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Far up in the Northwest, along the banks of the broad, winding stream the Sioux call the Elk, a train of white-topped army-wagons is slowly crawling eastward. The October sun is hot at noon-day, and the dust from the loose soil rises like heavy smoke and powders every face and form in the guarding battalion so that features are wellnigh indistinguishable. Four companies of stalwart, sinewy infantry, with their brown rifles slung over the shoulder, are striding along in dispersed order, covering the exposed southern flank from sudden attack, while farther out along the ridge-line, and far to the front and rear, cavalry skirmishers and scouts are riding to and fro, searching every hollow and ravine, peering cautiously over every "divide," and signalling "halt" or "forward" as the indications warrant.
And yet not a hostile Indian has been seen; not one, even as distant vedette, has appeared in range of the binoculars, since the scouts rode in at daybreak to say that big bands were in the immediate neighborhood. It has been a long, hard summer's work for the troops, and the Indians have been, to all commands that boasted strength or swiftness, elusive as the Irishman's flea of tradition. Only to those whose numbers were weak or whose movements were hampered have they appeared in fighting-trim. But combinations have been too much for them, and at last they have been "herded" down to the Elk, have crossed, and are now seeking to make their way, with women, children, tepees, dogs, "travois," and the great pony herds, to the fastnesses of the Big Horn; and now comes the opportunity for which an old Indian-fighter has been anxiously waiting. In a big cantonment he has held the main body under his command, while keeping out constant scouting-parties to the east and north. He knows well that, true to their policy, the Indians will have scattered into small bands capable of reassembling anywhere that signal smokes may call them, and his orders are to watch all the crossings of the Elk and nab them as they come into his district. He watches, despite the fact that it is his profound conviction that the Indians will be no such idiots as to come just where they are wanted, and he is in no wise astonished when a courier comes in on jaded horse to tell him that they have "doubled" on the other column and are now two or three days' march away down stream, "making for the big bend." His own scouting-parties are still out to the eastward: he can pick them up as he goes. He sends the main body of his infantry, a regiment jocularly known as "The Riflers," to push for a landing some fifty miles down-stream, scouting the lower valley of the Sweet Root on the way. He sends his wagon-train, guarded by four companies of foot and two of horsemen, by the only practicable road to the bend, while he, with ten seasoned "troops" of his pet regiment, the ——th Cavalry, starts forthwith on a long détour in which he hopes to "round up" such bands as may have slipped away from the general rush. Even as "boots and saddles" is sounding, other couriers come riding in from Lieutenant Crane's party. He has struck the trail of a big band.
When the morning sun dawns on the picturesque valley in which the cantonment nestled but the day before, it illumines an almost deserted village, and brings no joy to the souls of some twoscore of embittered civilians who had arrived only the day previous, and whose unanimous verdict is that the army is a fraud and ought to be abolished. For four months or more some three regiments had been camping, scouting, roughing it thereabouts, with not a cent of pay. Then came the wildly exciting tidings that a boat was on the way up the Missouri with a satrap of the pay department, vast store of shekels, and a strong guard, and as a consequence there would be some two thousand men around the cantonment with pockets full of money and no one to help them spend it, and nothing suitable to spend it on. It was a duty all citizens owed to the Territory to hasten to the scene and gather in for local circulation all that was obtainable of that disbursement; otherwise the curse of the army might get ahead of them and the boys would gamble it away among themselves or spend it for vile whiskey manufactured for their sole benefit. Gallatin Valley was emptied of its prominent practitioners in the game of poker. The stream was black with "Mackinaw" boats and other craft. There was a rush for the cantonment that rivalled the multitudes of the mining days, but all too late. The command was already packing up when the first contingent arrived, and the commanding officer, recognizing the fraternity at a glance, warned them outside the limits of camp that night, declined their services as volunteers on the impending campaign, and treated them with such calmly courteous recognition of their true character that the Eastern press was speedily filled with sneering comment on the hopelessness of ever subduing the savage tribes of the Northwest when the government intrusts the duty to upstart officers of the regular service whose sole conception of their functions is to treat with insult and contempt the hardy frontiersman whose mere presence with the command would be of incalculable benefit. "We have it from indisputable authority," says The Miner's Light of Brandy Gap, "that when our esteemed fellow-citizen Hank Mulligan and twenty gallant shots and riders like himself went in a body to General—— at the cantonment and offered their services as volunteers against the Sioux now devastating the homesteads and settlements of the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone valleys, they were treated with haughty and contemptuous refusal by that bandbox caricature of a soldier and threatened with arrest if they did not quit the camp. When will the United States learn that its frontiers can never be purged of the Indian scourges of our civilization until the conduct of affairs in the field is intrusted to other hands than these martinets of the drill-ground? It is needless to remark in this connection that the expedition led by General—— has proved a complete failure, and that the Indians easily escaped his clumsily-led forces."
