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They had ridden twenty miles since daylight, and at the end of their day had come upon disaster.
Two hundred feet below and half a mile away the wagon train lay scattered on the freshening green of the April grass. Death had come quickly and struck hard, leaving the burned wagons, the stripped and naked bodies, unnaturally white beneath the sun.
The man in the ill-smelling buckskins brought his mount alongside Major Devereaux. "There was fifteen wagons. You can even count 'em from here. The way they're strung out they must've been hit without warnin'. Looks like a few tried to pull out of line, like to form a circle, but they hadn't no time."
"One wagon missing, then."
Plunkett's head swung sharply around. "Now that ain't likely, Major, ain't likely a-tall. No Injun is goin' to haul a wagon away, an' nothin' that big is goin' to slip off unseen. Like you can see, they was caught in the open."
Major Devereaux did not explain. They were drawing nearer as they talked and he was studying the charred wagons, forcing himself to consider only the problems his duty imposed. If Mary was down there he would know soon enough, and the decision he must make would affect the lives of the entire command.
Aside from Lieutenant Tom Cahill, Sergeant Gogarty, and Plunkett, sixty men made up the patrol, forty-two of them raw recruits. They were two hundred miles west of Fort Laramie, carrying rations for the return and for two days extra, in case of emergencies.
Throughout the severe winter of 1863 and 1864, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had remained quiet, but there had been persistent rumors of Sioux agents in their lodges. Undoubtedly they would be riding the war trail with first grass.
Major Devereaux, with twenty-seven years of service, was aware that the lives of men are dictated to an extent far greater than most men wish to admit, by events beyond their control. Man rides the ocean of history and does what he can to weather its storms.
He was aware that if his patrol became engaged this far from Fort Laramie it could expect no assistance. His orders were to avoid trouble if possible, make a display of strength, and hope the sight of their uniforms would restrain any ambitious warriors.
Far away to the east, and months ago, a great victory had been won at Gettysburg, but it had brought no relief to the frontier. Only a few days before the command left the Fort, the commanding general had withdrawn every man who could be spared from the Indian frontier to meet a force of Confederate troops assembled south of the Arkansas River.
Plunkett was obviously correct. It would have been impossible for an army ambulance to escape during such an attack. If the wagon was missing, it must have left the train sometime before the attack, which made no sense at all. Why, in the heart of Indian country, with attack imminent, would one wagon abandon the comparative safety of the wagon train? And where could it have gone? Where could it have planned to go?
Lieutenant Tom Cahill remained silent, but when Plunkett had ridden away, he said, "The ambulance your daughter was in, sir, had wider tires than usual. Sergeant Gogarty explained their advantage to me before the wagons left the Fort."
Wide tires sank less deeply into the prairie, and therefore the wagons pulled more easily, but few of the ambulances were so equipped. Cahill, Devereaux reminded himself, was an observant young man and he was not above learning from the enlisted men when opportunity offered. The ability to observe with intelligence and to learn from all who could teach were invaluable qualities.
Devereaux turned in his saddle. "Sergeant Gogarty, take a burial detail and attend to that situation. If there are means of identifying the bodies, please make a note in each case."
"Sir," Cahill persisted, "what I wish to point out is that no such tracks were in the wagon trails when we intercepted their route. If a wagon turned off it must have been that wagon, and it must have turned off more than a dozen miles back."
Major Mark Devereaux looked down at the charred remains and sat still. Was Mary down there? He was not brave enough to attempt to identify her body, for if he found her all hope would be gone, and without Mary he would be nothing. He would be merely an old man, nearing retirement, with nothing before him but gray years until death.
His years of military service had left him with little but experience, and with nothing to leave Mary if he was killed in the line of duty, or died of those ills the flesh is heir to. His greatest wish was for her to marry well, and it was this that led to his objections to Lieutenant Tenadore Brian, and to her presence with this wagon train.
Like many others of the Indian-fighting army, Tenadore Brian was of Irish ancestry, and was one of the few soldiers who fought on the frontier who had also been born there.
