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Whose Letters?

From: An Apache Princess

There is something about a night alarm of fire at a military post that
borders on the thrilling. In the days whereof we write the buildings
were not the substantial creations of brick and stone to be seen
to-day, and those of the scattered "camps" and stations in that arid,
sun-scorched land of Arizona were tinder boxes of the flimsiest and
most inflammable kind.

It could hardly have been a minute from the warning shot and yell of
No. 5--repeated right and left by other sentries and echoed by No. 1
at the guard-house--before bugle and trumpet were blaring their fierce
alarm, and the hoarse roar of the drum was rousing the inmates of the
infantry barracks. Out they came, tumbling pell-mell into the
accustomed ranks, confronted by the sight of Blakely's quarters one
broad sheet of flame. With incredible speed the blaze had burst forth
from the front room on the lower floor; leaped from window to window,
from ledge to ledge; fastened instantly on overhanging roof, and the
shingled screen of the veranda; had darted up the dry wooden stairway,
devouring banister, railing, and snapping pine floor, and then,
billowing forth from every crack, crevice, and casement of the upper
floor streamed hissing and crackling on the blackness that precedes
the dawn, a magnificent glare that put to shame the feeble signal
fires lately gleaming in the mountains. Luckily there was no
wind--there never was a wind at Sandy--and the flames leaped straight
for the zenith, lashing their way into the huge black pillar of smoke
cloud sailing aloft to the stars.

Under their sergeants, running in disciplined order, one company had
sped for the water wagon and were now slowly trundling that unwieldy
vehicle, pushing, pulling, straining at the wheels, from its night
berth close to the corrals. Rushing like mad, in no order at all, the
men of the other company came tearing across the open parade, and were
faced and halted far out in front of officers' row by Blakely himself,
barefooted and clad only in his pyjamas, but all alive with vim and

"Back, men! back for your blankets!" he cried. "Bring ladders and
buckets! Back with you, lively!" They seemed to catch his meaning at
the instant. His soldier home with everything it contained was doomed.
Nothing could save it. But there stood the next quarters,--Truman's
and Westervelt's double set,--and in the intense heat that must
speedily develop, it might well be that the dry, resinous woodwork
that framed the adobe would blaze forth on its own account and spread
a conflagration down the line. Already Mrs. Truman, with Norah and the
children, was being hurried down to the doctor's, while Truman
himself, with the aid of two or three neighboring "strikers," had
stripped the beds of their single blanket and, bucketing these with
water, was slashing at the veranda roof and cornice along the
northward side.

Somebody came with a short ladder, and in another moment three or four
adventurous spirits, led by Blakely and Truman, were scrambling about
the veranda roof, their hands and faces glowing in the gathering heat,
spreading blankets over the shingling and cornice. In five minutes all
that was left of Blakely's little homestead was gone up in smoke and
fierce, furious heat and flame, but the daring and well-directed
effort of the garrison had saved the rest of the line. In ten minutes
nothing but a heap of glowing beams and embers, within four crumbling
walls of adobe, remained of the "beetle shop." Bugs, butterflies,
books, chests, desk, trunks, furniture, papers, and such martial
paraphernalia as a subaltern might require in that desert land, had
been reduced to ashes before their owner's eyes. He had not saved so
much as a shoe. His watch, lying on the table by his bedside, a silk
handkerchief, and a little scrap of a note, written in girlish hand
and carried temporarily in the breast pocket, were the only items he
had managed to bring with him into the open air. He was still gasping,
gagging, half-strangling, when Captain Cutler accosted him to know if
he could give the faintest explanation of the starting of so strange
and perilous a fire, and Blakely, remembering the stealthy footsteps
and that locked or bolted door, could not but say he believed it
incendiary, yet could think of no possible motive.

It was daybreak as the little group of spectators, women and children
of the garrison, began to break up and return to their homes, all
talking excitedly, all intolerant of the experiences of others, and
centered solely in the narrative of their own. Leaving a dozen men
with buckets, readily filled from the acequia which turned the old
water wheel just across the post of No. 4, and sending the big water
wagon down to the stream for another liquid load, the infantry went
back to their barracks and early coffee. The drenched blankets, one by
one, were stripped from the gable end of Truman's quarters, every
square inch of the paint thereon being now a patch of tiny blisters,
and there, as the dawn broadened and the pallid light took on again a
tinge of rose, the officers gathered about Blakely in his scorched and
soaked pyjamas, extending both condolence and congratulation.