The gamblers, though baffled for the time being, of course "get square," and more too, with the unfortunate general in this sort of warfare, but they are a disgusted lot as they hang about the wagon-train as last of all it is being hitched-in to leave camp. Some victims, of course, they have secured, and there are no devices of commanding officers which can protect their men against those sharks of the prairies when the men themselves are bound to tempt Providence and play. There are two scowling faces in the cavalry escort that has been left back with the train, and Captain Hull, the commanding officer, has reprimanded Sergeants Clancy and Gower in stinging terms for their absence from the command during the night. There is little question where they spent it, and both have been "cleaned out." What makes it worse, both have lost money that belonged to other men in the command, and they are in bad odor accordingly.
The long day's march has tempered the joviality of the entire column. It is near sundown, and still they keep plodding onward, making for a grassy level on the river-bank a good mile farther.
"Old Hull seems bound to leave the sports as far behind as possible, if he has to march us until midnight," growls the battalion adjutant to his immediate commander. "By thunder! one would think he was afraid they would get in a lick at his own pile."
"How much did you say he was carrying?" asks Captain Rayner, checking his horse for a moment to look back over the valley at the long, dust-enveloped column.
"Nearly three thousand dollars in one wad."
"How does he happen to have such a sum?"
"Why, Crane left his pay-accounts with him. He drew all that was due his men who are off with Crane,—twenty of them,—for they had signed the rolls before going, and were expected back to-day. Then he has some six hundred dollars company fund; and the men of his troop asked him to take care of a good deal besides. The old man has been with them so many years they look upon him as a father and trust him as implicitly as they would a savings-bank."
"That's all very well," answers Rayner; "but I wouldn't want to carry any such sum with me."
"It's different with Hull's men, captain. They are ordered in through the posts and settlements. They have a three weeks' march ahead of them when they get through their scout, and they want their money on the way. It was only after they had drawn it that the news came of the Indians' crossing and of our having to jump for the warpath. Everybody thought yesterday morning that the campaign was about over so far as we are concerned. Halloo! here comes young Hayne. Now, what does he want?"
Riding a quick, nervous little bay troop horse, a slim-built officer, with boyish face, laughing blue eyes, and sunny hair, comes loping up the long prairie wave; he shouts cheery greeting to one or two brother subalterns who are plodding along beside their men, and exchanges some merry chaff with Lieutenant Ross, who is prone to growl at the luck which has kept him afoot and given to this favored youngster a "mount" and a temporary staff position. The boy's spirits and fun seem to jar on Rayner's nerves. He regards him blackly as he rides gracefully towards the battalion commander, and with decidedly nonchalant ease of manner and an "off-hand" salute that has an air about it of saying, "I do this sort of thing because one has to, but it doesn't really mean anything, you know," Mr. Hayne accosts his superior:
"Ah, good-evening, captain. I have just come back from the front, and Captain Hull directed me to give you his compliments and say that we would camp in the bend yonder, and he would like you to post strong pickets and have a double guard to-night."
"Have me post double guards! How the devil does he expect me to do that after marching all day?"
"I did not inquire, sir: he might have told me 'twas none of my business, don't you know?" And Mr. Hayne has the insufferable hardihood to wink at the battalion adjutant,—a youth of two years' longer service than his own.
"Well, Mr. Hayne, this is no matter for levity," says Rayner, angrily. "What does Captain Hull mean to do with his own men, if I'm to do the guard?"
