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Betty Considine shaded her eyes when she saw the rider coming through the gate. Accustomed to the movements of horses and men, she noted the weary, shuffling trot of the pony as it crossed the baked clay of the compound toward the Headquarters building.
The rider was unshaven, and the dark hair curled around his ears and over the collar of his sun-bleached shirt. When he swung down she noted the gun hung low, the narrow hips, and the powerful shoulders. His hat brim was ragged, and there was a bullet hole through the crown.
When he was a few paces from her she could clearly see the line of an old scar on his cheekbone. His lean brown face was haggard, and in his eyes there was the daze of a dreadful weariness. On the collar and shoulder of his faded blue shirt was a dark stain of dried blood.
Pulling his hat from his head, he slapped it against his thigh in an ineffectual effort to free it of dust, and the attempt caused him to stagger, so that he half fell against the hitch rail.
She ran to him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Are you hurt?" she asked quickly. "What's the matter?"
The face he turned to her was etched with lines of exhaustion, and was gray under the tan. "I'll be all right. Thank you."
He smelled strongly of stale sweat, dust, and the horse, and he gathered himself with a visible effort. Even in his exhausted state there was a faint swagger in his bearing.
"Who's commanding?" he asked.
"The adjutant, Major Paddock."
He had started to turn away, but at the name his shoulders seemed to hunch as from a blow. He looked back at her, the glaze of weariness gone from his eyes. "You said Paddock. Not Frank Bell Paddock?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
He stared at the compound as if seeing it for the first time. Squinting against the white-hot glare of the desert sun, he looked around the rectangle of shabby adobes that made up the tiny post. Officers' quarters, adjutant's office, sutler's store, the post bakery, commissary quartermaster stores, blacksmith shop, corrals, and stables.
Everywhere was heat, dust, and the glare of the pitiless sun. "My God!" he said softly. "Frank Bell Paddock!"
He opened the door of the Headquarters building and disappeared inside.
Betty Considine was Army. The only daughter of General Pat Considine, and a niece of Carter Hanlon, captain and army surgeon, she had grown up to Regulations. Having lived on a dozen army posts, after her father's death she had gone to live with her aunt and uncle. She was familiar with army gossip and she knew, as they all did, the story of Major Frank Bell Paddock.
If this stranger was shocked at the presence of Major Paddock at this remote post he must have known Paddock in the past, but not during the years immediately behind him. There had been a time when Paddock was considered one of the most promising young officers in the post-war Army, and one with an assured future.
Since that time his decline had been consistent, but the only other consistent thing about Paddock was his addiction to the bottle. Finally he had come here, only a year ago, to this new and temporary fort, one of the most isolated in the country.
Her curiosity aroused, Betty Considine paused in the shade of the overhang outside the sutler's store.
Uninterested in any man on the post or elsewhere, Betty was intrigued by this disreputable-looking stranger who had known Frank Bell Paddock in the days of his glory.
If this man had known Paddock, he must have known him back east, or in Europe, yet a more typical western man she had never seen. But he might have been Army . . . even if he did not look it now.
The life of Major Frank Bell Paddock was an open book up to a point, but Something had happened in Paris.
Captain Paddock had been a military attache at the American embassy in Paris, a handsome, athletic young officer, admired by his superiors. There he had met and married Denise de Caslou, a famous beauty, of the old nobility. She came of a family of little wealth but one known for the long line of soldiers and men of the sea, men of bravery and distinction.
Whatever it was that happened had occurred only a year after their marriage, and with it began the decline and fall of Frank Bell Paddock.
Suddenly relieved of duty in Paris, he had been returned to the States, and after several brief stays at various posts, he was sent to a remote fort in Dakota, and then to Montana.
Now, at the end of the long road down, Major Frank Bell Paddock was adjutant of a post with only four troops of cavalry, all of them under strength. Always mildly under the influence of alcohol, he was never trusted with a field command. Promotion was something for which he could no longer hope, and he was merely living out the years until he could retire on a pension. But those years stretched far ahead for Paddock, who was not yet forty.
This was the man Barney Kilrone faced as he stepped past the company clerk and into the office beyond. The once fine features of the officer he remembered had coarsened into heaviness, and there was a premature graying. Most of all, there was an air of resignation, of hopelessness about the man. When Paddock looked up, his expression hardened into anger as he recognized Kilrone.
"So—" It was almost a sigh. "It is you again."
"On business, Pad, very ugly business. I Troop is
gone . . . wiped out. The Bannocks hit them from ambush over on the Little Owyhee."
Major Paddock dropped his eyes to the now meaningless papers on the desk. Nineteen men . . . and the prisoners, if any, worse off than the dead. If any had gotten away they were now being hunted down like rats in a cornfield.
"I wouldn't know him by sight, Pad, and identification would have been impossible anyway."
Paddock's brain, dulled by whiskey and long hours of paper work, refused to fit himself into the new picture. Something must be done. . . .
There were two problems here, one military and the other personal. The man who had wrecked his life was facing him now, his very presence proof that the years of expectancy had not been in vain. He had come at last, and when he left he would take with him all worthwhile in life that remained to the dashing young officer that had been Frank Bell Paddock.
"You've come for Denise?"
"Don't be a fool, Pad!" Impatience drove through his exhaustion. "She loves you. She always did. She's your wife."
"She has been loyal, I grant you, Barney. She has been . . . what is it the French say? Correct? But she's been in love with you."
He sat back in his chair. "She's more beautiful than ever, Barney; and now you've come to take her away, as I knew you would."
"Pad, for God's sake, forget it! I didn't even know you were in this part of the country until a girl outside told me just now. I've been moving, Pad. I haven't thought of Denise in years, and I am sure she hasn't thought of me."