At sixteen, his family wiped out by an Indian raid, Brian had left the Plains country and gone off to sea. Two years later he had joined the Foreign Legion, and was engaged for seven years in war against the fierce desert tribes. There he won a battlefield commission and two decorations.
Leaving the Legion, he had joined the Papal Zouaves, on guard at the Vatican, but after a year he had gone to China, advancing after a few rapid campaigns to the rank of general. When he returned from China he had another medal and a sword-cut on his cheekbone. Back in the States he was commissioned a lieutenant and was shipped to the frontier.
Lieutenant Tenadore Brian was a tall, lean, wide-shouldered man of thirty, with a rakish, devil-may-care look to him, a look enhanced by the scar on his cheek. Without doubt there was no more admired officer on the frontier, and his men worshipped him. He was the best rifle and pistol shot in the command, and an excellent swordsman. It was rumored that he had left the Papal Zouaves after killing one of the "black" nobility in a duel.
Major Devereaux had discovered him to be a shrewd, intelligent officer who took no unnecessary risks, and one who possessed an amazing knowledge of military tactics and history. No man that he knew could take out a mounted patrol and bring both men and horses back in better condition than when they left, no man but Brian.
He knew Indians as well as did the civilian scouts. As a boy he had hunted and played with them, learning their customs and their language. In the Sahara region he had found the tactics of the desert tribesmen similar to those of the Indians.
Although admiring Ten Brian's skill as a soldier, Major Devereaux considered him a footloose, drifting ne'er-do-well, an unfit associate for his daughter, not to be thought of as a potential husband.
Obviously, Mary had other ideas. For the first time she had become interested in an officer. She had danced with many, gone with a few to parties, but on the whole her manner had been reserved around army men, and Devereaux had been content. And then she had seen Ten Brian.
Suddenly Brian had applied to the commanding officer for a week's leave, and left the post at once. Scarcely had he gone when Belle Renick, the matronly but attractive wife of Captain John Renick, announced her intention of traveling to California for a visit. Devereaux seized the opportunity to send Mary to her aunt in San Francisco. He was determined to break the attachment, once and for all.
Devereaux had even tried to use his rank and influence to get Brian shifted to Washington, his argument being Brian's aptitude for languages.
Remembering the look Lt. Col. Collins had given him, Devereaux flushed. "Mark," Collins had said, "I would like to do something for you. Anything but that. You must realize that Lieutenant Brian is amazingly equipped for our work. I couldn't spare him." Then he added, "Give it some thought, Mark. Mary might do a lot worse. That young man could go far, just as far as he wishes, and Mary might be just the influence he needs."
Abruptly, Devereaux brought his thoughts back to the present situation.
It lacked an hour to sundown and the men needed rest. He gave the order, and they moved upstream and camped in the bottom of a valley two miles from the scene of the massacre.
Cahill, he realized suddenly, had not mentioned the tracks of the ambulance until Plunkett was no longer near them. Was that mere accident? Or did Cahill share his distrust of the man?
Devereaux considered what he knew of Plunkett. The present commandant had acquired the services of the scout along with the command, and he had proved valuable. A skilled tracker, he spoke several of the Indian languages, and he knew the country. Prior to service with the army he had been employed by the stage company in the time of Jules Reni. He was a tough, sour-smelling old man with no friends among army personnel. As a civilian employee, he came and went as he chose.
Plunkett had been absent from the Fort when the sixteenth wagon joined the train, and when they left the post. Devereaux and his patrol, with Plunkett as scout, had not come upon the trail of the wagons until shortly before reaching the scene of the massacre.
Realizing he disliked the man, Devereaux reserved judgment, but Gogarty was almost as good a tracker, and it might be just as well if the Sergeant was given the chance to do a little scouting.
Devereaux hesitated over calling on Turpenning, and then decided against it. The man from the Smokies was a hunter and a trapper, and the Major knew that Gogarty considered him the best tracker he had ever seen, even including Indians.
Devereaux was seated by the fire when Gogarty reported. "All identified but two, sir. We know who they were, but the way they were cut up it's hard to tell which is which."