"That is another point, Captain Rayner, which I had not the requisite effrontery to inquire into. Now, you might ask him, but I couldn't, don't you know?" responds Hayne, smiling amiably the while into the wrathful face of his superior. It serves only to make the indignant captain more wrathful; and no wonder. There has been no love lost between the two since Hayne joined the Riflers early the previous year. He came in from civil life, a city-bred boy, fresh from college, full of spirits, pranks, fun of every kind; a wonderfully keen hand with the billiard-cue; a knowing one at cards and such games of chance as college boys excel at; a musician of no mean pretensions, and an irrepressible leader in all the frolics and frivolities of his comrades. He had leaped to popularity from the start. He was full of courtesy and gentleness to women, and became a pet in social circles. He was frank, free, off-handed with his associates, spending lavishly, "treating" with boyish ostentation on all occasions, living quite en grand seigneur, for he seemed to have a little money outside his pay,—"a windfall from a good old duffer of an uncle," as he had explained it. His father, a scholarly man who had been summoned to an important under-office in the State Department during the War of the Rebellion, had lived out his honored life in Washington and died poor, as such men must ever die. It was his wish that his handsome, spirited, brave-hearted boy should enter the army, and long after the sod had hardened over the father's peaceful grave the young fellow donned his first uniform and went out to join "The Riflers." High-spirited, joyous, full of laughing fun, he was "Pet" Hayne before he had been among them six months. But within the year he had made one or two enemies. It could not be said of him that he showed that deference to rank and station which was expected of a junior officer; and among the seniors were several whom he speedily designated "unconscionable old duffers" and treated with as little semblance of respect as a second lieutenant could exhibit and be permitted to live. Rayner prophesied of him that, as he had no balance and was burning his candle at both ends, he would come to grief in short order. Hayne retorted that the only balance that Rayner had any respect for was one at the banker's, and that it was notorious in Washington that the captain's father had made most of his money in government contracts, and that the captain's original commission in the regulars was secured through well-paid Congressional influence. The fact that Rayner had developed into a good officer did not wipe out the recollection of these facts; and he could have throttled Hayne for reviving them. It was "a game of give and take," said the youngster; and he "behaved himself" to those who were at all decent in their manner to him.
It was a thorn in Rayner's flesh, therefore, when Hayne joined from leave of absence, after experiences not every officer would care to encounter in getting back to his regiment, that Captain Hull should have induced the general to detail him in place of the invalided field quartermaster when the command was divided. Hayne would have been a junior subaltern in Rayner's little battalion but for that detail, and it annoyed the captain more seriously than he would confess.
"It is all an outrage and a blunder to pick out a boy like that," he growls between his set teeth as Hayne canters blithely away. "Here he's been away from the regiment all summer long, having a big time and getting head over ears in debt, I hear, and the moment he rejoins they put him in charge of the wagon-train as field quartermaster. It's putting a premium on being young and cheeky,—besides absenteeism," he continues, growing blacker every minute.
"Well, captain," answers his adjutant, injudiciously, "I think you don't give Hayne credit for coming back on the jump the moment we were ordered out. It was no fault of his he could not reach us. He took chances I wouldn't take."
"Oh, yes! you kids all swear by Hayne because he's a good fellow and sings a jolly song and plays the piano—and poker. One of these days he'll swamp you all, sure as shooting. He's in debt now, and it'll fetch him before you know it. What he needs is to be under a captain who could discipline him a little. By Jove, I'd do it!" And Rayner's teeth emphasize the assertion.
The young adjutant thinks it advisable to say nothing that may provoke further vehemence. All the same, he remembers Rayner's bitterness of manner, and has abundant cause to.
When the next morning breaks, chill and pallid, a change has come in the aspect of affairs. During the earliest hour of the dawn the red light of a light-draught river-boat startled the outlying pickets down-stream, and the Far West, answering the muffled hail from shore, responded, through the medium of a mate's stentorian tones, "News that'll rout you fellows out." The sun is hardly peeping over the jagged outline of the eastern hills when, with Rayner's entire battalion aboard, she is steaming again down-stream, with orders to land at the mouth of the Sweet Root. There the four companies will disembark in readiness to join the rest of the regiment.