The minutes ticked by; a fly buzzed against the window, struggling to escape the heavy air of the hot, close room. It was Barnes Kilrone who broke the silence. "Pad, you're in command. This is your problem . . . all of it."
"Command?" The word carried a shock that penetrated Paddock's cocoon of self-pity.
Command? What did one do with three troops? Three? . . .
"My God!" He came to his feet, his face drawn and bloodless. "M Troop . . . they were to rendezvous with I Troop on the North Fork!"
Barney Kilrone held himself up by the edge of the desk, and his brain struggled against fatigue, for he was all in. He thought of M Troop riding across country, a tired lot of men, riding to a meeting with a company of the vanquished, a company of the dead . . . and who would keep that rendezvous?
Discipline, the habit of soldiering, began to shape its pattern in the mind of Major Frank Paddock. His thoughts began to take formation. He had no plan, of course, to meet this eventuality, but he knew the things to be considered, the responsibilities that were his. M Troop must be warned . . . somehow.
Two troops remained on the post, two troops comprising just seventy-two effectives, and the whole Bannock operation might be directed toward a piecemeal destruction of the garrison at the post. The Bannocks, led by a shrewd and careful fighter, had ambushed I Troop before they could effect the meeting with M Troop.
With the first troop destroyed, Medicine Dog could now move to ambush the second. If he was aware the post had been warned he would expect a relief force to come . . . and trust him to know just how many soldiers remained of the post complement, and how many could be spared to leave the fort. And how pitifully few would remain.
"It's the post he wants," Paddock said aloud. "He wants the ammunition, the guns, the food, and the horses. If he could draw enough of us away from the post he could strike here. . . ."
He broke off, and his eyes turned to Kilrone. "Barney, how did you get here? Were you seen?"
"If I'd been seen I wouldn't be here. Unless they return to the scene of the fight and see my tracks around, they can't know."
"Unless they let you come on purpose to draw another troop away from the post." He sank back into his chair.
It was time for a decision, and Frank Paddock had no decision. He needed time . . . time. Everything would depend on what he decided. If the troop he sent to the relief of M Troop was caught before it could effect a meeting and was itself destroyed, then the post would be helpless before such an attack as the Bannocks could mount.
For the first time he became aware of the condition of the man across the desk. At once he was on his feet. "Come on, Barney—you're all in. Come to my quarters."
Kilrone held back. "Take me to the barracks. To the stables . . . not to your quarters."
"Now you're being the fool." Paddock took Kilrone's arm. In a way, he thought, it would be better to have it over. After all the years of waiting it would be a relief.
Betty Considine saw them come out the door, and she came up quickly. "Major Paddock, can I be of help?"
A fourth person might make it easier. . . . "All right," he said. "Glad to have you. I know he needs rest, and he seems to have been wounded."
At Paddock's quarters, it was Betty who opened the door, and she saw the expression on Denise Paddock's face when she glimpsed the stranger. She seemed to stiffen, then pale, but she was at once composed. "This way," she said.
She led the way to the spare bedroom and helped her husband draw off the brush-scratched, desert-worn boots. It was she who noted the blood-stained collar and located the wound. Betty, looking past Denise, saw the dressing on the wound. "He escaped from the Indians?" she asked.
Kilrone, who had kept on his feet until they entered the room, had collapsed at the bedside and now lay on the bed unconscious.
"Why do you ask that?"
"That's an Indian dressing. I've seen them before."
Paddock looked down at the man on the bed. No, he was not really unconscious, merely sleeping heavily. An Indian had dressed that wound . . . and he had denied being seen by the Bannocks.
Denise had removed the dressing, and Paddock stared at the puckering wound. "That's not fresh," he said.
"Three days," Betty guessed. "Maybe four." She had helped her uncle treat too many injured men in these past few years not to know.
An Indian dressing on a wound, and no friendly Indian within miles. A wound several days old, and he had come from the heart of Indian country.
Suppose—one had to suppose everything—suppose the man was a renegade? What better way to scatter the forces of a post and leave it helpless?
Paddock told himself he must forget all he had known of Captain Barnes Kilrone in the past. Nor must he think now of Denise. There was too little time. He had a decision to make.
Captain Mellett and the forty-seven men of M Troop would reach the North Fork by sundown tomorrow. It was doubtful if the Bannocks would attack before daylight the following morning. There was always the possibility that some survivor of the massacre of I Troop would get through to Mellett with a warning, but that was an outside chance. Mellett was a seasoned officer, sure to be careful, but even the best of men could be trapped.
Every minute of delay put Mellet closer to probable death by ambuscade. Between Mellett's troop and possible massacre stood only the judgment of Major Frank Paddock. And to send out a troop to relieve Mellett would leave the post vulnerable to attack, practically helpless.
His decision had to rest on the word of one man a man who perhaps could not be trusted . . . or could he?
Paddock stepped out into the heat and dust of the compound and closed the door behind him. If he could get another troop into position to hit the Bannocks as they attacked Mellett, he would have them between two fires and might wipe them out. It was a challenging thought. This could be enough to erase all his past failures.
But it involved a problem almost too difficult for him to come to grips with—a problem full of uncertainties. Could he get K Troop in position in time to help Mellett? Dare he accept the risk of leaving the post exposed to attack? Suppose the Bannocks had already foreseen that possibility, and even now might have the bulk of their men ready for an attack on the post and its few remaining soldiers? . . . Or K Troop might fail to reach Mellett in time, and be trapped themselves.
He went back to his desk and stared at the map on the wall. It was ninety miles to the North Fork, and K Troop would have no more than thirty-six hours in which to cover the distance, all of it rough, dangerous country where the enemy might be encountered at any moment.