"The question is, Blakely," remarked Captain Westervelt dryly, "will
you go to Frisco to refit now, or wait till Congress reimburses?"
whereat the scientist was observed to smile somewhat ruefully. "The
question is, Bugs," burst in young Doty irrepressibly, "will you wear
this rig, or Apache full dress, when you ride after Wren? The runners
start at six," whereat even the rueful smile was observed to vanish,
and without answer Blakely turned away, stepping gingerly into the
heated sand with his bare white feet.

"Don't bother about dousing anything else, sergeant," said he
presently, to the soldier supervising the work of the bucket squad.
"The iron box should be under what's left of my desk--about there,"
and he indicated a charred and steaming heap, visible through a gap in
the doubly baked adobe that had once been the side window. "Lug that
out as soon as you can cool things off. I'll probably be back by that
time." Then, turning again to the group of officers, and ignoring
Doty--Blakely addressed himself to the senior.

"Captain Cutler," said he, "I can fit myself out at the troop quarters
with everything I need for the field, at least, and wire to San
Francisco for what I shall need when we return. I shall be ready to go
with Ahorah at six."

There was a moment of silence. Embarrassment showed plainly in almost
every face. When Cutler spoke it was with obvious effort. Everybody
realized that Blakely, despite severe personal losses, had been the
directing head in checking the progress of the flames. Truman had
borne admirable part, but Blakely was at once leader and actor. He
deserved well of his commander. He was still far from strong. He was
weak and weary. His hands and face were scorched and in places
blistered, yet, turning his back on the ruins of his treasures, he
desired to go at once to join his comrades in the presence of the
enemy. He had missed every previous opportunity of sharing perils and
battle with them. He could afford such loss as that no longer, in view
of what he knew had been said. He had every right, so thought they
all, to go, yet Cutler hesitated. When at last he spoke it was to

"You're in no condition for field work, Mr. Blakely," said he. "The
doctor has so assured me, and just now things are taking such shape
I--need you here."

"You will permit me to appeal by wire, sir?" queried Blakely, standing
attention in his bedraggled night garb, and forcing himself to a
semblance of respect that he was far from feeling.

"I--I will consult Dr. Graham and let you know," was the captain's
awkward reply.

Two hours later Neil Blakely, in a motley dress made up of collections
from the troop and trader's stores--a combination costume of blue
flannel shirt, bandanna kerchief, cavalry trousers with machine-made
saddle piece, Tonto moccasins and leggings, fringed gauntlets and a
broad-brimmed white felt hat, strode into the messroom in quest of
eggs and coffee. Doty had been there and vanished. Sick call was
sounding and Graham was stalking across the parade in the direction of
the hospital, too far away to be reached by human voice, unless
uplifted to the pitch of attracting the whole garrison. The telegraph
operator had just clicked off the last of half a dozen messages
scrawled by the lieutenant--orders on San Francisco furnishers for the
new outfit demanded by the occasion, etc., but Captain Cutler was
still mured within his own quarters, declining to see Mr. Blakely
until ready to come to the office. Ahorah and his swarthy partner were
already gone, "started even before six," said the acting sergeant
major, and Blakely was fuming with impatience and sense of something
much amiss. Doty was obviously dodging him, there could be no doubt
of that, for the youngster was between two fires, the post commander's
positive orders on one hand and Blakely's urgent pleadings on the

Over at "C" Troop's quarters was the lieutenant's saddle, ready packed
with blanket, greatcoat, and bulging saddle-bags. Over in "C" Troop's
stables was Deltchay--the lieutenant's bronco charger, ready fed and
groomed, wondering why he was kept in when the other horses were out
at graze. With the saddle kit were the troop carbine and revolver,
Blakely's personal arms being now but stockless tubes of seared and
blistered steel. Back of "C" Troop's quarters lolled a half-breed
Mexican packer, with a brace of mules, one girt with saddle, the other
in shrouding aparejo--diamond-hitched, both borrowed from the post
trader with whom Blakely's note of hand was good as a government four
per cent.--all ready to follow the lieutenant to the field whither
right and duty called him. There, too, was Nixon, the new "striker,"
new clad as was his master, and full panoplied for the field, yet
bemoaning the loss of soldier treasures whose value was never fully
realized until they were irrevocably gone. Six o'clock, six-thirty,
six-forty-five and even seven sped by and still there came no summons
to join the soldier master. There had come instead, when Nixon urged
that he be permitted to lead forth both his own troop horse and
Deltchay, the brief, but significant reply: "Shut yer gab, Nixon.
There's no horse goes till the captain says so!"