All day long again the wagon-train twists and wriggles through an ashen section of Les Mauvaises Terres. It is a tedious, trying march for Hull's little command of troopers,—all that is now left to guard the train. The captain is constantly out on the exposed flank, eagerly scanning the rough country to the south, and expectant any moment of an attack from that direction. He and his men, as well as the horses, mules, and teamsters, are fairly tired out when at nightfall they park the wagons in a big semicircle, with the broad river forming a shining chord to the arc of white canvas. All the live-stock are safely herded within the enclosure; a few reliable soldiers are posted well out to the south and east, to guard against surprise, and the veteran Sergeant Clancy is put in command of the sentries. The captain gives strict injunctions as to the importance of these duties; for he is far from easy in his mind over the situation. The Riflers, he knows, are over in the valley of the Sweet Root. The steamer with Rayner's men is tied up at the bank some five miles below, around the bend. The ——th are far off to the northward across the Elk, as ordered, and must be expecting on the morrow to make for the old Indian "ferry" opposite Battle Butte. The main body of the Sioux are reported farther down stream, but he feels it in his bones that there are numbers of them within signal, and he wishes with all his heart the ——th were here. Still, the general was sure he would stir up war-parties on the other shore. Individually, he has had very little luck in scouting during the summer, and he cannot help wishing he were with the rest of the crowd instead of here, train-guarding.
Presently Mr. Hayne appears, elastic and debonair as though he had not been working like a horse all day. His voice sounds so full of cheer and life that Hull looks up smilingly:
"Well, youngster, you seem to love this frontier life."
"Every bit of it, captain. I was cut out for the army, as father thought."
"We used to talk it over a good deal in the old days when I was stationed around Washington," answers Hull. "Your father was the warmest friend I had in civil circles, and he made it very pleasant for me. How little we thought it would be my luck to have you for quartermaster!"
"The fellows seemed struck all of a heap in the Riflers at the idea of your applying for me, captain. I was ready to swear it was all on father's account, and would have told them so, only Rayner happened to be the first man to tackle me on the subject, and he was so crusty about it I kept the whole thing to myself rather than give him any satisfaction."
"Larry, my boy, I'm no preacher, but I want to be the friend to you your father was to me. You are full of enthusiasm and life and spirits, and you love the army ways and have made yourself very popular with the youngsters, but I'm afraid you are too careless and independent where the seniors are concerned. Rayner is a good soldier; and you show him very scant respect, I'm told."
"Well, he's such an interfering fellow. They will all tell you I'm respectful enough to—to the captains I like—"
"That's just it, Lawrence. So long as you like a man your manner is what it should be. What a young soldier ought to learn is to be courteous and respectful to senior officers whether he likes them or not. It costs an effort sometimes, but it tells. You never know what trouble you are laying up for yourself in the army by bucking against men you don't like. They may not be in position to resent it at the time, but the time is mighty apt to come when they will be, and then you are helpless."
"Why, Captain Hull, I don't see it that way at all. It seems to me that so long as an officer attends to his duty, minds his own business, and behaves like a gentleman, no one can harm him; especially when all the good fellows of the regiment are his friends, as they are mine, I think, in the Riflers."
"Ah, Hayne, it is a hard thing to teach a youngster that—that there are men who find it very easy to make their juniors' lives a burden to them, and without overstepping a regulation. It is harder yet to say that friends in the army are a good deal like friends out of it: one only has to get into serious trouble to find how few they are. God grant you may never have to learn it, my boy, as many another has had to, by sharp experience! Now we must get a good night's rest. You sleep like a log, I see, and I can only take cat-naps. Confound this money! How I wish I could get rid of it!"
"Where do you keep it to-night?"
"Right here in my saddle-bags under my head. Nobody can touch them that I do not wake; and my revolver is here under the blanket. Hold on! Let's take a look and see if everything is all right." He holds a little camp-lantern over the bags, opens the flap, and peers in. "Yes,—all serene. I got a big hunk of green sealing-wax from the paymaster and sealed it all up in one package with the memorandum-list inside. It's all safe so far,—even to the hunk of sealing-wax.—What is it, sergeant?"
