Seated on the adjoining gallery, alone and in darkness, stricken and
sorrowing, a woman had been silently observant of the meeting, and
had heard occasional snatches of the talk. Presently she rose; softly
entered the house and listened at a closed door on the northward
side--Captain Wren's own room. An hour previous, tortured between his
own thoughts and her well-meant, but unwelcome efforts to cheer him,
he had begged to be left alone, and had closed his door against all
comers.

Now, she as softly ascended the narrow stairway and paused for a
moment at another door, also closed. Listening a while, she knocked,
timidly, hesitatingly, but no answer came. After a while, noiselessly,
she turned the knob and entered.

A dim light was burning on a little table by the white bedside. A
long, slim figure, white-robed and in all the abandon of girlish
grief, was lying, face downward, on the bed. Tangled masses of hair
concealed much of the neck and shoulders, but, bending over, Miss Wren
could partially see the flushed and tear-wet cheek pillowed on one
slender white arm. Exhausted by long weeping, Angela at last had
dropped to sleep, but the little hand that peeped from under the
thick, tumbling tresses still clung to an odd and unfamiliar
object--something the older woman had seen only at a distance
before--something she gazed at in startled fascination this strange
and solemn night--a slender, long-handled butterfly net of filmy
gauze.





Next: A Stricken Sentry

Previous: Scot Versus Saxon



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