"Did you find Mrs. Renick?"
"No, sir. Nor Corporal West nor Schwartz, nor any of them with the ambulance, sir."
"Thank you, Sergeant." He hesitated to ask Gogarty to scout the country before dark. He himself was bone-tired, and he knew the Sergeant must be also.
"I was about to ask, sir, that I be allowed to do some looking around. It won't be dark for half an hour yet."
"Thank you, Sergeant. I know you are tired, and I hesitated to ask you. But there's one thing. Whatever you find, you are not to mention it to anyone but me. In the event that I should be unable to receive your communications, you are to give them to Lieutenant Cahill."
After Gogarty had gone, Major Devereaux tried to exclude all thought of Mary from his mind. He knew he must be dispassionate; he must examine the problem coldly in the light of the military situation and the risk to his command.
He was still thinking about it when Cahill returned. "If you will forgive me, sir. I know you are worried, and I thought . . . well, sir, Lieutenant Brian might have returned."
For a moment Devereaux's mind refused to accept the idea, suggesting an element he had not considered. The relevancy escaped him. "What do you mean?" he asked. "I fail to see the connection."
Cahill flushed. "I am sorry, sir. It is none of my affair, but . . . well, Lieutenant Brian seemed very interested in Miss Devereaux, and she in him. I thought . . . well, they might have reached an understanding."
"I believe you are mistaken, Lieutenant. In any event, Lieutenant Brian left the post several days ago."
"One of the . . ." Cahill hesitated. "I mean, sir, Ten Brian did not go east. He was seen in Julesburg by one of the enlisted men."
Major Devereaux's lips tightened. Mary had deceived him. Yet even as he thought this, fairness cooled his anger. She had made no promises. She had simply agreed to go with Belle Renick.
But as he considered the idea his suspicions grew. Mary was like her mother in that she rarely opposed him but, like her mother, when she was determined she had not hesitated to act on her own. A faint smile softened his hard mouth at the thought of his dead wife. Susan had seemed so submissive that few realized the clearness of her thinking, or how determined she could be when convinced she was right.
Even as the memory of his wife softened his feeling toward Mary, his anger hardened toward Ten Brian. The man was an adventurer, shifting from place to place and from girl to girl as the whim took him. It was his influence that had brought this situation about, and if Cahill was right there was no telling where they were or what might happen to them.
But the thought uppermost in his mind was that they were not dead back there with the others, and they still had a chance for survival.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," he said. "Now if you will check the bivouac area. I shall also want a report on the placing of the guards. You understand, Lieutenant, the Indians who attacked that wagon train were armed, and they now have whatever guns and ammunition were captured. They must be considered extremely dangerous."
"Yes, sir. I understand, sir."
It was not until he started to remove his boots that Major Devereaux realized how tired he was. "Mark," he said to himself, "you're not getting any younger."
Turpenning appeared from the shadows. "Coffee, suh?"
"Thank you, Turpenning."
The soldier lingered, and Devereaux waited, knowing the man had something on his mind. Most of the enlisted men were afraid of Devereaux, for he had the name of being a strict disciplinarian, but Turpenning had never seemed awed by that reputation.
"Was there something else, Turpenning?"
"Major, we all know Miss Mary was with those wagons, an' likewise we know we're travelin' on short rations, but the boys, suh, they elected me to tell you that if you're of a mind to search, they'll stretch rations, or go without grub. They'll stay with you as long as need be."
Devereaux was touched. Never in his military career had such an offer been made to him. He knew he was respected, but this he had not expected; yet he was rational enough to realize that it was mostly because of Mary herself. She was unfailingly gracious, always thoughtful and considerate of the feelings of the enlisted men.
"Thank them for me, Turpenning. I appreciate it, but the command must hold strictly to its orders."
Still the man did not leave. "Suh, we're just a-hopin' you won't cut it any finer for Miss Mary than for any other woman who might be out there. We're just a-hopin' you'll throw away the book an' let us go find her."
"That will be all, Turpenning."
"Yes, suh." The Tennessean saluted and turned away into the darkness.