A tall, soldierly, dark-eyed trooper appears at the door-way of the little tent, and raises his gauntleted hand in salute. His language, though couched in the phraseology of the soldier, tells both in choice of words and in the intonation of every phrase that he is a man whose antecedents have been far different from those of the majority of the rank and file:
"Will the captain permit me to take my horse and those of three or four more men outside the corral? Sergeant Clancy says he has no authority to allow it. We have found a patch of excellent grass, sir, and there is hardly any left inside. I will sleep by my picket-pin, and one of us will keep awake all the time, if the captain will permit."
"How far away is it, sergeant?"
"Not seventy-five yards, sir,—close to the river-bank east of us."
"Very well. Send Sergeant Clancy here, and I'll give the necessary orders."
The soldier quietly salutes, and disappears in the gathering darkness.
"That's what I like about that man Gower," says the captain, after a moment's silence. "He is always looking out for his horse. If he were not such a gambler and rake he would make a splendid first-sergeant. Fine-looking fellow, isn't he?"
"Yes, sir. That is a face that one couldn't well forget. Who was the other sergeant you overhauled for getting fleeced by those sharps at the cantonment?"
"Clancy? He's on guard to-night. A very different character."
"I don't know him by sight as yet. Well, good-night, sir. I'll take myself off and go to my own tent."
Daybreak again, and far to the east the sky is all ablaze. The mist is creeping from the silent shallows under the banks, but all is life and vim along the shore. With cracking whip, tugging trace, sonorous blasphemy, and ringing shout, the long train is whirling ahead almost at the run. All is athrill with excitement, and bearded faces have a strange, set look about the jaws, and eyes gleam with eager light and peer searchingly from every rise far over to the southeast, where stands a tumbling heap of hills against the lightening sky. "Off there, are they?" says a burly trooper, dismounting hastily to tighten up the "cinch" of his weather-beaten saddle. "We can make it quick enough, 's soon as we get rid of these blasted wagons." And, swinging into saddle again, he goes cantering down the slope, his charger snorting with exhilaration in the keen morning air.
Before dawn a courier has galloped into camp, bearing a despatch from the commanding officer of the Riflers. It says but few words, but they are full of meaning: "We have found a big party of hostiles. They are in strong position, and have us at disadvantage. Rayner with his four companies is hurrying to us. Leave all wagons with the boat under guard, and come with every horse and man you can bring."
Before seven o'clock the wagons are parked close along the bank beside the Far West, and Hull, with all the men he can muster,—some fifty,—is trotting ahead on the trail of Rayner's battalion. With him rides Mr. Hayne, eager and enthusiastic. Before ten o'clock, far up along the slopes they see the blue line of skirmishers, and the knots of reserves farther down, all at a stand. In ten minutes they ride with foaming reins in behind a low ridge on which, flat on their faces and cautiously peering over the crest, some hundred infantrymen are disposed. Others, officers and file-closers, are moving to and fro in rear. They are of Rayner's battalion. Farther back, down in a ravine a dozen forms are outstretched upon the turf, and others are bending over them, ministering to the needs of those who are not past help already. Several officers crowd around the leading horsemen, and Hull orders, "Halt, dismount, and loosen girths." The grave faces show that the infantry has had poor luck, and the situation is summarized in few words. The Indians are in force occupying the ravines and ridges opposite them and confronting the six companies farther over to the west. Two attacks have been made, but the Indian fire swept every approach, and both were unsuccessful. Several soldiers were shot dead, others severely wounded. Lieutenant Warren's leg is shattered below the knee; Captain Blount is killed.
"Where's Rayner?" asks Hull, with grave face.
"Just gone off with the chief to look at things over on the other front. The colonel is hopping. He is bound to have those Indians out of there or drop a-trying. They'll be back in a minute. The general had a rousing fight with Dull Knife's people down the river last evening. You missed it again, Hull: all the ——th were there but F and K,—and of course old Firewater wants to make as big a hit here."
"The ——th fighting down the river last night?" asks Hull, in amaze.