At seven o'clock, at last, the post commander came forth from his
doorway; saw across the glaring level of the parade the form of Mr.
Blakely impatiently pacing the veranda at the adjutant's office, and,
instead of going thither, as was his wont, Captain Cutler turned the
other way and strode swiftly to the hospital, where Graham met him at
the bedside of Trooper patient Patrick Mullins. "How is he?" queried

"Sleeping--thank God--and not to be wakened," was the Scotchman's
answer. "He had a bad time of it during the fire."

"What am I to tell Blakely?" demanded Cutler, seeking strength for his
faltering hand. "You're bound to help me now, Graham."

"Let him go and you may make it worse," said the doctor, with a
clamp of his grizzled jaws. "Hold him here and you're sure to."

"Can't you, as post surgeon, tell him he isn't fit to ride?"

"Not when he rides the first half of the night and puts out a nasty
fire the last. Can't you, as post commander, tell him you forbid his
going till you hear from Byrne and investigate the fire?" If Graham
had no patience with a frail woman, he had nothing but contempt for a
weak man. "If he's bound to be up and doing something, though," he
added, "send him out with a squad of men and orders to hunt for

Cutler had never even thought of it. Downs was still missing. No one
had seen him. His haunts had been searched to no purpose. His horse
was still with the herd. One man, the sergeant of the guard, the
previous day, had marked the brief farewell between the missing man
and the parting maid--had seen the woman's gloved hand stealthily put
forth and the little folded packet passed to the soldier's ready palm.
What that paper contained no man ventured to conjecture. Cutler and
Graham, notified by Sergeant Kenna of what he had seen, puzzled over
it in vain. Norah Shaughnessy could perhaps unravel it, thought the
doctor, but he did not say.

Cutler came forth from the shaded depths of the broad hallway to face
the dazzling glare of the morning sunshine, and the pale, stern,
reproachful features of the homeless lieutenant, who simply raised his
hand in salute and said: "I've been ready two hours, sir, and the
runners are long gone."

"Too long and too far for you to catch them now," said Cutler,
catching at another straw. "And there is far more important matter
here. Mr. Blakely, I want that man Downs followed, found, and brought
back to this post, and you're the only man to do it. Take a dozen
troopers, if necessary, and set about it, sir, at once."

A soldier was at the moment hurrying past the front of the hospital, a
grimy-looking packet in his hand. Hearing the voice of Captain Cutler,
he turned, saw Lieutenant Blakely standing there at attention, saw
that, as the captain finished, Blakely still remained a moment as
though about to speak--saw that he seemed a trifle dazed or stunned.
Cutler marked it, too. "This is imperative and immediate, Mr.
Blakely," said he, not unkindly. "Pull yourself together if you are
fit to go at all, and lose no more time." With that he started away.
Graham had come to the doorway, but Blakely never seemed to see him.
Instead he suddenly roused and, turning sharp, sprang down the wooden
steps as though to overtake the captain, when the soldier, saluting,
held forth the dingy packet.

"It was warped out of all shape, sir," said he. "The blacksmith pried
out the lid wid a crowbar. The books are singed and soaked and the
packages charred--all but this."

It fell apart as it passed from hand to hand, and a lot of letters,
smoke-stained, scorched at the edges, and some of them soaking wet,
also two or three carte de visite photographs, were scattered on the
sand. Both men bobbed in haste to gather them up, and Graham came
hurriedly down to help. As Blakely straightened again he swayed and
staggered slightly, and the doctor grasped him by the arm, a sudden
clutch that perhaps shook loose some of the recovered papers from the
long, slim fingers. At all events, a few went suddenly back to earth,
and, as Cutler turned, wondering what was amiss, he saw Blakely, with
almost ashen face, supported by the doctor's sturdy arm to a seat on
the edge of the piazza; saw, as he quickly retraced his steps, a sweet
and smiling woman's face looking up at him out of the trampled sands,
and, even as he stooped to recover the pretty photograph, though it
looked far younger, fairer, and more winsome than ever he had seen it,
Cutler knew the face at once. It was that of Clarice, wife of Major
Plume. Whose, then, were those scattered letters?

Next: Aunt Janet Braved

Previous: Fire!

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