"Yes,—swept clean round them and ran 'em into the stream, they say. I wish we had them where we could see 'em at all. You don't get the glimpse of a head, even; but all those rocks are lined with the beggars. Damn them!" says the adjutant, feelingly.
"We'll get our chance here, then," replies Hull, reflectively. "I'll creep up and take a look at it. Take my horse, orderly."
He is back in two minutes, graver than before, but his bearing is spirited and firm. Hayne watches him with kindling eye.
"You'll take me in with you when you charge?" he asks.
"It is no place to charge there. The ground is all cut up with ravines and gullies, and they've got a cross-fire that sweeps it clean. We'll probably go in on the other flank; it's more open there. Here comes the chief now."
Two officers come riding hastily around a projecting point of the slope and spur at rapid gait towards the spot where the cavalry have dismounted and are breathing their horses. There is hardly time for salutations. A gray-headed, keen-eyed, florid-faced old soldier is the colonel, and he is snapping with electricity, apparently.
"This way, Hull. Come right here, and I'll show you what you are to do." And, followed by Rayner, Hull, and Hayne, the chief rides sharply over to the extreme left of the position and points to the frowning ridge across the intervening swale.
"There, Hull: there are twenty or thirty of the rascals in there who get a flank fire on us when we attack on our side. What I want you to do is to mount your men, let them draw pistol and be all ready. Rayner, here, will line the ridge to keep them down in front. I'll go back to the right and order the attack at once. The moment we begin and you hear our shots, you give a yell, and charge full tilt across there, so as to drive out those fellows in that ravine. We can do the rest. Do you understand?"
"I understand, colonel; but—is it your order that I attempt to charge mounted across that ground?"
"Why, certainly! It isn't the best in the world, but you can make it. They can't do very much damage to your men before you reach them. It's got to be done; it's the only way."
"Very good, sir: that ends it!" is the calm, soldierly reply; and the colonel goes bounding away.
A moment later the troop is in saddle, eager, wiry, bronzed fellows every one, and the revolvers are in hand and being carefully examined. Then Captain Hull signals to Hayne, while Rayner and three or four soldiers sit in silence, watching the man who is to lead the charge. He dismounts at a little knoll a few feet away, tosses his reins to the trumpeter, and steps to his saddle-bags. Hayne, too, dismounts.
Taking his watch and chain from the pocket of his hunting-shirt, he opens the saddle-bag on the near side and takes therefrom two packets,—one heavily sealed,—which he hands to Hayne.
"In case I—don't come back, you know what to do with these,—as I told you last night."
Hayne only looks imploringly at him: "You are not going to leave me here, captain?"
"Yes, Hayne. You can't go with us. Hark! There they go at the right. Are the packages all right?"
Hayne, with stunned faculties, thinking only of the charge he longs to make,—not of the one he has to keep,—replies he knows not what. There is a ringing bugle-call far off among the rocks to the westward; a rousing cheer; a rattling volley. Rayner springs off to his men on the hill-side. Hull spurs in front of his eager troop, holding high his pistol-hand:
"Now, men, follow till I drop; and then keep ahead! Come on!"
There is a furious sputter of hoofs, a rush of excited steeds up the gentle slope, a glad outburst of cheers as they sweep across the ridge and out of sight, then the clamor and yell of frantic battle; and when at last it dies away, the Riflers are panting over the hard-won position and shaking hands with some few silent cavalrymen. They have carried the ridge, captured the migrating village, squaws, ponies, travois, and pappooses; their "long Toms" have sent many a stalwart warrior to the mythical hunting-grounds, and the peppery colonel's triumph is complete.
But Lawrence Hayne, with all the light gone from his brave young face, stands mutely looking down, upon the stiffening frame of his father's old friend, and his, who lies shot through the heart.
In the Pullman car of the westward-bound express, half-way across the continent, two passengers were gazing listlessly out over the wintry landscape. It was a bitter morning in February. North and south the treeless prairie rolled away in successive ridge and depression. The snow lay deep in the dry ravines and streaked the sea-like surface with jagged lines of foam between which lay broad spaces clean-swept by the gale. Heavy masses of cloud, dark and forbidding, draped the sky from zenith to horizon, and the air was thick with spiteful gusts and spits of snow, crackling against the window-panes, making fierce dashes every time a car door was hurriedly opened, and driving about the platforms like a myriad swarm of fleecy and aggressive gnats raging for battle. Every now and then, responsive to some wilder blast, a blinding white cloud came whirling from the depths of the nearest gully and breaking like spray over the snow fence along the line. Not a sign of life was visible. The tiny mounds in the villages of the prairie-dogs seemed blocked and frozen; even the trusty sentinel had "deserted post" and huddled with his fellows for warmth and shelter in the bowels of the earth. Fluttering owl and skulking coyote, too, had vanished from the face of nature. Timid antelope—fleetest coursers of the prairie—and stolid horned cattle had gone, none knew whither, nor cared to know until the "blizzard" had subsided. Two heavy engines fought their way, panting, into the very teeth of the gale and slowly wound the long train after them up-grade among the foot-hills of the great plateau of the Rockies. Once in a while, when stopping for a moment at some group of brown-painted sheds and earth-battened shanties, the wind moaned and howled among the iron braces and brake-chains beneath the car and made such mournful noise that it was a relief to start once more and lose sound of its wailing in the general rumble. As for the scenery, only as a picture of shiver-provoking monotony and desolation would one care to take a second look.
And yet, some miles ahead, striving hard to reach the railway in time to intercept this very train, a small battalion of cavalry was struggling through the blasts, officers and men afoot and dragging their own benumbed limbs and half-benumbed chargers through the drifts that lay deep at the bottom of every "coulée." Some few soldiers remained in saddle: they were too frozen to walk at all. Some few fell behind, and would have thrown themselves flat upon the prairie in the lethargy that is but premonition of death by freezing. Like men half deadened by morphine, their rescue depended on heroic measures, humane in their seeming brutality. Officers who at other times were all gentleness now fell upon the hapless stragglers with kicks and blows. As the train drew up at the platform of a station in mid-prairie, a horseman enveloped in fur and frost and steam from his panting steed reined up beside the leading engine and shouted to the occupants of the cab,—
"For God's sake hold on a few minutes. We've got a dozen frozen men with us we must send on to Fort Warrener." And the train was held.
Meantime, those far to the rear in the sleeper knew nothing of what was going on ahead. The car was warm and comfortable, and most of its occupants were apparently appreciative of its shelter and coseyness in contrast with the cheerless scene without. A motherly-looking woman had produced her knitting, and was blithely clicking away at her needles, while her enterprising son, a youth of four summers and undaunted confidence in human nature, tacked up and down the aisle and made impetuous incursions on the various sections by turns, receiving such modified welcome as could be accorded features streaked with mingled candy and cinders, and fingers whose propensity to cling to whatsoever they touched was due no more to instincts of a predatory nature than to the adhesive properties of the glucose which formed so large a constituent of the confections he had been industriously consuming since early morning. Four men playing whist in the rearmost section, two or three commercial travellers, whose intimacy with the porter and airs of easy proprietorship told of an apparent controlling interest in the road, a young man of reserved manners, reading in a section all by himself, a baby sleeping quietly upon the seat opposite the two passengers first mentioned, and a Maltese kitten curled up in the lap of one of them, completed the list of occupants.
The proximity of the baby and the kitten furnishes strong presumptive evidence of the sex and general condition of the two passengers referred to, and renders detail superfluous. A baby rarely travels without a woman, or a kitten with a woman already encumbered with a baby. The baby belonged to the elder passenger, the kitten to the younger. The one was a buxom matron, the other a slender maid. In their ages there must have been a difference of fifteen years; in feature there was still wider disparity. The elder was a fine-looking woman, and one who prided herself upon the Junoesque proportions which she occasionally exhibited in a stroll for exercise up and down the aisle. Yet no one would call her a beauty. Her eyes were of a somewhat fishy and uncertain blue; the lids were tinged with an unornamental pink that told of irritation of the adjacent interior surface and of possible irritability of temper. Her complexion was of that mottled type which is so sore a trial to its possessor and yet so inestimable a comfort to social rivals; but her features were handsome, her teeth fine, her dress, bearing, and demeanor those of a woman of birth and breeding, and yet one who might have resented the intimation that she was not strikingly handsome. She looked like a woman with a will of her own; her head was high, her step was firm; it was of just such a walk as hers that Virgil wrote his "vera incessu patuit dea," and she made the young man in the section by himself think of that very passage as he glanced at her from under his heavy, bushy eyebrows. She looked, moreover, like a woman with a capacity for influencing people contrary to their will and judgment, and with a decided fondness for the exercise of that unpopular function. There was the air of grande dame about her, despite the simplicity of her dress, which, though of rich material, was severely plain. She wore no jewelry. Her hands were snugly gloved, and undisfigured by the distortions of any ring except the marriage circlet. Her manner attested her a person of consequence in her social circle and one who realized the fact. She had repelled, though without rudeness or discourtesy, the garrulous efforts of the motherly knitter to be sociable. She had promptly inspired the small, candy-crusted explorer with such awe that he had refrained from further visits after his first confiding attempt to poke a sticky finger through the baby's velvety cheek. She had spared little scorn in her rejection of the bourgeois advances of the commercial traveller with the languishing eyes of Israel: he confided to his comrades, in relating the incident, that she was smart enough to see that it wasn't her he was hankering to know, but the pretty sister by her side; and when challenged to prove that they were sisters,—a statement which aroused the scepticism of his shrewd associates,—he had replied, substantially,—
"How do I know? 'Cause I saw their pass before you was up this morning, cully. It's for Mrs. Captain Rayner and sister, and they're going out here to Fort Warrener. That's how I know." And the porter of the car had confirmed the statement in the sanctity of the smoking-room.
And yet—such is the uncertainty of feminine temperament—Mrs. Rayner was no more incensed at the commercial "gent" because he had obtruded his attentions than she was at the young man reading in his own section because he had refrained. Nearly twenty-four hours had elapsed since they crossed the Missouri, and in all that time not once had she detected in him a glance that betrayed the faintest interest in her, or—still more remarkable—in the unquestionably lovely girl at her side. Intrusiveness she might resent, but indifference she would and did. Who was this youth, she wondered, who not once had so much as stolen a look at the sweet, bonny face of her maiden sister? Surely 'twas a face any man would love to gaze upon,—so fair, so exquisite in contour and feature, so pearly in complexion, so lovely in the deep, dark brown of its shaded eyes.
The bold glances of the four card-players she had defiantly returned, and vanquished. Those men, like the travelling gents, were creatures of coarser mould; but her experienced eye told her the solitary occupant of the opposite section was a gentleman. The clear cut of his pale features, the white, slender hand and shapely foot, the style and finish of his quiet travelling-dress, the soft modulation and refined tone of his voice on the one occasion when she heard him reply to some importunity of the train-boy with his endless round of equally questionable figs and fiction, the book he was reading,—a volume of Emerson,—all combined to speak of a culture and position equal to her own. She had been over the trans-continental railways often enough to know that it was permissible for gentlemen to render their fellow-passengers some slight attention which would lead to mutual introductions if desirable; and this man refused to see that the opportunity was open to him.
True, when first she took her survey of those who were to be her fellow-travellers at the "transfer" on the Missouri, she decided that here was one against whom it would be necessary to guard the approaches. She had good and sufficient reasons for wanting no young man as attractive in appearance as this one making himself interesting to pretty Nellie on their journey. She had already decided what Nellie's future was to be. Never, indeed, would she have taken her to the gay frontier station whither she was now en route, had not that future been already settled to her satisfaction. Nellie Travers, barely out of school, was betrothed, and willingly so, to the man she, her devoted elder sister, had especially chosen. Rare and most unlikely of conditions! she had apparently fallen in love with the man picked out for her by somebody else. She was engaged to Mrs. Rayner's fascinating friend Mr. Steven Van Antwerp, a scion of an old and esteemed and wealthy family; and Mr. Van Antwerp, who had been educated abroad, and had a Heidelberg scar on his left cheek, and dark, lustrous eyes, and wavy hair,—almost raven,—was a devoted lover, though fully fifteen years Miss Nellie's senior.